Did you know that – along with being President of the United States and a legendary ladies man – John F. Kennedy was a war hero? That's right; Lieutenant 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. Before there was a Jackie Bouvier in his line of sight, JFK was sailing on the Pacific.
However, one moonless night in 1943, things took a dire turn for Lieutenant 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 death in the Oval Office.
Lieutenant Kennedy's Boat Was Struck By A Japanese Destroyer – So He Sprung Into Action
The night of August 1, 1943 was a dark one; the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum reports it as having been "moonless." That night, in Pacific Ocean waters near the Solomon Islands, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy's boat, PT-109, was one of 15 of such 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 future President Kenney'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 crash, with two of his men dead, Kennedy ordered some of the others to swim to safety. Kennedy then swam back to the wreckage and "towed [one injured man] by a life-vest strap, and alternately cajoled and berated the exhausted [man] to get him through the difficult swim." Eventually, Kennedy and his men made it to an islet, which was three and a half miles away.
While Stranded, Kennedy Carved A Message In A Coconut, Which He Later Used As A Paperweight
After surviving what must have been a terrifying crash, 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 swam 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
They were rescued late on the night of August 7. For his bravery, Kennedy was awarded the Purple Heart. For its usefulness, the coconut became a paperweight on Kennedy's desk.
Some Called The Whole Thing A Terrible Mishap; Most Deemed It A Triumph
There's no doubt that Lieutenant Kennedy showed unbelievable bravery and grace under pressure during his ordeal in the Solomon Islands. He put his men before himself and risked his life to save theirs on more than one occasion. When he returned to the US, he was hailed as a true hero of the war, and he received a Purple Heart Medal 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 World War II.” Some even said that, were it not for his father's "media savvy," Kennedy would never have been able to turn such an embarrassing incident into a triumph.