By Naval History and Heritage Command
November 22, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.
In recent weeks there has been plenty of news coverage of his political life and his murder. We’ll leave that coverage to commercial media. Today, we’d like to discuss John F. Kennedy, Sailor, shipmate.
On Aug. 1, 1963, Kennedy had one of his final encounters with the Navy during a visit to the U.S. Naval Academy’s Brigade of Midshipmen to congratulate the future Class of 1967 for persisting through their grueling plebe summer. No one knew then the president only had a little more than three months to live.
In that brigade were members of the Class of 1964 that included John Dalton, who would go on to serve as Secretary of the Navy from 1993 to 1998.
Although Kennedy was not a graduate of the institution he addressed, he was one of them — having served as a naval officer in World War II. In fact, 20 years earlier to the date he was in command of a patrol boat, PT-109, off the Solomon Islands when his boat was cut in two by the Japanese destroyer Amigari, at roughly 2:30 a.m. The impact threw him into the cockpit of the boat, rupturing a disc in his back. It would be an injury that would remain with him the rest of his life. Despite his injury, Kennedy swam in open water for hours gathering the other 10 survivors together, before leading the group on a more than three mile swim to a nearby island where they were later rescued. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for rescuing his crew and a Purple Heart for his injuries.
Twenty years later, he stood and smiled at the Brigade of Midshipmen gathered in formation in front of Bancroft Hall. Among them, members of the Class of 1965 that included Roger Staubach, who went on to earn the 1963 Heisman Trophy and be inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame after a career as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.
The mids, especially the plebes, were likely looking for inspiration from the young President who stood before them behind a podium emblazoned with the Presidential seal. He said, “I hope you will stand at ease.” When the brigade remained at attention, Kennedy looked back at the superintendent and jokingly asked, “Did you explain that to them? That comes later in the course.”
It was a sign of respect from the brigade. He was after all the President of the United States. A year before, he stared had down the Soviet Union, blockading the island nation of Cuba where communists were attempting to build missile bases. This time as its commander-in-chief, Kennedy went into action with the U.S. Navy, employing military power in such a way that he did not have to resort to war to protect vital American interests. The Navy steamed out to sea, intercepting not only merchant shipping en route to Cuba, but Soviet submarines operating in the area as well. The destroyer USS Beale (DDE 471) used depth charges to remind Soviet subs she would diligently enforce the President’s quarantine of Cuba. The USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (DD 850), a destroyer named in honor of the President’s brother, was also there to enforce the quarantine. Kept on station through underway replenishment by oilers and stores ships, the Navy maintained a month-long naval blockade. It was his skillful use of the U.S. Navy that eventually forced the Soviets to blink.
Now he stood before the Brigade of Midshipmen who would not dare stand at ease. Among them were members of the Class of 1966 that included Rodney P. Rempt, who would go on to achieve the rank of vice admiral and become superintendent of the very institution from which he would graduate.
Impressed by the display, the President continued, “This country owes the greatest debt to our servicemen. In time of war, of course, there is a tremendous enthusiasm and outburst of popular feeling about those who fight and lead our wars, but it is sometimes different in peace. But I can assure the people of this country, from my own personal experience in the last 2 1/2 years, that more than anything, more than anything, the fact that this country is secure and at peace, the fact that dozens of countries allied with us are free and at peace, has been due to the military strength of the United States. And that strength has been directly due to the men who serve in our Armed Forces. So even though it may be at peace, in fact most especially because it is at peace, I take this opportunity to express our appreciation to all of them whether they are here at Annapolis, or whether they are out of sight of land, or underneath the sea.”
The brigade remained at attention. Among those of the Class of 1967 was Peter Pace, who would go on to become the first Marine Corps general to be appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Impressed with what he saw in the brigade, the President said, “You will have a chance in the next 10, 20, and 30 years to serve the cause of freedom and your country all over the globe, to hold positions of the highest responsibility, to recognize that upon your good judgment in many cases may well rest not only the well-being of the men with whom you serve, but also in a very real sense the security of your country.”
Kennedy understood the young people before him had committed themselves to the advancement of something greater than themselves: peace, freedom, prosperity. He understood this because 20 years earlier he did exactly the same thing. As an experienced shipmate he went on to tell the brigade, “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”
So powerful were the bonds between President Kennedy and America’s Navy, that shortly after his death his name was given to one of the most important ships in the fleet. Rear Adm. Thomas Moore program executive officer for aircraft carriers, says those bonds still exist, 50 years after Kennedy’s death.
We as a nation often memorialize our most influential leaders in stone, so when the Navy chooses to honor a person with the naming of a ship, that ship becomes a living memorial. The second ship in the Gerald R. Ford class, the future John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) will be the second aircraft carrier named after the 35th President, who was killed 50 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963.
While many tributes to President Kennedy have been made, he was a strong advocate and understood the value of aircraft carriers in both peace and war. It is fitting that the future John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) will serve into the 2070s and serve as a reminder of his leadership more than 100 years after his time in office. I can think of no greater memorial than a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the largest and most visible signal of America’s presence throughout the world from full scale power projection to humanitarian assistance/disaster relief like the recent tragic events in the Philippines.
Program Executive Office Aircraft Carriers is currently engaged in the advance construction of the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79).