John F. Kennedy’s heroics during World War II earned him a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart—he is the only U.S. president to have earned either of those honors. Kennedy’s political supporters made a big deal of JFK’s military honors, but when asked exactly how he became a war hero, Kennedy famously said, “It was involuntary. They sunk my boat.”
The experience that distinguished Kennedy was a mission that in many ways, went terribly awry and cost the lives of two of his sailors.
The fateful mission began 75 years ago, at 2:30 a.m. on the night of August 1, 1943 in the Solomon Islands near Papua New Guinea. Kennedy was a 25-year-old Naval Lieutenant at the helm of a Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat tasked with a nearly impossible mission, to torpedo Japanese destroyers on supply runs to soldiers fighting Allied forces nearby.
If the mission itself wasn’t impossible, the conditions that night certainly made it so. “It was as dark as if you were in a closet with the door shut,” recalled one of JFK’s crewmen, Barney Ross. “It was that kind of night, no moon, no stars.”
To make things worse, only one PT boat in the four-unit squad had radar, and it took off chasing a Japanese target, leaving Kennedy’s PT 109 and the other two boats in the blind. So the three remaining craft chugged silently through the inky black sea, careful not to create a wake that could be spotted by Japanese patrol aircraft above. Phosphorescent plankton in the tropical waters turned even the smallest wake into a glowing target.
Kennedy decided to throttle just one of the PT 109’s three engines to be extra cautious. Days before, on JFK’s very first patrol, a Japanese fighter dropped two bombs close on either side of the PT 109, sending two of JFK’s crew home with serious injuries. The memory of the bone-rattling explosion was still fresh.
“Ship at two o’clock!” yelled a crewman in the forward gun turret. Kennedy could see nothing but a large white wake cutting toward them. At first, they mistook it for another PT boat, but soon made out the towering black hull of a Japanese destroyer, the first enemy ship Kennedy had ever seen up close. And this one was just 200 yards away and closing fast.
Kennedy ordered the men to battle positions and attempted to position the PT 109 to fire a torpedo. But with one active engine, there wasn’t enough time or horsepower to execute an evasive maneuver. As the PT 109 crewmen stared in horror, the 388-foot destroyer Amagiri rammed violently into the PT 109, splintering the helpless wooden boat in two.
For Kennedy, who had escaped several brushes with death as a sickly child, it seemed his luck had finally run out. “So this is what it’s like to die,” he thought.
Sure enough, two members of the 13-man PT 109 crew were killed instantly in the crash. Kennedy was spared, but thrown hard against the deck and badly hurt his back. An engineer named Johnston was tossed overboard and sucked down into the destroyer’s wake, where the turbulence of the ship’s monstrous propeller beat him like a heavyweight prizefighter before spitting him back up to the surface.
The collision ignited the PT 109’s reserve fuel, and another engineer named McMahon, the only crewman below decks, was badly burned on his face and arms before being pulled down into the depths and regurgitated on the still-burning surface.
Kennedy called out to his men, who were scattered a hundred yards away in every direction. Miraculously, the current carried the gasoline fire away from the wreckage and Kennedy, a former member of the Harvard swim team, swam out to each of the 11 survivors and guided them back to what remained of the PT 109.
Iain Martin, who spent a year researching the PT 109 sinking for his 2018 book, In Harm’s Way: JFK, World War II and the Heroic Rescue of PT 109, says that what happened next was a defining moment for the young Lieutenant, who was well-liked by his men, but unproven as a leader. When dawn broke the next morning with no sign of a rescue, Kennedy gathered the men and democratically took a vote on their next move.
“He asked them, ‘If the Japanese come after us, do you want to fight or do you want to surrender?’” recalls Martin. “And the crew said, ‘It’s up to you, boss.' That’s when JFK reasserted his command.”
JFK may have been a greenhorn Naval officer, but he was an experienced sailor and navigator from his privileged youth in Cape Cod. In his short time in the Solomon Islands, he knew the layout of the islands and the strange currents running in between them. He pointed to a speck on the horizon, a small island three miles away called Plum Pudding, and ordered the men to prepare for a long swim.
McMahon’s burns were still fresh and agonizing. In what’s perhaps the most enduring image of Kennedy’s heroism in the South Pacific, the young lieutenant, himself suffering from a serious back injury, cut a strap from McMahon’s life jacket and clasped it in his teeth. For the next four to five hours, JFK swam breaststroke across the open ocean towing McMahon behind him. When he finally crawled ashore Plum Pudding island, Kennedy became violently ill from all of the seawater he had swallowed and collapsed in exhaustion.
READ MORE: How JFK's Stint as a WWII Journalist Influenced His Presidency
With just two pistols between the 11 of them, and zero food, Kennedy and his men were beached in hostile territory on an island with no fresh water and only green coconuts hanging high in the palm trees. It would be a week before the men were rescued. Back at the American PT base on Rendova, the crew of the PT 109 had already been giving up for dead.
That first night on Plum Pudding, Kennedy went on a solo mission to try to intercept PT boats traveling through nearby Ferguson Passage. Carrying a bulky lantern and with a pistol tied around his neck, JFK waded over razor-sharp reefs and swam out into the tar-black open ocean. His plan was to signal the ships with his lantern or fire the pistol to get their attention, but no boats materialized.
Trying to swim back to Plum Pudding, Kennedy was carried away by a rogue current and completely lost his bearings. He passed an interminable night in the oddly cold waters, convinced he was never going to see the island or his crew again. But by some miracle, as the morning dawned, he realized that another current had brought him right back to Ferguson Passage. Kennedy had ditched his shoes during his long night’s float and had to make his way barefoot over the reef, badly cutting his feet.
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The next day, Kennedy convinced the now-starving men to try another island further off which might have edible coconuts. Again, he towed McMahon with his teeth as they made the three-hour swim to what would become known as Bird Island. It earned its name from the copious amounts of bird poop covering the leafy bushes. Unfortunately, the men only noticed the droppings the morning after attempting to drink fresh water from the leaves in the dark. At least there were some coconuts on the ground from which to salvage water and meat.
On August 5, four days after the fateful collision with the Japanese destroyer, Kennedy finally caught a break. While island hopping looking for food, JFK and his crewman Ross were spotted by two men that the Americans feared were Japanese soldiers, but turned out to be islanders friendly to the Allied cause. The two native men later found the crew on Bird Island and through elaborate hand gestures promised to get a message to the PT base at Rendova. But how would these two men, who spoke no English, get word to the Americans?
Kennedy grabbed a smooth-shelled coconut and roughly carved into it with his pocket knife: “NAURO ISL COMMANDER . NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT . HE CAN PILOT . 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT . KENNEDY.” Improbably, the shell made its way into the hands of a New Zealand infantry patrol, who helped JFK get in radio contact with the PT base. JFK would hold on to that shell throughout the war and have it made into a paperweight that he kept on his desk in the Oval Office.
When the PT rescue boat finally made its rendezvous with the PT 109 crew at 11:30 PM on August 8, Kennedy called out, “Where the hell have you been?” to which the crew leader replied, “We got some food for you.” JFK, never at a loss for words, answered back, “No, thanks. I just had a coconut.”
Just three years later, JFK won his first political race for a US House of Representatives seat in his hometown of Boston and his reputation as a Purple Heart-winning war hero played no small part. Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, says that JFK’s father, the influential businessman and politician Joseph Kennedy, played up his son’s hero status during campaigns, as did the newspapers and magazines, but that JFK himself didn’t wear it on his sleeve.
“He was a humble person in general, but also felt terribly guilty about losing those two men,” says Perry. “He did think it was his fault.”
The PT 109 experience left an indelible mark on the man who would become the nation’s 35th president. Perry believes the crucible of warfare forced a mantle of leadership onto JFK that served him well politically .
“I firmly believe, that as much as I was shaped by anything, so I was shaped by the hand of fate moving in World War II,” JFK said on the campaign trail in 1946. “Of course, the same can be said of almost any American or British or Australian man of my generation. The war made us. It was and is our single greatest moment.”
Replace Veterans' Medals, Awards, and Decorations
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Eligibility for campaign and service medals is based on set criteria, usually being present in a particular theatre of war within given dates.
Check which First World War campaign medals an individual may have qualified for: the 1914 Star or 1914/15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal or Territorial Force War Medal.
The name, rank and number of the individual will appear on the medal. The Ministry of Defence is not able to issue or replace First World War medals under any circumstances.
- Officers and other ranks who served overseas 1914-1918: More than 4 million index cards, created in various formats by the Army records office in the 1920’s to record medal entitlement, provide the most complete listing of those who served with the British army during the First World War. However, those who served on the Home Front or officers who did not apply for their medals are not included. In addition to name, rank, unit, medals and service number (other ranks), some cards show the first date of entry to a Theatre of War (if pre-1916), or casualty information. Medal Index Cards (WO372) on The National Archives and both the front and reverse of the cards on Ancestry (free)
- The cards are an index to almost 3,000 ledgers organised by regiment with a separate series for each medal. Occasionally they contain further information such as the dates of service with a unit - The Medal Rolls on Ancestry and Naval & Military Press (£).
Personnel who served in the British Army prior to or after the First World War or immediately after the Second World War may have been awarded other campaign medals. Digital microfilm copies of Campaign Medals Award Rolls 1793-1949 (WO 100) can be downloaded from The National Archives for free and searched on Ancestry (£)
Second World War personnel may have qualified for the War Medal 1939 to 1945, 1939 to 1945 Star, Africa, Atlantic, Burma, France and Germany, Italy and Pacific Stars and/or the Defence Medal: 1939 to 1945. Second World War medals are not named.
- Check the official description of eligibility for each medal. The locations and dates of service recorded on an individual’s service record will indicate if they are entitled to a particular medal.
The Ministry of Defence Medal Office can confirm if an individual is eligible to receive Second World War or post 1945 medals and issue those previously unclaimed to veterans or their next of kin.
Warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks awarded Long Service and Good Conduct Medals up to 1975 (not related to active service) – Long Service and Good Conduct Registers (WO 102). Digital microfilm copies of these rolls up to 1953 can be downloaded from The National Archives.
Gallantry medals are awarded for an especially heroic deed or action. Announcements are listed in the official journal The London Gazette. For some but not all awards, there may also be a separate citation, which describes the action for which the award was made. There are no citations for awards of the Military Medal or Mentions in Despatches. Operational records or a published regimental/unit history might provide some details, although the individual may not be named. Newspapers may also include an account of the action although for security reasons key details such as locations and unit names are usually removed.
The Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz) was Germany’s top military decoration with nearly seven thousand recipients from 1939 to 1945, including some 1,600 noncoms and other enlisted men. It is the most known of its WW2 medals. Worn on a ribbon about the neck, it was called a ‘‘tin collar,’’ while those aspiring to the award were said to suffer from ‘‘sore throats.’’
Three higher orders of the Knight’s Cross were established for sustained excellence in combat. In sequence, were some 850 Oak Leaves (Eichenlaub), 150 Swords (Schwerten), and twenty-seven Diamonds (Brillanten), the latter presented by Hitler in person. Diamonds went to twelve Luftwaffe officers (including paratroopers), eleven army men, and two each from the SS and navy. The Führer reportedly had a dozen Golden Oak Leaves struck, but only Col. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a Stuka pilot, received one. The ultimate award was the Great Cross of the Iron Cross, awarded to Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göering when he was promoted to Reichsmarshal in July 1940.
It is unknown how many Ritterkreuze were presented in whole or in part for actions in the Normandy campaign. Most of the notable German commanders already held at least the Knight’s Cross, including von Rundstedt and Rommel.
How JFK Earned Two Medals in World War II - HISTORY
On the eve of World War II - In London, September 1st, 1939. With the attack by Hitler's armies on Poland that morning, the three most promising Kennedys - Joe Junior, Kathleen and Jack - hurry to attend a special sitting of the British House of Commons.
United States Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, is greeted by a British Bobby. Right - The Ambassador with Joe Junior, JFK and young Robert.
In his early days as ambassador, Joe Kennedy and his charming young family had taken England by storm, becoming enormously popular. However, after the outbreak of war, Ambassador Kennedy sent his family home to escape the bombing in London and publicly expressed doubts about Britain's ability to stand up to Hitler's onslaught, losing popularity, and eventually losing his position as ambassador as well.
In 1941, at age 24, after previous rejections due to a bad back and other health problems, Jack Kennedy was sworn in as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. His influential father had helped both Jack and older brother Joe overcome any health or other obstacles to get in the Navy.
As his first assignment, Ensign Kennedy was assigned to ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) in Washington and was there during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Ensign Kennedy was abruptly reassigned to a desk job in South Carolina in January 1942, possibly due to a romantic relationship with a Danish woman, Inga Arvad, who had been friendly with high ranking Nazis.
In the South Pacific, Lt. John F. Kennedy at the controls of PT 109. Jack had volunteered in 1942 for PT boat duty while attending officer training in Chicago, then underwent PT boat training in Rhode Island. But his bad back temporarily kept him from getting the combat assignment he wanted. Jack complained he had been 'shafted' and was promptly given the nickname "Shafty."
July 1943 - The crew of PT 109 with their skipper Jack Kennedy (far right). His motorized torpedo (PT) boat was an 80-foot-long plywood vessel powered by 3 engines capable of 40 knots. But the PT boats and their torpedoes were prone to mechanical problems. It was tough, dangerous duty that attracted Ivy League men like Jack with sailing experience, who wanted to command their own small boats.
South Pacific 1943 - In the Solomon Islands the young man used to a life of luxury lived in fairly primitive conditions in a thatched-roof hut while his PT squadron was put in shipshape.
Jack's PT 109 was at first a dirty, bug infested boat in need of repairs. Jack and his crew cleaned and painted the boat while mechanics fixed the engines and hull. PT 109 then went on night training patrols. Returning from patrol, Jack and the others often raced their boats back into the dock. On one occasion, Jack couldn't stop PT 109, crashed into the dock and earned a temporary new nickname, "Crash" Kennedy.
Mid-July 1943, PT 109 was ordered into combat - the mission, to disrupt night-time Japanese supply convoys of ships known as the "Tokyo Express."
Monday, August 2, 1943 - On night patrol, PT 109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, killing two of the 13 crewmen. Jack rescued a nearly drowned crewman with bad burns, dragging him out of the water onto the floating hulk. In the process, Jack swallowed a lot of sea water and gasoline and would suffer lifelong stomach problems.
12 hours later they abandoned the wreckage of PT 109 and swam for a nearby island using a makeshift raft built from pieces of the boat. Jack swam while towing the burned crewman for four hours. That night Jack Kennedy swam out with a lantern and a pistol hoping to flag any patrolling PT boats, but was unsuccessful.
They moved to a larger island nearby, with Jack once again towing the injured crewman. Jack made two more attempts to flag PT boats without success. The men lived on coconut milk and rainwater until they eventually made contact with friendly natives. Jack carved a rescue message into a coconut husk which made its way back to the Navy and the crew of PT 109 was rescued by PT boats.
A few weeks later, the story of PT 109 and Jack Kennedy made the front page of The New York Times and Boston papers. Later, flattering accounts appeared in The New Yorker magazine and Reader's Digest.
Jack spent a total of nine months in the South Pacific. After PT 109, he commanded a gunboat, the 59, but saw little combat. He returned to the states, then underwent surgery for his back problems.
June 12, 1944 - The presentation of the Navy and Marine Corps medal for Gallantry in Action to Lt. John F. Kennedy during a simple ceremony at Chelsea Naval hospital in Massachusetts. Jack had also received the Purple Heart. Later in June, he underwent his first back surgery, but would suffer lifelong discomfort.
A reunion in Hyannis Port with PT 109 crew members, September 1944. Left to Right - Red Fay, JFK, L. J. Thom, Jim Reed, Barney Ross, Bernie Lyons, young Teddy kneeling in front with cousin Joe Gargan. Right - A candid snapshot of the Kennedy girls on the porch. Left to right - Kathleen, Pat, Eunice, Jean.
Brother Joe - The Fallen Hero
Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., the man who would be president. His father dreamed of the day when Joe would become the first Irish Catholic president of the United States.
Joe Junior in 1941 as a Navy pilot in training at the Naval air base at Squantum, Mass., just outside Boston. Joe could have had a job in Navy intelligence, but chose the elite aviation corps instead. Joe got his wings in May of 1942, pinned to his chest by his father.
Sporting a pipe, at the controls of a PB4Y-1 bomber plane. Joe was assigned to England in 1943 where he flew patrols looking for German submarines at sea which were often very hard to spot, leading to a fairly dull tour of duty. In 1944 he signed on for a second tour and in July volunteered for a special attack unit secret mission to knock out Hitler's V-1 rockets.
Project Anvil involved using explosive-filled bombers which were piloted partway to their target, and after the pilot bailed out, were then guided by radio control to smash into German submarine pens or rocket-launching sites. On August 12, Joe Kennedy's plane exploded shortly after takeoff, killing him and his co-pilot instantly. Project Anvil was so secret the Kennedy family was told few details.
U.S. Navy notification letter: Page one Page two
1945 - The Kennedy family, still grieving at the loss of their first child, is presented with the Navy Cross, the highest honor below the Medal of Honor. The loss was devastating to Joe Kennedy Sr. who had so much hope for the future of his beloved namesake. In his absence he turned to his next son, Jack. Shortly after the war ended, John Fitzgerald Kennedy's political career began.
JFK Photo History
Early Years | War Hero | Politician | President
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How JFK Earned Two Medals in World War II - HISTORY
After World War I, massive economic instability in Europe led to the rise of dictators in several countries, most notably Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Germany in particular was struggling as a result of financial and territorial losses enacted by the Treaty of Versailles following the First World War.
Under Hitler and the expansionist "lebensraum" (“living space”) policy, the National Socialist (Nazi) Party sought to advance the notion of a "pure" Aryan race--a notion that entailed the mass murder of millions of Jews, and the imprisonment of millions more in concentration camps. Initiating aggressive movements to annex parts of neighboring countries, Hitler signed treaties with Italy and Japan amid growing tensions with the Joseph Stalin-led Soviet Union.
World War II officially began when German forces invaded Poland in September of 1939, leading Great Britain and France to declare war. Soviet forces sent troops into Poland on September 17 to combat the Germans. Throughout 1940, German forces employed "blitzkrieg" tactics--quick, brutal attacks--to take over Belgium and the Netherlands, proceeding into France soon after.
Although the United States did not enter into combat at this point, it provided aid to Great Britain under the Lend-Lease Act, and the British Royal Air Force succeeded in deterring Hitler's plan to invade with its victory in the Battle of Britain.
Indeed, it was not until Japan's December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl harbor that the United States officially joined the fight against the Axis Powers. Congress declared war against Japan the following day, leading Germany and the other Axis countries to declare war on the US in turn.
The Battle of Midway in 1942 is generally regarded as a turning point in the Pacific Theater, and in 1943 the Allied Forces' island-hopping strategy worked effectively to bring them closer to the Japanese mainland.
Halfway around the world in Europe and North Africa, the Allies began to see success as well. They brought down Mussolini's Italian dictatorship in July of 1943, while Soviet forces had outlasted German troops on the Eastern Front the previous winter.
June 6, 1944 would become famous as D-Day, the occasion for an invasion of France by over 150,000 Allied troops. The intensity of this invasion forced Hitler to abandon his efforts in the east and refocus his troops on defending the Western Front. The Battle of teh Bulge marked the final significant German offensive and was succeeded by massive bombings of Germany and a ground invasion soon after. Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945, and Germany would officially surrender on May 8.
In July and August of 1945, President Harry S. Truman attended the Potsdam Conference along with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin to negotiate strategy and support in ongoing efforts against Japan. Daunted by high numbers of Allied casualties at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, President Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb. Following devastating bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.
Estimates put the World War II death toll as high as 75 million, including victims of the Holocaust as well as those who died as a result of the bombs and ensuing fallout. Germany was divided into Eastern and Western blocs occupied by the USSR and the Western allies respectively. The United Nations was formed in 1945 in an effort to sustain peace, though tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union would soon escalate into the Cold War.
If you’re unfamiliar with a “woobie,” it’s how some U.S. troops refer to their issued poncho liner. It makes for a great blanket, cushion, or pillow. It’s not waterproof, but in temperatures above freezing, it’s very effective at keeping in body heat.
It also doesn’t retain odors.
Wreck of patrol boat commanded by JFK during WWII discovered
Every day and in every community, the coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best in Americans. Take a look at some inspiring images of Americans pulling together in a time of crisis.
The wreck of a high-speed patrol boat commanded by John F. Kennedy during World War II has been discovered in New York’s Harlem River.
Remnants of PT-59 have been dredged up from the Harlem River as part of a Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) project to build a sea wall to prevent flooding in a Manhattan train yard, according to the New York Times.
Rumors have swirled around the boat’s possible location in the Harlem River for a number of years.
Sold off after the war, PT-59 was used as a charter boat for anglers and later, as a houseboat on the Harlem River, the Times reports. It was abandoned in the mid-1970s and eventually sank.
View of motor torpedo boat PT 59 during its World War II service in the Solomon Islands, early to mid 1940s. The boat was famously commanded by the-future US President John F. Kennedy as his second command after PT 109. (Photo by Photoquest/Getty Images)
Kennedy was skipper on PT-59 in late 1943 and 1944 following his storied command of PT-109.
PT-109 famously sank in the Solomon Islands following a collision with a Japanese destroyer in the early hours of Aug. 2, 1943. The future president was awarded The Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his role in saving the surviving PT-109 crewmembers.
Less well known, however, is his subsequent command, PT-59, which he skippered from October 1943 until November 1944. During that time, he helped evacuate Marines who were surrounded by Japanese forces on Choiseul Island. “Some of these Marines were wounded and one of them died in the skipper’s bunk aboard PT-59 that night,” explains the Naval History and Heritage Command on its website.
John Kennedy served as a junior grade lieutenant in the Navy during World War Two, commanding the torpedo boat PT-109. When a Japanese destroyer rammed the PT-109 in 1943, Kennedy managed to save himself and rescue another wounded crew member. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
PT-59 could reach 47 to 49 mph and bristled with weaponry.
“Loaded with two twin .50 cal. M2 Browning machine guns, two 40 mm guns (fore and aft) and four single .30 and .50 cal. machine guns, the water craft had the power to destroy any obstacle that got in its way,” explains the Navy’s History and Heritage Command.
Fox News has reached out to the MTA with a request for comment on this story.
Other historic World War II wrecks have garnered recent attention. Researchers recently discovered the wreck of storied World War II battleship USS Nevada 65 nautical miles southwest of Pearl Harbor.
Lt. (J.G.) John F. Kennedy during World War II. (Denver Post via Getty Images)
In another project, the wreck of World War II submarine USS Grayback was discovered off Japan last year, 75 years after its sinking by a Japanese bomber.
Separately in 2019, the deepest sunken shipwreck ever discovered, a U.S. World War II destroyer, was found in the Philippine Sea.
The wreck was found resting at a depth of 20,406 feet by experts on the Research Vessel Petrel. Explorers used an undersea drone to locate the mysterious ship, believed to be the USS Johnston, a Fletcher-class destroyer sunk during the Battle off Samar, a key action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.
Eerie footage captured by the drone shows the mangled wreckage of the ship lying on the seabed.
Fox News’ Bradford Betz and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers
The Archdiocese for the Military Services has been called “the biggest diocese with the fewest priests,” as the number of Catholics serving in the military far outstrips the proportion of Catholic chaplains. Yet this “diocese without borders” does vital work in ministering to Catholic military personnel and their families. As their website explains,
Serving as a military chaplain is a noble calling, but can be challenging work even in the best of times. Yet even in facing the worst of times, a number of military chaplains have shown extraordinary courage and strength of character—so much so that nine chaplains have been awarded the Medal of Honor over the decades. This medal is the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration for valor. Of those nine heroic chaplains, these five were Catholic priests.
1 Lt. Cmdr Joseph Timothy O’Callahan
Father O’Callahan was a Jesuit priest who served as a United States Navy chaplain during World War II, and was both the first Catholic priest and the first naval chaplain to earn the Medal of Honor. Before the war, he worked as a college professor, teaching philosophy and mathematics at Boston College and College of the Holy Cross. When World War II began, O’Callahan was 36 and nearsighted, with a bad case of claustrophobia and high blood pressure—an unlikely candidate for military service, much less for heroic valor. But faith can give a man courage and perseverance beyond human understanding, so in 1940 he left the quiet halls and libraries of academic life for a bold new adventure in the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Navy Reserve.
He would soon see more adventure than he could have imagined. O’Callahan was serving as chaplain on the USS Franklin in March of 1945 when an enemy aircraft dropped two bombs that badly damaged the ship. His Medal of Honor citation reads,
While leading the men through this inferno, he gave the Sacrament of Last Rites to the men dying around him, all while battling his claustrophobia. Against all odds, the USS Franklin made it back to the Brooklyn Navy Ship Yard, in large part thanks to Father O’Callahan’s quick thinking and fearless leadership in a crisis.
A few months later, when awards were presented on the battered flight deck of the USS Franklin, O’Callahan’s mother came aboard the ship, and The New England Historical Society reports this telling conversation:
This WWI chaplain risked his life to save the souls of his soldiers
2 Captain Emil J. Kapaun
Father Kapaun grew up on a farm in Kansas, the son of Czech immigrants. He was ordained in 1940 and served as a pastor at the parish where he grew up until 1944, when his bishop relented to his request of becoming a U.S. Army chaplain. He first served in the Burma Theater of World War II, then some years later, he was sent to Japan in 1949 to minister during the Korean War.
During the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment when he was taken prisoner:
“Father Kapaun had several chances to get out, but he wouldn’t take them,” Warrant Officer John Funston later recounted. After his capture at Unsan, Father Kapaun and the wounded men with him joined hundreds of other American prisoners on a forced march to a POW camp near Pyoktong.
The men suffered severe injuries and bitter cold dozens fell behind and were left to freeze to death along the way. But throughout this torture, Father Kapaun did not lose his compassion and concern for his men: The BBC reports that “Survivors said that Kapaun, even as he was suffering frostbite on his feet, helped carry wounded men in litters hundreds of miles, shaming recalcitrant comrades into helping.”
When they reached the camp, the men were left freezing and near starving, with pitifully meager food and shelter. Kapaun sneaked around the camp stealing food from the Chinese stores, and even fed others from his own rations. He tended the sick and wounded, bathing them, washing their clothes, and picking off lice, all while ignoring his own ill health. When the prisoners were forced to endure indoctrination sessions, he patiently and politely rejected every false theory that the instructors presented. He even managed to lead a sunrise service on Easter. A survivor of the camp, Captain Robert Burke, later wrote,
As Father Kapaun’s health grew worse, his captors took him to the “hospital,” a place in the camp where he was left to die of malnutrition and pneumonia. Yet his indomitable spirit and faith in God persisted to the last. Another survivor of the camp, Felix McCool, recalled Father Kapaun’s last words:
The Diocese of Wichita is promoting his cause for canonization, and in 1993 St. John Paul II declared him a Servant of God.
4 Heroic military chaplains who died in battle
3 Major Charles Joseph WattersPublic Domain
Born and raised in New Jersey, Father Watters was ordained in 1953 and served in the Archdiocese of Newark until entering active duty as a U.S. Army chaplain in 1964. He served a 12-month tour of duty in Vietnam from July 1966 to July 1967, during which he was awarded the Air Medal and a Bronze Star for Valor. At the end of this time, he voluntarily extended his tour for another six months. It was during these additional months that he made the ultimate sacrifice. Part of his Medal of Honor citation describes the events of November 19, 1967:
4 Lt. Vincent Robert Capodanno
Father Capodanno was the youngest of ten children born to Italian immigrants in New York, but he learned to grapple with hardship and suffering at a young age when his father died suddenly on his 10th birthday. He felt called to the priesthood from a young age, and after nine years of intense preparation, he was ordained a Maryknoll Missioner priest in 1958. His first assignment was in Taiwan, where he ministered to the Hakka-Chinese while working to learn and understand their language.
After 6 years of service there, he was on leave in the United States when he was assigned to a new mission in Hong Kong. But he felt drawn to service as a military chaplain, especially as three of his brothers had served in World War II when he was a child. He asked his superiors for permission to join the Navy Chaplain Corps, wanting to serve the increasing number of Marine troops in Vietnam. In December 1965, Father Capodanno received his commission as a lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps, and in 1966 he reported to the 7th Marines in Vietnam.
Because of his focus on the young enlisted troops, or “grunts,” and his willingness to share in the same hardships as his men, Father Capodanno earned the nickname “the Grunt Padre.” As chaplain for the battalion, his ministry involved not just administering the sacraments, but also caring for the troops’ every spiritual need. His biography says,
It was during that second tour that Father Capodanno made the ultimate sacrifice. His Medal of Honor citation describes his heroic death:
Later on, Marine Cpl. Ray Harton, who was wounded at that battle but survived, recalled seeing Father Capodanno just before he died. Capodanno calmly told him, “Stay quiet, Marine. You will be okay. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.”
Those may have been Father Capodanno’s last words. Surely God was with the holy priest that day, and one can imagine the greeting in Heaven: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The Archdiocese for the Military Services is promoting his cause for canonization, and in 2006 he was declared a Servant of God.
5 Captain Angelo J. Liteky
Captain Liteky was known later in life as Charles James Liteky, and his name was not the only thing that changed after he returned from the Vietnam War. Over the course of 20 years, he left the priesthood, married a former religious sister, became a peace activist, and returned his Medal of Honor to the government—the only recipient ever to renounce the Medal. Yet, in a way, his peace activism was not a philosophical rupture from his acts of valor during the Vietnam War he was recognized not for any fighting he did, but for putting himself in danger to save the lives of 23 wounded men during an intense battle. His Medal of Honor citation describes his heroic actions:
Military chaplains served the ones who served
D-Day, 74 years later: Remembering the heroic chaplains and priests of Normandy
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MARCOS'S WARTIME ROLE DISCREDITED IN U.S. FILES
The Army concluded after World War II that claims by Ferdinand E. Marcos that he had led a guerrilla resistance unit during the Japanese occupation of his country were 'ɿraudulent'' and '➫surd.''
Throughout his political career, Mr. Marcos, now President of the Philippines, has portrayed himself as a heroic guerrilla leader, and the image has been central to his political appeal.
In almost every speech throughout his current re-election campaign, including at least one this week, Mr. Marcos has referred to his war record and guerrilla experiences in part to show that he is better able than his opponent, Corazon C. Aquino, to handle the present Communist insurgency. Questions Go Unanswered
But documents that had rested out of public view in United States Government archives for 35 years show that repeated Army investigations found no foundation for Mr. Marcos's claims that he led a guerrilla force called Ang Mga Maharlika in military operations against Japanese forces from 1942 to 1944.
Mr. Marcos declined today to respond to six written questions about the United States Government records, which came to light only recently. The questions were submitted to Mr. Marcos's office this morning in Manila.
After repeated telephone calls to the Presidential Palace this afternoon, an aide explained that Mr. Marcos was busy with meetings and a campaign appearance and 'ɽidn't have the opportunity to look into the question.'' The aide said the President might have a response later.
In the Army records, Mr. Marcos wrote that he strongly protested the Army's findings, adding that 'ɺ grave injustice has been committed against many officers and men'' of the unit.
Since Mr. Marcos became President in 1965, the Government-owned broadcasting network, the main north-south highway on the island of Luzon and a hall in the Presidential Palace all have been named Maharlika - the name means Noble Men - in honor of the unit. In 1978, the Philippine National Assembly considered renaming the nation Maharlika. Recognition Is Denied
Between 1945 and 1948 various Army officers rejected Mr. Marcos's two requests for official recognition of the unit, calling his claims distorted, exaggerated, fraudulent, contradictory and absurd. Army investigators finally concluded that Maharlika was a fictitious creation and that ''no such unit ever existed'' as a guerrilla organization during the war.
In addition, the United States Veterans' Administration, helped by the Philippine Army, found in 1950 that some people who had claimed membership in Maharlika - pronounced mah-HAHR-lick-kuh - had actually been committing 'ɺtrocities'' against Filipino civilians rather than fighting the Japanese and had engaged in what the V.A. called ''nefarious activity,'' including selling contraband to the enemy. The records include no direct evidence linking Mr. Marcos to those activities.
The records, many of which were classified secret until 1958, were on file at the Army records center in St. Louis until they were donated to the National Archives in Washington in November 1984. In 1983, a Filipino opposition figure asked for access to them a few weeks after the assassination in Manila that August of the opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr., but the Army refused to let him see them.
Alfred W. McCoy, a historian, discovered the documents among hundreds of thousands of others several months ago while at the National Archives researching a book on World War II in the Philippines. Dr. McCoy was granted the access normally accorded to scholars, and when he came upon the the Maharlika files he was allowed to review and copy them along with others. Archives officials did not learn what the documents contained until after they were copied Richard J. Kessler, a scholar on the Philippines at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, said, ''Marcos's military record was one of the central factors in his developing a political power base.'' A War Hero at Home
In the Philippines, the 68-year-old Mr. Marcos is widely described as the nation's most decorated war hero. The Philippine Government says he won 32 medals for heroism during World War II, including two from the United States Army. Two of the medals were for his activities as a guerrilla leader, but the rest were for exploits before the United States surrender in 1942 or after the return of United States forces to Luzon, the main Philippine island, in 1945.
The validity of those medals has been challenged by Philippine and American journalists as well as others. In response, the Philippine Government has vigorously contended that they were properly earned and said the records validating them were destroyed in a fire. When the Philippine newspaper We Forum published an article in 1982 questioning Mr. Marcos's war record, Government authorities shut the paper down.
The issue of Mr. Marcos's medals is not addressed in the Army records.
Like thousands of other Filipinos, immediately after the war Mr. Marcos asked the Army to recognize his unit so that he and others could receive back pay and benefits. In his petitions, Mr. Marcos certified that his unit had engaged in numerous armed clashes with the Japanese, sabotage and intelligence gathering throughout a vast region of Luzon and had been the pre-eminent guerrilla force on the island.
In his submissions, he offered widely varying accounts of Maharlika's membership, from 300 men at one point to 8,300 at another. In the years since, Mr. Marcos has said Maharlika was a force of 8,200 men. Some Claims Recognized
Shortly after the war, the Army did recognize the claims of 111 men who were listed on the Maharlika roster submitted by Mr. Marcos, but their recognition was only for their services with American forces after the invasion of Luzon in January 1945. One document says the service that Mr. Marcos and 23 other men listed as Maharlika members gave to the First Cavalry Division in the spring of 1945 was ''of limited military value.''
The Army records include conflicting statements on whether the United States intended to recognize the 111 men as individuals or as a Maharlika unit attached to American forces after the invasion. It is clear throughout the records that at no time did the Army recognize that any unit designating itself as Maharlika ever existed as a guerrilla force in the years of the Japanese occupation, 1942 to 1945.
The records are a small part of a voluminous file containing more than one million documents on military activities in the Philippines during and after World War II. Approximately 400 pages deal with matters relating to the Government's investigations of Mr. Marcos and his claims.
Dr. McCoy, an American professor of history at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, said he was ''stunned'' when he found the records last summer. He said he worked with the records by himself until this month. He brought them to the attention of The New York Times last week.
The records were reviewed at the Archives, where officials confirmed their authenticity. In addition, several former American military officers who played important roles in the events described in the records were interviewed.
These officers served in the Philippines during the war, supervising Filipino guerrillas in the areas where Mr. Marcos said his unit had operated. Even though most of them say they are strong supporters of Mr. Marcos today - one, Robert B. Lapham of Sun City, Ariz., said he spent 90 minutes with Mr. Marcos while in Manila last week -the officers also confirmed the basic findings in the records and said they had not been aware of Maharlika's activities during the war. They also said they had not known of Mr. Marcos as a guerrilla leader until they read his claims later. 'This Is Not True'
Ray C. Hunt Jr., a 66-year-old former Army captain who directed guerrilla activites in Pangasinan Province north of Manila during the war, said: ''Marcos was never the leader of a large guerrilla organization, no way. Nothing like that could have happened without my knowledge.''
Mr. Hunt, interviewed at his home in Orlando, Fla., said he took no position in the current Phillipine election campaign, although he believed Mr. Marcos ''may be the lesser of two evils.''
Still, as he read through the records for the first time, including Mr. Marcos's own description of Maharlika's wartime activities, he said: ''This is not true, no. Holy cow. All of this is a complete fabrication. It's a cock-and-bull story.''
The documents, the latest of which are dated in the early 1950's, include no indication that Mr. Marcos appealed the Army's final ruling against him in 1948. The last entry in the Maharlika file was an affirmation of the rejection.
Today Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard L. Armitage, the senior Pentagon official in charge of military relations with the Philippines, said his aides had been unable to find any record that the original Army decision denying benefits to Maharlika had been challenged or investigated after the 1948 ruling. ''Subsequent to ❈ I am unaware of any further appeals,'' he said.
Donna St. John, a spokesman for the Veterans' Administration, said, ''We're not paying any benefits to Ferdinand Marcos.''
As commanding officer of the unit, Mr. Marcos applied for United States Government recognition of his guerrilla force in the summer of 1945. To support the application, he included a 29-page typed document entitled 'ɺng Mga Maharlika - Its History in Brief.''
It says that the unit was ''spawned from the dragging pain and ignominy'' of the Bataan death march and that its members ''grew such a hatred of the enemy as could be quenched with his blood alone.'' Exploits Are Described
Most of the document is written in the third person and describes a variety of exploits by Maharlika and Mr. Marcos, who was in his twenties at the time. ''It seemed as if the Japanese were after him alone and not after anyone else,'' it says at one point, referring to Mr. Marcos. The author is never identified, but in two places he lapses into the first person in discussing Mr. Marcos's exploits, indicating the writer was Mr. Marcos.
The history and other submissions from Mr. Marcos say Maharlika was officially organized in December 1942 but had been operating for several months before that. It carried out guerrilla operations throughout Luzon and even published an underground guerrilla newspaper three times a day, Mr. Marcos wrote.
Membership rosters submitted with the filings listed the names of more than 300 Maharlika members. But Mr. Marcos included no documents or copies of the Maharlika newspaper to support the claim because, he wrote, all documentary evidence was ''lost due to continuous searches by the Japanese.'' Elsewhere, Mr. Marcos wrote that some of the unit's records were burned and others were buried.
The official records indicate that the Army grew suspicious of Mr. Marcos's claims right away. Mr. Marcos contended that he had been in a northern province ''in the first days of December 1944 on an intelligence mission'' and was not able to get back to Maharlika headquarters at that time because the American invasion force on Luzon cut him off from Manila.
But in the first recorded response to Mr. Marcos's recognition request, in September 1945, Maj. Harry McKenzie of the Army noted that the American invasion of Luzon had not actually begun until a month later and 'ɼould not have influenced his abandoning his outfit.''
As a result, Major McKenzie suggested an ''inquiry into the veracity'' of Mr. Marcos's claims. And almost two years later, the Army wrote Mr. Marcos to notify him of the official finding that his application for recognition ''is not favorably considered.'' Why the U.S. Said No
The official notice cited these reasons, among others:
* Maharlika had not actually been in the field fighting the Japanese and had not 'ɼontributed materially to the eventual defeat of the enemy.''
* Maharlika had no '𧷯inite organization'' and '𧫞quate records were not maintained.''
* Maharlika was not controlled adequately 'use of the desertion of its commanding officer,'' Mr. Marcos, who eventually joined an American military unit while in northern Luzon at the time of the American invasion.
* Maharlika could not possibly have operated over the wide area it claimed because of problems of terrain, communications and Japanese 'ɺntiresistance activities.''
* ''Many members apparently lived at home, supporting their families by means of farming or other civilian pursuits and assisted the guerrilla unit on a part-time basis only.''
Although the Army did recognize 111 people listed on Mr. Marcos's Maharlika roster for their service to American forces after January 1945, the nature of that service is not fully described. But one document, dated May 31, 1945, says 6 officers and 18 men led by Mr. Marcos and indentifying themselves as Maharlika had '𧯮n employed by this unit,'' the Army's First Cavalry Division, ''guarding the regimental supply dump and performing warehousing details.'' Their work, the document added, was ''of limited military value.''
In his brief history, Mr. Marcos describes his service to the First Cavalry this way: Members of Maharlika 'ɿurnished intelligence and were used for patrolling by this unit until the operations in Manila ended. They participated in the crossing of the Pasig River.''
Mr. Marcos was just one of thousands of Filipinos who asked the United States Army for recognition as a guerrilla. After the Japanese occupation of the Phillipines in 1942, the United States had promised that any Filipinos who continued fighting the Japanese would get back pay and benefits after the war as if they had been members of the American military. Served at Bataan
Japan mounted a surprise attack on the islands in December 1941 and quickly conquered them. It was not until 1944 and 1945, that United States and Filipino forces won them back. Not long afterward, on July 4, 1946, the islands gained their final independence from the United States as the Republic of the Philippines.
At the time of the Japanese invasion, Mr. Marcos was a lieutenant in the Philippine armed forces and part of the contingent driven back into the Bataan Peninsula. Mr. Marcos has said his fighting delayed the surrender at Bataan for several weeks.
After the American surrender, he was imprisoned by the Japanese, but escaped. For his efforts during the Bataan campaign of January 1942, Mr. Marcos was awarded numerous medals, apparently including two from the United States, but not until many years later.
It was after the Bataan campaign, Mr. Marcos wrote, that Maharlika was formed.
In 1982 and 1983 journalists in the Philippines and the United States, as well as Representative Lane Evans, Democrat of Illinois, tried to determine the validity of the American awards to Mr. Marcos, including the two Bataan-related medals. The Pentagon, in replying in 1984 to Mr. Evans, noted that no official 'ɼitations for these awards'' could be found, but ''they were both attested to in affidavits by the Assistant Chief of Staff'' of the Philippine Army.
Whether or not the American medals are valid, they had nothing to do with Mr. Marcos's activities during the Japanese occupation.
After the war, roughly 500,000 Filipinos were recognized and paid as guerrilla fighters. But uncounted others were turned down.
Mr. Marcos's claim was investigated in the same manner as the others. Affidavits were taken from dozens of American and Filipino military officers, enlisted men and civilians. In addition, investigators studied documentary evidence, including wartime intelligence reports, looking for references to Maharlika's work.
After he was turned down, Mr. Marcos asked for reconsideration. An Army captain, Elbert R. Curtis, inquired further but concluded that ''the immensity'' of Mr. Marcos's claim that Maharlika served over the entire island of Luzon was '➫surd.''
After checking intelligence records, Captain Curtis wrote that there was no mention of Maharlika being a source of intelligence information. He wrote that the unit roster was a fabrication, that ''no such unit ever existed'' and that Mr. Marcos's claims about Maharlika were 'ɿraudulent,'' ''preposterous'' and 'ɺ malicious criminal act.''
Another Army document said Maharlika ''possessed no arms prior to the arrival of the Americans'' despite Mr. Marcos' claim that the unit had 474 assorted weapons and 3,825 rounds of ammunition. The second investigation concluded that ''it is quite obvious that Marcos did not exercise any control over a guerrilla organization prior to liberation'' in January 1945.
Although there is no record that Mr. Marcos filed any further objections to those 1948 findings, another Filipino, Cipriano S. Allas, who was listed as a senior Maharlika officer, wrote the Army in 1947 asking for reconsideration of the unit. That request was denied, too.
Mr. Allas said he had commanded Maharlika's intelligence section. But numerous American officers and Filipinos who were interviewed by Army, Veterans' Administration and Philippine investigators said Mr. Allas and some of his men had in fact been selling commodities to the Japanese during the war.
In a 1947 Army document titled ''Report on Ang Mga Maharlika,'' Lieut. William D. MacMillan wrote that two American officers, including Mr. Lapham, and one Filipino officer had told investigators that ''they had heard'' Mr. Marcos's name ''in connection with the buy and sell activities of certain people,'' referring to the black-market sales to the Japanese, but that the three had added that they had no firm information about Mr. Marcos.
In a file titled ''Guerrilla Bandits and Black Marketeers,'' a Philippine Army document concluded that Mr. Allas and several other men listed on the Maharlika roster 'ɾngaged themselves in the purchases and sale of steel cables,'' an important wartime commodity, to the Japanese. 'What a Farce!'
A United States Veterans' Administration investigation concluded that some men who claimed membership in Maharlika and another organization were ''hoodlums'' who had committed 'ɺtrocities'' and were ''tied together only for nefarious reasons.''
One man who said he was a member of Maharlika told investigators that the unit ''had committed themselves to trafficking in the sale of critical war materials to the brutal enemy,'' the report said, 'ɻut only to provide means of watching that enemy.''
''What a farce!'' the V.A. investigator concluded.
None of the former officers interviewed this week said they remembered any involvement by Mr. Marcos in the black-market activities or abuses of civilians.
Mr. Hunt said he met Mr. Marcos only once during the war, sometime in 1944. A Filipino military officer 'ɻrought him into my guerrilla headquarters,'' Mr. Hunt recalled. ''He was barefoot, unarmed. We talked for 15 or 20 minutes about this or that. He was never identified to me as a guerrilla, and we didn't talk about guerrilla activities.''
''I had no further contact with him,'' Mr. Hunt added, 'ɺnd I didn't hear anything more about him.''