MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — The WWII Navy officer who guided his warship into Japanese territory to rescue future President John F. Kennedy and his crew has died at age 97, his daughter said Sunday.
William “Bud” Liebenow died Friday from pneumonia complications, said Susan T. Liebenow of Arlington, Virginia.
Liebenow was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and was a new college graduate when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. He joined the Navy and volunteered for service on the fast, small and heavily armed attack vessels called PT boats.
Liebenow and Kennedy were each captains of PT boats in the South Pacific in 1943 when Kennedy’s boat was destroyed by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy and 10 other surviving crew members swam to a small island. Kennedy scratched a note into a coconut that two Solomon Islands natives carried to an American base.
Liebenow guided his boat behind enemy lines to track down the survivors of PT-109 on the island where they were hiding.
“Pulled right up to the beach,” Liebenow told WRAL-TV in 2015. “Just a part of the job really.”
Kennedy invited Liebenow and his family to the president’s inauguration ceremony 18 years later, Susan Liebenow said.
But Liebenow’s naval career didn’t end with that rescue.
The following year, Liebenow commanded a PT boat that was part of the D-Day invasion of northern France. His PT-199 was tasked with zooming around the waters off Normandy and rescuing men whose boats had been blown up by Nazi defenders. Liebenow’s boat helped rescue about 60 crew members from the destroyer USS Corry, which was sunk during the invasion struggle.
“We went in to pick up survivors and do what we could,” Liebenow told the Mount Airy News in 2014. “We spent most of that day picking up guys out of the water.”
After the war, Liebenow worked as a chemist for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and retired after 30 years, his family said. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Lucy, and a son.