By Jeff Sondles, Liberty Aviation Museum
Lenny Thom and Jack Kennedy
Aug. 2, 2013, will mark the 70th anniversary of what was initially filed away in the U.S Navy history as a seemingly minor incident. Instead, the story later helped propel a rather obscure son of a well-known American diplomat into that of war hero and household name, to senator, and finally president of the United States in 1960. U.S. Navy Lt. Junior Grade John Fitzgerald Kennedy was about to become famous, and join the ranks of our nation’s Greatest Generation.
The incident involved Kennedy’s command of patrol boat PT-109 during WWII, and its harrowing run-in with a Japanese destroyer in a war-ravaged corner of the Pacific. It is also a story of courage, determination and charismatic strength of character that revealed leadership qualities that would serve Kennedy well as president.
After Kennedy became president the incident became a cultural phenomenon. A full size replica of PT-109 was even created for his inaugural parade. ABC produced a TV situation comedy series,“McHale’s Navy”, showing the lighter moments of PT Boat service in WWII. A Hollywood movie “PT-109”, starring Cliff Roberson, was released in 1963.
Had it not been for the actions of Sandusky native Leonard Jay Thom, this incident would have been known only to the grieving families of the lost crew of the PT-109. Ensign Lenny Thom was the Executive Officer (second in command) on this boat and played a major role in their rescue.
Today, few people under the age of 40 even know of President Kennedy’s story with the PT Boat service. Fewer people know of Sandusky native Lenny Thom and his involvement in the incident that made a president out of JFK.
Thom, a Sandusky High School football star, went to Heidelburg University and then was recruited by Ohio State University, where he was an all-star tackle, wrestler and Phi Beta Kappa president. Upon graduation Thom was offered a contract by the Chicago Bears, but instead joined the US Navy in June 1942 under an accelerated midshipman program. He became enamored with the excitement of the fast boats of the PT Service, and while attending PT Boat training school in Rhode Island, met the young John Kennedy. The two men became fast friends and their paths would cross again when assigned to the Solomon Islands.
In the spring of 1943 Thom was assigned as the Executive Officer of PT 109. The “XO” was second in command of the boat. His skipper ended up being his friend from PT Boat School, Jack Kennedy.
The missions of the PT Boats were to intercept enemy shipping moving at night. Convoys of Japanese ships traveled at night in what was called the “Tokyo Express”. The PT Boat squadrons would anticipate these runs and would seek out spots along the way to sit and wait for these ships to come by.
During the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 1943, PT-109 was in position off the Ferguson Passage and the Blackett Strait, idling on one engine so it would not kick up any wake activity which could give away its position. Suddenly, out of the moonless night, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri appeared, leading its escort of transports. The Captain of the Amagiri had no time to alter course chose to ram the other object. The destroyer sliced through the wooden boat and set off an explosion which could be seen from another PT boat some five miles away. The size of this explosion led the other PT boats to assume there were no survivors.
For six days the crew was lost and presumed dead somewhere in a series of islands, many still occupied by the enemy. During the early hours of that first day the surviving crew managed to swim to a small island, but unfortunately it provided no source of water or food. The survivors then swam to yet another island on the second day. In constant fear of being spotted by enemy patrols the survivors stayed concealed during the day and moved around at dusk. Kennedy was their best swimmer so he would swim out into the channel in hopes of signaling a passing PT Boat.
On that second island they found some water, and coconuts, but no food. On one such coconut Lt. Kennedy carved a message and gave to some passing native coastal watchers that lead to their rescue. It simply stated:
Native knows posit
He can pilot
need small boat
This coconut is now a historic treasure. It accomplished its purpose and lead to their rescue. It was returned to Kennedy and was a prized procession in Oval Office during his term. It currently resides in the JKF Library.
Lost in the details of history and legend can be found the story of Lenny Thom, whose actions and message preceded, and in military circles overshadows, Kennedy’s coconut. It was Lenny Thom who first met and communicated with the native coastal watchers while Kennedy had been swimming to another island in search of help and food.
The natives had previously spotted Kennedy and another crewmember on a nearby island, but fled thinking they were Japanese. To the native coast watchers disheveled lighter skinned people all looked the same. These same native coastal watchers then came near enough to the island where the remainder of the PT-109 crew were now marooned. Not sure if these natives were scouts for the Japanese or not, Lenny Thom made a bold choice and hailed them.
There was absolutely no way of confusing the big, strapping, blond haired Ensign Lenny Thom for a Japanese. While not able to converse in the same language, Lenny knew the names of some of the other native coastal watchers, and repeated “White Star” and pointed to the sky. The natives knew that people who parachuted out of airplanes with the “White Star” were the good guys, and they were to be treated well and assisted to get back to their bases safely. This was that game-changing moment. Thom knew these two native coastal watchers were their ticket home. Finding a scrap piece of paper and the stub of a pencil in the islander’s canoe, Lenny Thom scribed:
To: Commanding Officer--Oak O
From:Crew P.T. 109 (Oak 14)
Subject: Rescue of 11(eleven) men lost since Sunday, August 1 in enemy action. Native knows our position & will bring P.T. Boat back to small islands of Ferguson Passage off NURU IS. A small boat (outboard or oars) is needed to take men off as some are seriously burned.
Signal at night three dashes (- - -) Password--Roger---Answer---Wilco If attempted at day time--advise air coverage or a PBY could set down. Please work out a suitable plan & act immediately Help is urgent & in sore need. Rely on native boys to any extent
This is a very methodical note written in military tone and formality to ensure that the message could not be misconstrued or perceived as an enemy ruse to ambush a possible rescue. Kennedy, upon returning to the island, thought of carving out the message on the now famous coconut. Perhaps he felt that if they natives ran into a Japanese patrol, a paper message could easily be discovered where an inconspicuous coconut included in with their food supply would not be discovered.
The coconut was destined to become an iconic relic of what would become a part of the legend of Camelot. The paper message, perhaps less dramatic than the shell, nonetheless made it to the PT Boat’s home base, and the survivors were rescued. Lenny Thom would receive a promotion and his own PT Boat, which his crew named “Thomcat”.
Thom and Kennedy would remain close friends. When they were rotated back states side in 1944, Thom married his college sweetheart, Catherine J. Holway, and was assigned to the PT Boat training school in Melville, RI. The newlyweds were guests of the Kennedy family at their Hyannis Port compound on two occasions that summer.
Unfortunately, life is not fair. After surviving the PT-109 event and the war, Lenny Thom died of injuries sustained in an automobile/train accident in October, 1946. He was only 29 years old. Senator Jack Kennedy served as one of Lenny’s pallbearers.
Lenny Thom’s photo and mementos provided by his family are exhibited in the Liberty Aviation Museum. The Museum’s PT 728 “Thomcat” is dedicated to his memory.