Patrick Henry McMahon, the wounded sailor whom John F. Kennedy towed to safety after a Japanese warship crushed their PT boat during World War II, has died of natural causes. He was 84. McMahon died Sunday at an Encinitas convalescent home in northern San Diego County, where he lived for the past 15 years.
"He thought the world of President Kennedy _ he called him skipper," said McMahon's stepson, William H. Kelly of Pascagoula, Miss. "The president saved his life, and any time somebody does that for you, you're going to feel strongly about it."
Nicknamed "Pappy," he was the oldest member of the PT-109 crew because he enlisted in the Navy at age 37. Though exempt because of his age, McMahon was determined to serve when his stepson, then 19, enlisted in the Navy one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
"He felt, "If my son is in there, I couldn't face him after the war if I was sitting around the house having a beer," said Kelly, 68, a submariner aboard the USS Greenling during World War II.
The Wyanet, Ill., native was assigned to PT-109 as a Machinist's Mate 1st Class. He served under Kennedy, then a 26-year-old lieutenant junior grade and skipper of the patrol-torpedo craft.
During the years, McMahon often told the story of the night of Aug. 2, 1943, when the crew was patrolling Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands. A Japanese destroyer burst out of the darkness and smashed through their boat, slicing it in two and instantly killing two of the 13 crewmen.
McMahon suffered burns on his face, chest, arms and legs and couldn't swim because of the pain, Kelly said, so Kennedy put him across his back and kept him there by clenching McMahon's life-jacket strap in his teeth.
Other crew members clung to a plank from the sunken boat until the survivors reached Plum Pudding Island four hours later.
"Dad was burnt so bad," Kelly said. "He thought he was holding (Kennedy) up so he asked the president, "Just leave me. I'll be all right by myself.' But of course, he would not think of it."
Finding little food and no drinking water on the island, the group left four days later for Olasana Island, requiring another swim of several hours. Kennedy again towed McMahon.
A few days later, with the help of island natives, American forces rescued the PT-109 survivors.
McMahon recovered from his burns and was discharged from the Navy in November 1945.
After the war, McMahon went to work for the U.S. Post Office. He started as a letter carrier, and eventually became postmaster in Cathedral City near Palm Springs.
McMahon moved to Encinitas after his 1975 retirement. He and Kennedy stayed in touch after the war and through Kennedy's presidency, Kelly said.