Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Guest Blogger: James R. Benn

I’m thrilled to welcome Jim Benn, a fellow partner in crime from Soho Press, whose acclaimed Billy Boyle series gets another outing with The White Ghost this September. 

Billy goes to the South Pacific and it’s not like the Musical. This one has Jack Kennedy as a central character, with Jim sharing with us today what really went on behind the scenes of JFK’s naval career…. Welcome, Jim, and thanks for coming back to MIE.
--  Cara 

Miss Denmark of 1931

PT 109 and President John F. Kennedy
You may wonder what these two have to do with each other. As it turns out, quite a bit. Without Miss Denmark of 1931, John F. Kennedy may never have become a war hero, and then president.

Jack Kennedy received a lot of good press about his heroics in the aftermath of the tragic sinking of PT 109 in the South Pacific. Two men were killed and one severely burned when a Japanese destroyer ran over Kennedy’s boat in the dark of night. But it was a long and tortured road that led him to reap the benefits of that public relations bonanza. The players include Adolf Hitler, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe Kennedy Senior, and Inga Arvad, the aforementioned Miss Denmark.

First, let’s go back to 1940. Young Jack Kennedy’s Harvard thesis, titled Why England Slept, was about England’s failure to rearm to meet the growing threat of Nazi Germany. He knew a war was coming, and tried to enlist in the U.S. Army Officer’s Candidate School, even though he’d suffered all his life from poor health, ravaged by chronic colitis, scarlet fever, and hepatitis. He took the army physical, and was promptly classified as 4-F, due to asthma, ulcers, and venereal disease. Yep, VD. But that’s a story for another day.

Fast forward to 1941. Jack now tries for the navy, with a big assist from his father, Joe Kennedy, former ambassador to Great Britain. The head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Captain Alan Kirk, had been the naval attaché in London during Joe’s time there. Strings were pulled, and Kirk allowed a private Boston physician to provide the U.S. Navy with a certification of Jack’s fitness.

Ensign JFK

Not surprisingly, Joe Kennedy’s hand-picked doctor passed Jack with flying colors. He was made an instant ensign, no basic training required. Jack was given a desk job at the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington D.C., courtesy of the obliging Captain Kirk.

Enter Miss Denmark. Inga Arvad; twice married, four years older than Jack, and currently separated from her second husband. A former film star and journalist in Denmark, she’d moved to the U.S., graduated from Columbia School of Journalism, and landed a job as a columnist at the Washington Times-Herald. Her roommate was Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, who also worked at the paper. Kick introduced brother Jack to Inga at a DC nightclub, and the two began a torrid affair. Some biographers have said Inga was the one true love of Jack’s life. If it was indeed true love, the course of the affair did not run smooth.


While working as a journalist in Denmark, Inga had covered events in Germany. She’d met with Adolf Hitler, famously sitting with him in his box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Rumors abounded about her dealings with Hitler, who supposedly praised her as an ideal Aryan beauty, and meetings with Hermann Goering and other top Nazis. Someone at the newspaper, perhaps a jealous rival for Jack’s affections, denounced her to the FBI as a Nazi spy.

J. Edgar Hoover ordered her phones tapped and her apartment bugged. Agents followed her and Jack as they carry on in nightclubs and hotel rooms. Joe Kennedy is not pleased with Jack’s lover. A possible spy, a married woman, and not a Catholic. Three strikes and Jack is out of Washington DC, transferred to a naval base in South Carolina. But they continued to see each other, Inga flying down for weekends at the Fort Sumter Hotel where she registered under a false name. It didn’t matter; the room was bugged. Under pressure from the FBI and Joe Kennedy, Jack finally broke off the relationship, emotionally unable to act as his own man. Inga quit the newspaper and moved to New York City, divorcing her second husband. She tried to get work with the Office of War Information, but her application was blocked by the FBI, even though there was no proof of her being a Nazi spy. Having given up the love of his life, Jack spiraled into depression, telling a friend he felt “more scrawny and weak than usual.” His chronic back pain flared up, and Kennedy was given medical leave for treatments at the Mayo Clinic.

In a couple of months he was back on duty, determined to see action and to put the Inga Arvad affair behind him. Once again, strings were pulled. Undersecretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, an old friend of his father, got him assigned to Midshipman’s School at Northwestern University, where he studied navigation, gunnery, and strategy. While there, Jack signed up for PT boats. No one questioned why a man in such poor health was to be given such an arduous and dangerous command.

If not for Miss Denmark of 1931, Jack Kennedy may well have commanded nothing more than a desk in DC.

To this day, there is much controversy about Kennedy’s culpability in the sinking of PT 109. At the time, many in the navy were critical of Kennedy’s handling of the boat up to the actual sinking. Opinions are fairly unanimous about his actions after the destroyer split his boat in two. He was certainly courageous in how he held the survivors together and led them to the relative safety of a small deserted island. But for all his actions over the next days and nights, swimming out into the channel in hopes of signaling a friendly craft, it was ultimately native coastwatchers who rescued the men. Much of that story has been carefully airbrushed to show Kennedy in the best possible light. For instance, it was one of the natives who came up with the idea of carving a message into a coconut, which they then carried through Japanese-infested waters to an American base, not Kennedy.

JFK in the Pacific

The navy was ambivalent about Kennedy’s role and responsibility for the disaster. As he recovered from the ordeal, he was recommended for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, a non-combat award, reflecting his staunch work keeping the survivors together, while side-stepping his choices during the actual combat mission. But even this award languished on the desk of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who refused to sign it. When Knox died of a heart attack in April 1944, he was succeeded by Undersecretary Forrestal, Joe Kennedy’s old pal. Forrestal approved the granting of the medal on the very day he was sworn into office.

The entire PT 109 incident was reported widely in the press, but it was only when Jack was back in the States, and he met up with John Hersey that the PR machine went into full swing. Hersey, whose novel A Bell for Adano would win a Pulitzer, suggested that he’d liked to write an article about PT 109, a suggestion which Joe Kennedy heartily endorsed. Jack cooperated, and soon a lengthy piece was published in the New Yorker, a highbrow magazine with low circulation. Joe was not happy. The long piece focused on each man in the crew, detailing their reactions to the events. Jack was not center stage. The strings were pulled again, and Joe arranged for a condensation, focusing on Jack’s heroics, to be published by the widely-circulated Reader’s Digest.  Two years later, when Jack ran for Congress, Joe arranged for 100,000 copies to be mailed to voters.

The rest is history.

Jack made a half-hearted attempt to get back together with Inga after the war, but she was no longer interested in a romantic relationship. She married the cowboy actor Tom Mix, and died in 1973.

Jim for Cara—Tuesday

James R. Benn is the author of the Billy Boyle World War II Mysteries, published by Soho Press, Inc.  The debut title, Billy Boyle, was named one of the top five mysteries of 2006 by Book Sense and was a Dilys Award nominee. The sixth, A Mortal Terror, was named a “Killer Book” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, and received a starred review in Library Journal.  Several books have been Indie Next Picks and well-reviewed in the New York Times. The 8th in the series, A Blind Goddess, was long-listed for the Dublin Literary Prize. The next book, The Rest Is Silence, is a Barry Award nominee for 2015. The 10th novel, The White Ghost (9/1/15), has garnered a starred review in Booklist. Benn worked in the library field for over thirty years before retiring to write full time.


  1. I read this several times, Jim. It's fascination stuff I'd never heard of before. Really lends a different--or at least more nuanced--view of JFK. Can't wait to read "The White Ghost."

  2. Jim, what Jeff said! For the JFK story but also for the intriguing mystery I know the book will offer. I am trying to hold off till we get to Bouchercon so I can get my copy signed. You will be there, won't you?

  3. Me, too, I'd never heard of Inga Arvad - this is fascinating, Jim. My friend's father was in PT109. He never talked much about it when we were kids. But he was invited to JFK's inauguration and made postmaster of San Mateo because he'd been in PT109 everyone said. I'll ask my friend if she knows anything more! Can't wait to read The White Ghost!

  4. I hate to agree with Jeff, especially in public, but I'm a large (although slight) enough man to admit: when he's right, he's right. Fascinating post, Jim!!!

  5. Fascinating series of random and not so random events that made history.

  6. Wow, Cara - what a Kennedy connection! Was that McMahon, the guy who was badly burned? And yes, Annamaria, I'll be at B'Con - let's chat.

  7. Truth is slippery. Thanks for a great blog.

  8. My mistake - her Dad was in the south Pacific - naval officer - it confused me because JFK gave her Dad, Jim Kehoe, a PT tieclip that he gave some of his Navy comrades. Kehoe was PT tender but not on the PT109

  9. Close enough, Cara! Thanks to all for your comments.