President's Day 2-15-10

President’s Day


Richard J. Garfunkel


Nigel Hamilton is the author of a new book entitled, American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents FDR to Bush. As Hamilton said; the greatest of these Caesars — as the Roman historian Suetonius would have called them — were the first four.


“In FDR the United States found a leader not only committed to rescue America's foundering economy by “bold experimentation,” but when war came, to use America's new industrial arsenal to defeat the empires of Japan and Nazi Germany. He was also a great war leader — patient when battles did not go America's way, but proving himself a great generalissimo in directing the war's political and military strategy without interfering (as Churchill was wont to do) with its prosecution on the ground. It was FDR, after all, who personally chose General Dwight D. Eisenhower to command the D-Day invasion — the largest amphibious invasion in human history, and the making of a great future president, who would keep America out of foreign wars, while maintaining America's global leadership role throughout the 1950s.”


I became familiar with Nigel Hamilton by reading his very interesting 1992, book on John F. Kennedy, Reckless Youth. It was a very controversial book and was never particularly liked by the Kennedy family. Much of it dwelt with JFK’s relationship with his mother, his early years of fragile health, his first college year at Princeton, the Harvard years, his affairs, especially with the alluring Inga Marie Arvad, his heroics in the Pacific, and election to Congress.


Of course, of interest to our family, were the generous quotes from Linda’s cousin, Ensign Frederic W. Rosen (later Lt. Commander, USNR retired) from Georgia. Below Fred talks about JFK:


“I never quite understood, Kennedy being from the Boston area, whey was he was there (Charleston). His job, when I arrived there was on the Commandant’s staff, breaking codes. In other words, when a batch of messages came in, in code, there were a group of five letters or whatever, and instead of breaking that out by hand there was a typewriter that did it for you, and he was sitting there, hunting and pecking on the typewriter putting those codes in, getting the English out of it. And that was his primary job.” Page 462.


Of course, at that time, he was “cavorting” with Inga, who the FBI was tailing. They thought of her as a spy, and it seems like they were hoping to catch him colluding with her in espionage. They were disappointed!


Lieut. Commander John Bulkeley, of New York City, was the hero of the Philippines. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and personally decorated by President Roosevelt for evacuating General MacArthur and his family off Corregidor and to Mindanao, 600 miles across open sea, patrolled by the Japanese Imperial navy. His heroics were chronicled in a best seller, They Were Expendable, and given a ticker-tape parade up Broadway. In his personal meeting with FDR, he also sold the president on creating a large force of PT Boats and wanted permission to start recruiting, “the fighingest, most aggressive, most eager men.” Both Kennedy and Rosen, who were thrown in together in a cryptography unit in Charleston, SC, answered the call for sea duty after being inspired by Bulkeley.


Even though Jack Kennedy was quite frail at the time after spending two months in a naval hospital, he desired some “real” action. Bulkeley wanted 50 men out of the1024 young Ensigns who had stepped forward to volunteer. Bulkeley and his staff settled down with his staff to interview volunteers. Of course it was always debated how Kennedy, with his medical history was chosen. Fifty years later, Bulkeley revealed that he had lunch with Joe Kennedy, Jack’s father. They met at the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street in New York City. Kennedy, who was just fired as ambassador to England by the president had a lot of bitter things to say about his old mentor. But he did indicate some thoughts about his son Jack.


“Kennedy said that his son was a midshipman at Northwestern, and that he thought Jack had the potential to be the president of the United States. Joe said he wanted jack to get into PT boats for the publicity and so forth, to get the veteran’s vote after the war. Joe wanted to know if I had the clout to get Jack into the PT Boats. And I said I did, and would interview his son the next time I was at Northwestern. If I thought Jack would measure up, I would recommend his acceptance, I told Joe. Mr. Kennedy seemed quite pleased and said he hoped Jack could be sent someplace that- wasn’t too deadly- as he put it..” page 504.


In 1944, he went halfway around the world for the Normandy invasion. Bulkeley led torpedo boats and minesweepers in clearing the lanes to Utah Beach, keeping German E-boats from attacking the landing ships along the Mason Line, and picking up wounded sailors from the sinking minesweeper USS Tide, destroyer escort USS Rich, and destroyer USS Corry. As invasion operations wound down, he got command of his first large ship, the destroyer USS Endicott. One month after D-Day, he came to the aid of two British gunboats under attack by two German corvettes. Charging in with only one gun working, he engaged both enemy vessels at point-blank range, sending both to the bottom. When asked, he explained, “What else could I do? You engage, you fight, you win. That is the reputation of our Navy, then and in the future.” Bulkeley stayed in the navy and retired as a Vice-Admiral.


Of course, there is much, much more. Many have criticized Hamilton’s book and his inferences, but I knew Fred Rosen for over 30 years, and for one thing he was an upfront guy who would never embellish anything. If he said it, it was true. Fred stayed friendly with Jack Kennedy up until his death. He was the only other PT Boat captain who was invited to his wedding at Hammersmith Farm in Newport and was later invited to the White House for a personal tour on March 14, 1962. He represented the PT Officer’s Alumni group, Peter Ter, and returned to the White House to present to the president a Steuben glass model of his boat, PT-109. The model always remained on his desk and one can see it today at the Kennedy Library in Charleston, Massachusetts.


Maybe Hamilton was right. The first four presidents, in what we know of as the post-war era of the presidency, were larger than life. Maybe it was a simpler time when people were willing to go along with leadership and see what played out. I haven’t read his book yet, and I have many others in front of me, but I have been inspired to re-read, Reckless Youth. Too bad Fred Rosen is long gone these past nine years, I would have liked to asked him a few more questions.






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