Service Number: 0-06636
Birth and Early Life:
John Kennedy was born on December 20, 1919. His father, Lieutenant Colonel John Kennedy Senior, was president of Chamberlain-Hunt Academy, a military boarding school in his hometown of Port Gibson, Mississippi. Like his brothers, John attended the Academy, then went on to Davidson College in North Carolina. He pledged Pi Kappa Alpha, was ranked a First Lieutenant in ROTC, and was awarded a BS in history with the class of 1940.
Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Kennedy received a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps on June 28, 1940. He trained at the Basic School in Philadelphia and was temporarily posted to Raleigh, North Carolina as a recruiting officer – not for enlisted men, but for potential officer candidates.
Service Prior to World War II:
In the early summer of 1941, Kennedy reported for duty aboard the USS Wasp. He was appointed as the officer in charge of the Marine anti-aircraft crews manning four batteries of 5-inch guns. Kennedy reported to First Lieutenant Ronald Van Stockum, the Marine gunnery control officer, and in the following months the two became close friends.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Marine detachment commander was promoted and transferred. Van Stockum took charge, with John Kennedy as his second in command.
For the first part of 1942, the Wasp was deployed across the Atlantic, where she shuttled British aircraft from the home islands to bolster the defense of Malta. She made two successful runs, to the anger of the Germans (who reported her sunk) and the satisfaction of Winston Churchill, who sent a personal message of congratulations to the carrier. While on the second of these operations, on April 15 1942, Kennedy was promoted to First Lieutenant.
With the losses of American carriers in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the Wasp suddenly became much more important – only three carriers remained in the Pacific. Wasp crossed the Atlantic, then approached the Panama Canal with her escorting cruises. Much to the consternation of the ship’s officers – particularly Kennedy, who was gunnery officer – the canal was too narrow for the carrier, and they were compelled to cut off parts of her 5″ gun mounts (where the Marines were stationed). The carrier was laid up in drydock for a week in San Diego while the mounts were replaced. (1)
There was another change that would impact the Marine detachment. On June 28, 1942, Captain Van Stockum was transferred away from the Wasp and Kennedy, who had accepted a promotion to captain, took his place. The two saluted, shook hands, and wished each other luck; three days later, Wasp departed for the Solomon Islands.
Kennedy and the Marines stood daily alerts and drills as the Wasp sailed through the Solomon Islands in support of the landings on Guadalcanal. He found time to write to his friend, Major Van Stockum, and as a new commander was candid in his opinions about the ship’s officers. The ship’s commander, Captain Forrest Sherman, left a “most favorable” impression; while the gunnery and executive officers were as difficult to please as ever, and Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes was “here to stay, and I am certainly tired of him as everyone else is.” He closed a letter on September 6, 1942, with “We are still afloat, and I hope we stay that way.” (2)
Back in Mississippi, the Kennedy family was dealing with a personal tragedy. John Kennedy Senior had passed away on August 12, and was buried in Wintergreen Cemetery, Port Gibson. Letters and telegrams were doubtless dispatched to his son, but whether any news reached him is unknown.
Date Of Loss:
Orders came down from the Wasp’s bridge early in the morning of September 15, 1942 – all hands stand to general quarters. The sailors on the flight deck bustled about, readying the ship for the daily launch and recovery of combat patrols. Kennedy checked that his Marines were at their positions then, as the day wore on and no enemy contact was reported, allowed them to relax a little. Shortly after 1400 hours, he decided to allow his men to take a wash and rest break in shifts. Half of the Marines gratefully hurried below decks for a shower and a quick meal; Kennedy himself went down to his stateroom.
At 1445, a sudden strong explosion ripped through the Wasp; she had been hit by a Japanese torpedo. Two more torpedoes followed in quick succession, setting off fuel and ammunition throughout the carrier, sealing her fate.
Captain Kennedy never knew what happened to his ship. The first torpedo exploded directly beneath his stateroom, and probably killed him instantly. None of his shipmates ever saw him again. (3)
Next Of Kin:
Father, Lt. Col. John W. Kennedy Sr. (deceased)
Mother, Mrs. Elizabeth McCue Kennedy
Status Of Remains:
Lost at sea
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
Wintergreen Cemetery, Port Gibson, MS.
(1) Rudolph Cusson, Petty Officer 1st Class, USS Wasp. Interviewed by Jim Lyko, September 15 2008.
(2) Ron Van Stockum. A Tale of 2 Aircraft Carriers: Postscript. Published in the Sentinel-News Wednesday, July 13 2011.
(3) James Edward Ellis memoirs