I was recently privileged, together with fellow Coastwatcher Dixie Lee, to spend time with the new US Ambassador to Australia, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, daughter of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
This event took place as part of a commemoration held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on 27 July 2022 to recognize the rescue of the young Lt. Kennedy by Australian and Solomon Islander Coastwatchers in World War II. Dixie and I joined the commemoration by video call from the US Consulate in Melbourne. Dixie was represented in Canberra by his daughter, Eve Ash, and I was represented in Canberra by my son Tom.
The report that follows was written by ABC News reporter Craig Allen and offers a compelling account of the day and the history it commemorated. The photos below include those published with the article but also one made available to me later by the US Embassy and another from my own files.
Craig Allen, ABC News
28 Jul 2022
When a Japanese destroyer rammed a US patrol boat during World War II, it came perilously close to snuffing out an American political dynasty.
On August 2, 1943, the patrol torpedo boat PT-109 was on the hunt for enemy shipping in Solomon Islands, when it was rammed in the dead of night by a Japanese destroyer.
At the helm of the PT-109 was a young Lieutenant, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who would go on to become president of the United States.
His bravery in guiding his surviving injured crewmates to safety has become American folklore.
But it took years before the true story of the Australian link to JFK’s rescue became known.
Now the late president’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy – newly installed US ambassador to Australia – has heard first-hand details of her famous father’s lucky escape, on a tour of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Among the items the memorial holds in its archival collection are the papers of Lieutenant Reg Evans – an Australian who spotted the wreckage of JFK’s boat and reported its location to base immediately.
Before her tour of the War Memorial yesterday, Ms Kennedy spoke with the last two survivors of the secretive Australian Coastwatch unit, to which Lieutenant Evans belonged, who collectively earnt fame for their role in mounting a rescue party for JFK and his crew.
“It was a great honour to meet two Australian Coastwatchers, who played an essential role in keeping the region secure during World War II,” Ms Kennedy said.
I owe personal gratitude to an Australian Coastwatcher and two Solomon Islander scouts who saved my father’s life.
“These men represent the best of their generation and are an amazing example of the bonds of the US-Australia alliance.”
The Coastwatchers were positioned deep inside enemy lines, to gather intelligence and help rescue allied fighters.
Years after the war, then-president Kennedy acknowledged the Australians’ role in his survival, when he hosted Lieutenant Evans at the White House.
Meeting with Kennedy brings history to life
Today, there are only two of the original 400 Coastwatchers still alive, both aged well into their 90s.
James Burrowes and Ronald ‘Dixie’ Lee now live in Melbourne, and could not make it to Canberra to meet Ms Kennedy in person.
Instead, two of their children came to lay wreaths alongside Ms Kennedy at the War Memorial.
Mr Lee’s daughter, Eve Ash, said meeting Ms Kennedy brought decades of family history to life.
“It has personalised history from 80 years ago, to today, and just brought it to life with a very personal touch,” Ms Ash said.
Ms Ash said Ms Kennedy’s earlier video call with both her father and Mr Burrowes had been “a lot of fun”.
“They seemed to be very cavalier, both of them, about being behind enemy lines and surrounded by the enemy, the Japanese, and yet they seemed to thrive in it,” Ms Ash said.
Mr Burrowes’s son, Tom Burrowes, said his father’s highly secretive Coastwatch role took him deep into enemy territory, although his war experience was slightly out of the ordinary.
“In my father’s case, he never actually… engaged the enemy because [their mandate] was to spy and not be caught.”
The story of the PT-109 crew’s dramatic survival and rescue has been immortalised by Hollywood in the 1963 movie PT 109, which was released just five months before JFK was assassinated.