John F. Kennedy in WWII

May 21, 2005—February 28, 2006

The Museum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II with a special exhibit on John F. Kennedy’s military service in the US Navy in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.

Lieutenant  John F. Kennedy in the South Pacific, circa 1943.

Many young Americans of all backgrounds volunteered for military service in 1941, including young John F. Kennedy. To commemorate the 60th anniversary year of the end of World War II, this special exhibit is a tribute to all the enlisted men, women and junior officers who, like Kennedy, went in harm’s way to serve their nation.

Commanding the Patrol Torpedo Craft (PT) USS PT 109, 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 shipping 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 was thrown into the dark waters. Kennedy towed injured crew member McMahon 4 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 four days on the island, with the help of a message on a coconut carried by local islanders to an Australian spying on the Japanese they were finally rescued on August 8th.

The exhibit reflects a formative period of JFK's life, an experience he shared with so many other young men of his generation, and an experience that shaped their characters and the character of our nation for much of the remainder of the 20th century. 

Exhibit highlights

  • The Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart Kennedy received for his heroism in the rescue of his crew
  • Kennedy's own scrapbook of snapshots showing him and his young comrades in arms
  • Kennedy’s Navy dress uniform
  • JFK’s dog tags, courtesy of Senator and Mrs. Edward M. Kennedy
  • Heavenly Mist, an oil painting of the collision of PT 109 and the Japanese destroyer Amagiri by an official US Navy artist
  • Documents from JFK’s US Navy service file
  • The U.S. Navy report on the sinking of the PT 109 written by Lt. (later Supreme Court Justice) Byron White
  • The coconut shell on which JFK scratched the message, "COMMANDER NAURO ISL NATIVE KNOWS POSIT HE CAN PILOT 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT KENNEDY" that brought rescue for his crew after the PT 109 was struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri
  • Handwritten notes JFK made in 1957 in which he recollected Biuki, the Solomon Islander who was instrumental in his rescue: "I don’t remember his name – I never knew it – but I will never forget him," Kennedy wrote
  • Sketches created by Senator John F. Kennedy on his personal stationery to illustrate the collision of PT 109 and the Japanese destroyer Amagiri for the screenwriter of a 1957 TV play on PT 109