Thanksgiving, The Kennedy’s and My Brush with History
November 28, 2005
Richard J. Garfunkel
Every time Thanksgiving rolls around as November ages into early winter, and this year it was unusually cold, the seminal event of our life and times, the Kennedy assassination is in the news again. In the same sense, not unlike the general public’s reaction to Lincoln’s death which no one’s grandfather I know could even possibly remember, the attack at Pearl Harbor, the destruction of the World Trade Center and the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was similar to Kennedy’s death in its impact. In all of those past occurrences the public was similarly shocked, and moved to great emotion. Overtime anyone who was alive and cognitively aware of those tragic events could and would tell everyone, who would listen, where they were when the news came their way.
I was at Boston University on that fatal November 22, 1963 day suffering through a pretty interminable and boring “What is Math?” freshman math class. As the hour droned on a student, with the name DeMarco, from Malden, Massachusetts, I believe, stormed into the room and announced to the startled and then shocked group that the President had been shot in Dallas. I am sure that the class, like myself, had no idea that he was even in Dallas. Recently it had been in the news that UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had harassed there, but other then that fact, in that age of little news coverage, the comings and goings of the President were a mystery to most. After the insane news sunk into all of us, the class was quickly dismissed. We all went downstairs in Hayden Hall where the Liberal Arts College was located, and in the main lobby, by the information desk, was a group of anxious young men and women clustered around a small transistor radio. Everyone was waiting for news that he was all right. Of course the news did not improve the grave reality of the situation. As the last stunning release came forth, every one gasped, some screamed and others cried. We all quickly dispersed as everyone, I assume, was caught up in their own thoughts of collective despair.
I remember walking down the steep marble stairs into the darkening air around Commonwealth Avenue and seeing the traffic standing still. In dead silence with only their beams reflecting that the cars were occupied, every vehicle had stopped. The people were all listening to their radios and as I walked towards Kenmore Square and my dormitory, Myles Standish Hall, I could see the anguish on their tear stained faces. This was Boston and Jack Kennedy was perceived as the hometown lad who made good. Of course President Kennedy, who was born on Beal Street in Brookline, had lived many places with his dynamic, controversial, well-off father and his large famous family. But he came back to Boston, ran and represented a district in downtown since1946 before he won his Senate seat in 1952.
That day was a shocking blur to many of us. I didn’t normally attend religious services, but for the first and only time I went to Hillel House for a memorial service. November 22nd was on a Friday, and we were all looking forward to going home for our first Thanksgiving since college had started. Many guys from Westchester County had decided to charter a bus for the ride home. In our freshman year no one had a car. We all decided that we did not want to hang around the dorms until the next Wednesday, since the school was shut down, so someone contacted the bus company and remarkably the bus was ready whenever we were. I was especially anxious to get home. While visiting my home for the first time that year I had broken my jaw in a car accident on Columbus Day, that resulted in two-weeks of recovery in the Mount Vernon Hospital in New York. I had my jaw wired in the hospital and went back to school. Therefore, after 40 days of having my jaw wired shut, I wanted to get home and get my mouth unhinged by my oral surgeon Doctor Albert Albanese. Dr. Albanese was one of the younger siblings of the Albanese family that ran a well-known restaurant/gin mill in Eastchester where many of us had our first beer. (Years later we met at County Tennis in Scarsdale and I was able to laugh about that long and unpleasant experience. Unfortunately, not long after we met, he had a fatal heart attack on the golf course)
Funny thing was that my parents weren’t even home. They were away in Spain I believe, and I went to stay with my grandfather who lived on 36th Street in New York City. He was glad to see me and like the rest of us, and though he had experienced much in his long life (he was 79 at the time), he was quite disturbed and upset by the killing. On Saturday morning we both arose quite early and I turned on his television set and that’s where we witnessed live the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Years later when, after I met my future wife Linda (who worked actively in the Robert Kennedy Campaign of 1968), I came in contact with her famous cousin the famous Frederick W. Rosen, Lt. Commander (retired) who had just happened to have served in the PT Boats and was a contemporary and friend of Jack Kennedy. Fred was born in Brooklyn in 1917 (the same year as JFK), and moved to Georgia in the 1930’s when his older brother sought opportunities in the textile industry. Fred enlisted in the US Navy and met Jack Kennedy in Charlestown when they were both assigned to the Commandant’s staff in the code-deciphering department. Kennedy had been stuck in this unglamorous duty and some historians thought that he was there being “set-up” by the FBI. During that period of time the handsome, single Kennedy was having a relationship with one Inga Marie Arvad, a 28-year-old beautiful Dane, who was suspected as being a Nazi spy. She was then married, and represented one of the leading Danish Newspapers, and had interviewed Goring, Goebbels and even Hitler! Of course, though warned of Inga’s connections, he did not want to give up Inga, who was the most intriguing women he had so far met. As traveled and sophisticated as he was in meeting ambassadors and diplomats, his extraordinary experience as a 24 year old paled in comparison with this worldly 28 year old. She was not only well traveled like Jack, but was smart, sharp, beautiful, sophisticated and sexually experienced.
It seemed that the FBI had been trailing Inga for quite some time and was wire tapping her phones, observing her actions and bugging her hotel rooms wherever she went and tracking whomever she was associated with. But with all of their efforts, it was said, that they were only able to chronicle her high level of passion and nothing about codes or secrets. If they wanted to entrap the young Kennedy with a potential spy, it failed. The affair with Inga passed, and more serious business was at hand for the young recruits. As time passed in the de-coding section, news came through asking for volunteers for Midshipman School in Chicago, and both Fred and a bored Jack Kennedy immediately volunteered. They were both originally rejected, seemingly because they didn’t have replacements in Charlestown. Fortunately the demand for officer candidates in Chicago was so great that they were both eventually approved for sea duty training.
Eventually, the famous Lt. Commander John Duncan Bulkeley of New York City, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for taking General Douglas MacArthur out of the Phillipines, recruited both Fred and Jack Kennedy for the PT Boat service. Bulkeley was so famous that he was given a ticker-tape parade up Broadway; a best seller (and later a movie was made with Robert Montgomery and John Wayne) They Were Expendable was written about his exploits crossing 600 miles of open sea, in a PT Boat carrying MacArthur from Corregidor to Mindanao, and FDR not only presented him personally with the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also treated him to a private audience. In the seclusion of their meeting Bulkeley extolled the virtues of the PT Boat and requested that 200 be immediately shipped to the Pacific. Bulkeley later related his “fantasies” to Kennedy’s class in Chicago. and requested the “toughest, hard-boiled men who can take all the punishment in the world.” Fred later recalled that he (Bulkeley) was just recruiting volunteers for that service, because that was the only way one could get into that type of service. (Years later I spoke to Fred about Bulkeley, 1911-96, who had been awarded, along with the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, the Army Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit and two Purple Hearts had attained rank of Vice-Admiral, and was being honored in his 80’s. Fred did not speak enthusiastically about him! I was quite surprised but didn’t pursue the discussion.)
While they were both at the Melville Motor Boat Training School (Rhode Island), Jack was the only one with a car and they drove into nearby Newport nightly, and NYC on the weekends. Fred who was from Dalton, Georgia was able to experience a pretty exciting night life with the young Kennedy and he clearly remembered his first time at the “21” Club. Another fellow that they “hung out” with was Knox Aldridge, who played football with Fred at the University of Georgia. Fred had played for the Georgia Bulldogs who tied 10-10 the famous Fordham College Ram team, and its Seven Blocks of Granite linemen of 1937. Fordham, whose record was only marred by the “tie” and was knocked out of consideration for the Rose Bowl by the Bulldog team, featured Vince Lomabardi, Wellington Mara, Alex Wojceichowicz (All-American and Hall of Fame star of the Detroit Lions) and the late William J. O’Hara, Sr. William (Pat) O’Hara, also known as the Commissioner, who died in 2002 at the age of 87, was from my hometown of Mount Vernon. He was at one-time a commissioner on the old Westchester County Board of Legislators and was the lawyer for the old Brooklyn Dodgers, Walter O’Malley and the New York Football Giants. He was a life-long friend of Wellington Mara. At one time, in my early teens I caddied at Winged Foot, where they both belonged and I had the good fortune of caddying for the legendary Mr. Mara, who recently passed away after 75 + years in the game.
Of course Fred saw many sides of the young Kennedy, and some of his remarks could be quite offensive. One time Jack said that the “Jews were all going into the Quartermaster Corps to escape combat.” In truth, Kennedy not only misinterpreted the Quartermaster Corps and its role, but Fred got him to admit that his statement was outrageous. There were many other times that the future President had a tendency to reflect his father’s prejudices. Eventually they were sent to New Orleans where the boats were being built in the Higgins Boat Yard. There, Fred and Jack separated. Fred later served in the Mediterranean as skipper of his own ship, PT-207 of the squadron MTB Ron 15. He was a decorated sailor who was engaged in 73 actions and 55 OSS missions. One included support for the bringing of Michael Burke (member of the OSS, later owner of the NY Yankees) into Italy for the purpose of arranging the surrender of Italian Forces and ending their participation in the Axis Alliance. Of course, on the other side of the world, in the Pacific, Jack Kennedy gained fame with his crew of the ill-fated PT-109.
Fred Rosen stayed friendly with Kennedy after the war and was the only PT boat commander in attendance at his wedding in Newport at Hammersmith Farm. He was on the board of PT Boat Men for Kennedy in 1960 and was invited to be in attendance during the President’s swearing in as President. Fred representing Peter Tare, the PT Officers alumni association, presented President Kennedy with a Steuben glass replica of his famous boat that remained a fixture on his desk during his Presidency. My daughter, who worked at the Kennedy Library, during her graduate school days in Boston, gave us a tour of the Library and we looked immediately for the famous model.
In later years, I was already pretty experienced in the world of local politics. As the 1980 Presidential campaign started to heat up, many of us were extremely unhappy with President Jimmy Carter. I had earlier supported a number of others, including: Hubert Humphrey, Birch Bayh, and Morris Udall. In fact I served on a committee that put together an alternative slate to oppose Carter in the 1976 primaries. By 1980 we had become pretty disillusioned with Carter and we started to look towards a Teddy Kennedy candidacy. I had decided to hear the Senator speak at the Americana Hotel (now the New York Sheraton). I left my 3 East 28th Street office at around 5:00pm and started to walk over to the Americana that wasn’t to far away. It didn’t take long for me to reach the Americana and I had plenty of time to “kill” before the speech at. 8 pm. I was scheduled to meet two political colleagues from White Plains, one a fellow who became a County Legislator for a short time and the other, Dennis Power, who would serve on the White Plains City Council for one-term and just recently ran and was defeated for Mayor of White Plains.
As I entered the vast lobby of the mobbed hotel, a fellow I recognized walked straight towards me and said hello. I didn’t know his name, but he seemed to know me. He quickly inquired whether I was here to see and hear the Senator’s speech, and I said, “Yes!” He asked me whether I would like to meet the Senator and I said enthusiastically, “Of course.” In a few moments I was on my way up to his suite where I met his national campaign manager, former Congressman James G. O’Hara from Michigan. (O’Hara, born in 1925, then 55 years old had served in Congress from 1958 to 1976 when he lost in a primary for the Senate to the eventual winner Don Riegle Jr.) Well as things happened, I walked in, Congressman O’Hara walked out and there I was left alone with Senator Kennedy. Of course what does one say? Thankfully I was well aware of the relationship of Fred Rosen with the late President and I brought up the subject of the connection. Whether it was true or not, the Senator did say that he remembered Fred along with all of the other PT Boat sailors who had worked with and for his brother back in 1960. Of course Fred had been quite friendly with Paul “Red” Fay, another PT Boatman who served as Under Secretary of the Navy in the Kennedy administration and was a close friend and advisor to the President. We talked for quite awhile until some more visitors arrived. They were union officials that wanted to meet with the Senator. I was in the background, kept quiet, but was able to take a few pictures and eventually time passed and I thanked the Senator, wished him good luck in the NY State Primary, and excused myself. Once downstairs I found the ballroom where many were gathered for the address. There sitting in the front row were my “buddies” from White Plains. They of course wanted to know where I had been up to that time and when I told them they astounded, green with envy and extremely jealous. But I was happy to fill them in on my good luck and before long the Senator came down, was introduced, made a great campaign statement and left the crowd hungry for more.
Later as the years went by I got to meet the Senator at various occasions. Linda and I were back at the Americana on April 14, 2004, now the Sheraton, for a Kerry Campaign dinner, fund-raiser and a cocktail party and the Senator was there with his sister Jean, Ted Sorenson and a cast of thousands. Dana, our daughter, now works at the Kennedy School at Harvard and Fred Rosen passed away in Dalton Georgia on July 14, 2003 at the age of 86.
Richard J. Garfunkel