One of the most important characteristics a person can demonstrate is courage in the face of adversity. A Senator from Massachusetts once penned a Pulitzer Prize winning book on the subject, Profiles in Courage. He knew a little about that trait himself. I am speaking of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As a Naval officer in World War II, Kennedy displayed not only true courage but also resourcefulness in getting himself and his crew rescued from a deserted Pacific island. A simple coconut was the key. Today, that coconut holds an honored place in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Hear the amazing, yet true, story of John F. Kennedy and the coconut that saved his life.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, affectionately referred to as Jack by his family, belonged to one of the richest families in America. Despite such privilege, he desired to serve his country when World War II broke out. With assistance from his influential father, a former American ambassador to Great Britain, Jack became the commander of a small patrol boat, PT-109, in the South Pacific Ocean. The boat’s mission was to seek out and destroy enemy Japanese ships.
While on patrol on the night of August 2, 1943, however, a Japanese destroyer, the Amagiri, turned the tables on PT-109 when it appeared from out of the darkness and sliced through the patrol boat. As his boat sank, Kennedy found two crewmembers dead and another two severely injured. After drifting in the black ocean for several hours and waiting for an immediate rescue that did not come, Lieutenant Jack Kennedy concluded that he had to act decisively if he and his remaining crewmembers were to survive. Seeing a nearby island, he determined the crew’s best chance was to swim for it.
Through the shock and chaos of the moment, he personally led the way to safety, even towing an injured sailor by clutching the man’s life jacket strap between his teeth. He and the others finally made the three-mile swim to the one hundred yard long, sand and palm tree covered island. As the men rested from their arduous swim, they knew they had no way to transmit their situation and location to their fellow Americans except with the small lamp they had managed to salvage from the boat. As their commander, Lieutenant Kennedy understood that he had a duty to look out for his men and get them home safely.
That night, the youthful PT commander risked his life again in a desperate attempt to contact any American forces that might be in the area. An excellent swimmer, Jack swam far out into the ocean and waved the lantern in an effort to signal passing American ships. To his deep disappointment, Kennedy found that there were no American vessels in the area that night. He floated in the dark water for hours before the current turned him around and carried him back to the island. Along with his fellow sailors, the previously pampered Kennedy spent the next several days choking down slimy snails for food and searching the skies for signs of an American rescue plane. After four trying days, Jack determined to seek out rescue once again. He swam toward another nearby island in an effort to contact anyone, native or otherwise, to help him and his men get off the island.
Jack Kennedy knew Japanese patrols were everywhere, but he was desperate to save his men, even if it meant risking capture. After searching the island, Lieutenant Kennedy started to paddle back to his crew in an abandoned canoe when two local men found him. There was no chance the two men could themselves rescue the whole crew. In a burst of inspiration, Kennedy came up with the only unsuspicious thing available for the natives to carry with them to Americans on neighboring islands. On a coconut, he carved a brief message detailing his name, his command, and his island location. He was then able to make the natives understand the need to convey it to American forces. The natives successfully evaded the Japanese, and they eventually delivered Lieutenant Kennedy’s coconut “letter “ to an American unit on a close-by island. Rescue for John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the remaining crew of PT-109 soon followed.
The story of John F. Kennedy’s bravery in getting his men to safety and his resourcefulness in using a coconut to communicate his rescue plea made him a national celebrity. He came home to a joyous welcome by his family, friends, and a grateful nation. After the war, Kennedy ran for Congress and won. In 1960, he was elected the 35th President of the United States, the youngest man ever to be elected to that high office. Jack never forgot how close he came to death during those dangerous days in the Pacific. The coconut, which held a special place on his presidential desk, was a constant reminder of his own profile in courage.