Did you know that - along with being president of the United States - John F. Kennedy was a war hero? That's right, Lt. John Fitzgerald Kennedy served in the Navy during WWII, and he earned a Purple Heart for his feats in the Solomon Islands in August 1943.
One moonless night in the Pacific Ocean in 1943, things took a dire turn for Lt. Kennedy. When a Japanese destroyer unexpectedly struck JFK's boat, PT-109, it set off a week of Kennedy and his men struggling to survive in enemy territory and find help when it felt like there was none around. In order to reach Allied forces, Kennedy was eventually forced to carve a message into a coconut, which told of his location and situation. Eventually rescued, and nationally applauded, Kennedy would turn that coconut into one of the paperweights that sat on his desk in the Oval Office.
According to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the night of August 1, 1943, was moonless. In Pacific Ocean waters near the Solomon Islands, Lt. John F. Kennedy's boat, PT-109, was one of 15 craft awaiting the Japanese Navy's "Tokyo Express." When the Japanese ships finally arrived - despite US boats firing 30 torpedoes - neither navy inflicted or experienced any damage. That is, until the future President Kennedy's boat joined up with two other PTs and formed a picket line to halt any future Japanese approach.
At around 2:30 am, one of the Japanese destroyers, the Amagiri, collided with PT-109, ripping off the starboard side of the ship. After the impact, with two of his men having perished, Kennedy ordered some of the others to swim to safety. Kennedy then swam from the PT boat, towing one man by the strap of a life vest while encouraging another to swim. Eventually, Kennedy and his men made it to an islet, which was three and a half miles away.
After surviving the incident, John F. Kennedy and his men made the difficult decision - because they had no other option - of swimming over three miles to the nearest islet. Kennedy was more equipped for this swim than some of his men because he had experience, having swum on the team at Harvard. However, he was also towing one of his men for the duration of the swim.
When they made land, the men were exhausted. Although the islet they landed on was technically called Plum Pudding, Kennedy and his men called it "Bird Island" because it was covered in bird droppings. The men spent the next week swimming from island to island, attempting to hide from the Japanese, find food, and make contact with other Americans. Eventually, on the island of Naru, local natives showed Kennedy where a boat had been hidden, and they showed him how to inscribe a message into a coconut. Kennedy wrote:
COMMANDER . . . NATIVE KNOWS
POS'IT . . . HE CAN PILOT . . . 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT . . . KENNEDY
Two locals delivered the message to Allied forces. Kennedy and his fellow survivors were rescued late on the night of August 7. For his bravery, Kennedy was awarded the Purple Heart. The coconut became a paperweight on Kennedy's desk.
During his ordeal in the Solomon Islands, John F. Kennedy risked his life to save his men on more than one occasion. When he returned to the US, he was hailed as a true hero, and he received a Purple Heart to prove it.
However, despite his popular reception, not everyone deemed Kennedy's feats in WWII an unqualified success. In fact, one historian described the events of August 1, 1943, as “the most screwed up PT boat action of WWII.”