Joe Kennedy Jr. began to sense in the spring of 1941 that the war in Europe would eventually involve the United States. As a result, he left Harvard Law after his second year and began flight training with the US military. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, his training intensified and in May 1942, he received his wings. By fall, he was flying B-24s with the British Coastal Command.
Again following in his brother’s footsteps, Jack feels the need to be part of his country’s war effort as well and volunteers to be part of the Army. The physical problems which have plagued him all his life, however, result in his disqualification. Joe Sr. then contacted Captain Alan Kirk, Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Kirk had served as Naval Attaché in London during the years Joe Sr. was the American Ambassador. With Captain Kirk’s help, Jack enters the US Naval Reserve as an Ensign, working with the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) staff.
January 15, 1942, Jack received orders for the ONI office in Charleston, South Carolina. While there, he spent the majority of April and May in Charleston’s Naval Hospital. Beginning July 27 and lasting through September, he was at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois for Naval Reserve Officers Training School. Next was a transfer to Melville, Rhode Island with the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center. He received a promotion to Lieutenant, Junior Grade on October 10th, and upon completing his training on December 2nd , became the Commanding Officer of PT 101, a 78-foot Higgins torpedo boat. PT 101, along with four others, he is soon assigned to Panama as part of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron FOURTEEN.
On February 23rd, after having sought combat duty, Kennedy became a replacement officer with Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron TWO, based in the Solomon Islands. He arrived on April 14th and took command of PT 109 on the 23rd. PT 109 and several others then left for the Russell Islands on May 30th.
Kennedy commanded PT 109 with the help of executive officer, Ensign Leonard Jay Thom and ten enlisted men. On the nights of August 1-2, 1943, Kennedy’s crew also included his friend, Ensign George H. R. Ross. Ross’s ship had been damaged, so he came on board to help with patrol duty to intercept Japanese warships which were in the straits.
Somewhere around 0200, Kennedy was at the helm of PT 109 as it crept along to avoid detection. It took only ten seconds for the Japanese destroyer Amagiri to slice PT 109 into two sections when it hit the smaller craft traveling at 40 knots (approx 46 mph). Probably due to the size of the smaller craft, the crew of the destroyer had no idea there was a PT boat anywhere in the area, much less the fact they sliced it in two.
The impact of the collision caused the boat to burst into flame and Kennedy to land on his bad back when he was thrown into the cockpit. Water from the Amagiri’s wake served to douse the flames as five of PT 109’s crew clung – Kennedy, Thom, S1/c Raymond Albert, RM2/c John E. Maguire and QM3/c Edman Mauer. As he called out to the crew, Kennedy heard responses from GM3/c Charles A. Harris, whose leg was injured and MoMM1/c Patrick Henry McMahon, the engineer who was badly burned. TM2/c Andrew Jackson Kirksey and MoMM2/c Harold W. Marney were killed due to the collision with Amagiri
With no other recourse, Kennedy led his crew in a three mile swim to a small island southeast of the collision site. During the trip, he towed McMahon by holding within his teeth a strap from the life jacket McMahon wore. After arriving on the island, they learned there was no food or water, so Kennedy and Ross took turns swimming the PT boat route through Ferguson Passage in search of help. Their efforts fruitless, the crew swam to another island with Kennedy again towing McMahon. Here they found coconuts for nourishment. On Day 4 of their adventure, Kennedy and Ross traveled to Nauru Island and found natives. Jack cut a message onto a coconut and gave it to one of the natives, saying “Rendova, Rendova!” as he did. He was telling the native to take the message to the PT base on Rendova.
The following morning, August 8, the natives returned carrying food and supplies. They also had with them a letter from Lt. Arthur Reginald Evans, coastwatcher commander of the New Zealand camp. In the message, he stated the natives should return to him with the commander of the American group. Kennedy immediately went with them and was warmly greeted upon arrival. He then went aboard PT 157 which took him back to the island to rescue his crew.
Jack Kennedy later received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic efforts in rescuing his crew, in addition to the Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained. The entire incident was officially documented by intelligence officers in August 1943. While he was undergoing outpatient treatment for his injuries, Kennedy was ordered detached from the Miami Center on October 30, 1944. He was later released from all active duty and finally retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve on physical disability in March 1945.
In 1959, the accident report was declassified. After he became President, Kennedy was again joined with his rescuers and also toasted by members of the Japanese destroyer crew.
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“I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”
John F. Kennedy