John F Kennedy: Remembering the PT-109
When asked as to how he became a war hero during the infamous destruction of the PT-109, John F. Kennedy simply replied, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” Usually when Kennedy’s name comes to mind, many people recognize him as the revolutionary 35th president of America who set his nation on the right path and contributed a great deal to our history. Often many do not realize that Kennedy started off as the underdog and had to sacrifice so much to reach his rank as one of the most beloved presidents of America. Had he died that dark night in the deep waters of the Pacific, his name would have held no meaning to many Americans today. John F. Kennedy’s bravery and display of heroism during the destruction of the PT-109 serves as an inspiration and reminder to American soldiers to stand strong and be willing to sacrifice during the darkest times.
Prior to the infamous disaster, Kennedy served in the navy as Lieutenant Junior Grade (JG) Kennedy. Even before the disaster, Kennedy believed it was a soldier’s duty to put his life on the line to save others; his displays of compassion and selflessness earned him his high rank and respect amongst his colleagues. When remembering Kennedy, Patrick McMahon –a soldier rescued by Kennedy during the collision– stated, “JFK always had confidence in his men; the crew loved him. He would do anything for anyone” (Larsen). Since childhood, Kennedy had always believed in helping others out of the good of his heart. Kennedy’s selflessness and benevolence played no small part in earning him high amounts of respect from his crew. He believed it was his obligation as a soldier to protect his men, regardless of his life being at risk. As a result, Kennedy’s noble acts and kindness carried him far during his occupation as a soldier; perhaps his compassionate persona was his greatest weapon towards the injustice he encountered in his world. Additionally, Kennedy displayed excellent strength and tactics during his time training as a soldier. John Hersey wrote, “It was a calling based on his skills and passions from a life of growing up on Cape Cod among the sleek and fast luxurious wooden hulled motorboats effortlessly skimming across the waves on weekends” (Hersey). Kennedy had displayed love for military training and vehicle navigation since his childhood. His weekly commitment to handling motorboats manifested into a lifestyle that would later aid him for that fateful night in August 1943. His time spent physically engaging himself and maneuvering boats had no small impact and aided him in earning his rank of Lieutenant. It can be argued that the combination of Kennedy’s empathetic personality and exceptional physical skill distinguished him as one of the Navy’s most cherished soldiers. Both of these traits would later be put to test during the fateful destruction of the PT-109.
The starless night of the collision was not only one of darkness, but was also a major event that toyed with the lives of Kennedy and his crew men. This was the life-or-death occurrence that would decide Kennedy’s moral and physical strength as a soldier. After researching the collision, historian Dave Roos proclaimed, “In what’s perhaps the most enduring image of Kennedy’s heroism in the South Pacific, the young lieutenant, himself suffering from a serious back injury, cut a strap from McMahon’s life jacket and clasped it in his teeth” (Roos). From this piece of text the reader can infer that Kennedy was willing to put his life on the line despite having suffered serious injuries himself. Kennedy stayed true to his duty as a soldier and swam for hours in the ocean while barely hanging on to McMahon. Had Kennedy not put himself in his difficult position, McMahon would have died alone in the ocean. Furthermore, Kennedy was a brilliant tactician and expertly handled making difficult choices under pressure; this would come into use during his time escaping Japanese soldiers while stranded on an island. In one of Kennedy’s pivotal moments, he questioned his crew, “‘If the Japanese come after us, do you want to fight or do you want to surrender?’”(“Kennedy, John F.”). As Junior Grade Lieutenant, Kennedy was willing to make decisions without regards to his own life. He embodied his role as a soldier and never hesitated to take lead, knowing his crew’s lives would depend on his choices. Even in the most hopeless moments, the Lieutenant inspired his crew to fight back, and to leave no man behind. Regardless of what the media would later say about him, it was without a doubt that Kennedy’s heroism and selfless duty saved the lives of his two crewmen and proved his valour in World War Two.
Kennedy believed that the destruction of the PT-109 was what shaped him into becoming a prodigious leader and eventually one of America’s most beloved presidents. Kennedy’s heroic actions ensured him as the only U.S president to earn the Navy and Marine Corps medal and the Purple Heart medal. Believing the disaster to have a larger impact than fancy medals, Stephen Plotkin wrote, “For here was a war hero who had not won battles but who had shown courage and dogged will, responsibility for those he led and the ability to inspire them— and it would be hard to better this as a short list of qualifications for a political leader” (Plotkin). Kennedy’s actions serve as a huge inspiration to not just soldiers, but to America as a whole. A soldier should be willing to sacrifice themselves to protect the lives of others; Kennedy proved his morality as a soldier during the disaster regardless of the struggle. People can learn from his actions today and fight in their own way to protect the innocent. Many years later, the story of the PT-109 captured young voters, impacting the outcome of the 1948 election and designating Kennedy a seat in the US House of Representatives. Dave Roos expressed, “Just three years later, JFK won his first political race for a US House of Representatives seat in his hometown of Boston and his reputation as a Purple Heart-winning war hero played no small part” (Roos). Kennedy’s heroic role during the collision strengthened his reputation; the media and propaganda had no hesitation in emphasizing Kennedy’s hero status. It was without a doubt that the collision experience greatly impacted Kennedy and enhanced his leadership while serving as the 35th president. Common belief states that had Kennedy’s story not received justice, he wouldn’t have made it very far into his journey of becoming president. The destruction of the PT-109 molded Kennedy into an experienced war hero who served for the greater good; his presidency reshaped America and set the nation towards the right path. Kennedy’s bravery and heroism has had a lasting impact on the nation, enlightening Americans and future presidents to fight for the right actions even if it was to their own detriment.
Americans today can all take inspiration from Kennedy’s heroic deeds and selflessness. He stayed true to his duty as a soldier and proved himself to be a man worthy of leadership. There is no doubt that John F. Kennedy heroic war efforts serve as an innovation to citizens and soldiers fighting their own battles today. For here was a fine soldier who fought as a war hero and protected his crewmates during the darkest times- something everyone should take into consideration when defending those they have responsibility for.
- Fleming, Thomas. “JFK: Hero or Goat in PT Boat Disaster?” RealClearHistory, Real Clear History, 2 Aug. 2017, www.realclearhistory.com/2017/08/02/jfk_hero_or_goat_in_pt_boat_disaster_3035.html. Accessed Jan. 21, 2019
- Hersey, John. “John F. Kennedy’s Story of Survival.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 Oct. 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1944/06/17/survival-2. Accessed 19 Jan. 2019
- Larsen, Sharon Whitley. “Remembering JFK and PT-109 Heroism.” Sandiegouniontribune.com, The San Diego Union Tribune, 5 Sept. 2016, www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sdut-remembering-jfk-and-pt-109-heroism-2013nov21-story.html. Accessed Jan 21. 2019
- Plotkin, Stephen. “Sixty Years Later, the Story of PT-109 Still Captivates.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, 2003, www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2003/summer/pt109.html. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019
- Roos, Dave. “The Navy Disaster That Earned JFK Two Medals for Heroism.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 3 Dec. 2018, www.history.com/news/jfk-wwii-purple-heart-torpedo-boat. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019