The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.
There’s a lot of stuff you can get away with in the armed services but being a bad leader of a group of men who know they’re going into harm’s way isn’t one of them. They have trust in you or they don’t and you can tell that from their faces. The skinny 25-year-old young man on the right of the picture is that boat’s captain and from the smiles, they look like the tight happy family every crew needs to be.
He’d been plagued with ill-health all his life and it would get worse. As a teenager, he’d nearly died of an undiagnosed illness, which got so bad that the Last Rites were administered. He somehow battled through and recovered, to the astonishment of his doctors and the relief of his family. When WWII broke out, knowing he’d never get through an induction medical, he used his father’s political influence to circumvent the difficulty and get into naval officer training. He completed the course with high grades and after subsequently volunteering for the Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) branch of the navy, was given command of one.
MTBs were an innovation which was so new, the tactics for their use were still being worked out in the heat of battle. They were small, fast, lightly armoured speedboats whose job was to torpedo larger enemy ships. The only way of completing that mission against a warship without getting blown out of the water, was to attack under cover of darkness, relying on nothing more than speed and evasion for protection. Since the boats were fuelled by aviation-grade gasoline, any hit on a fuel line or the engine compartment usually resulted in an explosion with the complete loss of the ship and crew. They were fragile Davids pit against armour-plated Goliaths.
On the evening of 2nd August 1943, the boat was rammed in the darkness by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri and cut in half. In the resulting explosion two crewmen were killed and two others seriously injured, with the captain himself sustaining a back injury which would prove to be a degenerative and painful condition for the rest of his life. In his latter years, he had to wear a back support belt under his clothes and was constantly receiving pain relief medication for it and other problems.
The survivors loaded the non-swimmers and the injured on floating bits of the boat and with the captain towing an injured crewman by clenching the strap of the man’s life jacket between his teeth, swam for land. Despite his health problems and those remarkably thin arms you can see in the picture, he was still a strong enough swimmer to have made the Harvard University swim team. By some miracle and undoubtedly leaving a blood trail behind them in the sea, they got through a four hour swim in shark infested waters without being attacked and reached a small uninhabited island. There was no food or drinking water on it, and in the heat of the Pacific, that can kill you in days.
They hid on the island through the next day and that night the captain made another four kilometre swim to a neighbouring island, to flash a signal torch through the night in the direction of where he hoped his MTB comrades would again be waiting in darkness to ambush Japanese shipping. By making that dangerous swim, he was giving his crew a better chance of being rescued in time but also if the signal was noticed by the Japanese, he’d be the only one left at the rare mercy of their enemy and his crew would still be safe. The signal wasn’t noticed by anyone so he made the long return swim back to them. He made that swim four nights in a row on no food or water. They were all rescued in the end but it was touch and go at times. The survivors remained friends for life.
After the war, he entered politics and eventually rose to become the 35th President of the United States, but was murdered on 22nd November 1963 by a small insignificant man who craved nothing more than notoriety and respect, a man who’d failed miserably at everything he’d ever attempted; education, the Marine Corps, keeping a marriage together, holding down a decent job and even defecting to Russia. Nobody was interested in him, nobody had any time for him. At bottom, all he wanted was a place in the history books as a man who’d assassinated a US president. A somebody. There was no great conspiracy, it was as pointless, stupid and pathetic as that.
On the day he was killed, the world changed for people in a subtle but not a good way. It was a traumatic end of that post-war euphoria with its general expectation of a better future for the world. People wept for him but I also think there was an underlying current of vague dread about what the future would now bring. That fear proved to be well founded in the following years as a number of other inspirational leaders were also assassinated for no other reason than some sad individual seeking their fifteen minutes of fame didn’t agree with their politics.
The hope of peaceful change by use of the democratic process gradually wilted under the murderous assault of the assassin’s bullet. People became deeply cynical of what had rapidly become polarised politics, and all of that happened against the nightmarish background of an America getting sucked ever deeper into the quagmire of an unwinnable and nationally divisive war. In a real sense, part of the impetus for the counter-culture movement of the 60s was young people opting out of a society they thought had become dysfunctional, violent and extreme. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
If he’d lived and been able to travel those extra miles to go before he slept, I feel those years would have turned out a lot better. It might not have been Camelot but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been My Lai, Kent State or the Watts district burning down. Nor would it have been two million Asians dead and fifty thousand Americans. Those bullets that day in Dallas killed a lot of people.
When we’re young, we expect absolute perfection from the people we admire and we’ll always be disappointed in the end. You slowly realise that everyone has feet of clay; you, them and everyone else. When that person is a leader, what’s important is not the private facets of their personality which you find disappointing, and you have to make a personal value judgement on their particular failings, but their capacity to always rise to the occasion when real courage and leadership is required. Above all, when the chips are down, they can be relied on to make the good decisions and you trust them to do that.
Reading various books by people across the political spectrum and watching documentaries in which he’s mentioned, what’s striking is that even after leaving aside the mythos which grew up around him after his death, he is remembered with genuine personal affection by those who’d actually known him. There is of course an element of not speaking ill of the dead and also perhaps those who disliked him when he was alive because of the policies he pursued, came to realise he might have been on the right track after all.
Looking back with hindsight after half a century, the things he did which were controversial at the time such as signing nuclear non-proliferation treaties, pushing for civil rights and a flat refusal to do nothing more than send a few hundred military advisers to Vietnam, look to have been eminently sensible policies.
As he lay dead on an operating table in a Dallas hospital being read the Last Rites, his wife entered the room. She had suffered a long string of marital infidelities at his hands. They’d lost their baby son Patrick a few months earlier and by all accounts the family tragedy had brought them closer together. She stood by the body for a while, attempted to kiss him goodbye but stopped, probably because of his horrific wounds. The top of his head was gone. She instead exchanged her wedding ring with his and as she was leaving the room, noticed one of his feet was sticking out from under the sheet. She bent, kissed his bare foot, covered it over tenderly and left the room.
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