August 1, 1943 – John F. Kennedy’s Boat is Hit by a Japanese Destroyer During World War II

Long before he ran for President of the United States, John F. Kennedy was serving as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. He was in charge of a PT, or “patrol torpedo” boat, one of fifteen in Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands sent to engage, damage, or turn back Japanese navy convoy supply ships.

Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, USNR, (standing at right) with other crewmen on board PT-109, 1943.

When the PT boats did encounter the Japanese ships, they fired thirty torpedoes to no effect. The few that still had torpedoes, including PT-109, Kennedy’s boat, remained in the strait for another try.

In the darkness on this date in history, a Japanese destroyer struck PT 109, ripping away the starboard aft side of the boat.

As the Washington Post told the story:

PT-109 was cut in two. Its engine, powered by high-octane gas, exploded. Two men were killed. The others clung to the boat’s floating front end.

Eventually, Kennedy and 10 survivors swam four hours to reach a small, unoccupied island where they could wait for help to come. For six days, they subsisted on coconuts and hope.”

Some of the men would not have made it without Kennedy’s help. Kennedy had been on the swim team at Harvard. He towed one of the injured men to the island, and “alternately cajoled and berated” another to keep swimming.

Meanwhile, the leadership assumed the explosion had left no survivors, and did not send any rescue boats. Fortunately, however, Kennedy’s crew was spotted by two Pacific Islanders passing by in a canoe. Even more fortuitously, they were two of the men enlisted by Western forces to help fight the war as islander scouts.

Kennedy wanted to send word they needed to be rescued, and one of the men showed him how to scratch a few words into the husk of a green coconut. They left with his message:

NAURO ISL
COMMANDER . . . NATIVE KNOWS
POS’IT . . . HE CAN PILOT . . . 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT . . . KENNEDY

The next morning, August 7, eight islanders appeared on Kennedy’s island with food and instructions from the local Allied coastwatcher.

Late that night, PT 157, commanded by William F. Liebenow, Kennedy’s tent-mate in the Solomon Islands, picked up Kennedy, who guided them to the island.

The Washington Post reports:

John Hersey, who would go on to write the famous New Yorker epic “Hiroshima,” described what happened next in a 1944 story for the magazine. When Kennedy saw PT-157, he shouted, ‘Where the hell you been?’

‘We got some food for you,’ Liebenow called back. 

‘No, thanks,’ Kennedy replied. ‘I just had a coconut.’

Once Kennedy’s crew was on board, the successful mission was celebrated by a few passings of the medical brandy.”

The rescue went forward without incident, and the men of PT 109 reached the US base at Rendova at 5:30 a.m. on August 8.

For his courage and leadership, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and injuries suffered during the incident also qualified him for a Purple Heart.

Seventeen years after rescuing him, Liebenow helped Kennedy campaign in Michigan. Liebenow died at age 97, and was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetary.

William F. Liebenow with John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in Michigan in 1960. (Liebenow family photo via Washington Post)

The Washington Post noted:

Beside his final resting place was a wreath and a bundle of red and white flowers. On a small piece of paper clipped to the front was a note from Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of the president. It was signed, ‘With deepest appreciation.’”

Note: In 2020, a crane dredged up the remnants of what is believed to be PT-59, another patrol boat commanded by John F. Kennedy during World War II. You can read more about it here.

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