You don’t have to be a war hero to become president of the United States but it doesn’t hurt, as our 35th president, John F. Kennedy, discovered in the wake of the World War II adventure that befell him this week (Aug. 2) in 1943. While commanding a Navy torpedo boat — the PT-109 — in the South Pacific, Lieutenant Kennedy and his crew were returning to base when suddenly they were rammed by a Japanese destroyer, cutting the boat in half, killing two crew members and wounding several others.
Kennedy quickly organized a rescue operation, which necessitated swimming to an island some three miles away. Adding to the burden of a three-mile swim and an injured back that he had sustained during the collision, Kennedy literally had to tow one of the wounded crew behind him — a tow rope clenched in his teeth as he led his men toward the distant shore. After reaching shore, tending to the wounded and foraging for food, Kennedy began planning their escape and recovery, which was made possible when he and another crew member swam to a nearby island and met two natives who agreed to deliver a rescue message — which Kennedy carved into a coconut — to an Australian coast watcher located in the area. Days later a Navy vessel rescued the entire crew.
And a legend was born. Kennedy was promoted and awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal, and the story of his heroism was featured in newspapers nationwide, including The New York Times.
As for Kennedy, he initially tried to play down the incident, and among experienced Naval officers there was grumbling about the fact that an extremely maneuverable PT boat should easily have avoided a slow-moving destroyer — unless the crew had been (if not literally, then figuratively) asleep at the wheel.
But back in the U.S., questions about his seamanship quickly gave way to kudos for his courage, and nearly two decades later when JFK ran for president, the PT-109 story — in true Naval fashion — was brought out of mothballs, given a paint job, and sold to an electorate that was charmed by Kennedy’s charisma, but unsure about his depth and strength of character. Songs were written about Kennedy and PT-109, replicas of the boat were handed out at campaign rallies, and the famous Kennedy PR machine promoted the story to every media outlet it could find.
Which is not to say that the PT-109 incident won Kennedy the 1960 election, but it is not to say that it didn’t. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by a mere 100 thousand votes in what is the second closest election in modern times. In politics, every little bit helps.