America's Royal Family
What secrets did the Kennedys have - and how did they shape the political landscape of that time? Learn more in this chapter.
Hitler The Unkillable
We know how Hitler ultimately reached his demise - but how many times did he graze death in the years leading up to his suicide? Learn more in this chapter.
Hitler the Unkillable
The fact that Hitler escaped death until he took his own life in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945, is quite remarkable. By all rights he should have been killed even before he became a political rabble-rouser in the 1920s. He escaped death again in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch and went on to become the Führer of the German Reich ten years later. Right after the outbreak of World War II, he survived an assassination attempt that killed several of his fellow Nazis.
Had he died then, Europe would have been saved from immense suffering and destruction. During the later war years, several attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all of them failed, often purely by chance. Looking back on his life, one is hard pressed not to conclude that some demonic power, perhaps the Devil himself, protected Hitler again and again, allowing the Nazi dictator to wreak havoc upon the world.
Hitler served at the front throughout World War I. He enlisted in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment and was assigned to its 1st company. He fought at the first battle of Ypres in the autumn of 1914, in which his company suffered 80 percent casualties.
Hitler then became a runner carrying messages from regimental headquarters to other units in the field, a duty he continued to perform until the end of the war. Hitler, though twice wounded, survived the maelstrom and, after being discharged from the army, went on to become a right-wing party leader and revolutionary.
The revolutionary Hitler, leader of the newly formed Nazi Party, attempted to seize power in Bavaria on November 8 and 9, 1923. The plan was to gain control of Bavaria and then march on Berlin, imitating Mussolini’s march on Rome of the previous year.
On November 9, 1923, Nazis, led by Hitler and the World War I hero General Ludendorff, attempted to seize power in Munich. As they were marching on the Bavarian Ministry of Defense, they encountered a group of soldiers, who opened fired on the revolutionaries. Sixteen Nazis fell dead. Hitler was not among them, although he did dislocate his shoulder in the melee. The Nazi leader and his followers fled the scene, ending their attempt to seize power. Hitler was later captured, tried, and imprisoned for ten months.
After leaving prison, Hitler made the decision to gain power through legal means. He reached his goal on January 30, 1933, when he was appointed chancellor. After the death of President von Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler declared himself Führer of the German Reich, a position he held until his suicide in 1945.
Hitler was not under any serious physical threat between the aftermath of the failed Munich putsch and the beginning of World War II in 1939. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, however, he narrowly escaped assassination. Ironically, the attempt on his life occurred during a commemoration of the 1923 putsch. Every year on November 8th, the Führer and his old party comrades assembled in the Munich beer hall from which Hitler had launched his attempted revolution. Each year he regaled them with a speech commemorating those who had fallen in 1923 and extolling the Nazi movement’s achievements and goals.
Although the war had by no means been welcomed by the German people, Hitler himself was still hugely popular. What opposition to him existed in Germany was unorganized and restricted mainly to a relative handful of traditional conservatives—aristocrats and a few officers in the German Army. The leftist opposition had been suppressed soon after the Nazi takeover of power in 1933. However, one left-wing individual, a lone carpenter, was at liberty and determined to kill the Führer. And he would have succeeded, too, but for mere chance.
Georg Elser was a carpenter with left-wing views, but he was not a dyed-in-the-wool communist. He was simply disenchanted with the cruelty and barbarism of the regime. He was also opposed to Germany becoming involved in another war. He taught himself enough about explosives to build a working bomb.
Over a period of weeks prior to November 8, 1939, Elser made nightly visits to the beer hall at which Hitler would speak. He would hide until the hall closed for the night, then go to work. Using his carpentry skills, he was able to hide a powerful time bomb in a pillar near the podium at which Hitler would deliver his speech.himself
On the evening of November 8, Hitler gave his speech as scheduled. The bomb, its timing mechanism set three days earlier by Elser, was ticking away as the Führer spoke. Sitting close to Hitler and certain to be killed along with him in the explosion were Himmler, Heydrich, Goebbels, and other leading Nazis (Hermann Goering, however, Hitler’s designated successor, was absent). But then chance intervened. Fog that night had made it impossible for Hitler to return to Berlin by plane; instead he would have to go by train. As a result, he cut his speech short and left the hall earlier than expected, accompanied by the other Nazi bigwigs already mentioned. Thirteen minutes after Hitler’s departure, the bomb exploded, killing eight people.
Elser had done everything right, but mere chance—the foggy weather that night—had foiled his attempt to kill the Führer. Had he succeeded, World War II and the Holocaust would almost certainly have been avoided. With Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels dead, Goering would undoubtedly have become Germany's leader, and Goering in 1939 was not particularly interested in waging a second world war. He had, in the last days of peace, sought ways to reach an accommodation with Britain and France. He quite likely would have come to terms with the Western powers. What would have followed we can only guess at, but the devastation of Europe and the deaths of sixty million people would most likely not have occurred.
Elser was caught trying to escape over the Swiss border. He was interrogated extensively by the Gestapo and eventually executed in the Dachau concentration camp only a few days before Germany’s capitulation in 1945. It is believed that he acted entirely alone. How close this lone carpenter came to changing history!
During 1940 and early 1941, there were no attempts on Hitler’s life. This period was a triumphal one for Nazi Germany, as Europe from the English Channel to the Russian border and from the North Cape to Crete fell under its sway. But the invasion of Russia in June 1941, accompanied by the murderous activities of the Einsatzgruppen (death squads charged with shooting Jews and others in occupied Russian territory), caused a few brave individuals in the German Army to begin plotting against Hitler and the Nazi regime.
This handful of officers, most of them aristocrats, was concentrated in Army Group Centre in Russia. The conspirators’ original plans were inchoate and impractical—they considered arresting Hitler during one of his visits to Army Group headquarters and then putting him on trial. But as the tide of war turned against Germany, plans to assassinate Hitler took definite shape.
In March 1943, immediately after the catastrophe at Stalingrad, the conspirators took action. On March 13, 1943, Hitler visited Army Group Centre headquarters
The Kennedys: America's Royal Family
The PT 109 Incident
Like the first domino being toppled in a chain of important events, John Kennedy’s PT 109 misadventure in the South Pacific had far-reaching consequences. The reverberations of his actions are still being felt today well into the twenty-first century. In the end, it is a story of great opportunity missed and young lives lost to no purpose.
At the age of twenty-three, John F. (Jack) Kennedy graduated from Harvard and shortly thereafter was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy. He was assigned to Naval Intelligence in Washington, DC. While serving in Washington, he was introduced to a newly arrived and very well-connected Scandinavian journalist. Her name was Inga Arvad.
Inga was a strikingly attractive and talented young woman who had been selected as Miss Denmark of 1931. In 1935 she had been granted an interview with Adolf Hitler, one of the very few Scandinavian reporters to be allowed this privilege. In her article about him, she said, “You immediately like him. He seems lonely. The eyes, showing a kind heart, stare right at you. They sparkle with force.”
For his part, the dictator was duly impressed with Inga. He described her as “the perfect example of Nordic beauty.” She accompanied him to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
She sat in his private box, and a picture exists of the two of them laughing together. This association with one of the history’s most notorious villains would tarnish her reputation for the rest of her life.
The details are unclear, but Inga apparently also had a personal relationship of some kind with Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels during this same period. Soon after, she moved to the United States to pursue her career in journalism. But her hobnobbing with the German High Command put her under a shadow of suspicion with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, US Naval Intelligence, and even the White House itself.
John Kennedy’s involvement with the beauty queen was regarded as a dangerous and misguided romance by many in high places. This was especially true for an officer assigned to Naval Intelligence in Washington, DC. The couple dated for approximately one year. Inga regarded young John Kennedy as a force of nature. “He had the kind of charm that makes the birds come out of the trees.” Jack, who liked to give people nicknames, called her “Inga-Binga.”
The FBI followed their movements and even recorded their lovemaking in a Charleston hotel room in 1942. In the recorded conversations, JFK revealed some of his insecurities: his older brother, Joe, was smarter than he was, Jack had flunked an Army physical, and he had serious health issues. The young ensign was able to eat only bland foods, which Inga would prepare for him.
Through the intervention of Jack’s father, the admirals of the Navy, and even FDR, it was decided that the young officer should be stationed far away from Inga in the South Pacific. He would be in harm’s way but far away from the entanglement of the embarrassing relationship.
Jack reported first to a training facility in Melville, Rhode Island, for longboat navigation and leadership instruction. He distinguished himself in the coursework and was therefore recommended for command of a patrol boat in the Solomon Islands. He arrived in March of 1943, and after serving under another skipper for several weeks, he was given command of his own patrol boat: PT109. The logbook of the PT109 for April 25, 1943, shows the following entries:
0830 Underway for Sespi
11:00 LT (j.g.) J. F. Kennedy assumed command of the boat
11:45 Moored at usual berth in bushes
The PT boats in John Kennedy’s squadron were based at Tulagi, an island in the southern part of the Solomons. In the early days following his arrival, PT109 made routine nighttime security patrols. These patrols were moving pickets that were intended to attack Japanese vessels that might slip through to threaten the Russells-Guadalcanal-Tulagi area. Contact with the enemy was rare, and the patrols were used primarily for training.
The United States had successfully invaded Guadalcanal in 1942 and was now planning to invade New Georgia. On May 30, 1943, PT109 was transferred from Tulagi to the Russell Islands in anticipation of the upcoming invasion.
The Japanese were attempting to reinforce and resupply their forces on New Georgia and Kolombangara by means of nighttime convoys through the Blackett Strait. In the jargon of American GIs, these critical convoys were called the “Tokyo Express.”
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, the US commander for the South Pacific, had already sent large surface ships, cruisers, and destroyers into the strait to intercept the Tokyo Express on a number of occasions. US Navy code breakers were able to identify the arrival and departure times of the Japanese convoys. This resulted in two major engagements: the Battle of Kula Gulf on the night of July 5–6 and the Battle of Kolombangara on the night of July 12–13.
In these battles, the Japanese used their superior “Long Lance” torpedo to good advantage, but the losses on each side were the same: one cruiser and two destroyers lost. The battles amounted to a tactical draw, but more importantly, the reinforcement and resupply mission of the Express was being successfully interdicted.
At the time of Kennedy’s arrival in the summer of 1943, the clashes with the Japanese in the Brackett Strait had become heavy and frequent. On July 10, PT109 was ordered to move to Lumbari Island, placing it along the enemy’s main supply route. For the green skipper and his new crew, it was now time for direct combat with the Japanese in the open waters of the South Pacific.
August 2–3 marked John Kennedy’s first night of actual combat aboard his patrol boat. It was also the first night of action for every member of his crew. PT109, along with a number of patrol boats, was assigned to intercept four large surface ships that made up the Tokyo Express on that particular night.
When the Japanese ships came south on the night in question, Kennedy and his crew somehow missed the initial engagement. One account states that it failed to follow the lead boat into combat and “bugged out,” heading away from the conflict toward the Gaza Strait.
When that same convoy was returning north several hours later, somehow and against all odds the Japanese destroyer Amagiri ran over PT109 from its starboard side, cutting through the bow at an angle. A large explosion followed. Two crew members were lost, and one man was badly burned. This was the only time in naval history that a PT boat was ever rammed and sunk by an enemy vessel.
The crew at first stayed with the one-half of the vessel that was still floating. But then the skipper, Lt. (j.g.) Kennedy, decided they should swim to a nearby island. Kennedy towed one wounded man, who was too badly burned to swim on his own, with the strap of the victim’s life jacket in his teeth.[iv] The young skipper also swam out into the ocean at night with a lantern for hours at a time to try and signal friendly ships in the area but to no avail.
After swimming to yet another island, the crew came in contact with friendly natives, and they were eventually rescued. They had been listed as missing in action for one week. It was a harrowing tale with a miraculous ending.
In analyzing John Kennedy’s performance under the stress of combat in the Solomons on that night, several items become clear. Whether out of shame over losing his boat, sibling rivalry, or the nature of the man himself, it is undeniable that he showed great courage in attempting to save his crew. This was self-sacrificing bravery—perhaps even bravery to a fault.
However, it is also clear that Kennedy’s competence as a captain, green though he was, would not receive high marks from any objective review of the record. The serious flaws in his judgment and his misguided performance as a commander led directly to the deaths of two men and the severe wounding of another. The critical points in this series of events as they relate to his command and judgment can be summarized as follows:
Lost radio contact. Apparently, the radioman, a sailor named Maguire, was not in the chart room (where the radio was located) in the moments leading up to the collision. He was in the cockpit with Lieutenant Kennedy.
No one, therefore, was present to hear the last-minute warning that a Japanese destroyer was bearing down on their position and that PT109 was about to be rammed.
Eye contact. The phosphorescent wakes made by the bows of the Japanese destroyers could have been seen from as far as two miles away with excellent night vision and one mile away with normal vision. However, PT109 did not see the Amagiri until just a few seconds before impact. It was the new man, Harold Marney, who saw her first: “Ship at 10:00 o’clock.” Clearly, there was a lack of alertness and visual acuity among the crew of PT109. Of the thirteen men on board, several should have seen the large ship coming in ample time to avoid the collision. As mentioned above, this was the only time in the history of the US Navy that a highly maneuverable PT boat was ever rammed by an enemy ship.
Abandoning the wreck. Naval personnel are trained to stay with a wreck as long as possible because this provides the best opportunity to be seen and rescued. Kennedy made the decision to leave the floating wreck and swim to a nearby island. When rescue planes flew over the floating wreckage the next day, no survivors were seen. A rescue might have been achieved had the men remained with the wreck.
Failure to use the Very pistol. A Very pistol is a signal gun that fires a flare hundreds of feet into the sky, allowing for communication between vessels. It can easily be seen at night at a distance of several miles. This lifesaving device wasn’t used by the crew of PT109. If it had been fired minutes or even as much as an hour after the collision with the Japanese ship, an early rescue might have been possible.
Poor seamanship. One theory of what happened blames PT109’s finicky Packard engines. The engines, if accelerated too quickly, would stall. According to this theory, when warned of the oncoming Japanese ship, Kennedy pushed the throttle too hard, causing the engines to choke and falter.
Another possibility regarding the patrol boat’s slow response is that Kennedy was running with only one engine engaged. When he attempted to accelerate, the boat did not respond. He might have also turned in a way that put PT 109 more in the path of the oncoming ship rather than avoiding it.
A very experienced and highly decorated fellow commander, William F. Liebenow, spoke with John Kennedy shortly after he was rescued. Liebenow is quoted as saying, “I was kidding him and I said, ‘Jack, how in the world could a Jap destroyer run you down?’ Jack told me, ‘Lieb, I actually do not know. It all happened so quickly.” In the official report, John Kennedy himself said that he was running with only one engine engaged.
Douglas MacArthur was later quoted as saying that Kennedy should have been court-martialed for allowing his boat to be sunk. But he subsequently denied having said it. If Kennedy had not been the son of an ambassador—if he had been just a typical junior officer—the official action taken by the Navy might have been very different. However, he was not court- martialed as General MacArthur had supposedly suggested. He was instead awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.
The PT109 incident was later of great value in John Kennedy’s run for Congress, for the Senate, and for the presidency. It was also the source of jealous resentment on the part of his older brother. This competitive relationship and its consequences are discussed below.
John and Joseph Kennedy
To understand correctly what happened during John Kennedy’s tour of duty in the South Pacific, it is important to see the events in a larger context. Miscalculation and bad luck in combat on the ocean at night are common and sometimes led to the loss of young life. The phrase most often used to describe this chaotic situation and others like it is the “fog of war.”
The word fog was first used in this context by renowned military analyst Carl von Clausewitz in his book On War. In it he said:
War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.
The confusion referred to in this famous phrase was not at all uncommon in naval combat in the Pacific. Only a few weeks before the PT109 incident, an admiral’s flagship had been mistakenly sunk by an overeager PT boat crew. In the “fog of war,” the crew had mistaken the flagship for a Japanese cruiser.
JFK in His PT 109 Boat
In separate incidents, a number of PT boats had run aground during nighttime operations. Some could not be retrieved and had to be destroyed so as not to fall into Japanese hands. This led to the relief of one experienced commander. On another occasion PT boats had patrolled out of their zone and were too far north. They were attacked by US B-25s. The boats returned fire and shot down one of the bombers, killing three of the crewmen, while a fourth man lost an arm.
When mistakes are made in civilian life, there can be a loss of money, inconvenience, delays in shipping, etc. Mistakes in combat take a heavier toll. When all is said and done, it should be remembered that this was Jack Kennedy’s first night in combat. He and his crew were all green. It would be a rare thing if an inexperienced crew and captain did not make serious mistakes during their first encounter with the enemy. Kennedy acted with great courage. With more experience, he would have acted with competence as well.
The Older Brother’s Reaction
Joseph Kennedy Jr. learned of his brother’s missing-in-action status only a few hours before reading in the press about his spectacular rescue. To his father’s consternation, Joe Jr. did not call home to learn any of the details of the event or to express his concern. Instead he wrote a sharply sardonic letter to his parents containing “a few words about his own activities.” He seemed strangely bitter at his brother’s newfound celebrity.
Joe Jr. was a Navy pilot who was being trained in the United States to fly B-24 Liberator bombers. He was soon to be stationed in Europe. Joe Jr. was the apple of his father’s eye and a young man of many achievements, including being an outstanding athlete who had graduated cum laude from Harvard University. He was enrolled in Harvard Law School when the war began but dropped out to accept an officer’s commission in the Navy.
A psychoanalytical study of Navy pilots would later conclude that such competitive young men are more defensive than the average person. Merriam-Webster defines the word defensive as it applies to psychological makeup as follows: “Excessive concern with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings.” In spite of his impressive résumé, this psychological profile seems to well define the Kennedy family’s high-achieving, eldest son.
Younger brother John “Jack” Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal before Joe even had the chance to fly in combat. To make matters worse, the younger son was receiving huge amounts of national publicity. The Boston Globe ran a story about the PT 109 with the headline “Kennedy’s Son Is Hero in the Pacific.” Other publications including the widely read Reader’s Digest ran feature articles as well.
In her autobiography, their mother, Rose Kennedy, said it was the first time Jack had had an advantage over Joe, and “it must have rankled him.”[i]
In September 1943, Joe Jr. was granted leave to return to Boston for his father’s birthday. He attended a celebratory dinner in his father’s honor. The handsome young man must have been a striking figure in his dress white Navy uniform. At the dinner a family friend proposed a toast: “To Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, father of our hero Lieutenant John F. Kennedy of the US Navy.”[ii]
Later that evening, Joe Jr. was heard to say, “By God, I’ll show them. I’ll show them.” According to one witness, Joe Jr. went to bed that night crying and repeating the words, “I’ll show them; I’ll show them.” He was opening and closing his fist as he spoke. The seed of self-destruction had been firmly planted.
Joe was assigned to England as a submarine chaser and flew over twenty-five missions. He saw some serious action but nothing to make newspaper headlines. He remarked, “Looks like I will be lucky to return home with the European campaign medal . . . if I’m lucky.”
[i] Kennedy, Rose Fitzgerald. Times to Remember. Doubleday, 1995.
[ii] Axelrod, Alan. Lost Destiny: Joe Kennedy and The Doomed Mission to Save London. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.