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Presidents and the Military: John F Kennedy

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it.” – John F Kennedy

Growing up in New England, it was hard not to realize there was something important about the name “Kennedy.”

One of my friends attended John F. Kennedy Middle School and after college a friend who moved to Boston settled near John F. Kennedy Street in Cambridge.

The Kennedy name is ubiquitous plastered on schools, street signs, gardens, memorials and buildings.

Most people know who John F. Kennedy was, but they don’t know the whole story.

Edward J. Renehan’s book The Kennedy’s at War peels back the infamous PT-109 story to reveal a young future president utterly alone and for the first time in his life faced with a situation that no amount of money, prestige or influence could help with.

We have had many war heroes who became President, from Old Hickory to Theodore Roosevelt, but JFK is the last true war hero to occupy the office.

War made John F. Kennedy and it almost destroyed him.

It all begins with a sickly young Jack who growing up was in and out of hospitals. Jack’s siblings would often tease that “if a mosquito bit Jack Kennedy, the mosquito would die.” When Jack was only three years old, he suffered from scarlet fever that almost killed him. But this wouldn’t be the last time he brushed up against death. After recurrent bouts of hospital stays, he was diagnosed with colitis in 1934 and in 1947 was officially diagnosed with Addison’s disease.

Before even being sworn in as President, Jack was issued his last rites on several different occasions. In 1937, while away at Harvard, he injured his back while playing football. That back injury would never heal and cause him pain the rest of his life.

Renehan reveals that Jack’s childhood teetering between life and death stirred him to take risks.

Not knowing when death would come, young Kennedy learned to live on the edge. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 young Jack was listening on the radio.

He was also eager to fight.

Jack first attempted to enlist in the Army but was turned away because he couldn’t pass a physical examination. He next attempted to join the Navy and according to Renehan used the influence of his father to persuade friends in the military to accept a fake certificate of good health to enable young Jack entry as a naval officer. The trick worked and Kennedy was enlisted despite his plague of health issues.

It wasn’t until the cloudy and moonless night of August 2, 1943 that 25-year-old Lieutenant Kennedy would go down in the aura of myth and legend.

His PT-109 boat that he commanded would be struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri and was cut in half near the Solomon Islands.

Two fellow sailors on the ship were instantly killed and two others badly wounded. It is here that Kennedy’s heroics were on full display. Using a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth, the young Kennedy towed one of his badly burned crew members more than four hours to shore on remote Plum Pudding Island. Kennedy would make several additional swims to save his fellow service members who were clinging onto debris.

In the days that followed, Kennedy braved shark infested waters to make additional swims in search of food and fresh water for his men. He ultimately would carve an SOS message on a coconut that he gave to native coast watchers to pass along to other scouts and eventually a U.S. military post.

It is here that Renehan believes Jack became a leader. For the first time in his young life, no amount of money, prestige or influence could help save him or his men on that remote island. Kennedy had to fight to survive just like his men. In that moment, there was nothing separating them.

What is so remarkable about the PT-109 story is that it even happened at all.

Renehan reveals that young Jack Kennedy had everything working for him to not have to serve in the war. He was born into tremendous privilege and favor and could have used the political influence of his father to stay home playing football, sailing and partying. In addition, his medical ailments would have sidelined him from serving.

But Jack’s commitment to serve would propel him not only to be a Naval officer but a future U.S. President.

Renehan’s account of the lengths in which young John F. Kennedy went to serve are best described by President Kennedy himself in his inaugural address given on January 20, 1961.

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

This article is one in a series of book reviews about U.S. Presidents who served in the U.S. military.

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