Posted by: SJS | April 8, 2018

Chappaquiddick – another heavy dose of Kennedy scandal

With the release of the new movie Chappaquiddick, the world will be treated to yet another chapter in the seemingly  endless story of scandal and tragedy that characterizes the Kennedy family saga.  America–and the world–seem to have an insatiable appetite for the bottomless supply of bad news and tales of improper behavior that flow like a geyser from the family that so dominated the political (and tabloid) headlines in the twentieth century.

I get it.  There can be no debate about the magnitude of the scandal in 1969 that took the life of a talented and dedicated young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, under highly suspicious circumstances.   Nor can there be any reasonable defense put forward about the behavior of Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy in the aftermath of the accident that resulted in the death of Ms. Kopechne and the unconscionable delay in Kennedy’s reporting of the incident.  The events in July of 1969 altered the course of American political history and cast yet another long shadow over a famous family that was already far too familiar with grief, tragedy, and scandalous episodes worthy of the Tudor Court of Henry the 8th in Medieval England.

I get it.  The patriarch of the clan, Joe Kennedy, Sr., was a bootlegger, a Hollywood mogul who broke all the rules, a proponent of the “America First” isolationist fringe who opposed FDR, and a serial philanderer who was never a serious contender for “Father of the Year” honors given the way he treated his children.  Yes, JFK was a notorious womanizer who was a little too friendly with shady characters who may or may not have been members of the mob, and whose presidency got off to a sluggish and rudderless start.  Yes, Bobby and Teddy Kennedy owed their political careers to the vast family wealth and fame that gave them incredible advantages that few other politicians could ever dream of–and they often acted like spoiled, entitled royalty who didn’t have to play by the rules that apply to everybody else.  You’ll get no argument from me on that score.

I get it.  Believe me, I get it.  While I have no interest in seeing the movie Chappaquiddick, perhaps it will play an important role in deepening America’s understanding of this terribly tragic and unfortunate episode in our nation’s history.  Just seeing the promotional ads for the movie have reminded me to continue my prayers for the repose of Ms. Kopechne and to pray for the consolation of her family who lost a gifted, idealistic, and hard-working daughter & sister who died far too early in a horrendous turn of events.  My heart ached for the Kopechne family in 1969 and it aches still.

What has prompted this blog post is something that has very little to do with this new movie or Teddy Kennedy’s bad behavior or unanswered questions about who did what in July of 1969 on a dark road in a remote place.

What I want instead is to initiate a new consideration of the WWII service of Lt. John F. Kennedy in the dangerous waters of the South Pacific in the summer of 1943 when the fate of the Allied Forces against the might of the Imperial Japanese Navy was still an open question. What I am requesting is that we move past the romantic, Hollywood mythology of PT 109, and all the stories of JFK that have been hardwired into our national consciousness to the point that we think we know all the details.  The simple truth is that we do not know all the details–most especially the most important ones.

In the posts that will follow, I will advance my argument on this point and I invite readers of this blog to weigh in, to present counter arguments, and to fill in details that I may not know.  There are sources I will cite that cast an entirely new light- not just on the fate of PT 109- but on the military and political career of John Fitzgerald Kennedy,

Let me state at the outset that I am not a professional historian. I am not an expert on the storied history of the Navy’s  Mosquito Fleet of WWII.  Nor am I as well versed on the design, operation, and mechanical specifications of the Higgins and Elco boats that comprised the PT fleet–but I am vastly grateful to those who are professional historians and naval experts. To these historians and nautical experts, I am immensely grateful.  Their input on my blog have made invaluable contributions and taught me a tremendous amount.  The readers and contributors to this blog have become highly valued companions on my endless path to knowledge about both the PT fleet and the wartime experience of my father.

Let me also state that there is one subject on which I am an expert.  As the proud son of an enlisted PT sailor who saw action in the Mediterranean and the South Pacific, I know what it was like to grow up under just such a father.  A man, an ordinary Navy veteran, who shared with me less than twenty percent of what he saw and experienced but whose life and parenting conveyed the deeper lessons that had imprinted themselves on the deepest part of his consciousness,

I had a father who was an enlisted sailor who knew what it was like to be on a PT base in Sardinia that was strafed by German fighter planes.  I had a father who was a radioman class 3 who came under fire from Japanese snipers while on patrol in the jungle-infested waters of some obscure island near Borneo in 1945.  The man I called “Dad”  always thought of himself as a simple sailor who was chosen by his fellow sailors to tell their newly named, green, PT skipper on PT 373 to go straight to hell when he ordered their boat to undertake a needless second run down that same river which had just cost them a beloved squadron mate to a sniper’s bullet.  And I can tell you that whoever that novice skipper was, he was smart enough to know that he’d best heed the words of Radioman Third Class Red Stahley.  This was not “Mutiny on the Bounty” by any stretch of the imagination, it was PT grit, common sense, and the enforced application of that old PT wisdom- “Officer or not, get your head out of your ass.”

Let me share with my loyal blog readers what I know for certain about the sailors–officers and enlisted men–of the Mosquito Fleet of WWII.  They were bold, reckless, short-tempered, loyal, rash, deeply skeptical, perpetual underdogs, glib, irreverent, deeply suspicious of authority, reluctant to apologize for mistakes, and more familiar than most sailors that each patrol across dark waters could be their last because one well placed bullet from an enemy plane or well-concealed sniper could send their fragile boat–and everybody on it–to kingdom come.

For all these personal reasons as well as what I have learned about JFK over the past seven years, I am calling for a reconsideration of the WWII service of a man whose mythology has overtaken the deeper truths of his wartime experience and shaped his presidency which, in turn shaped the final four decades of the twentieth century.  As a nation, we need to get past the romanticism of the movie PT 109 (as much as I loved it), the enduring myth of Camelot, and the bottomless tabloid fodder of Kennedy scandals.  Yes, Kennedy was a son of privilege, the heir to incredible wealth, and a charismatic figure who seemed to exude charm, class, and power.  But Kennedy was a PT skipper who teetered on the edge of death, despair, vast guilt, a wrecked boat sinking in flame-filled waters with dead and wounded sailors all around him and overwhelmed by a towering fear that most people could never imagine.

Let’s take another look, shall we, at what that set of experiences might do to a person and the course of their life in the aftermath, regardless of how much wealth and family connections they are heir to.

I wish the producer, director, and cast of Chappaquiddick all the luck in the world.  Their film may be a box office smash,who knows?  In the meantime, I’ll be very busy about other things.

What I am yearning for is an entirely new examination of Lt. John F. Kennedy, USNR and his service in the South Pacific in WWII. That same place that changed my father’s life forever and, to a large extent, charted the course of my own history.

So buckle up, blog fans.  We’re heading out for some deep, dark waters.  There’s lots to discover.


Responses

  1. This sure looks like the beginning of a screenplay to me. Your writing style has me ready to order tickets already.

    • Dudley,

      Thanks very much. Something about the release of Chappaquiddick really ignited my awareness that we’ve all been so intoxicated by the endless sex scandals, juvenile behavior, and “American royalty” story lines pertaining to the Kennedy clan that we’ve missed the major narrative that drove the presidency of JFK. It is a narrative that has little to do with the bootlegger patriarch, the allure and class of Jackie, the wild womanizing of the president, or the Zapruder film from 11/22/63. What JFK underwent as a PT officer played a dominant role in the Cuban missle crisis, pushing NASA to get a man on the moon, and the Civil Rights movement. And it wasn’t all just heroic stuff– the Bay of Pigs, the slide into Viet Nam, and other major policy mistakes also found their roots in the hostile waters of the South Pacific. It feels like I’m on a mission, based on my own PT research and the experience of growing up as the son of a PT sailr (with attitude). If what I’ve found out isn’t enough to interest film makers like Ken Burns or Ron Howard, maybe the sources that I will point to may be enough. I’m going to stay on the trail. In the meantime, if you have any connections to Martin Scorcese, Rob Reiner, or any of the rising Indy film makers please give them a call. We need to get way past PT 109, the myth of Camelot, and “Abraham, Martin, and John”kumbya stuff if we’re really going to grasp the deeper significance of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. Thanks for letting me rant–it takes my mind off my sore arm. Maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands (er…hand), who knows? Hope all is well.
      Steve

  2. Well said.

  3. Thanks, Jennie. I’m going to go much, much deeper into this subject. The wartime experience of JFK redefined his life, heavily influenced his presidency, and shaped the course of human history even unto today. We must get past the sex scandals, the petty political intrigue, and even the conspiracy theories about his death. Thanks for your continued support.


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