William F. “Bud” Liebenow, who captained the PT boat that rescued John F. Kennedy after a Japanese destroyer sank the future president’s PT-109, died Friday, Feb. 24, at his home in Mount Airy. He was 97. The cause of death was pneumonia, said his daughter, Susan T. Liebenow.
Liebenow, who remained friends with Kennedy until the president’s assassination in 1963, was also on hand in Europe during the days leading up to and including the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Liebenow and his PT boat ran a number of top-secret, critical advance missions prior to the invasion, with Liebenow often taking to a rowboat with two other crewmen to finish each mission, ferrying agents to and from the beach, or taking messages to those already stationed behind enemy lines there.
On the day of the invasion, his ship was busy rescuing crewmen from the USS Corry, which was torn apart by enemy fire.
During a 2014 interview with The Mount Airy News, Liebenow said he estimated they rescued 60 or more men from the choppy waters, while under enemy fire. He said he received thank-you notes from those men, and their children, for decades afterward.
Among his prized possessions was copy of the book “Corry: A D-Day Survivor’s Stories about the Destroyer that Led the Normandy Invasion.” It relates the memories of Francis “Mac” McKernon to his son Kevin, who authored the book.
“He was one of the guys we picked up,” Liebenow saidin 2014 of the elder McKernon, whose son presented Liebenow with a copy of the book containing a handwritten message inside the front cover thanking him for rescuing his father.
While he always seemed to understand his place in history, Liebenow was also modest about his wartime exploits, saying he was simply doing his job. During his last public appearance, when he was chosen to light the Mount Airy city Christmas tree in December, Liebenow expressed how he felt “honored” to have been tapped for the task, yet he said “I don’t know why they selected me,” without any false modesty.
“It’s quite an honor to do this type of stuff,” he said during the tree lighting ceremony, commenting on his various local appearances in recent years.
Liebenow received a pin from Phillip Mack of Mountain Valley Hospice and Palliative Care as part of its “We Honor Veterans” program during that ceremony, as well as an ovation from those gathered for the lighting.
A native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, he Mount Airy resident was well known locally, having served as grand marshal of the Mount Airy Fourth of July parade and serving as keynote speaker for the city’s Memorial Day program in recent years.
Like many men of his era, Liebenow joined the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. During midshipman training, he volunteered for the Navy’s fledgling PT boat service and was accepted. Many of the trainees were experienced sailors, but Liebenow’s nautical experience until then had been limited to small fishing boats. Still, that was more experience than some of the recruits had.
“Most of our training was done at night,” he recounted during an oral-history interview conducted by the John F. Kennedy Library in 2005. “Of course, we started out in the daytime, because a lot of us didn’t know what a boat was.” He eventually was given command of the PT-157.
In August of 1943, Liebenow’s PT-157 and Kennedy’s PT-109 were among a patrol of four PT boats that attacked three Japanese destroyers near an American base in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific.
“Kennedy’s boat was split in half, and he and his 10 surviving crew members swam to a small island in Japanese-controlled territory,” according to information from his daughter, Susan T. Liebenow, who released a written statement on Sunday.
“Kennedy scratched a message on a coconut shell asking for rescue and gave it to island natives to carry to the American base. Although warned that the message might be an enemy ruse, Mr. Liebenow and his crew, aided by the natives, set out under cover of darkness and rescued the PT-109 crew from the island,” the statement said.
Later, aboard PT-199, Liebenow took part in the D-Day invasion of June 1944. In addition to the reconnaissance missions and picking up sailers from the USS Corry, his ship also escorted a dozen rocket boats to their assigned beaches. To underscore the dangerousness of this mission, Liebenow said during his 2014 interview with The News that once they came under fire and attempted retreating, all 12 of the rocket ships were lost: only his ship made it out.
After D-Day, his PT boat ran special missions for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, in the English Channel area, delivering personnel and supplies in enemy-occupied territory. It also was used as transport by generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Patton and other military leaders.
Liebenow was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star for valor in combat. He also received the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign. He left the Navy in 1947 with the rank of lieutenant commander. He continued to stay in touch with Kennedy, and he and his family were honored guests at the president’s inauguration in 1961.
Although initially hesitant to discuss his wartime experiences, Liebenow in recent years had been sought after by historians and Kennedy biographers, and he leaves behind a large amount of first-person narrative about World War II, PT boats and the Kennedy rescue. In addition to interviews he conducted with The Mount Airy News, Liebenow appears as a source in several books, most recently In “PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy” by William Doyle, published last year. In the 1963 movie “PT 109,” his character is played by actor Dean Smith.
Liebenow was born Jan. 18, 1920, in Fredericksburg. His father was in the hardware business and his mother was a homemaker. He graduated from Fredericksburg High School and received a bachelor’s degree from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, in 1941.
Liebenow joined the railroad industry as a chemist. He worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, later called CSX Transportation, in several states, retiring as director of environmental engineering and testing in Huntington, West Virginia, after a 30-year career.
He is survived by his wife, of the home; his son, William Michael Liebenow of Winlock, Washington.; his daughter, of Arlington; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Reach John Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org.