Memories of Serving With JFK


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 9, 2001


he movie Pearl Harbor has older Americans remembering Dec. 7, 1941, when the surprise Japanese attack brought the United States into World War II.

          Searcian George Woodruff was a freshman football player at Southwest Oklahoma State University when he got the news by radio that day.  “I made up my mind to enlist in the Navy the next day,” he said recently. “I wanted to avenge Pearl Harbor.”

          He volunteered for submarine duty, but the Navy needed him to serve on 80-by-80 foot Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats. Things turned out well – he became part of an elite squadron of PT-boat men who did their part, and more, in defeating the Japanese in the Pacific.

          One of the officers in the squadron was John F. Kennedy, who would become president a little over 20 years later. “If I’d had any inkling that he would be president, I would have feathered my nest,” Woodruff once said jokingly.

          Woodruff was a 22-year-old gunner’s mate first class on PT boat 159 when he meet Kennedy in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy was a 26-year-old lieutenant junior grade joining the squadron as skipper of PT 109.

          That was in 1943 after the squadron had been a part of the important American victory at Guadalcanal.  They were stationed at Rendova and made night patrols off the coast of New Georgia.

          Japanese landing barges, each carrying about 100 infantrymen, moved at night to avoid American airplanes. “We would run into 10 or 12 barges some nights,” Woodruff recalls. “Our squadron sank hundreds of them.”

          It was at Rendova that Woodruff really got to know JFK.  “We would stay on the boats while others went to mass and church before patrol began,” Woodruff said. “We often talked about our dreams for the future.  He said he would like some form of public service. I wanted to teach and coach. He was a very friendly person who respected others. I was impressed with his bravery. He would ride our boat when his wouldn’t run.”

          After a patrol, Kennedy liked to be the first in line to get gas for his boat.  Once he came in too fast to stop, and hit the dock. “Fortunately, he didn’t destroy the dock or his boat,” Woodruff said.

          On another occasion, when they were on shore, Kennedy approached Woodruff, who was replenishing the ammunition needed by his boat’s machine guns, 20-millimeter guns, torpedo tubes, Browning automatic rifles and automatic shotguns. 

          Two Japanese planes suddenly appeared and began strafing.  “All I had was a Garand rifle, which I was firing as fast as I could,” Woodruff remembers. “He yelled for me to quit being a fool and get in the foxhole.”

          Kennedy almost lost his life on patrol off the coast of New Georgia.  His boat, Woodruff’s boat, and two others were looking for Japanese landing barges and ran into a group of ships.

          A Japanese destroyer spotted them and started firing.  The PT boats moved back out of range, then closed to 1,200 yards and fired their torpedoes.

          When Kennedy went to fire his last two shots, he was rounding an island when a Japanese destroyer rammed his boat. “We saw a flash and thought he’d got a ship, but it turned out a ship had run over him,” Woodruff said.

          The other three PTs looked for Kennedy and PT 109 all night.  When they got back to the base, they found Kennedy and his crew listed as missing.

          Two men on 109 were killed and two others were badly burned.  The 10 or so survivors held onto part of the plywood boat until it went down.

          “Kennedy’s concern for his men and his swimming ability saved the two burned men,” Woodruff said. “He towed them when they couldn’t make it on their own.
          When word came to the Rendova base that Kennedy and the other survivors were on an uninhabited island, Woodruff was one of those who volunteered to go get them.

          Kennedy’s well-known back problems were due partly to the collision with the Japanese destroyer. Woodruff said that when Japanese planes flew over the Rendova base one time, everyone jumped into foxholes and someone jumped on Kennedy’s back, aggravating his problem.

          After the New Georgia campaign, things eased up for the PT boats.  The almost constant patrolling had brought Woodruff’s weight down from 180 pounds to 140. Kennedy had lost down to 125.

          In the spring of 1944, Woodruff was among the men who were rotated home for a rest.  He and Dorothy Seitter, his high school and college sweetheart from Geary, Okla., got married.  They had several months together at a PT training center in Rhode Island before Woodruff was sent back to the Pacific.

          While at the center, Woodruff played nose guard on its football team.  One of his teammates was Lenny Thom, who had been an All-American tackle at Ohio State. The PT team won all of its games against schools like Harvard, Boston College and Holy Cross. Kennedy was at the base, but his back kept him from playing football.

          When Woodruff was sent back to the Pacific in January 1945, he and his PT mates patrolled around the Philippines. After Admiral Halsey’s forces almost wiped out the Japanese navy there, the PT men just had barges, no ships, to hunt.

          In August, Woodruff and his PT friends were scheduled to be in the first wave to invade Japan. “We were all dreading the invasion,” he said. “The Japanese were courageous fighters and would have taken a terrible toll on American boys.”

          Then came news of the atomic bomb. “There was unbelievable joy that the war was over,” he said.

          After the war, he had a month at home before being sent to Pearl Harbor. From there he went to the Marshall Islands to take part in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.

          He was on a destroyer eight miles from the point of the blast.  “We were supposed to lie down and face away from it,” he said. “We had on Polaroid glasses turned down real low, and I couldn’t resist peeking.  It was a tremendous blast and a sight to behold – reddish-orange and just boiling. Everyone ought to see one, but I hope we never have to use such a weapon again.”

          Woodruff was discharged as a chief gunner’s mate in August 1946.  He returned to Southwest Oklahoma State for his bachelor’s degree. He then taught and coached football in Oklahoma high schools for 17 years.

          In 1966, he moved to Searcy to teach biology at Harding University.  He earned a doctorate from Oklahoma State in 1969 and taught 23 more years before retiring.  Dorothy worked in Harding’s development office until 1987.

          George and Dorothy had four children – a boy and three girls.  In 1993, Freddie, the oldest, was assassinated in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. He had been a Russian specialist with the Central Intelligence Agency and had close ties to the Georgian president. Woodruff lost Dorothy in 1998. She had struggled with leukemia for several years.

          Woodruff has kept up with his PT-boat friends through the years.  He has attended reunions, including one near Chicago in August, and he has subscribed to a PT-boat newspaper that reports on PT crews from World War II.

          He said that the veterans still talk about Kennedy when they get together.  Woodruff didn’t see JFK again after leaving the Rhode Island training center in 1945.

          He was surprised when Kennedy was elected to the senate.  He told Dorothy, “That’s my old friend.”  He was surprised again when JFK won the White House, and is still distressed that Kennedy was assassinated:  “It’s ironic that after all he went through during the war, he was killed by a sniper.”

          Like others who served with JFK, Woodruff is proud that his PT-boat friend became president. “I’m not a politician, and I don’t know how well he did as president,” Woodruff said, “but I do know that he was honest and above-board. He was really concerned about people’s welfare.”