John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a true hero during WWII, and his story of shipwreck and rescue is the stuff of legends. He skippered a PT boat in the Solomon Islands designated by the number 109, and it was cut in half by the Japanese destroyer Amangiri. Eleven men survived, including Kennedy, and they swam three miles to the shore of a deserted island, unsure what they were going to encounter next. Natives in a dugout canoe paddled out to the island to help the sailors.
JFK carved a message on a coconut which he gave to the natives, and they in turn took the coconut to the closest PT base on Rendova, which was 35 nautical miles away. In block letters, Kennedy carved, “NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY”
A man by the name of William “Bud” Liebenhow, also a PT Boat skipper, was the one who was dispatched to rescue Kennedy and his crew, who were behind enemy lines. He, like JFK, was also a true hero from the same era. As is so often the case with warriors of the Greatest Generation, Bud was modest in his description of what happened. “Pulled right up to the beach,” Liebenow told WRAL-TV in 2015. “Just a part of the job, really.
Another “part of the job” was both clandestine work with the French Resistance in preparation for D-Day beginning of January of 1944, as well as the rescue of more than 60 troops whose boats had been destroyed by the Nazis in the Normandy Invasion that June. Again, with the characteristic modesty of his ilk, Liebenow said, “We went in to pick up survivors and do what we could.” He told the Mount Airy News in 2014, “We spent most of that day picking up guys out of the water.” Besides rescuing sailors from the USS Corry which was destroyed that day, Liebenhow’s boat transported the likes of General Dwight Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery.
Eighteen years later, Liebenhow (from Bud) was invited to the inauguration of President Kennedy, and the President had the famous coconut shell turned into a large paperweight which he kept in the oval office. It is well known that the injuries JFK suffered as a result of the shipwreck set him up for a lifelong addiction to painkillers; he had a rocking chair that became iconic during his presidency in which he rocked to help deal with the pain. Liebenhow and JFK remained friends until the president was assassinated in 1963.
Liebenhow lived a quiet life as a chemist for thirty years, was a husband and the father of two children, and on February 24, passed away at the age of 97 from pneumonia. He was the only D-Day survivor remaining in the entire area of Fredericksburg, VA. Liebenow was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star for valor in combat. He also received the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.
I have no idea if Bud Liebenow was a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative. All I know is that I am grateful for his service, and from here on out may he experience smooth sailing.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner