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The President’s Best Friend
If he’d been the closest companion of the president of IBM, you might happen across his name in a privately printed memoir. But LeMoyne Billings was John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s best friend from Choate to the White House—and that makes him part of history.
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
By the summer of 1942 both Billings and Kennedy were a few steps closer to the war. Curiously, Lem was the first to see action. While Jack was engaged in the officers’ training program at Northwestern University, Pvt. LeMoyne Billings was bound for Cairo aboard a ship sailing in a convoy out of New York Harbor. He had been accepted by the American Field Service, a paramilitary ambulance corps that soon went into the front lines of the desert fighting against Rommel’s forces in Egypt. Meanwhile, a few letters arrived from Jack. He had applied to the PT-boat training unit in Melville, Rhode Island, and was itching to get into the combat zone. While enduring the wait for sea duty, Jack told Lem, he often reminded himself of President Roosevelt’s famous words: “This war is bigger than you and me.” Finally, in February 1943, he received orders to the South Pacific as a replacement officer for Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 2.
From North Africa, Lem wrote Jack long, graphic descriptions of the fighting and of his continuing struggle to get a naval commission. In May, Jack wrote back from his hut in the Solomon Islands, saying he was now skipper of his own boat, PT 109. He wished Lem were part of his crew.
During that summer Jack’s correspondence ceased for three worrisome months. Then, in September, Lem received a New York Times clipping from his mother: Jack’s bravery had saved the crew of PT 109 after a Japanese destroyer had cut the boat in two in the Blackett Strait. A few weeks later a long letter arrived from Jack, but the news was mostly about the large percentage of Jack’s old girl friends who had recently gotten married and about his desire to spend a month in Palm Beach with his family and Lem. He alluded to the PT 109 episode only briefly, laconically mentioning that he had lost his boat and some of his men.
By November, after receiving minor shrapnel wounds during Montgomery’s decisive victory at El Alamein, Lem was home. Jack, who was now executive officer of his squadron and commander of a new motor gunboat (PT 59), advised him to stay put and settle for 4-F.
Out of uniform, Lem was restless again. With the help of Ambassador Kennedy and Congressman John W. McCormack, he received a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Jack sent congratulations in his last letter from the South Pacific. Now a twice-decorated war hero, he returned home in January. Billings, the desert veteran and raw ensign, arrived in Palm Beach dressed in uniform. He had orders for sea duty aboard the attack transport U.S.S. Cecil , soon to depart for the South Pacific. Their reunion lasted until Easter. They both looked thinner, but they were whole. Their friendship, too, was intact; despite the war they were as youthful and exuberant as ever.
Two weeks after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Kennedy received word from Billings that he would remain aboard the Cecil in the South Pacific until February or March of 1946.
Kennedy had just returned from Europe, where he had spent a month in England, covering the British elections for the Hearst newspapers, and several weeks in Germany, accompanying Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal in Forrestal’s private plane. He said the trip had been “extremely interesting” but didn’t want to “bore [Lem] with the details,” which included, Lem later learned, a visit with Forrestal to the conference of Truman, Stalin, and Churchill in Potsdam, where John F. Kennedy first met Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“As to my present plans,” the young war hero continued, “I am making some speeches around—one is going to be at the Waldorf-Astoria in NY on Oct. 4th—the other speakers being Baruch, Dewey, and Byrnes—I suppose I’ll speak after Baruch and Dewey and just before Byrnes. ” He had also been made assistant to the chairman of the Boston Community Fund. “As you can see,” he told Lem, “I’m getting ready to throw my slightly frayed belt into the political arena any time now. I’m expecting you back to vote early and often. Would you suggest a question period after my speeches? It went so well the last time I tried it in the deep South…”
By December, Kathleen reported to Lem: “Jack never stops thinking and talking about his political career and is really interested in it. So you’d better prepare yourself to listen.”
DURING THE PRECEDING thirteen years, Lem had listened and watched and remained closely involved as Jack had grown almost annually into new roles: as the congressional candidate in the Eleventh District of Massachusetts; the freshman congressman; the junior senator; the husband of Jacqueline Bouvier; the patient undergoing a nearly fatal spinal operation; the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Profiles in Courage ; the Vice-Presidential contender at the Democratic Convention in 1956; the father of a baby daughter, born in November 1957, whose sparkling eyes were revealed to the nation four months later in Life magazine, peeping at her father over the edge of her bassinet.