JFK, Hero or Zero?

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A Brief History

On August 2, 1943, the US Navy patrol torpedo boat, PT-109, commanded by Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands.  Kennedy would go on to become President of the United States, partially based on his status as a war hero for his exploits concerning his command of PT-109 for which he achieved national hero status.  Was that status deserved?  (See our many articles about Naval “Oops” moments)

Digging Deeper

John F. Kennedy was born into a relatively wealthy Irish Catholic family in Massachusetts, his forbears having dabbled in politics as well as business.  His father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. made a fortune in Scotch Whisky and served as the US ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 to 1940.  Such were Kennedy’s familial political roots that it was thought his eldest brother, Joseph Jr., might one day become President of the United States.  Unfortunately, though Joe Jr. and John both served in the US Navy during World War II, Joe was killed in an accident involving a radio controlled bomber filled with explosives in 1944, leaving John as the logical political heir to the Kennedy future.

The United States Navy, like most navies, takes a dim view of commanding officers that lose their ship, especially when that ship does not go down in some sort of heroic battle.  Take for example the cruiser USS Indianapolis, torpedoed in 1945 by a Japanese submarine.  Although there is little the skipper could realistically have done to prevent the tragedy, he was court martialed and convicted of “hazarding his ship,” eventually resulting in his own suicide in 1968, though his name was cleared in 2000 by the US Congress and President Clinton.

On the fateful night in 1943, Kennedy and his crew of 13 men were on patrol when out of the darkness a Japanese destroyer suddenly loomed over the hapless little (80 feet long by 20 feet 8 inches wide) PT-109, striking the torpedo boat amidships and cutting the PT boat in half.  Kennedy and his crew claimed to be aware of the oncoming destroyer and attempted to turn into the approaching warship in order to bring their 37mm armor piercing gun to bear against the enemy ship.  The fact that PT-109 had been idling on a single engine to reduce her audio and visual signal to the enemy (a normally operating PT boat or other vessel at night would create a phosphorescent wake visible to enemy ships and planes) slowed her response and the PT boat failed to get around in time to fire on the destroyer.  Incredibly, only 2 American sailors were lost in the collision, though 2 others were badly burned by the exploding gasoline fuel.

Although the collision and resulting explosion of PT-109 was witnessed by 2 other PT boats, the crews of those 2 boats did not look for survivors and instead returned to their base!  Meanwhile, Kennedy and the 11 surviving crewmen clung to the floating bow portion of PT-109.  The next day, with the bow section sinking, Kennedy led his survivors to swim to a deserted island, a harrowing 4hour swim through waters known to contain many sharks and crocodiles, though none of those predators actually attacked the men.  Kennedy himself personally towed one of his injured crewmen.  While on the island, Kennedy bravely swam out into the dark waters at night to attempt to flag down an American PT boat or other vessel, but was unsuccessful.  Kennedy then led his men on another harrowing swim, this time 3 and ¾ miles away to another island in an attempt to find fresh water to drink.  Kennedy made yet another swim in search of rescue or provisions, and this time found a canoe with some crackers and fresh water, which he brought back to this crew.  Kennedy also encountered Melanesian natives friendly to the Allies and was able to roughly communicate his desire to be rescued.  The natives duly relayed the message of PT-109’s survivors to American authorities and the crew of PT-109 was saved.

Despite the ignominy of losing his ship in disastrous fashion, Kennedy and his crew were rescued by a PT boat that happened to have reporters aboard, and the reports filed back to the United States were about “Kennedy’s son” (meaning the son of well known rich businessman and diplomat Joseph Kennedy) was not only alive but also was a hero that saved his crew (minus the 2 men never found). News reports bubbled over with praise for Kennedy, ignoring the contributions to the survival of his crew by other crew members and of course the native coast watchers that helped save them.  Under those circumstances, it would have been a propaganda and public relations disaster to blame Kennedy for the loss of his little ship.

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) John F. Kennedy was recommended for the Silver Star medal but was instead awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal as well as the Purple Heart.  He would later run for elected office, representing Massachusetts in the US House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953, and in the Senate from 1953 to 1960.  In 1960, Kennedy was elected President of the United States, and the entire country, if not the world, was quite familiar with the story of PT-109 and the heroics of John Kennedy.  A major motion picture, cleverly titled PT 109, was released in 1963 and the Kennedy legend was only furthered by the Hollywood dramatization, again, keying on the actions of Kennedy and not so much the others.  In 1962, Jimmy Dean (“Big Bad John” and sausage fame) came out with a nifty song called “PT 109,” a top 10 song that once again sang the praises of John F. Kennedy.

Although Kennedy’s actions may have been overstated by the press and popular culture regarding the PT-109 disaster, his actions in the face of catastrophe and danger were undeniably heroic.  Much discussion about whether or not he was to blame for losing his ship has generally resulted in a lukewarm consensus that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing at the time and the collision and loss of PT-109 was not due to his negligence or incompetence.  Kennedy critics have long implied the young Naval officer was given a pass on responsibility for the loss of PT-109 because of his family political connections. The night in question was dark, with some fog and no moon, and the officers on the bridge of the Japanese destroyer had a much higher vantage point to see the idling PT boat before the crew of PT-109 could spot the destroyer.  No report of enemy destroyers in the area was made to warn the PT skippers, and the incident appears to have been one of those unfortunate things that happen during warfare.  Sure, a less famous son commanding a PT boat lost in the manner of PT-109 may have been court martialed to determine fault, but it seems Kennedy was probably not really at fault anyway.  Unlike many other paper tiger politicians, Kennedy actually served his country in wartime and served in combat, in a particularly dangerous theater and manner of fighting.  He deserves credit for that if nothing else! What do you think?

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think all US Presidents should have military experience? Why or why not? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Domagalski, John. Into the Dark Water: The Story of Three Officers and PT-109. Casemate, 2014.

Donovan, Robert. PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WW II. McGraw-Hill, 2001.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of LTJG John F. Kennedy aboard PT-109, 1943, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.