By John Desselle Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
“Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You, Ask What You Can Do For Your Country” (JFK)
Decorated Navy veteran and 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy “JFK” was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917. To commemorate what would be his 100th birthday, we take a look back at his legacy and history in the Navy.
Service in any branch of the military wasn’t always a likely option for Kennedy as he suffered from chronic lower back problems all the way up and through college. Even after graduating from Harvard he attempted to enter the Army’s Officer Candidate School, but was medically disqualified.
On September 24, 1941, after exercising for months to strengthen his back, and with the help of the director of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), Kennedy joined the United States Naval Reserve. He was commissioned as an ensign on October 26, 1941, and joined the staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C.
In 1942, he attended the Naval Reserve Officer Training School at Northwestern University and then volunteered to enter the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center in Melville, Rhode Island. After completing his training and being promoted to lieutenant junior grade, he was assigned to Motor Torpedo Squadron FOUR.
On the night of Aug. 1–2, as PT-109 was performing nighttime patrols in the Solomon Islands, it spotted a Japanese destroyer nearby and attempted to turn to attack. During the engagement PT-109 was hit and cut in half by the destroyer Amagiri. Two of the crew members were killed and some injured.
Kennedy gathered his surviving ten crew members including those injured around the wreckage, to vote on whether to “fight or surrender”. He stated: “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.” Rejecting surrender, the men swam towards a small island three miles away.
Despite re-injuring his back in the collision, Kennedy towed a badly burned crewman through the water to the island with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth, and later to a second island, where his crew was subsequently rescued on Aug. 8. Kennedy and Ensign Leonard Thom, his executive officer on PT-109, were both later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism and the Purple Heart Medal for injuries..
On March 1, 1945, John F. Kennedy retired from the Navy Reserve on physical disability and was honorably discharged with the full rank of lieutenant. When asked later how he became a war hero, Kennedy joked: “It was easy. They cut my PT boat in half.”
Kennedy received several military decorations and awards include the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Purple Heart Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze stars, and the World War II Victory Medal.
After his military service Kennedy served as U.S. House of Representatives (1947–1953) Democratic 11th Congressional district in Massachusetts. He also served in the U.S. Senate (1953–1960) After serving three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, Kennedy decided to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate representing Massachusetts.
On Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. During his presidency, Kennedy faced with some of the most complicated issues in recent American history, including the Cuban Missile Crisis , the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and several others.
The Kennedy family were dedicated in serving their country. The Older Brother Joseph P. Kennedy a Navy pilot, was killed after volunteering for a special and hazardous air mission when his plane exploded over the English Channel. After the loss of their older brother, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy were both still determined to serve in the military. The Navy veteran Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated June 1968.
On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the decorated Navy veteran and President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. A very sad day for the country, a day we’ll always remember.
As President and Commander and Chief, Kennedy honored his military by visiting the Atlantic Fleet in 1962. Check out the video below: