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President Kennedy’s WWII Connection

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Image Courtesy of the JFK Library

On this day in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX. On this somber day of remembrance, we are reminded of the President’s distinguished military career, during which he was awarded many honors, including the Purple Heart.

After receiving a medical disqualification from the Army for chronic lower back issues, Kennedy entered the Navy. His career led him to the Pacific War Theater, where he commanded a PT (patrol torpedo) Boat. (Notably, many of these types of boats were constructed by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, LA, and were instrumental in major events like MacArthur’s evacuation from the Philippines in 1942. If you’ve ever wondered why the Museum is located in New Orleans, you’ve got your answer!)

It was on the PT-109 that Kennedy became a hero.

Crew of the PT-109 courtesy of the National Archives.

On August 2, 1943, his boat and two others were rammed by a Japanese destroyer, decimating much of the structure. As the wreckage spread out into the water, Lieutenant Kennedy gathered the crew members who survived and asked them to choose: fight or surrender. They chose to fight, and swam their way to safety on a small island. Kennedy, injured and bleeding, held a life jacket in his mouth as he swam to safety, gripping one of the wounded crew members who had been badly burned.

Kennedy was honored with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in this citation:

“For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1–2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

President Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is lit with an eternal flame, and his wife Jackie, their two deceased children, and brothers Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy are buried nearby.

Image of the eternal flame, courtesy of Arlington National Cemetery

What do you know about President Kennedy? How does your town remember our fallen President? What about other veterans of WWII?

Visit My Town Remembers WWII – An Interactive Map and Contest

Read more about Higgins’ PT Boats

Get Primary Sources and Explore Higgins Boats as a National History Day topic

Posted by Gemma Birnbaum, Digital Education Coordinator at the National WWII Museum.

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One Response to “President Kennedy’s WWII Connection”

Jonathan M. Sherman says:

I would like to say Thank You to all veterans, living, and not with us, who helped to make this day possible (including my mother and father). May those of you, still with us, have a happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas and Chanukah, and a happy New Year. May you live a long and happy life.

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