Heidelberg football star had served with JFK

Tiffinites reading the 1961 book or watching the 1963 film version of PT-109, the story of President John F. Kennedy’s war experiences, probably had no idea one of the principal characters in the saga had a strong Tiffin connection as a star football player at Heidelberg College. Lt. J.G. Leonard Thom was executive officer of PT-109 and one of JFK’s most respected friends.

Lenny Thom grew up in Sandusky in a family of blacksmiths whose shop was located on Hayes Avenue next to the American Crayon plant. Thom grew into a big, rangy, fast lineman named to several All-State teams after helping the Sandusky Blue Streaks to an undefeated Buckeye League championship in 1935.

As a member of the Heidelberg freshman team in 1936, Thom was used at running back. In 1937, Thom helped anchor the varsity line alongside future coaching legend Paul Hoerneman. “Apollo” Thom, as his Excelsior Society pals dubbed him, made the All-Ohio team his sophomore season.

In 1938, Thom was lured to Ohio State by Coach Francis Schmidt, where he joined his old Sandusky teammate Charlie Maag (later a Tiffin banker) on a powerful Buckeye team that included quarterback Don Scott and lineman Esco Sarkkinen. In 1939, Thom was a key member of the Big Ten Championship team that faced gridiron greats Nile Kinnick of Iowa and Tom Harmon of Michigan.

After graduation, Thom played a season of professional football for the Columbus Bullies in 1941 and enlisted in the navy after Pearl Harbor. In PT- Boat training in Melville, R.I., Ensign Thom met the young Lt. J.G. John F. Kennedy. By March 1943 in the Solomon Islands, Thom was reunited with Kennedy as second in command of PT-109.

By all accounts, Thom was an exemplary officer, well-liked and respected by those who served with him. For five months during the spring and summer, Thom and Kennedy experienced combat missions together, including routine patrols and Japanese aerial attacks.

During the evening of Aug. 1, 1943, they were on the bridge of PT-109 when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. In the aftermath, faithfully captured in the 1963 film, Kennedy and Thom heroically rescued the surviving members of the crew and led them through enemy waters to safety.

Both men were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for their courage and leadership. Kennedy received the Purple Heart.

Returning to the states in 1944, Thom married his OSU sweetheart. That summer, he and the PT 109 crew gathered at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Thom was preparing for the invasion of Japan when the war ended.

Oct. 8, 1946, Thom died at a hospital in Ravenna after a car-train crash on US 224 in Portage County. Lenny left a young son and his pregnant wife. Kennedy and the PT-109 crew came to Youngstown to serve as Lenny’s pallbearers.

In 1961, Lenny Jr. stood in for his father on the PT-109 float in Kennedy’s inaugural parade. JFK later told the boy, “You are Lenny Thom’s son! I can see that. I loved your dad. He was a good man.”

Doug Collar is associate dean of honors and associate professor of English and integrated studies at Heidelberg University.