Note: This interview took place in February 2016, shortly before Dick Kennedy's death.
Shortly after I was married, I was chatting with my new father-in-law, Dick Kennedy, and out of the blue asked him if he'd fought in World War II — only because he looked too young to have done so. And for the next couple hours he told me this amazing story, something he'd never really told anyone else before, including his five children.
He'd grown up in the Bronx, and after his own father had died a young man, Dick remembered his mother dragging him and his siblings from one Bronx tenement to another — trying to dodge the landlord. When World War II broke out, his older brother George enlisted right away—doing his part. That's when Dick decided he had to do his part, too. He was a very determined individual and even at a young age he knew Germany and Japan had to be stopped. As he told me that day, he would have felt unpatriotic if he wasn't able to contribute in some way.
He started his quest at the age of 14, trying and failing a number of times to enlist by falsifying his deceased older brother Raymond's birth certificate. His persistence finally paid off at age 15, when the Marines were taking just about anyone. One moment Dick was a sophomore in high school, and the next he was on Guadalcanal. He wound up in the first wave to hit the beach on Okinawa — the last, and bloodiest, battle of the Pacific War. The date was April 1, 1945, both Easter Sunday and April Fool's.
"Talk about irony," Dick said.
: What was it like growing up?
: I grew up in the Bronx. I had two brothers and two sisters. My brother Raymond died in 1928, the year I was born; he was two. My father died of tuberculosis when I was very young and all I can remember is my mother carting us from one tenement to another, one step ahead of the landlord.
What prompted you to enlist in the Marines?
My older brother George went in the Army Air Corps. He would call home and tell us how things were going. I wanted to be in the service, too. I wanted to contribute. I started trying to enlist when I was a sophomore at Sewanhaka High in Floral Park, New York.
How did your family feel about that?
I was the baby of the family, so my mother was up in arms. I went to the post office to pick up forms for us both to sign. And I had to get my birth certificate and school records. Mom signed, but she didn't speak to me for two weeks. My birth certificate read 1928, so I tried using Raymond's birth certificate, but that didn't work. Finally, they took me because they needed warm bodies. In early September 1943, I went in at the Jamaica Post Office in Jamaica, Queens. I was 15.
How much older were the guys you served with?
Most were 18 or so, but we were all just kids. One guy was married and had a child. We called him "Pop" but he wasn't much older than us.
Did you ever meet any Marines as young as you?
No. But I did meet a guy who'd been ahead of me at Sewanhaka High. He couldn't figure out what the hell I was doing there.
Dick Kennedy after enlisting in the Marines at age 15. Photo: Mack Maloney
What unit were you in?
6th Marine division 4th Marines 3rd Marine battalion, I Company, Second Platoon.
What was it like being the youngest guy in boot camp?
Boot camp was a big adjustment. I was scrawny. I had to build myself up — walking for miles. The first couple of weeks, we'd march around this huge ballfield where they had parades. We'd walk it, over and over. In the beginning it was no packs, just the rifle. Then we'd go with full pack, about 60 pounds. We marched all the time. It was tiring, but I was very gung-ho and I got in shape. Our instructors weren't much older than we were. "Where's Long Island?" one said to me. "I never heard of it." Anyone in the same position as me they'd call a "city boy." When we got our rifles, they told us, "Guard it with your life and clean it every day." At first taking apart the rifle was hard. There were 13 parts to it and you had to know them all and be able to disassemble and reassemble it quickly. But I kept practicing; I was always trying to get it right. Then you had to learn to put it together in the dark. That was another challenge.
Before we left boot camp we had to go to the doctor so he could check us off. The only flaw I had was a space between my teeth. "Do you think you can stop a bullet with that?" the doctor asked me. Then he laughed. He said I was perfect but for my teeth. We wound up in San Diego, and then sailed for the South Pacific on an Army ship. You did your wash by tying your clothes on a rope and hanging the rope over the side. You had to tie everything tight or you'd lose it. The Army didn't seem to want to do us any favors. They kept us supplied with enough food, but just enough. Breakfast was oatmeal. Lunch an apple or an orange. Supper, maybe a chicken leg. We only got the three small meals; the Army guys got more.
Where did you land first?
On Guadalcanal, in two boats, about 1500 guys in all. The Army guys put us on phony assignments. Guarding their posts. Guarding a big gun. Checking the explosives. We had to constantly check the explosives and protect them. We trained there almost a year, and it was a miserable place.
Did you carry anything other than a standard rifle?
So many guys in my platoon got killed on Okinawa I was given the BAR, the Browning Automatic Rifle. I remember how it felt on my shoulder — different from my rifle. Then I found out what power I had in my hands.
What was landing on Okinawa like?
It was April 1 — April Fool's Day and Easter Sunday. Talk about irony. But we were excited. We wanted to see the amphibious tanks float. We were betting on whether they would make it or not. Half the regiment was on barges and the other half was on tanks. I was on a barge. Some tanks were like tractor-tanks they'd specifically built for invading Japan itself. They had 10,000 of them ready to go to Tokyo. I hit the beach in the first wave, which meant feeling your way because you are going into enemy territory and you don't know what you will find. We had a shootout that afternoon. I don't remember the rest of the day. We were on bombing alert that night, but nothing happened. They didn't shoot at us.
What do you remember about the battle?
We went into this valley, where the Japanese ambushed a platoon of ours. We surprised the enemy, and they took off. There were dead Marines all around, a platoon of 35-40 guys, half of them killed, many of them mutilated. It ripped your heart out. We went after the Japanese but they were too cat-like, they knew where all their bunkers were — and we didn't know anything. And this was only day two. But I never thought, "Why am I doing this?" Or, "How did I get mixed up in this?" It just had to be done.
Okinawa sounds like hell on Earth…
The days just went on. We were sent on patrol up north; it was beautiful scenery. We got a report of enemy soldiers in a cave. A Marine thought he saw soldiers inside and started shooting, so the whole platoon started shooting. Mothers and children started coming out of the cave and we all felt horrible. It never should have happened, but we couldn't really blame the guy who started it, but we all got read out. Our first lieutenant took the blame.
Another time, we walked into an ambush and were pinned down. The lieutenant got hit. They pumped him full of morphine and he started shouting orders. Because I was the littlest guy, he told me to run for help. I started to when this big sergeant pulled me down. "Don't listen to him," he said. "He's full of morphine." That guy saved my life. I would have been killed for sure.
How did you find out the war had ended?
I was at morning chow on a transport ship. A little radio announced that the Japanese had been hit with a special bomb at Hiroshima. We didn't know it was a big deal. We thought we were going to fight on Taiwan. It took a week and another 100,000 killed for the emperor to wake up. Meantime, we were floating along in a huge fleet, thousands of ships of all sizes. We tied up at a naval station where we heard about the armistice, about three weeks before the signing on the USS Missouri. We couldn't believe the Japanese were going to honor the surrender.
Did you go right home?
No — we went to Japan. We were like the cops, walking up and down the streets with our weapons, making sure everything was secure. We were constantly on alert. But it was peaceful. The people couldn't have been nicer. They would do their ritual bowing and everything. We didn't have much trouble at all. It was months before they started to send us home, based on length of time there. I came home early May 1946. Mom was still living in the same apartment. It was good to see the family. Everyone was there. "Oh, my baby is home," my mother was crying. "What did I do letting him go?"
You went back to high school?
I went back to Sewanhaka High, into a 12th grade homeroom, but I mostly took 10th grade classes.
What was high school like after being in combat?
It was funny. I was surrounded by kids 14 and 15. I never talked about the war with them. They thought I was an oddball. I was good at baseball, but the school wouldn't let me play. They thought I was "too much of a man." I graduated with the class of 1947.
And after that?
I went to Hofstra on the GI Bill and became an English teacher on Long Island. I married my sweetheart and had five lovely kids. So, no complaints.
About the Author
A native Bostonian, Maloney received a bachelor of science degree in journalism at Suffolk University and a master of arts degree in film at Emerson College. He is the host of a national radio show, Mack Maloney's Military X-Files.