The story of John F. Kennedy’s World War II exploits while in command of PT-109 are well known, but the rest of his time in the U.S. Navy has not received much attention. How he became a naval officer, and what he did before and after his time in command of PT-109, tells us much about this future U.S. president.
In the fall of 1941, with war raging in Europe and ominous rumblings in the Far East, Kennedy applied for the Army’s officer candidate school but was rejected and classified 4-F because of his bad back, ulcers, and asthma. Disappointed, Kennedy wrote to a friend, “I am rapidly reaching a point where every one of my peers will be in uniform, and I do not intend to be the only one . . . wearing coward’s tweeds.”
He contacted Captain Alan Kirk, who had been his father’s naval attaché when Joseph Kennedy was the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. Now serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), Kirk thought highly of Jack Kennedy and believed he would be an asset to ONI, where brains (which Kennedy had plenty of) were of more importance than physical endurance. Kirk pulled some strings to get around the Navy doctors and managed to secure Kennedy a commission in the Navy.
Reporting to ONI in October 1941, Ensign Kennedy worked there for nine months, but—like the fictional Mr. Roberts—he desperately wanted to go to the front lines, so he applied for the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Northwestern University. Longtime friend Kirk “Lem” Billings believed Jack “always had something to prove, physically. . . . He was always so behind the eight-ball with his health that he would engage in this bravado . . . to overcompensate and prove he was fit when he really wasn’t.”
At Northwestern, Kennedy studied navigation, gunnery, and other naval preparations for war while sleeping on a table at night because of his bad back.
One day in early September, Commander John Bulkeley, who had received the Medal of Honor after taking General Douglas MacArthur through enemy lines on a PT boat, came to the school and shared inspirational tales with the students. When he asked for 50 volunteers of “surpassing courage,” all 1,024 students stepped forward. None retreated when Bulkeley added, “Those of you who want to come back after the war . . . need not apply; PT boat skippers are not coming back.”
After a brief (and apparently cursory) medical examination and a successful personal interview, Kennedy received orders to Motor Torpedo Boat Training School at Melville, Rhode Island. He did so well there he was ordered to remain as an instructor, causing him to unhappily remark that he had been “shafted,” earning him the nickname “Shafty.”
Eventually, wearing khakis instead of “coward’s tweeds,” he arrived in the Solomon Islands, where he took command of PT-109 and made his fateful and famous rendezvous with the Japanese destroyer Amagiri.
After recuperating from the PT-109 ordeal and eager to get back into the fight, Kennedy secured command of PT-59. To counter Japanese barges that were bringing troops to the Northern Solomons, PT-59 was converted to a gunboat—PTGB-1—by removing the torpedo tubes and adding numerous guns. With the refitting completed, Kennedy took his boat to the base at Lambu Lambu Cove on Vella Lavella Island and began conducting patrols across New Georgia Sound in the approaches to Choiseul Bay.
On 1 November 1943, some members of U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Victor “Brute” Krulak’s Second Marine Parachute Battalion, surrounded by Japanese forces on Choiseul Island, were calling for assistance. Kennedy, refueling at the Lambu Lambu base, got underway with only one-third of a tank and headed across the sound, accompanied by PT-239.
Arriving at the Warrior River, Kennedy found the Marines boarding two landing craft while under heavy Japanese fire. One landing craft had been damaged and was limping its way out to sea. The other struck a coral reef, lost power, and was taking on water as it drifted dangerously close to the shore. As it came to rest on coral less than 100 yards from the beach, Kennedy placed his boat between the shore and the landing craft and began taking on personnel and equipment. With the Marines safely on board, Kennedy returned to Vella Lavella, towed partway by PT-239 when his boat ran out of fuel.
Soon, the rest of Krulak’s Marines needed evacuation, and Kennedy volunteered to return to Choiseul. With four other PTs, the mini-flotilla extracted the remaining Marines as Japanese forces closed in, hampered by booby traps left behind by Krulak’s men.
Kennedy conducted more patrols off Choiseul Bay until 18 November, when a doctor recognized that he—now 25 pounds lighter—was physically and mentally exhausted. The doctor ordered him home, and Lieutenant Kennedy left the Navy on physical disability in March 1944.
Years later, then-General Krulak presented then-President Kennedy with a bottle of whiskey in thanks for the 1943 rescue.
Reflecting on his naval service, Kennedy later said: “Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile . . . can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”