On this day in 1943, future President John F. Kennedy is serving as commander of a torpedo boat in the Solomon Islands when his ship is 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 (motorized 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 honor 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.