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KOn August 1, 1943, John F. Kennedy was at the helm of PT 109 on his way back to base at Rendova in the South Pacific after a fruitless night patrol. A large shape suddenly loomed up; it was the Japanese destroyer Amigari and it cut PT 109 in half.

Patrol Torpedo Boats (PTs) were small, light swift boats designed to harass the enemy, by sneaking up under cover of darkness, dropping their torpedoes and speeding away before they could be detected. Kennedy’s father had to pull strings to get Jack into the Navy and then more strings to get him into combat. But there he was on August 1st.

Artist rendition of the ramming of PT 109

Artist rendition of the ramming of PT 109

Kennedy later recalled that he thought he was going to be killed. He wasn’t, but two were; three others were badly injured. “He swam to get one of them, Pappy McMahon, and towed him back to the wreckage of the boat, where they clung to the hull until daylight with the other survivors. As the remnants of PT 109 began to sink, they all headed for a tiny island three miles away, Kennedy breast-stroking and pulling McMahon, who was hanging on to a piece of wood, by a tow rope clenched in his teeth. After they were washed up on the beach, Jack and his men rested. That night he stripped naked and swam back out into the Blackett Strait again, carrying a .38 revolver to fire in case a search vessel passed nearby. He turned back at dawn, and, as the story later emerged, was unable to make headway against the strong riptide; he was so exhausted that he gave himself over to the current, thinking it would carry him out to sea, but he was swept up safely on land. They were afraid there might be Japanese soldiers on the tiny island, but while they found a Japanese cache of candy and crackers, there was no enemy. There was another harrowing swim out to open sea to look for rescue but no luck. Two islanders came by in a canoe and Jack carved a message or a coconut shell for them to take to an Australian coast watcher several islands away: NATIVE KNOWS POSIT HE CAN PILOT 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT KENNEDY. On the sixth day after their ordeal b egan, an Island boaT arrived to take Kennedy and his men to a rendezvous with a PT As it pulled away the men were singing ” Jesus loves me this I rescue boat Bible tells me so…”1

Kennedy in his PT boat.

Kennedy in his PT boat.

This incident was a turning point for Kennedy. He had gone to the South Pacific because he wanted to be part of the action or because his father, Joseph Kennedy, wanted him out of Washington, D.C. where he was dating a woman from Holland whom some thought was a spy. Whatever the motives, the experience made Kennedy into the man who would later deftly handle the Cuban Missile Crisis. In particular, the rescue of McMahon and the swims into the Blackett Strait developed his character and fortitude.

Kennedy went to the South Pacific as privileged son of one of the richest men in the country…he returned to the States his own man.

His transformation came at a very opportune time. Joseph Kennedy had been grooming his oldest son, Joseph, Jr., to be President of the United States. Joe had wanted to be President himself, but when it became apparent that was not going to happen, he began to prepare Joe, Jr. for the Presidency. Shortly after the PT 109 incident, Joe, Jr. was killed in the line of duty. The mantel fell on Jack. Jack resisted, and, I believe, he would have not have become President without PT 109.

It was not because he became a war hero (years later when asked how he became a war hero, Kennedy remarked, “It was easy, they sank my boat”) that made him a leader. Becoming a war hero was a by-product of his actions that formed him into a leader. He was truly in command those harrowing days in the South Pacific—a prelude to being Commander-in-Chief.

Leadership Lessons

  1. Just because your support network (boat) collapses, all is not lost.
  2. People are more important than things.
  3. Learn to use the resources at your disposal, even if you don’t know the language.
  4. Sometimes you might not be the first choice, but don’t let that hinder you.
  5. The most difficult circumstances sometimes serve as an anvil that shapes our character.

1from The Kennedys: An American Drama, by Peter Collier & David Horowitz,  p. 130-131