DID JFK SPEND SOME TIME
IN TOWNSVILLE DURING WW2?

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visits since 10 May 2004

RAAF PBY-5 Catalina, A24-52 of 11 Squadron crashed into Cleveland Bay at Townsville while attempting to land on 7 September 1943. It was badly damaged and sank. There is a suggestion that John F. Kennedy (JFK) was on board a Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), possibly LCI 75, that helped to rescue survivors of this crash. It was apparently one of the first vessels to get to the sinking Catalina and retrieve survivors.

This was apparently after JFK's PT-109 was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. The LCI was put into dry dock in Townsville

WAAAF Helen Suttie and her friend Olive Duncan, (also a WAAAF in the same section) had spent quite a lot of time with JFK and his 2IC Stanislaus Kepner.

Most people that Helen told about this story said they imagined an LCI to be one of those flat bottomed barges with a front which folds down.  “No”, she said"-

 “This was a proper little ship, with an after deck where the captain  Lt. JOHN KENNEDY and his 2ND in command,  STANISLAUS KEPNER  entertained us, OLIVE DUNCAN and myself while it was in dry dock.

“I remember that at sundown a little sailor had come up and lowered the flag on the after deck and Jack and “Kep” had stood and saluted the flag, (even without their hats on, you know, the yanks still salute even without their hats on.) and we had resumed our meal.”

 

Was it an LCI or was it a PT boat, perhaps PT-59?

 

Helen Suttie wrote to JFK after he became President and asked "Are you the same bloke?". The letter came back on official letterhead "Yes, I remember you girls well and I thank you for your hospitality to me and my crew while we were there." 

Envelope addressed to Helen from JFK

 

Letter from John F. Kennedy

A comment was passed in a local restaurant, "Looks like Moses has arrived". JFK left his table and approached the person making the comment "Not Moses son, to you I'm Jesus Christ!" and resumed his seat.  

Helen had mainly kept company with “Kep” the 2ic and Olive had mainly kept company with the captain, Jack. This had included several days as a foursome on Magnetic Island. Olive has since died.

Is it possible that this may have been a time of JFK's service that the US Navy would like to forget. He was always very critical of some of the Navy hierarchy. 

Helen's recollections are of a tall, slim, charismatic man with a full beard, which was she thought  “highly illegal” in the U.S. Navy. “He looked like a yellow version of Jesus Christ”  Yellow because of the Atebrin, a drug used to combat Malaria in the Islands at the time.

His 2ic “Kep” was a fair bit older than Jack. They were the only two officers on the craft. The rest were sailors.

The LCI ended up in drydock and a staff car came and collected Jack and took him to Garbutt air force base to fly him home (presumably to the US). Before going he shaved off his beard. At that time he looked more like his brother Ted. Perhaps the military photo of him had been taken a few years before. Helen is not sure how “Kep” and the rest got home.

Helen remembers he was in some pain due to his back injury (exacerbated by the PT 109 collision?) and tended to be horizontal on his bunk at these times.

Information from the Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center web page shows the following postings for JFK:-

CO Motor Torpedo Boat, PT 109 24 Apr - 2 Aug 1943
CO Motor Torpedo Boat, PT 59 1 Sep. - 18 Nov. 1943 (no mention of an LCI)

Another web site states:-

In September 1943, Kennedy went to Tulagi and accepted the command of PT 59 which was scheduled to be converted to a gunboat. In October 1943, Kennedy was promoted to Lieutenant and continued to command the motor torpedo boat when the squadron moved to Vella Lavella until a doctor directed him to leave PT 59 on 18 November. Kennedy left the Solomons on 21 December and returned to the U.S. in early January 1944.

CITATION: "For heroism in the rescue of 3 men following the ramming and sinking of his motor torpedo boat while attempting a torpedo attack on a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands area on the night of Aug 1-2, 1943. Lt. KENNEDY, Capt. of the boat, directed the rescue of the crew and personally rescued 3 men, one of whom was seriously injured. During the following 6 days, he succeeded in getting his crew ashore, and after swimming many hours attempting to secure aid and food, finally effected the rescue of the men. His courage, endurance and excellent leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

 


 

I enquired with the The Kennedy Library as to whether it  was possible that JFK had been in Australia at that time. Their reply was as follows:-

22 April 2004

Dear Mr. Dunn:

I do not wish to appear dogmatic, but the letter that you have found is the only piece of evidence that Kennedy was anywhere in Australia, whereas all other evidence, including naval records, not only does not place him in Townsville but puts him in places quite distant - hundreds of kilometers away in the Solomon Islands. Moreover, nothing in Kennedy's naval records shows him in command of a landing craft; he was always associated with PTs.

I do not know how this letter came to be, although a number of scenarios suggest themselves to me. "John F. Kennedy" is not an uncommon name and U.S. Senate letterhead is not impossible to duplicate. I should note that I have never seen a letter in which Kennedy appends "President-elect" to his signature.

Yours truly,

Stephen Plotkin
Reference Archivist
John F. Kennedy Library

 

Can anyone confirm JFK's location around 7 September 1943

 

JFK's NAVAL SERVICE

Motor Torpedo Squadron TWO,  Apr. 1943 - 21 Dec. 1943
CO Motor Torpedo Boat, PT 109, 24 Apr - 2 Aug 1943
CO Motor Torpedo Boat, PT 59 1 Sep. - 18 Nov. 1943 (This is in the time frame of the Catalina Crash)
Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training 15 Feb. 1944 - Mar. 1944 

In September 1943, John F. Kennedy went to Tulagi and took command of PT-59, which was about to be converted to a gunboat. In October 1943, JFK was promoted to Lieutenant and continued to command PT-59 when his squadron moved to Vella Lavella. On 18 November 1943, under doctor's orders he left PT 59. He departed the Solomons on 21 December 1943 and returned to the USA in early January 1944.

On 15 February 1944, Kennedy reported to the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center, at Melville, Rhode Island. He had reinjured his back during the sinking of PT 109, and entered a hospital for treatment. In March 1944, JFK moved to the Submarine Chaser Training Center, at Miami, Florida. In May 1944 he entered the Naval Hospital, at Chelsea, Massachusetts, for more treatment on his back injury. In June 1944, he received his Navy and Marine Corps Medals while he was still a patient at the Hospital. He was discharged from the hospital and while under treatment as an outpatient, he was detached from the Submarine Chaser Training Center on 30 October 1944. Kennedy was finally released from all active duty and retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve on physical disability in March 1945.

He was promoted to Lieutenant (j.g.) on 10 October 1942 and to Lieutenant on 1 October 1943 (where was he at the time??).

Was PT-59 converted to a gunboat on Townsville perhaps?

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Dick Sugden for his assistance with this home page.

 

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