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In September 1962, the three surviving Kennedy brothers addressed by telephone the veterans of Naval Patron Squadron VB-110, the unit in which their martyred brother Joe had served. It was an emotional moment. (pp. 685-687)


Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 14, pp. 685 - 687

For Kennedy and his two brothers, the bell that pealed the loudest sounded out the name of their brother lost in war. They did not salute his name every day, but his life and more importantly his death rang through their own lives. To betray their brother's sacrifice was to betray their country, their faith, their father, and their blood.

In September seventy middle-aged men and most of their wives gathered in the South Ballroom at the Willard Hotel in Washington. These were the men of Navy Patrol Squadron VB-110, together for the first time since their days at Dunkeswell Airdrome in World War II. Before them stood Jim Reedy, who had been Joe Jr.'s commander and who now was a rear admiral.

"Hello, Admiral," the president's voice sounded over an amplified telephone from Hyannis Port where he and his brothers were all together on their father's seventy-fifth birthday. They were a family of great celebratory occasions, and it was not easy wheeling Joe into the dining room, decking him out in a silly birthday hat, singing songs and telling jokes when he could not respond. It was not easy speaking always in the upbeat idiom that was the preferred language of the Kennedys. It was not easy for the president to stride boldly into the house that fall and then at times take up his crutches to help assuage his pain. It was not easy pretending that life was the way it always had been.

The president was not a man who liked to ponder his past. But the admiral was right in his belief that if the president had been in town, he probably would have been there with his brothers beside him to honor their brother's memory.

"Admiral, I want to express all of our thanks to you and to send our best wishes to those who served in 110," the president began. "I know its record very well. And I know from the letters which my family received during the Second World War how much my brother valued his association with this distinguished squadron which had an outstanding record in the winter, spring, and summer patrolling the Bay of Biscay. I know something about the number of men who were lost in the dangerous service with the coastal patrol."

Kennedy had braved enemy waters too, and he was speaking to these men with a commonality that only they could fully understand. The condolence letters after Joe Jr.'s death had been a challenge to Kennedy. They were almost a rebuke that he was not the man his brother was. Growing up, he had harbored the most complex feelings toward Joe Jr., but all that was left now was love and reverence and a renewed belief that courage was the ultimate virtue. The only human immortality of which we can be certain is that a person lives on in human memory and that others seek to replicate his or her deeds. In that sense, Joe Jr. lived on in all three of his brothers.

"All of you, admiral, who are meeting now have happy recollections of those who served in the squadron who did not return," Kennedy said solemnly. "And I know that my brother and all those others who served with the squadron who are not with you are with you tonight in spirit."

When the president finished, he gave the phone to his younger brother. Bobby spoke with that same Boston nasal intonation as his brother, but there was softness and a subtle tenderness to his tenor voice, unlike the president's. Bobby had known Joe Jr. only as a great figure descending on his life for a few brief moments, a brother who had died a hero's death, leaving a shadow that reached wherever he moved.

"I just know how much our brother Joe liked and respected you," Bobby said, as always more intimate, more emotionally raw, than the president. "I know how well all of you have served the country in the past and in the present time I hope you're going to meet again so one or all of us can come. I have another brother here that wanted to say hello to you. Can he do that, admiral?"

"Indeed he can."

Bobby then passed the phone on to Teddy. "Hello, admiral, this is Ted Kennedy," Teddy said, making an introduction that his brothers had not found necessary. "Well, admiral, I was the only member of the family who didn't serve in the navy. I was in the army. And my other brothers never let me forget about it."

"I'm sure that's true," Reedy said, over the laughter.

Teddy would always be the kid brother, but he had assumed the confident manner of a public man. He was fast becoming the greatest politician in the family, loving the touch of people and their problems. He had become a professional politician too, in that he thought it was his prerogative to talk too long. In private among friends, he was the most charming of raconteurs. In public, however, when he was not speaking from a prepared speech, his syntax was often so mislaid that he did not speak sentences as much as an endless array of words. This moment may also have been overwhelming to him, thinking of what his brother had sacrificed.

"I think all of us have been tremendously impressed and are cognizant of the many members of your squadron, I think all the brothers met a number of them from the country certainly in the campaigns before, certainly in the different states they have always come up and said hello and I have always been delighted to meet with them and hear their stories," Teddy said. "I just in the last few weeks have received some notes from some of the sons wanting to come by. Even though I'm the one member of the family who did not serve in the last war we feel tremendous respect and a closeness."

Teddy was the most distant from Joe Jr. in age, intimacy, knowledge, and experience. He nonetheless saw himself as the proud bearer of a noble legacy and was willing more than his brothers to meet with anyone who had touched Joe Jr.'s life, to invite their children into his office, send them autographed photos, and listen to their reminiscences.

When Teddy finally finished, the veterans returned to their wartime tales, and the three brothers celebrated their father's birthday.