On this day in 1942, a young Navy officer named John F. Kennedy writes a letter to playwright and family friend Clare Booth Luce thanking her for sending him a good-luck coin.
According to Library of Congress records, the coin had belonged to Booth Luce’s mother. Kennedy received the gift just a day before leaving the Kennedy home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, for World War II duty in the Pacific. In his note, he thanked Booth Luce for her kindness and swore he would clip the coin to his military identification tags.He told her, “good luck is a commodity in rather large demand these days and I feel you have given me a particularly potent bit of it.”
The good-luck charm may have come in handy in 1942 when the PT boat Kennedy was commanding in the Pacific came under heavy fire from the Japanese. 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 gave the order 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 them 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. On August 8, a Navy patrol boat picked up the haggard survivors.
On June 12, 1944, while he was in the hospital recovering from back surgery, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps’ highest honor for “courage, endurance and excellent leadership [that] 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.