By William K. Alcorn
JFK left lasting impression on Valley woman
Thom’s pallbearers were several PT-109 crew members, including JFK, who was running for Congress at the time.
11It also forever tied her to one of the most famous combat events of World War II, the sinking of patrol torpedo boat 109 and the amazing escape and rescue of its crew, of which her husband-to-be was executive officer and Kennedy was commander.
PT-109 was rammed and sunk by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri about 2:30 a.m. Aug. 1, 1943.
PT-109, along with other PT boats, were in the Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, attempting to sink Japanese supply ships. The Amagiri was an escort ship.
The heroism of the PT-109 crew over the next few days, swimming from island to island to avoid the Japanese, was chronicled in a 1963 movie, “PT-109,” in which actors Cliff Robertson and Ty Hardin played Kennedy and Thom, respectively.
For their heroic actions in leading their crew to avoid capture or death at the hands of the Japanese, and ultimately to safety, Kennedy and Thom received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for courage and leadership. Also, Kennedy’s injuries qualified him for a Purple Heart.
Thom and Catherine, or Kate as she is known, met at an Ohio State University fraternity party after an OSU-Michigan football game in 1941.
Their story and their connection to the Kennedy family was brought to the attention of The Vindicator by Christopher N. Travers of Youngstown, who works at SofTek Software in the Youngstown Business Incubator. His wife, Patricia Dougan, is an attorney for Community Legal Services.
After watching the movie “PT-109” last fall, Travers, a history buff, looked up the names of the crew members on the Internet, and discovered that Thom had a Youngstown connection.
He described the discovery as a “holy cow moment” that started him on a more extensive search and the knowledge that Leonard Thom is buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Travers tipped The Vindicator to his discovery, which led to additional investigation and interviews with family members.
Catherine, 87, of Greensburg, Pa., is a daughter of Robert and Marie Kane Holway, who had lived on Ohio Avenue in Youngstown. Catherine’s father was a salesman in the construction business, representing such companies as Cleveland Builder Supply, Akron Sand and Gravel and Pittsburgh Coke and Chemical Co.
“As a little girl growing up on Ohio Avenue in the late ’20s and early ’30s, I thought it was a huge avenue with beautiful trees. I remember when the ice man stopped; we kids liked to get ice chips. We attended St. Edward’s Church on Tod Lane, where Lenny and I were married,” said Catherine, interviewed from her home in Greensburg.
“There were eight of us Holway children. The youngest ones went to Ursuline High School and the older ones to The Rayen School. I graduated from Rayen in 1938,” she said.
Her siblings who are still living are Richard of Cleveland; John of Atlanta, Ga.; Margaret Yeager of Dallas, and Marie Scott of Philadelphia. Deceased are Robert and James and Joyce Allsworth.
Catherine entered St. Elizabeth Hospital School of Nursing in 1938 and graduated in 1941. In 1942, she enrolled in St. Mary of the Springs College for girls.
“I was a student at St. Mary of the Springs College for girls about three miles from OSU. My roommate introduced me to Lenny,” Catherine said.
Thom, of Sandusky, started his college career at Heidelburg College in Tiffin but, after a year, transferred to OSU. He played football on Sandusky High School’s 1935 undefeated team, and was an all-star guard and tackle at OSU. He played briefly for the semi-pro Columbus Bulls and had an offer to play football for the Chicago Bears.
After college, Thom entered the Navy, and during training at Melville, R.I., met Kennedy, also a Naval Reserve officer. The two became close friends and when Thom was assigned Kennedy’s executive officer aboard PT-109, the men were happily surprised, Catherine said.
“It was a fun time. We were all so young, with no problems, just the war going on. The men were always singing, ‘When the Roll is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There,’” she said.
Thom recovered from his PT-109 ordeal in the South Pacific and commanded a patrol torpedo boat of his own, PT-587, which he nicknamed the “Thom Cat.” Many of his crew members were from PT-109. He was preparing to participate in the invasion of Japan when the war ended and he came back to Ohio.
Bliss and tragedy
The couple was married June 1, 1944, in St. Edward’s Church in Youngstown and began what seemed an idyllic life. Their son, Leonard, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, was 18 months old, and Catherine was seven months pregnant with their second child, Christine, when tragedy struck.
Thom was driving home to Youngstown from Columbus, where he was in school and worked for John Galbreath Insurance Agency, when he ran into a New York Central freight train at a crossing on Route 224 in Deerfield in Portage County. It was a hairpin turn with no lights, no warnings, family members said.
Witnesses heard Thom say: “Don’t bother with me, get the other guys out.” Thom died Oct. 8, 1946, in Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna, one day after the crash. He was 29.
Two passengers in Thom’s car, Catherine’s brother, James, 18, and Maurice Guiraud, 22, a friend, were injured, but recovered.
Arrangements for Thom’s funeral were handled by the McCauley Memorial Funeral Home on Broadway Avenue. According to the obituary in The Vindicator, services were conducted at the residence on Ohio Avenue.
Not generally known is that Thom’s pallbearers were PT-109 crew members, including John F. Kennedy, who was running for Congress at the time.
“Lenny died Saturday. The next morning, my phone rang and my father said, ‘It’s for you.’ I said I didn’t want any calls. My father said, ‘You’ll want to take this call.’ It was Jack. He said, ‘I’m coming out,’ and he did,” Catherine said.
JFK at the funeral
Kennedy was in Youngstown for about three days for the funeral, said Catherine’s younger brother, Richard, of Cleveland.
“I picked him up at Youngstown Airport and chauffeured him all over town. He stayed with Dan Roach on Ohio Avenue,” said Richard, himself a football player who was captain of the University of Kentucky’s 1950 national championship team.
Of her first husband, Catherine said: “Leonard was an unbelievable man, a man other men liked, and women too.”
“Even after Leonard died, Jack [Kennedy] continued to be a close friend. He encouraged me to come to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to finish my schooling. I tried it for a semester, but I missed the babies. During one of our outings, I noticed Hil Kelley coming from his father’s office, Congressman Augustine Bernhard Kelley, whose office was down the hall from Jack’s dad’s office,” Catherine said.
Hilary Kelley became Catherine’s second husband, and when Kennedy became president in 1961, he appointed Hilary, a mining engineer, as an adviser in the administration’s Office of Science and Technology.
Catherine had nine children, two with Thom, Christine and Leonard Thom Kelley, an attorney in Anchorage, Alaska. Christine Thom, who was a pediatric nurse in Alaska, died in July 2000, at 49. She is buried with her father in Calvary Cemetery in Youngstown.
While Kelley has no recollection of his war hero father, he too benefited from the Kennedy friendship.
“When I was 16, mom gathered us all up to go to the White House and JFK was there. We all had our pictures taken with him. Mom and he were real good friends,” he said. Another time, JFK was having a fundraiser in Pittsburgh, and he gave mom a present “for little Lenny.”
Being the son of a famous war hero also benefited Kelley in a practical way.
“One of the things mom had, which I still wish she had, was the original letter from Lenny to the Australian coast watcher, which eventually enabled them to be rescued after PT-109 sank. Mom sold that to send me to college,” Kelley said.
“She is a great mom. After Lenny was killed, she had to raise two kids. Then she lucked out and met Hilary,” he said. “Hilary is a great guy.”
As with her first husband, Catherine met Hilary on a blind date. This time, she was set up by her younger sister, Joyce. Hilary was from Greensburg, and after a career that included a stint with Westinghouse and as dean of the College of Minerals and Energy Resources at West Virginia University, the couple moved back to Greensburg.
“We celebrated our 59th wedding anniversary on May 10,” Catherine said.
Memories of war years
Asked if she ever thinks about those times during the war and after, Catherine answered: “Every single day.”
“I think about my life in Newport, R.I., and St. Mary’s [Roman Catholic Parish] where Jack and Jackie were married. We attended their reception at Hammersmith Farm [Jackie’s summer home]. We were all dancing and watching the ships go by. So many memories. We spent several long weekends at the Kennedy Compound on Nantucket Sound and got to know them all. I was there when Joseph Kennedy Jr. was killed,” she said.
Catherine and Hilary attended JFK’s inaugural ball, and Little Lenny stood in for his dad on the PT-109 boat float in the inaugural parade.
“I read stories now about Jack, and it’s a guy I don’t know. He was a great friend. One time at the White House, I said to him, ‘I can’t believe we’re still friends.’ He said, ‘Old friends will always be my friends. These [the people in Washington] are just people I work with,’” she said.