By Ed Brock
At the height of the battle for the Pacific Theater during World War II, Seaman Andrew Kirksey wrote home to his wife about the man under whom he served.
"In the letter he said ?My skipper is going to be President one day,'" said Kirksey's son, 62-year-old Jack Kirksey of Jonesboro.
The boat on which Andrew Kirksey served was the PT 109, and the skipper he was writing about was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
On Aug. 2, 1943 Andrew Kirksey and Seaman Harold Marney were killed when the Japanese destroyer Amagiri rammed the PT 109 and split her in two. After clinging to the remnants of the boat for some time, Kennedy led the rest of the crew in swimming for an island three miles away.
Kennedy's response to a crewmember who wasn't sure if he could swim the distance shows the character that made Kennedy Presidential, Jack Kirksey said.
"His answer was it's only two inches on the chart," Kirksey said.
Saturday will be the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, and it will be time again for Kirksey to remember the man who, after the war, took a personal interest in the son of the man who served under him. He doesn't have a ceremony to mark the day.
"Normally what we do is just pray a silent prayer and go on through the day," Kirksey said.
As Kirksey recalls his experiences with President Kennedy he sorts through a collection of personal memorabilia from the age of the American Camelot. There's a picture of a much younger Kirksey finally meeting Kennedy face to face at the "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Ga., a letter to Kirksey's mother Kloye Ann Kirksey from the president and an invitation for Kloye Kirksey to Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.
Kirksey did not accompany his mother to the inauguration, but his older stepbrother, 72-year-old Hoyt Grant of Roswell, did go.
"It was quite exciting," Grant said. "It was cold as blue blazes. The cold and the snow interrupted everything."
Grant said he remembers having to ride the bus to the celebration while dressed in a tuxedo and how big the crowd was at the inauguration ball dancing to the music of Count Basie. But he didn't get to meet Kennedy and he said his brother, because he was Andrew Kirksey's son, received more attention from the President.
"(Kennedy) was typical of a commander doing that for one of his crew that got lost," Grant said.
Kirksey said that Kennedy often took time to help him personally. He remembers receiving a phone call from the local head of the Veterans Administration during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis because Kennedy had called the Veterans Administration to make sure they had informed Kirksey about his education benefits.
Along with the meeting at Warm Springs, Kirksey met the President in Washington, D.C. to receive a portrait of the memorial in the Philippines that was dedicated to the soldiers who died fighting in the South Pacific. Each time Kennedy preferred to do what he could for the Kirksey's behind the scenes, not wanting to have the situations exploited for political benefit.
It's hard to describe Kennedy's leadership characteristics, Kirksey said.
"People just felt comfortable following him," Kirksey said. "He could talk to anybody from a truck driver to a prince."
Similarly, it is hard for people who weren't alive at the time to fully understand what happened to the nation on Nov. 23, 1963 when an assassin's bullet took Kennedy's life in Dallas, Texas, Kirksey said.
There was chaos, people were just standing in the street, Kirksey said.
"It was like they were just lost," Kirksey said. "People were just bewildered."
Kirksey, who was almost 2 years old when his father died, was 22 on the day of the assassination. He was at work when his mother called and told him Kennedy had been shot.
"By the time I had gotten home she had it on the television," Kirksey said.
They spent the rest of the day glued to the television, Kirksey said, right up to the moment when Walter Cronkite announced that Kennedy was dead.
"If you can think of a member of your family getting shot, that was really the feeling we had," Kirksey said.
The aftermath of the shooting was personally challenging for the Kirkseys. After the Atlanta paper interviewed them on the day of the assassination they received threatening phone calls saying "You're next." Kirksey and his mother drove to Washington for Kennedy's funeral but arrived late and were unable to go inside.
Now Kirksey is a father and his son was 2 when Kennedy was assassinated. He has told his son and two daughters about the man who helped their father and grandmother in so many different ways, but Kirksey said he doesn't think anybody who wasn't there will ever fully understand what happened to the nation the day Kennedy died.
"It's a shame, but I think it's true," Kirksey said.