Solve the JFK History Mystery: What is this Object?

Students use primary and secondary sources to research a mystery artifact -- a coconut husk with a message carved on it -- and determine the object’s historical significance.

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
0-1 hour
1-2 hours
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
English Language Arts
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
Biographical Resources
Curricular Standards
Common Core
National History Standards (UCLA)
Massachusetts Framework - English Language Arts
Massachusetts Framework - History and Social Science


Type:Lesson Plans and Activities

Topic: Historical Research and Biography

Grade Level: 3-8

Subject Area: US History, English Language Arts

Time Required: 1 hour


Students research an artifact using primary and secondary sources, and use the information to determine the object’s historical significance.

Essential Question:What is an artifact and what makes it historically significant?


Students will be able to:

  • examine a primary source and generate questions for further research.
  • investigate photographs and captions to gather evidence.
  • listen to and read a secondary source, and synthesize the information to determine an object’s historical significance.


Historical Background

Many young Americans of all backgrounds volunteered for military service in World War II, including young John F. Kennedy who enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941. Commanding the USS PT 109 (patrol torpedo boat), Lieutenant, Junior Grade, John Kennedy and his crew participated in the early campaigns in the Allies’ long struggle to roll back the Japanese from their conquests throughout the island chains of the Pacific Ocean. The role of the small but fast PT boats was to attack the Japanese destroyers known as the "Tokyo Express" that supplied Japanese troops in the islands, and to support the US Army and Marine Corps attacking the Japanese on shore.

On August 2, 1943, as PT 109 was running silent to avoid detection, it was struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. Traveling at 40 knots, the destroyer cut PT 109 in two. The entire crew of thirteen was thrown into the dark waters; two of the men were never found. Kennedy towed injured crew member Patrick McMahon 3.5 miles to a small island to the southeast. All eleven survivors made it to the island after having spent a total of fifteen hours in the water. After seven days on the island, with the help of a message Kennedy carved on a coconut carried by local islanders working with an Australian coastwatcher, spying on the Japanese they were finally rescued on August 8th.

After the War, the Kennedy family had the coconut husk encased in wood and plastic, and JFK used it as a paperweight on his senate desk and in the Oval Office. The artifact is one of the most treasured objects at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and is displayed, along with Kennedy’s Navy and Marine Corps Medal and Purple Heart, in the Young Jack exhibit.


Photograph of the coconut husk artifact
World War II media gallery
JFK35 Podcast: JFK and the PT 109


In this lesson, students examine a photograph of a “mystery artifact” (the coconut husk) and generate questions about the object. They investigate photographs and their captions in the World War II media gallery to gather evidence about the artifact and then listen to a podcast for additional information. After reflecting on the artifact’s historical significance, they create a slideshow for first- and second- grade students to introduce them to the artifact and the story it helps to tell about John F. Kennedy.

  1. Explain that museums are selective in choosing objects for their exhibits. They collect and preserve artifacts that are historically significant, that tell important stories about the past. They will be examining a photograph of an object related to John F. Kennedy and then conduct research to learn more about the artifact and to determine whether it is historically significant, whether it provides important information about his life.
  2. Have students examine the photograph of the “mystery artifact” and elicit their observations and ideas. Explain that historians use questions to guide their research and prompt them to suggest questions about the object.
  3. Explain that to find answers to their questions, historians use the information in primary sources such as documents, photographs, and artifacts. Provide the link to the World War II media gallery and have them investigate the photographs and captions for possible answers to their questions.
  4. Regroup as a class or in small groups and discuss their findings. Help students synthesize the information, including the message on the coconut husk. If they do not bring up the exact transcription of the message, share it and discuss its meaning:

  5. Explain that historians also use secondary sources in their historical research. Reliable secondary sources are created by people who have used primary sources to help them understand a person or event in history. They offer an interpretation, or explanation of an historical event. Explain that they will be using a podcast as a secondary source to gather more evidence about the artifact. Have students read the transcript as they listen to the JFK and the PT109 podcast. They key information for the lesson is covered by minute 5:48 after this comment:

    Stacey Bredhoff: I think it's really one of the most unique and significant pieces in the whole collection because without it JFK wouldn't have survived. And just the fact that it was always in such close proximity to him shows how important it was to him. And so it's important to us.

    (Students can listen to the entire podcast which is full of additional information.)
  6. Discuss what students learned. Use these suggested questions to help students reflect on the object’s historical significance:
  • What does the coconut help to reveal about John F. Kennedy?
  • How would you describe him as a leader?
  • What skills and qualities did he use to help his crew to survive?
  • Do you think the object is historically significant? Why or why not?


Have students create a slideshow for first- and second- grade students to introduce them to the story of the coconut husk artifact, what it helps to reveal about John F. Kennedy, and why it is displayed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Additional Resources

JFK in History essay on the PT 109

Photographs of the coconut husk artifact in the Oval Office

Photographs of the model of the PT 109

A digital archives folder with a condensed version of the article “Survival” by John Hersey.

Connections to Curriculum Standards

National History Standards: Historical Thinking Standards

  • 2. Historical Comprehension
  • 3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation
  • 4. Historical Research Capabilities

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 1 - Developing questions and planning inquiries;
  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History and Civics)
  • Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence; and
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

K.T1 Civics: Classroom Citizenship

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language