Saving Lieutenant Kennedy
The Heroic Story of the Australian Who Helped Rescue JFK
Randwick, NSW: New South Books, 2023
Paperback 264pp RRP: $25.95
Reviewer: David Rees, November 2023
This book is a fascinating WWII story about a modest Australian Leutenant Reg Evans, RANVR who served as an Australian Coastwatcher in the Solomon Islands. He, with the help of his local Pacific Island supporters played a very important role in the rescue of Lt. John F. Kennedy, USN and his crew in August 1943 when their PT-109 was rammed and sunk by a Japanese Destroyer “Amagiri” in the Blackett Strait. The US Navy tactic against the frequent Japanese freighters and destroyers bringing supplies from Rabaul along the “Tokyo Express” route to Japanese troops in the Solomons, was to attack at night, operating fast patrol torpedo (PT) boats for sinking the ships and getting away quickly, However, it was very risky and the PTs had no radar for night detection and their torpedoes were not very effective. John Kennedy and his 12-man crew of the PT-109 were part of a 15-PT boat flotilla who were in the Strait but were detected before they could sink any Japanese ships.
Before World War II, Lt Reg Evans (born in 1905) had worked as an agent for an Australian Trading Company in the Solomon Islands. He had a good knowledge of the Islands and had got on well with the Pacific Islanders. However, when war broke out, he joined the Army in 1940 and served with the 2/9th Field Regiment before transferring to the RAN Voluntary Reserve and becoming a Coastwatcher with the rank of Lieutenant in October 1942. In March 1943, he was posted to a hideout on Kolombangara Island in the Solomons. His role, like many of his fellow renown Coastwatchers such as Snow Rhoades and the Coastwatchers’ CO Eric Feldt, was ‘To observe and report enemy activity, stay alive and only fight in self-defence’. Fortunately, on the night that John Kennedy’s boat was sunk, Reg Evans was on duty on Gomu Island and observed that some men were clinging to the wreckage of a PT. He alerted two of his scouts to look out for survivors next morning. They found John Kennedy and ten of his crew still alive and hiding on a small island,. Two of the crew had been killed during the collision. John Kennedy was taken by canoe to meet Reg Evans. On arrival at Gomu Island, Reg Evans arranged for JFK and his ten remaining crew to be picked up by a USN PT boat and taken back to their base at Rendova. Reg Evans and John Kennedy didn’t meet again until 18 years later when Reg Evans was invited by the US President, now JFK, to the White house on 1st May 1961.
The author, Brett Mason had been a Senator for Queensland from 1999 to 2015 as well as being Australia’s ambassador to the Netherlands from 2015-2018. In his book therefore, he builds on the positive rescue story, by analysing how the successful shared wartime relationship between Australia and America had become stronger and how the alliance may possibly develop in the future. The book is easy to read and very timely because the publication year 2023 is not only the 80th anniversary of the rescue but also the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.