With Harvard behind him, John F Kennedy briefly attended Stanford Business School and along with most Americans of his age registered for the draft in October 1940. His number was called, but he used his status as a student to defer entry into the military until the summer of 1941. Meanwhile, he left Stanford Business School and took a rather aimless trip through South America in the spring of 1941. John failed the physicals for both the army and the navy. His failed them from his health problems such as, stomach trouble, was far too thin, and while playing football on the Harvard JV squad during his sophomore year he had a bad fall that led to a rupture of his spinal disc. This left him with back troubles that would plaque him for the rest of his life. His father’s connection prevailed and a friendly doctor gave John a clean bill of health.
He was sworn in as a naval ensign on September 25, 1941, less than two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This was the day that would drag America into World War II. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Kennedy applied for sea duty. He begged his father to pull strings to get him assigned to sea duty. Joseph Kennedy Sr. obliged and in late 1942 Kennedy was given an assignment on a Patrol Torpedo Boat better known as a PT boat. After six-months of training, he and his crewmates shipped out from San Frisco bound for the South Pacific and in combat with the Japanese. Kennedy was promoted to lieutenant and was given command of a boat designated PT -109. On the night of August 02, 1943 the PT-109 stood at her station in Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara .
This strategy was bad planning and even worse communication. Kennedy and fourteen other PT boats set out to engage, to damage and maybe even turn back the well-known “Tokyo Express” the Japanese navy more or less regular resupply convoy that enabled resistance to the advance of United States forces in the islands farther south. When the patrol actually did come in contact with the Tokyo Express, for three Japanese destroyers acting as transports with a fourth as escort, the encounter did not go well.
Thirty torpedoes were fired with no more effect than to make the Japanese even fierier than they had been. The PT boats that had used up their torpedoes were ordered home and the few that still had torpedoes remained. In the doubtful hope of catching the action was that if the Japanese had not been damaged, neither had Americans yet. PT-109 was one of the boats left behind. Lieutenant Kennedy gathered his boat with PT-162 of his own patrol section and PT-169, which had been separated from another section. The three PT’s spread out to make a picket line across the strait. Around 2:30 in the morning, a shape loomed out of the darkness three-hundred yards off from the PT-109’s starboard bow. So difficult to see that at first it was believed to be another PT.
When Kennedy seen it was one of the Japanese destroyers, he attempted to turn to starboard to bring his torpedoes to bear, but there was not enough time . The destroyer later identified as the Amigari, the escort ship of the Tokyo Express struck PT-109 just forward of the starboard torpedo tube . This ripped away that side of the boat and this happened less than a minute since Kennedy sighted the escort ship. The impact tossed Kennedy around the cockpit, and his radioman John E. Majuire was actually thrown from it. Most of the crew were knocked or fell into the water. Engineer Patrick McMahon, the only man below decks escaped, although he was badly burned by exploding fuel. Fear that PT-109 would go up in flames drove Kennedy to order the men who still remained on the wreck to abandon ship. The destroyers wake dispersed the burning fuel and when the fire began to subside, and then Kennedy sent his men back to the boat to see what was left of it. Two of Kennedy’s crew was killed outright, several badly wounded, while the others managed to hang onto the half of the PT boat that was still afloat . From the wreckage of the PT-109, Kennedy ordered the men with him, Edgar Mavier and John E Majuire to identify the location of their shipmates still in the water. Ens Leonard Thom, Gerald Zinser, Ens George Ross and Raymond Albort were able to swim back on their own. Kennedy swam out to McMahon and Charles Harris. Towing the incapacitated McMahon by a life-vest strap Kennedy returned to the PT-109 alternately cajoling and berating the hurt. Harris exhausted, followed behind Kennedy to get him through the difficult swim.
Thom pulled in William Johnston, who was debilitated by the gasoline that he had accidently swallowed and the heavy fumes that lay on the water. Finally, Raymond Starkey swam in from where he had been flung by the shock. The men were afraid to fire their flare gun for fear of attracting the attention of the Japanese who were on islands on all sides. After a discussion of options and aware that time was running out, the men abandoned the remains of PT-109. They struck out for an island that was three and a half miles away and hoped it was unoccupied. Kennedy had been on the swim team at Harvard, so even towing McMahon by a belt through his teeth, he was not worried about the distance. Several of his men were good swimmers, several were not and two of them could not swim at all. Kennedy arrived first at the island, named Plum Pudding, but called “Bird Island” by the men because of the guano that coated the bushes. Kennedy collapsed and waited for the rest of the crew.
Alarmed by a Japanese barge that passed close by, Kennedy was determined to swim down the Ferguson Passage through which the American PTs passed when they were operating in Blackett Strait Island. He was hopping and clinging to reefs and he made his way out into the passage where he treaded water for an hour before deciding that the PT’s were in action elsewhere for that night. The return trip nearly killed him, for strong currents spun him out into Blackett Strait and then back into Ferguson Passage. On August 04, 1943, Kennedy led the men back into the ocean striking out for Olasana Island in hopes of finding food and fresh water, but also trying to get closer to Ferguson Passage. It was a disappointment, for it only had coconuts that made some of the men sick. On August 05, 1943, Kennedy took a canoe into Ferguson Passage once more, with little success. On August 06, 1943, Kennedy returned with two Solomon Islanders Gasa and Kumana to Naru. Gasa showed Kennedy how to scratch a message into a green coconut husk. The message read NAURO ISL COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS…POST’IT…HE CAN PILOT…IIALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY. Gasa and Kumana took the message to the hideout of a nearby Australian coast watcher who arranged rescue . On August 07, 1943, eight islanders appeared at Naru shortly after Kennedy and Ross awoke and brought food and instructions from the local Allied coast watcher, for Lt. A. Reginald Evans wanted Kennedy to come over to Evan’s post. They stopped long enough at Olasana to feed the crew. The islanders hid Kennedy under a pile of palm fronds, so they could paddle Kennedy to Gomu Island in Blackott Strait. Evans had already notified Rendova of the discovery of PT-109’s survivors and the base commander was proposing to send the rescue mission directly to Olasana. Kennedy insisted on being picked up first, so he could guide the rescue boats PT-157 and PT-171 among the reefs and shallows of the island chain. The night of August 07, 1943, the boats met Kennedy at the rendezvous point exchanging a prearranged signal of four shots. Kennedy’s revolver was down to only three rounds, so he borrowed a rifle from Evan for the fourth. Standing up in the canoe to give the signal, for he did not anticipate the rifle’s recoil. In which it threw Kennedy off balance and dumped him into the water. It was a wet and thoroughly exhausted navy lieutenant who climbed aboard PT-157. The PT-157 crossed Blackett Strait under Kennedy’s direction and eased up to Olasana Island early in the morning of August 08, 1943. The rescue went forward without incident and the men of PT-109 reached Rendova at 5:30 in the morning on August 08, 1943.
Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps for his courage and leadership. He also received the Purple Heart for his injuries suffered during the incident. Ens. Leonard Thom also received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, but the event for Kennedy was far more reaching than simple decorations. The story was picked up by the writer John Hersey, for which he told it to the readers of the New Yorker and Reader’s Digest and it followed Kennedy into politics. It provided a strong foundation of his appeal as a young veteran and for he was a war hero who had not won battles but who had shown courage, dogged will, responsibility for those he led, the ability to inspire them, and it would be otherwise inexperienced political leader. The ordeal made Kennedy a war hero, but Kennedy’s frail health gave away, for he contracted malaria and his old back problems flared up. He was rotated back to duty in the United States and by spring of 1944 he found himself laid up in Boston’s Chelsea Naval Hospital and was diagnosed with a chronic lower back disease.
By this point Joe Kennedy Jr., Kennedy’s brother, had been flying missions against the Nazis for some time. Joe Kennedy Jr. even turned down a chance to return to the United States in order to keep flying. Later some would claim that Kennedy’s sudden celebrity from the PT-109 incident bothered his older brother Joe Jr. and drove him toward a reckless pursuit of heroism. What became Joe Jr’s final mission was an almost suicidal dangerous operation that consisted of dropping ten tons of high explosive TNT on a German target in France. The mission proved fatal, as Joe Jr’s plane exploded in the air over southern England on the evening of August 12, 1944. The devastating news reached the Kennedy family’s summer home in Hyannis, Massachusetts, a day later. The family was united in grief and their sorrows only increased in September, with the news that Kathleen’s husband had been killed in the war. Kennedy’s back trouble continued and the hero of PT- 109 left with a spinal injury received a medical discharge from the navy on March 01, 1945 . Returning to his family, Kennedy soon found himself the focus of his father’s thwarted ambitions. Joseph Kennedy, Sr. has seen his eldest son die in a war that he himself had opposed and he now channeled all of his energies and ambitions into a political career for his second –born son. Kennedy later described, “It was like being drafted. My father wanted his oldest son in politics.” “Wanted” isn’t the right word, He demanded it !”
Later when Kennedy was President of the United States, he welcomed both Arthur Evans and Benjamin Kevu to the White House. The coconut that Kennedy scratched the message onto and Evan’s reply had pride of place among his trophies and souvenirs .
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas to where he planned to make speeches on behalf of the space program, for Houston, Texas was the center for the manned space flight program . JFK at age 46 had been President of the United States for two years, ten months and two days.