Key point: Not everyone made it out of the war alive. Here was JFK’s close brush with death.
Activity at Japanese air bases in the northern Solomon Islands reached a fever pitch as the South Pacific sun rose on the morning of April 7, 1943. The distinctive sound of roaring aircraft engines filled the air at fields bearing the names of Ballale, Kahili, and Buka. All of the bases were on or near the island of Bougainville. Scores of planes marked with the red circle insignia of the rising sun were soon taking off. The aircraft combined into four groups while circling before turning south.
Perhaps unknown to the Japanese pilots, however, the planes were under careful watch by Allied coastwatchers. The agents quickly reported the developments to American authorities on Guadalcanal.
The operation was the first act of a massive air offensive against American positions in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea directed by Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The attacks were dubbed the “I” Operation and would hit four key target areas over the course of a week. The admiral ordered the action to help reverse recent Japanese setbacks in the region and stall the forthcoming American advance that was sure to continue from Guadalcanal. The Americans had recently won control of the embattled island after nearly six months of heavy fighting.
The large Japanese formation numbered 177 planes—67 Aichi D3 Val dive bombers and 110 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. The attackers were only slightly fewer in number than those in the first wave of the Pearl Harbor attack 15 months earlier. It was one of the largest Japanese air strikes mounted to date during World War II.
The air formation was bound for Iron Bottom Sound. The narrow body of water separates Guadalcanal and the nearby islands of Florida and Tulagi. Just a few months earlier, the area had been the scene of a bitter struggle. Now, however, it was a forward operating base for American forces preparing to advance up the Solomons chain. A stockpile of supplies and ammunition sat at Guadalcanal waiting for future operations. Tulagi harbor had been developed into a major naval base capable of housing warships as large as cruisers.
On the morning the Japanese air attack took off, LST-449 (Landing Ship, Tank) was slowly plodding toward the Guadalcanal area. The vessel was under the command of Lieutenant Carl Livingston. It was near the end of a voyage that had begun at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. A small landing craft designed to carry tanks in coastal waters and an assortment of cargo including some bombs, its heavy load consisted of army troops and naval officers bound for duty in the Solomons.
Essentially a large landing craft, LST-449 was designed to haul tanks, vehicles, and personnel over the open ocean directly to beachheads. Spanning more than 300 feet in length and measuring 50 feet wide, it displaced 1,625 tons empty. The slow speed—generally less than 10 knots—earned the class of ships the deserving nickname of “large slow targets.” The vessels’ few weapons were an assortment of light guns for antiaircraft defense.
Among the passengers aboard LST-449 that day was Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy. It was the end of a long trek to the South Pacific for the young naval officer. He came from a wealthy Massachusetts family and his upbringing included private schools and a college degree from Harvard. The patriarch of the family, Joseph P. Kennedy, served a stint as the American ambassador to Great Britain. An older brother, Joe, was serving in the Navy as a pilot.
Despite having a bad back, the younger Kennedy was able to enter naval service in late 1941 through the help of an officer who had served as the naval attaché in London when his father was ambassador. He spent time in Washington, D.C., at the Office of Naval Intelligence and in Charleston, South Carolina, before attending Naval Reserve Officers Training School in Chicago. The school was a crash course for recent college graduates, delivering the basic responsibilities of a naval officer.
Kennedy volunteered for PT-boat duty while in Chicago. The small, fast boats had gained national attention when Lieutenant John Bulkeley evacuated General Douglas MacArthur and his family from the Philippines in early 1942. The PT-boat service had since been expanded and offered the alluring opportunity for action and a seagoing command. Kennedy next went to the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Center in Melville, Rhode Island. After graduation he was ordered to remain at the facility as an instructor.
Like many men in uniform at the time, however, Kennedy wanted to get into the war. His chance came on February 23, 1943, with orders to report to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 2 operating in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy rode the transport Rochambeau out of San Francisco to the South Pacific before boarding LST-449 for the final run to Tulagi.
Kennedy would eventually command PT-109. He was destined to become a war hero for saving some of his crew after the boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. But on April 7, 1943, as the LST slowly plodded toward Guadalcanal, Kennedy was just another young officer serving thousands of miles away from home.
Japanese officers expected a large bounty of targets to be waiting for their pilots in the waters around Guadalcanal. A morning intelligence report placed 12 warships and 14 transports in the immediate area. The targets were indeed plentiful. A force of American cruisers and destroyers, readying for a voyage north to bombard Japanese land positions, slipped out of the area before the attackers arrived, but a number of other Allied vessels remained. The nearly three dozen vessels in or near Tulagi harbor included a PT tender, minesweepers, tug boats, and transports of various sizes. Across the sound near Guadalcanal were two naval cargo ships, two destroyers, and three merchantmen.
The coastwatcher’s early warning gave the American air commanders some time to prepare for the onslaught. At 2 pm the radar station on nearby Russell Island picked up the first sign of the intruders, prompting radio Guadalcanal to broadcast the first of two “condition red” reports. The coded messages warned that an air attack was imminent.
The alert sent crewman on ships across the area racing to man guns. The firepower, though, was limited as many of the cargo and auxiliary vessels only had small machine guns for air defense. Additional firepower was available on land in the form of two quadruple 40mm gun mounts positioned on the high point of Tulagi.
The best chance to thwart the enemy assault rested with the American airpower in the region. Bombers of various types were the first to take off, flying southeast to escape the impending attack. Seventy-six fighters then rose from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal to meet the approaching attackers. The force was a mix of frontline American aircraft, including, Lockheed P-38 Lightings, Grumman F4F Wildcats, Vought F4U Corsairs, Grumman F6F Hellcats, and Bell P-39 Airacobras.
The air battle began about an hour after the initial radar contact. The outnumbered American planes tangled with Zeros in a series of fierce dogfights over the approaches to the Guadalcanal area. The Val dive bombers roared past the melee into Iron Bottom Sound.
Fifteen bombers headed for the Kanawha just after 3 pm. The tanker was leaving Tulagi harbor escorted by the destroyer Taylor when it was hit by five bombs. The crew abandoned the burning ship as several smaller vessels closed to help. It was subsequently reboarded, taken under tow to the west side of Tulagi, and beached. Kanawha, however, did not survive the night, sliding into deep water and sinking by the stern without fanfare.
The New Zealand corvette Moa did not receive the urgent air raid warnings. It was fueling from the tanker Erskine Phelps in Tulagi harbor when the attackers arrived. The small warship quickly sank after taking two direct bomb hits. The missiles were apparently aimed at the much larger tanker.
A third tanker, positioned off Guadalcanal, narrowly escaped the furious attack. Tappahannock and the destroyer Woodworth started moving toward open water at the first sign of trouble. The pair managed to dodge seven Vals with slight damage from a few near misses.
Other ships made sure the attackers paid a heavy price. The PT tender Niagara and several small torpedo boats moored under jungle foliage in a nearby river were in a perfect position to fire on the Vals coming out of their dives. The ships shot down at least two and damaged several others.
At the height of the action a lone American Wildcat fighter piloted by Marine 1st Lt. James E. Swett chased the enemy through friendly antiaircraft fire. He shot down three Vals during their dives and four more over nearby Florida Island. With his plane out of ammunition and badly damaged, Swett made a safe water landing near Tulagi. The remarkable effort earned him the Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism and personal valor.”