PT Boat Skipper - Pacific Theater
US Navy - 1942-1945
Lt. John Francis Kearney - PT Boat Skipper 1942 -1945
John Francis Kearney, whose buddies called him Jake, as there were too many John's in his Squadron has perhaps one of the most unique claims to fame there is. In 1943, he drag raced his PT 40 with the future President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy's PT-109. But before that, Kearney had to join the Navy and train hard as a PT Boat Commander. His success at that led to many dire experiences out in the Pacific Ocean.
Kearney's older brother, Joseph P. Kearney (photos below) joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and became a Technical Sergeant and served on a B-17 crew as a Radio Operator. He was attached to the 331st Bombardment Squadron of the 94th Bomb Group and was stationed in England. During the period from mid 1943 through late 1945, the 94th Bomb Group was stationed at the Royal Air Force airfields at Bassingbourn, Earls Colne and Bury St. Edmunds in England. The fields had been handed over to the 8th Air Force for their use starting in April of 1943. When the war was over the 94th BG was reassigned to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey.
Lt. John 'Jake' Francis Kearney (pictured below) was the Skipper of PT 40 in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. Lt. Kearney had joined the Navy in 1941 soon before the United States added their name in the fight against the Axis Powers, consisting of Germany, Japan and Italy. His decision would take him into one of the true adventures of his life.
As the war had raged in Europe and North Africa since 1939, the fighting in the Pacific became a reality with the early morning surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on December 7th, 1941. Those in training had to stop training immediately and joined the war. They called them the '90 day wonders' and Kearney was part of that group. The temperature and weather only added to the challenges of the South Pacific Theater as the Navy with the Marines, Army and the Army Air Corps had their own brand of battles. Island invasions were eventually set up like a chess match, creeping ever closer to the Japanese Emperor's chamber.
Kearney contracted malaria and after a few days in sickbay, he was back out in the thick of it. Malaria stayed with him his entire life and would flare up from time to time. In the South Pacific, the PT Boat crews patrolled in small Squadrons on the islands' waterways from sundown to sunup. They were often called the 'Knights of the Sea' or 'Mosquitoes Boats.'
Grace Kearney is the daughter of John Kearney and was instrumental in gathering all the information on her father. It was a pleasure to take all that she assembled and present Lt. Kearney's story here on the Archive Project. Grace's written memories of her father document the historical significance of the story of Lt. Kearney, and the heroic service that men of his caliber brought during WWII.
Kearney was born on October 18th, 1916 in Weehawken, New Jersey and was the youngest son of Grace (Maloney) and Joseph Francis Kearney. A month before his twenty fourth birthday, John Kearney enlisted in the Navy on September 14th, 1941 in Teaneck, New Jersey. It was months before December 7th, yet his actions in enlisting would put him in a position to be first called when the Navy was rebuilding after the devastating losses at Pearl Harbor.
Seven years after the war, Kearney would marry Margaret Ellen Bixby on June 21st, 1952 at Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Hudson, New York. Margaret Bixby was born in Schenectady, New York on August 10th, 1917. The Kearneys' would have three children, Patricia , Grace and John . But long before all this, as Skipper of a PT Boat in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, Kearney would have to navigate through incredibly dangerous situations and life threatening challenges.
John Kearney began his education and training at U. S. Prairie State in New York, and then attended the Torpedo School at Newport, Rhode Island. He was also in the first class of the Melville PT School in Rhode Island. There he received considerable training on the PT Boat which is a torpedo-armed fast attack vessel used primarily by the U.S. Navy. It's shining moments would be displayed gallantly during these war years. The PT Boat was small, fast, and valued for its maneuverability and speed.
Kearney coincidentally shared the initials JFK, with the future President of the United Stares, John F. Kennedy, who he would serve alongside in the Navy. Both men would be Skippers (Commanders) of PT boats, number 40 for Kearney and number 109 for Kennedy. Both men would become good friends during their service and that would continue through their entire lives until President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Kearney passed in 2009. Kearney was talking to the paramedics that sad day in 2009, defending his good friend John Kennedy. Dad mentioned how upset he was any time he became aware of anyone saying anything derogatory about his friend. Even Kennedy's death did not dim Kearney's devotion to his friend.
On February 4th, 1943, Kearney would receive a Presidential Citation for his actions as a PT Boat Commander during the battle of Guadalcanal. He served with the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons 2, 3, and 31.
In January of 1942, Kearney received his commission and spent 3 months in Panama and in October he was sent to the Pacific to Skipper a PT boat that was based in Tulagi, a small island 22 miles from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The base on Tulagi was named Searlesville in honor of John Searles their Commanding Officer. The Japanese occupied Tulagi on May 3, 1942, with the intention of establishing a seaplane base nearby. The ships in Tulagi harbor were raided by planes from USS Yorktown the following day in a prelude to the Battle of the Coral Sea. U.S. forces, led by the 1st Marine Raiders, landed on August 7th and captured Tulagi as part of Operation Watchtower after a day of hard fighting.
After its capture by Naval and Marine forces, the island hosted a squadron of PT boats and other support facilities. A small 20 bed dispensary was operated on Tulagi until its closure in 1946. The island formed part of Purvis Bay, which hosted many US Navy ships during 1942 and 1943. The PT Boats patrolled these inlets and waterways between the islands from sundown to sunup. It was dangerous work, and the men were constantly keyed on alert.
Lt. Kearney was interviewed and quoted in an article in a New Jersey newspaper:
Lt. Kearney's daughter Grace writes:
My dad said he and Kennedy often debated who had the fastest PT Boat, both their boats were powered by a V-12 Packard engine, a substantial machine to say the least. Kennedy's PT boat was three feet longer than Kearney's. A smaller boat with the same engine had the advantage. So after one night patrol they decided to race back to port.
Dad tells that they were neck and neck and as they were approaching a Japanese built dock that Kennedy did not know was there, he opened it up and tore out. Dad told his crew to pull back. He told them Kennedy would not be able to stop. Sure enough, Kennedy hit the dock and took out part of the dock and knocked down a shed. A two-foot hole was left in the hull of Kennedy's PT-109. When Dad pulled in, he said that Kennedy was grinning ear to ear.
Dad told him that he could not afford to hit the dock and pay for a new one. One day the two Lieutenants were fueling their boats, Dad asked Kennedy why he was there. Kennedy, perplexed, asked what Dad meant. Dad told him that he (Dad) had to be there because of the draft, but mentioned to Kennedy that he (Kennedy) could have served in the U.S. or as a diplomat somewhere else. Dad said Kennedy told him "I am here because you have to be."
The Kennedy's did not get out of serving or even take a safer or easier service, even though they had lots of political pull. You recall Kennedy's father Joe was an ambassador to England, after all. Kennedy's brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr. was a pilot in the Air Corps and was killed in August 1944 while flying a mission and his sister Kathleen Kennedy died in a small plane crash with 3 others soon after the war, flying out of Paris.
Dad said that he and Kennedy had a lot of time to talk. Even though they were skippers, they often fueled their own boats. I saw a film on that and it said it could take 8 hours to fuel a PT Boat. After that they would patrol all night long and burn all that fuel. So dad and Kennedy had a lot of time to talk. They stayed friends till the very end. Kennedy's death was tough on my dad, our family, the country and even the world.
Perhaps THEY discussed both being JFK. When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, we were living in Guatemala, as Dad was working for and reporting directly to President Kennedy with the Agency for International Development and the Regional Office for Central America and Panama. When President Kennedy was killed I saw the headline JFK MUERTO in a Guatemalan newspaper and since it did not say PRESIDENTE, I ran into my parents' room to see if Dad was there. Of course the Guatemalan newspaper would not have had a banner headline if anything had happened to my Dad, but I was a little girl, and I had to make sure he was ok. He and Mom were fine.
At the time, in the remote mountain areas, the local militant guerillas were going in homes and removing the males and killing them. There was also a coup while we lived there, though eventually the Guatemalan president who had gone to Mexico and built up an army, returned and took back the office of the President of Guatamala.
The main photograph below was taken when Dad and his PT Boat crew took Roy Howard from Scripps Howard to war correspondent and journalist Ernie Pyle's grave. Howard was going to lay a wreath at the grave. Many of these events are described in a book by one of Dad's friends and one of his commanders, Jack Searles.'Tales of Tulagi' is one of the best books about their lives during World War II. Another book that perhaps includes even more events and PT Boats is 'Long Were The Nights' by Hugh Cave.
Dad became Collector of Customs in the US Virgin Islands under Eisenhower. When Kennedy got elected, Kennedy sent my Dad down to Central America to work. At that time we lived in Guatemala City. After Kennedy was assassinated, Dad expected he would be sent home, but President Johnson kept him there.
While they were fueling their PT Boats, Dad and Kennedy had spoken about working with our neighbors to the south and how important it was, so once elected, Kennedy acted on that. Dad reported directly to Kennedy, he knew Bobby Kennedy well and Teddy Kennedy slightly. He was a guest at the Kennedy compound during the war and other times too. He considered the Kennedy family friends.
I have been trying to get a copy of Dad's PT 40 missions and have not been able to do so, but I did get over 70 pages from The National Archives and am grateful for each one. Last fall I found Dad's 'Little Black Book' from the war. After he died, I had put it in a fire proof safe because I felt it was private. It has been 10 years now and I was looking for something else when I came across it. I opened it to see if Mom was mentioned and what I found was about 20 pages with one or two of his missions from PT 40 on each page.
He also included those who were with him and references to Kennedy's PT 109, as well as Lt. Joe 'Louie' Kernell's PT 61, Lt. Alfred Anthony Snowball PT 59, and several others. The back part of the book contains many addresses--it looked like those of his men and others whom he might have to contact if something happened. One of the addresses is Kennedy's hospital room--I assume after the accident with PT 109.
In the White House one day, Dad said that he reminded Kennedy of the time they raced their PT Boats and Kennedy said to Dad, "You aren't going to let me forget that, are you?" Dad suffered Kennedy's death up to and including the day he died. All in all though, I NEVER heard any hate or prejudice come from either of my Parents. Dad was in Okinawa for the mop up and he had nothing but respect for the Japanese.
As you know, my Uncle Joe, Joseph Peter Kearney, my dad's older brother was with the 8th Army Air Corps. He served with the 94th Bombardment Group as Radio Operator and flew in the 331st Squadron. He was a crew member of a B-17 who flew missions over Nazi occupied Europe and had nothing but respect for the Germans after the war.
My Uncle Joe worked for Westinghouse and designed/invented one of the lights that they used during the launch of the Apollo Spacecrafts. He and my Aunt Florence were invited to watch one of the launches. Joseph Peter Kearney was born on June 9th, 1913 in New York City and enlisted in the Air Corps on May 2nd, 1942 in Newark, New Jersey. He was Honorably discharged on December 31st, 1945. Joseph married Florence Carolina Masetti on January 12th, 1952 at the Church of St. Anastasia in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Kearney cherished John F. Kennedy's friendship for the rest of his life. Many of his lifelong friendships were with men from his PT Boat days. In fact he treated his PT Boat buddies as brothers. Jack and Robert Searles, Ralph L. Richards, Leonard 'Nick' Nikoloric, and Joseph Cawthorn 'Louie' Kernell were all names we grew up with. Some became our godparents.
After the war, Kearney and his college roommate, and fellow Navy veteran Robert Strakos (who served on the submarine USS Fineback when it rescued President George H. Bush after his plane was shot down in September of 1944) started a Radio Station, WHUC in upstate New York. Years later, they sold the station and Kearney continued to serve his country as a diplomat.
This took the Kearney family to the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guatemala in Central America and Arlington VA. He also invented and holds a patent for a switch that modernized traffic lights. Upon returning to the United States, and a brief period of private sector jobs in Brownsville, TX, Raton, NM and Rio Rancho, NM, Kearney returned to government work. Kearney retired while working for Indian Health Services in the Four Corners Area of Southwest (New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona).
On February 10th, 1946, Lt. John 'Jake' Francis Kearney was honorably discharged from the United States Navy. His combat service in the Navy had ended in the Summer of 1945, the war was finally over for Kearney. He would stay on in the Naval Reserves until 1959. In the end like many of the young men who had served in World War II, Kearney had served his country bravely, heroically and with dignity. The true testament to John Kearney is in those actions he gave so willingly.
In late 1963, John Kearney sent a condolence letter to Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's secretary, after Kennedy was
assassinated and she sent him back a very nice card from the White House that Kearney was proud of and kept his
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