- RLn Staff
By Arthur R. Vinsel, Contributing Writer
With a future U.S. president at the helm, the PT-109 was patched-up wreck in hair trigger battle readiness. The 80-foot mahogany plywood crates were laden with four torpedoes, four 50 caliber machine guns, a 20 mm cannon, 3,000 gallons of high octane aviation fuel, and a handful of sailors hanging on for dear life.
Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy’s boat epitomized the spirit of World War II. The PT-109 and its men became the later focal point of some of my most memorable newspaper stories, including the story of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.
A rookie reporter of 23, I felt an eerie sense of being a part of history. This was no drill like Journalism 101, where the teacher gives a few bits of data and you try to organize them objectively.
This was life and death drama, and I was to cover it.
Because I was there, the events of Nov. 22, 1963–the story of the century– were numbing.
Reporters traditionally should only report, never taking part in the news.
I put myself in the story the day JFK died, for as it turned out, that seemed the only way to tell it.
I interviewed a Garden Grove resident, an oilfield worker in Huntington Beach that served with the president.
“They all called him The Skipper, even after he became U.S. president,” recalled Torpedoman 2/C Ray Starkey, 47.”
Based at Rendova in the Solomon Islands, squads of PT boats prowled Blackett Strait by night, targeting enemy supply barges and occasionally a “The Tokyo Express” –swift Japanese warship that would shell U.S. positions.
Starky and I met because someone in Washington, D.C. proposed a goodwill reunion in August 1963 between surviving PT-109 crew and men of the Japanese destroyer Amagiri that rammed and sunk the boat.
President Kennedy would not attend but the government thought a reunion of old foes after 20 years would be grand, though feelings were mixed among the old soldiers.
“Hell, it was war and (we would have) done the same to them,” cracked Starky, a plain spoken guy with a trace of actor John Wayne in his bearing.
Starkey enjoyed telling how tropic heat and humidity were so unbearable the crew often went nude, but Kennedy ordered them to wear shorts in the galley where Vienna sausages were a luncheon staple.
The night of Aug. 2 was moonless in Blackett Strait as the PT-109 idled on one of its three 1,500-horsepower Packard engines, barely audible over the lapping wavelets. Two men were on watch and others on the topside for fresh air.
“Ship at 2 o’clock!” bellowed one sailor.
“Engines ahead full!” Kennedy yelled.”
But within six seconds the Amagiri knifed into the small boat, instantly killing seamen Andrew Kirksey and Harold Marney in a machine gun turret. Machinist’s Mate Gerard McMahon was sprayed with burning fuel in the engine room.
Kirksey had been tormented for weeks by premonitions of death to the point of upsetting crewmates, Starky recalled.
The destroyer, which had just delivered 900 fresh enemy troops and 70 tons of supplies to Kolombangara Island, steamed on and Kennedy began counting the noses of his survivors. Kolombangara was already occupied by 10,000 Japanese soldiers and one Australian coast watcher in a hideout atop Mount Veve, the island’s volcano.
Fortunately for the PT-109 crew, he spotted the fiery 2:20 a.m. crash and took a compass reading.
Kennedy got his crew assembled with a floating timber and they paddled four miles to a tiny island with no food or water source. Kennedy towed the badly burned McMahon by a web belt clenched in his teeth. Starkey’s hands and arms were burned but he could kick with his feet.
Kennedy swam on a few miles to Naru Island, where he found fresh water and coconuts to sustain them. They were finally rescued six days later.
Coast watcher sub-Lt. Arthur R. Evans sent two Solomon Islanders in a dugout canoe to seek survivors and they made contact. The Navy presumed the crew was lost and never searched for them. The Navy had a memorial service, while Evans’ two native aides were engaged in the crew’s rescue at an extreme risk. Native collaborators were invariably tortured to death by the Japanese invaders.
Naturally, the Navy and Hollywood wrote a fictitious but frantic search scene into the 1963 PT-109, movie script to cover the asses of their tailored suits and uniforms.
The happy ending involved the natives paddling 35 miles to another PT boat base with a coconut shell carved with rescue instructions and signed; “11 alive, Need small boat, Kennedy.”
Rescuers approaching could hear the castaways singing “Jesus Loves Me,” to keep their spirits up.
News Editor Ralph Young was enthusiastic, mostly, but took the Lord’s name in vain over the Vienna sausage anecdote and Kennedy’s prowess as an expert thief of needed boat parts.
“We can’t print stories like this about the sitting president of the United States!” Young snapped gruffly while stifling giggles.
There were grand moments as Starkey, the oilfield roustabout, waltzed in rented tuxedo with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy around the ballroom at President Kennedy’s Inauguration.
Then came Nov. 22, 1963.
I was walking down the back hallway of the Orange Coast Daily Pilot newspaper when I heard my editor, Tom Murphine, slam his phone down.
“My God,” he cried out. “Kennedy’s been shot! They think it’s fatal!”
“I’m going to try to get to Ray Starkey,” I said, grabbing my phone.
I felt a strange chill of dread, unlike any other sensation I could recall.
A subdued young telephone operator at the Signal Oil & Gas field in Huntington Beach said Starkey was on his lunch break and under the circumstances he would be kept available at the locker room. Other reporters were there.
I sped up Highway 101 and swung my Austin Healey Sprite roadster into the rocky, muddy oilfield. Just as I reached for the ignition key the radio’s dirge-like music ceased.
“Ladies and gentlemen…,” the announcer began solemnly. “The president is dead.”
I entered the crowded room, noisy but with a hushed quality. No radio was turned on. Starkey sat on a worn bench with grief plain on his face, dots of crude oil in his white hair. He was dazed.
I recognized other reporters who badgered him with questions about serving under JFK but they were getting little response. I was the only one who’d interviewed him in person earlier.
His stories spilled from my memory and I craved a typewriter.
Starkey saw me and smiled wanly, a friend in a sea of strangers, yahoots pestering him for a good quote when he was still in a state of shock.
Some of the newsmen had turned away as though to interview one another.
“Hi, Ray,” I said. “Rough day for sure. How’re you doing?”
“I just hope he doesn’t die,” he murmured miserably. “Do you know if it was a communist done it? God, I just hope The Skipper doesn’t die.”
Damn. How do you tell a guy news like this? Maybe you just do, when the time comes.
I may have seemed to be a kid reporter, but I had manhood on my mind.
“Ray, I’m afraid it is too late for us to keep hoping that now. They just announced it on the radio as I drove in. I’m so sorry.”
He raised his head once to see if he’d heard me right and I just put my hand on his shoulder.
Starkey died a few years later due to cardiovascular disease.