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Daily History

August 2 1943 Japanese forces attack PT boat with Kennedy on board

PT 109 Crew: Lt. John F. Kennedy is on the far right

On August 2nd 1943, future President John F. Kennedy was serving as commander of a torpedo boat in the Solomon Islands when his ship was fired upon by the Japanese navy.

As a young man, Kennedy had desperately wanted to go into the Navy but was originally rejected because of chronic health problems, particularly a back injury he had sustained playing football while attending Harvard University.

In 1941, though, his politically connected father used his influence to get Jack, as he was called, into the Navy. In 1942, Kennedy volunteered for PT (motorised torpedo) boat duty in the Pacific.

In July 1943, according to the official Navy report, Kennedy and the crew of PT 109 were ordered into combat near the Solomon Islands. In the middle of the night on August 2, their boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and caught fire.

Several of Kennedy’s shipmates were blown overboard into a sea of burning oil. Kennedy dove in to rescue three of the crew and in the process swallowed some of the toxic mixture. (Kennedy would later blame this for chronic stomach problems).

For 12 hours, Kennedy and his crew clung to the wrecked hull, before he ordered them to abandon ship. Kennedy and the other good swimmers placed the injured on a makeshift raft, and then took turns pushing and towing the raft four miles to safety on a nearby island.

For six days, Kennedy and his crew waited on the island for rescue. They survived by drinking coconut milk and rainwater until native islanders discovered the sailors and offered food and shelter. Every night, Kennedy tried to signal other U.S. Navy ships in the area.

He also reportedly scrawled a message on a coconut husk and gestured to the islanders to take it to a nearby PT base at Rendova. Finally, on August 8, a Navy patrol boat picked up the haggard survivors.

On June 12, 1944, while he was in the hospital recuperating from back surgery, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps’ highest honour for “courage, endurance and excellent leadership [which] contributed to the saving of several lives and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.” The future president also received a Purple Heart for wounds received during battle.

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About Craig Hill

Social Justice Campaigner. Business and Education Consultant. Former Business/ESL Teacher. Lived in China and USA. Dealing with disability. My articles have been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and many other international publications.


5 thoughts on “August 2 1943 Japanese forces attack PT boat with Kennedy on board

  1. As a bit of trivia, the PT boats’ role in the war was exponentially glamorized when the movie “PT 109” was released. In essence, however, the efficacy of the PT boats in sinking or damaging offensive Japanese naval ships was very low. Nevertheless, President Kennedy was indeed a brave and courageous man.

    Posted by Mustang.Koji | August 2, 2012, 01:13
  2. Old news … that’s completely new to me. Never heard about this before. Thanks for passing it on.

    Posted by viveka | August 2, 2012, 01:39
  3. A good retelling of this legendary story of a legendary President. A real “Profile in Courage”.

    Posted by swabby429 | August 2, 2012, 01:57
  4. I was nine when Kennedy became President. My friend and I all knew the story of PT-109. Thanks for the reminder.

    Posted by Bruce | August 3, 2012, 13:55
  5. I didn’t care for Kennedy, but respected his naval service and saving the life of the burned sailor.

    Posted by gpcox | April 1, 2013, 01:25

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