How John F. Kennedy Nearly Died During World War II

By Robert L. Knudsen - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

How John F. Kennedy Nearly Died During World War II

A close call during the fight over the Solomon Islands.

The skies were still clear of enemy aircraft when LST-449 arrived off Togoma Point on the northern coast of Guadalcanal in the early afternoon. A local base officer soon came aboard to provide assistance—a routine procedure when a new vessel arrived in the area. Livingston remembered, “A number of transports and destroyers were observed leaving the area at high speed.” The radio operator then picked up the urgent “condition red” message.

A small boat was suddenly spotted heading toward the LST from Togoma Point. It delivered Marine Major Nichols. He reported aboard with orders to form a task force consisting of the destroyer Aaron Ward, LST-449, and LST-446. The group was to leave the area at once and head toward Espiritu Santo with Nichols in overall command.

Livingston quickly scanned the area to find the other ships. “Neither the Aaron Ward or the 446 were in sight,” he noted. “The Aaron Ward was sighted a few minutes later and stood over toward this vessel at high speed.” It was about 2:20 pm. Several other small vessels were in the immediate area, but LST-446 never did appear.

The sailors aboard the slow LST-449 knew Aaron Ward offered a good measure of protection. The destroyer was almost 350 feet long and displaced nearly 2,400 tons fully loaded. It bristled with an assortment of guns, including a 5-inch main battery and 40mm and 20mm antiaircraft guns.

The destroyer and LST were positioned about a mile and a half off Togoma Point. The sky was partially overcast with low clouds. Aaron Ward signaled for the LST to follow its movements and begin zig-zagging when enemy planes approached. The pair then began to move eastward paralleling the Guadalcanal coast. Clearing the confined waters between Guadalcanal and Tulagi offered the protection of the open waters to the east and south.

The distant appearance of enemy planes to the north prompted Aaron Ward to begin zig-zagging and increase speed to 20 knots to widen the distance between the two vessels. The destroyer then began alternating its rudder from full right to full left.

Just after 3 pm, lookouts on Aaron Ward were able to clearly make out two distinct groups of aircraft. The first was a cluster of planes involved in a dogfight to the northwest in the vicinity of Savo Island. The second group, representing a greater danger, was heading south from Tulagi. It was the dive bombers searching for vessels to attack after slipping past the fighters. The gun director on Aaron Ward began tracking the second group of planes.

A group of Vals descended on the small flotilla less than 10 minutes after the aircraft were sighted. Livingston reported that his vessel was attacked by nine dive bombers. LST-449 was straddled by six bombs. “No bomb missed the ship by more than 75 feet,” Livingston later wrote. “Ship was shaken severely by each explosion. The nearest on the port quarter lifting stern and listing the ship to starboard about 20 degrees.”

As a simple passenger, Kennedy had no duties aboard the vessel. He was lying in his bunk reading when the attack began. Although the sharp movements of the LST aroused his attention, there was no announcement regarding any type of action. “Ship was maneuvered with full right and left rudder, rudder being put over when word was received planes were diving,” Livingston wrote of the action.

Further sharp movements prompted Kennedy to rise from his bunk to head for the deck. The ship’s 20mm cannons and 3-inch gun suddenly opened fire. The first near-miss bomb then splashed close aboard, throwing the ship into a 20-degree list. A cascade of water hit Livingston on the port wing of the bridge. Kennedy was nearly thrown off his feet. The passenger made it to the deck in time to see the subsequent near misses hit the water on both sides of the LST. Each explosion rocked the ship and sent a plume of water high into the air.

The 20mm guns aboard LST-449 expended 1,600 rounds of ammunition, while the 3-inch cannon fired off 13 shots. “Two planes were shot down and seen to crash in the water and a third was burning, leaving a trail of black smoke when last seen,” Livingston wrote of the engagement. After reviewing gunner accounts, the commanding officer was so certain his ship downed two enemy planes that he quickly asked for the tally to be made official. “It is requested official credit be given this vessel for the shooting down of two Japanese dive bombers,” he recorded in an action report. A direct hit would have surely sunk the boat, but no Japanese bomb would find LST-449 on that afternoon. The ship, however, did not escape damage. The near misses jarred the landing craft fastened to davits on the port side, damaged several bulkheads, and wrecked the port ballast pump. “Rudder believed to be out of line as steering gear has failed twice since bombing,” Livingston added. “Helmsmen continue to report difficulty with steering.”

The warship nearest to the LST was not as lucky. “When next seen the Aaron Ward was on fire aft and settling in the water,” Livingston wrote of his escort. The destroyer had taken a bomb hit to the after engine room, causing the loss of all electrical power to the 5-inch and 40mm guns. Two near misses caused flooding in the firerooms. Two more bombs landed close aboard the port side as the powerless ship drifted to a stop.

LST-449 stood near the stricken destroyer until the minesweepers Ortolan and Vireo arrived on the scene. An attempt to tow Aaron Ward to safety failed, and she later sank three miles short of Tulagi. Livingston pointed his ship in the direction of two parachutes observed falling from the sky shortly after the two rescue vessels arrived.

Kennedy was among a small crowd of curious passengers who intently watched as the LST approached a Japanese pilot in the water. A rescue party was positioned near the front of the ship. Taking no chances, Livingston stationed his executive officer on the wing of the bridge with a loaded submachine gun. The downed airman took off his lifejacket and began swimming away with one arm under the water at all times as the vessel closed for a rescue. He suddenly produced a pistol and fired two shots toward his would-be rescuers.

“He was liquidated,” Livingston simply reported. The second downed pilot could not be located. “Welcome to the South Pacific,” Kennedy mumbled to himself after witnessing the events.

The massive Japanese air strike on the Guadalcanal area on April 7, 1943, did not stall the American advance in the South Pacific. Fears of additional attacks, though, kept LST-449 at sea for five more days. The boat eventually pulled into Guadalcanal on April 12. All aboard had survived a close scrape with death.

Carl Livingston took satisfaction knowing that his largely inexperienced crew courageously discharged its duties in the face of a fierce enemy air attack. He had no way of knowing that the precious cargo he safely delivered was not only supplies, ammunition, and replacement soldiers, but a future president.

For John F. Kennedy, his arrival in the South Pacific marked the end of one long journey and the beginning of another. Less than four months later he would again be fighting for survival.

John Damagalski is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and a resident of the Chicago area.

This article first appeared at the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikipedia.