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.


Related articles by Pointman:

They’re just words.

Love is simply not an option.

Click for a list of other articles.

20 Responses to “The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.”
  1. Truthseeker says:

    Pointman, another poignant post, but I must quibble about your statement regarding the death of JFK. It was clearly not Oswald that killed the president as, amongst other things, the physics of the “magic bullet” is even less believable than the “physics” of the climate models. Why the conspiracy? Well the “flat refusal to do nothing more than send a few hundred military advisers to Vietnam” is one of many incentives for the “military industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned of to make a policy change in a such dramatic fashion.


  2. Pointman says:

    If you want to air your favourite JFK conspiracy, PLEASE not here. Foxtrot Oscar to somewhere else. Tread softly because you tread on my heart …



    • Truthseeker says:

      You will hear no more conspiracy theories from me on this matter. I will only air climate alarmism based conspiracy theories in keeping with the overall theme of this excellent blog.


  3. bushkid says:

    Thanks Pointman. The longer we live the more we learn how little we know. I knew Kennedy had served on MTBs and that he’d had is command destroyed under his feet, but not the rest of that episode.

    As you say, we never know the full story about a person, and for those in a leadership position, some of that detail is irrelevant, some goes to the make up of a true leader, and then very sadly some of that detail is exactly what we need to know about our leaders, case in point being Australia’s two most recent past incumbents.

    It would be easy to argue that Kennedy was in a class of his own, but the truth is that that era, immediately following a second war that drew in most of the nations of the world and while there was a great deal of conflict and tension following, we had more demonstrable and proven leadership among our legislative representatives than I believe we do now.

    As Keith Miller, one of Australia’s test cricket “Invincibles” and a WWII pilot (I think he was a pilot, please correct me if I’m wrong here), said in context of the pressures on modern cricketers – “Stress? Stress is a Messerschmidt up your arse!” That would indeed tend to adjust your concept of stress and pressure.

    My husband was once asked by a rather ordinary troop commander if he would follow him into action. My darling replied “Certainly Sir, but only out of sheer curiosity”. We seem to have far too many of that sort of “leader” these days in all walks of life, and not enough of those we instinctively recognise as someone we know we can work alongside and respect.


  4. Graeme No.3 says:

    Miller was a Pathfinder pilot flying Mosquitos. His reference was to a Fockewulf 190, faster and more manoeuvrable than a Messerschmidt 109.


  5. Rick Bradford says:

    There are truly No More Heroes.

    I think that became clear to me in September 1997 when the death of Mother Teresa (5th Sep 1997) was hardly mentioned where I was living at the time because of the ongoing blanket media coverage of the death of Princess Diana six days earlier.


  6. meltemian says:

    As someone who lived near an American Air Force base during the Cuban Missile Crisis I have nothing but respect for the way JFK (and Kruschev to be fair) managed to avoid all-out nuclear war. One of the things I will never forget is the feeling of imminent doom that was everywhere on that week in October. We all felt the world was coming to an end.
    I know the ‘Camelot’ hype was only a reaction to a new, young President with a glamorous wife after a series of older men, FDR, Truman and Ike, but there really did seem to be a feeling of hope that better times were ahead. That was all shattered by a bullet and the whole world was shaken that such a thing could happen. It’s one of those events where everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.
    Who knows how things would have panned out if he had lived? He was in office for less than three years but they were certainly eventful and memorable ones.


  7. Hector Pascal says:

    MTbs weren’t new when the USA entered WWII. Fast boats equipped with torpedos and cannon had been around since WWI. In WWII European theatre, Germany had “E” boats and Britain and Canada a variety of 60-70 foot torpedo boats, powered by aircraft engines.

    Lots of petrol and no armour. You’d better be stealthy, fast and agile.


  8. mike fowle says:

    Pointman, thank you for those memorable words. As an impressionable youth, hearing Kennedy was an inspiration, and I get tired of all the revisionist stuff that has been spouted ever since his death.


  9. pottereaton says:

    Nicely done, Pointman. A fitting piece on a day that commemorates a very tragic event. But I have to quibble with your assessment that if JFK had lived “those years would have turned out better.” He would have served until 1968, assuming he’d been re-elected in 64 which was by no means certain, and he would have been engulfed in the same problems Johnson was. Kennedy was a strong anti-communist and very likely would have followed the same path in Vietnam his successor did at the advice of the cabinet Kennedy bequeathed him. The surviving Kennedys turned on Johnson and became anti-war, but I don’t think they would have done that if Jack had led the war effort from the beginning. They simply hated Johnson.

    I was in college from 66 to 70 and the anti-establishment fervor would have found some outlet in other causes. Remember there were in those days all kinds of black radicals and others roaming the streets and fomenting riots. The dis-satisfaction wasn’t entirely war-related. There were drugs, the pill, free love, and rock music and generally brash behavior all around. It was a wide-open time. There was bound to be a generational clash.


  10. Edward. says:

    I think he may probably have suffered from Meningitis in his early years but he was the son of a ‘Mick’ and they were bred of stern stuff – surviving the crossing was an Odyssey of obstinate endurance.

    I shan’t test your patience nor, do I wish to gainsay you Pointy.

    It is true, that he was a courageous man and one devoted to skippering and to using the best of his abilities in leading his crew – as properly it should be, a duty of care. We all respect that in a man.

    But let it be said, no man can divine what really lies harboured in another mans’ heart.

    He was a long ways from being perfect and only God knows if the world missed a great president – but maybe we did.

    R.I.P. Jack.


  11. M Simon says:

    I was 10 days into USN boot camp at the time. I remember being in formation in dungarees (we weren’t good enough for dress uniforms) and our company commander (a WW2 vet submarine CPO) telling us “the President has been shot”. We remained in formation (mostly at attention) for the next few days. Our training schedule was shot.

    The country changed. And so did I. Several years later as an ET and Naval Nuke I was on deck when we got as close as 1500 yards off the coast of DaNang when that battle was going hot and heavy. I still hear the arty every Fourth of July celebration. It must have been murder being on the receiving end of the barrages that were practically continuous.

    Rest in Peace Jack.


  12. I am in awe of this fine eulogy. It hits the right tone, and recites the salient facts. Thank you


  13. Blackswan says:

    Remembering another fine man who departed this life 4th December 2009 – Liam Clancy, singer extraordinaire.


  14. Pointman says:

    The Song of Wandering Aengus

    I went out to the hazel wood,
    Because a fire was in my head,
    And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
    And hooked a berry to a thread;
    And when white moths were on the wing,
    And moth-like stars were flickering out,
    I dropped the berry in a stream
    And caught a little silver trout.

    When I had laid it on the floor
    I went to blow the fire aflame,
    But something rustled on the floor,
    And some one called me by my name:
    It had become a glimmering girl
    With apple blossom in her hair
    Who called me by my name and ran
    And faded through the brightening air.

    Though I am old with wandering
    Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
    I will find out where she has gone,
    And kiss her lips and take her hands;
    And walk among long dappled grass,
    And pluck till time and times are done
    The silver apples of the moon,
    The golden apples of the sun.

    William Butler Yeats


  15. Blackswan says:

    Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife,
    Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
    One crowded hour of glorious life
    Is worth an age without a name.

    Thomas Osbert Mordaunt – circa 1760


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