At dead of night on 1st August 1943, JFK's night-time sea-going ambush of a Japanese destroyer backfired spectacularly as his patrol boat was crushed by the Japanese destroyer that mowed down JFK's smaller vessel. In this essay we look at how, in that defining moment, a young JFK took stock, took charge, took the lead, innovated, took care of and led his team out of the initial perils they faced. We challenge you to ask yourself if your own voluntary organisation is completely satisfied with the integrity of its volunteer recruitment process, and in particular how it's being implemented on the ground. And we look at the lessons anyone who recruits volunteers can learn from how JFK, in dangerous waters, assessed and subsequently dealt with his situation that night.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library gives a detailed account of the events in Blackett Strait in early August 1943:
An Ambush Goes Awry
In Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands, the starless, moonless night of August 1, 1943, was profoundly dark. Inky blackness like this could have a disorienting effect, even on experienced sailors.
PT-109 stood at her station, one of fifteen PT boats ("Patrol Torpedo" boats) that had set out to engage, damage, and maybe even turn back the well-known "Tokyo Express." US forces gave that name to the Japanese navy's more or less regular supply convoy to soldiers fighting the advance of US forces in the islands farther south.
When the patrol actually did come in contact with the Tokyo Express—three Japanese destroyers acting as transports with a fourth serving as escort—the encounter did not go well. Thirty torpedoes were fired without damaging the Japanese ships. No US vessels suffered hits or casualties. Boats that had used up their complement of torpedoes were ordered home. The few that still had torpedoes remained in the strait for another try".
Now, imagine your own voluntary organization, your club, your charity.
- Are you operating in profound darkness?
- Does your board have a complete understanding of the people volunteering in it?
- Does the board or executive committee have proactive risk management procedures in place?
- Does it know if it’s own safe recruitment polices and procedures are being implemented?
- Is there crystal clear clarity about the responsibility for not merely adopting, but implementing, safe volunteer recruitment practices – and the reasons why?
In the Blackett Strait, even experienced sailors found the inky darkness of the night had a disorienting effect.
So your Board of Directors has a number of commercially experienced people sitting on it?
But ask yourself: could they be ‘disoriented’ around what’s required of them and the organisation’s implementation of safe volunteer recruitment practices?
For Kennedy and the other Patrol Torpedo boats patrolling the waters that night, 30 torpedoes were fired in an attempt to sink their target, the Tokyo Express.
All 30 torpedoes missed.
Sometimes the best laid plans go awry.
The Patrol Torpedo boats that had used up their complement of torpedoes were ordered home.
The few that still could take their place in the battle line remained, but weakened by numbers.
And what about in your own organization?
Do you still have the full complement of people you need standing in the line?
Or have you found that over time people have fired their ‘torpedoes’, seen little effect for their efforts, and faded away from active involvement at positions of responsibility (be it board level or committee level)?
PT 109 was one of the boats left behind. Lieutenant Kennedy rendezvoused his boat with two others, PT 162 and PT 169. The three boats spread out to make a picket line across the strait. At about 2:30 in the morning, a shape loomed out of the darkness three hundred yards off PT 109's starboard bow. The young lieutenant and his crew first believed it to be another PT boat. When it became apparent that it was one of the Japanese destroyers, Kennedy attempted to turn to starboard to bring his torpedoes to bear. But there was not enough time.
The destroyer, later identified as theAmagiri, struck PT 109 just forward of the forward starboard torpedo tube, ripping away the starboard aft side of the boat. The impact tossed Kennedy around the cockpit. Most of the crew were knocked into the water. The one man below decks, engineer Patrick McMahon, miraculously escaped, although he was badly burned by exploding fuel.
The crew of PT109, led by Lt J F Kennedy, quickly understood utmost peril of their situation.
They tried to change course to fire their torpedoes.
But it was too little, too late.
There was not enough time.
As you survey your own charity or club, are you confident that you’re not unwittingly in the direct path of your own Tokyo Express?
Is your own ‘crew’ sufficiently alert on their watch to see the shape looming from the inky darkness of the starry night?
Because if not, if you’re looking in a completely different direction, and the risk you’re guarding against looms up in the near distance, you might find, like PT1 109, that you just don’t have enough time on your side to take corrective action.
Would your organization be crushed in the same way that PT 109 was?
Fear that PT 109 would go up in flames drove Kennedy to order the men who still remained on the wreck to abandon ship. But the destroyer's wake dispersed the burning fuel, and when the fire began to subside, Kennedy sent his men back to what was left of the boat. From the wreckage, Kennedy ordered the men with him, Edgar Mauer and John E. Maguire, to identify the locations of their crew mates still in the water. Leonard Thom, Gerard Zinser, George Ross, and Raymond Albert were able to swim back on their own.
It was carnage in the water that night on 1st August 1943. But Kennedy kept calm. Having ordered his crew to initially abandon their vessel, he ordered them to rejoin it, the burning fuel on the troubled waters having dissipated.
Kennedy swam out to McMahon and Charles Harris. Kennedy towed the injured McMahon by a life-vest strap, and alternately cajoled and berated the exhausted Harris to get him through the difficult swim. Meanwhile, Thom pulled in William Johnston, who was debilitated by the gasoline he had accidentally swallowed and the heavy fumes that lay on the water. Finally Raymond Starkey swam in from where he had been flung by the shock. Floating on and around the hulk, the crew took stock.
Harold Marney and Andrew Jackson Kirksey had disappeared in the collision, very likely killed at impact. All the men were exhausted, and a few were hurt, and several had been sickened by the fuel fumes. There was no sign of other boats or ships in the area; the m en were afraid to fire their flare gun for fear of attracting the attention of the Japanese who were on islands on all sides. Although the wreckage was still afloat, it was taking on water, and it capsized on the morning of August 2.
After a discussion of options, the men abandoned the remains of PT 109 and struck out for an islet three and a half miles away.
Kennedy had been on the swim team at Harvard; even towing McMahon by a belt clamped in his teeth, he was undaunted by the distance. Some of the other men were also good swimmers, but several were not; two, Johnston and Mauer, could not swim at all. These last two were lashed to a plank that the other seven men pulled and pushed as they could.
What Kennedy displayed, under extreme pressure, are qualities that leaders in voluntary organisations likewise need.
Qualities like the ability to assess the severity of a situation, to ‘take stock’ and then to take charge.
Note how Kennedy is described as being compelled to ‘cajole and berate’ his crew mates as they swam.
And what a swim lay ahead.
3 ½ miles, in the dead of night, after the trauma of the collision, fire, casualties and fear of further Japanese boats.
Kennedy was the leader, as the Lieutenant, and lead he did.
Fortunately for Kennedy, and his crewmates, Kennedy had a long career as a successful amateur swimmer, including being on the presitigous swim team at Harvard University.
Together between them Kennedy lead all the survivors that night through the 3 ½ mile swim, cajoling, berating and encouraging as he went.
It also required some pretty immediate improvisation as well, lashing the two non-swimming crew members to a plank which they other 7 collectively pulled and pushed with them.
How about in your own voluntary organization?
Do you have enough people able to contribute?
Do you have enough innovators?
People who won’t simply take stock, but who can take charge and make decisions?
Because take stock you need to.
You need to assess your own organization and its effectiveness at adhering to its own policies and procedures around the safe recruitment of volunteers.
But be encouraged as well.
Draw on your existing competencies.
You may not have been on the swim team at Harvard, but you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ve got a surprisingly broad and deep set of skills that can help you in the administration of your voluntary organization.
Kennedy arrived first at the island. It was named Plum Pudding, but the men called it "Bird" Island because of the guano that coated the bushes. Exhausted, Kennedy had to be helped up the beach by the man he had towed. He collapsed and waited for the rest of the crew. But Kennedy’s swimming was not over.
Kennedy had dealt expertly with a perilous situation.
- He took stock.
- He took charge.
- He took the lead.
- He innovated.
- He took care of those in his charge.
What about you? Are you a Volunteer Manager, Club Secretary, Operations Manager in a voluntary organization?
Do you need take stock of your volunteer recruitment process?
Do you think you need to take charge of how your organization deals with it?
- Are you taking the lead in this area?
- Are you innovating?
- Are you looking after those children and vulnerable adults your processes are designed to protect and safeguard?
Join me in the next essay, Part 2: Navigating your team’s way to safety, as we look at how JFK swam out on his own to bring about the rescue of his team, how he dealt with the setbacks and failure he encountered, and what volunteer manages everywhere can learn from his example.