John F. Kennedy was an inspiring, charismatic leader and arguably the greatest American president of the 20th century. Camelot.
John F. Kennedy was an election-stealing political opportunist who propelled us into Vietnam and was thus responsible for the greatest foreign policy debacle in American history. Marilyn.
He was a liberal wolf in a conservative sheep's clothing. Or a conservative wolf in liberal sheep's clothing. Baa baa.
Or bah, as the case may be. I'll defer to the shrill punditry class that has seized the cable news airwaves to quarrel over these perspectives.
The vast majority of us never knew Jack Kennedy, never served with Jack Kennedy, and are no Jack Kennedys. Only a third of Americans today were alive when the man was assassinated; most of those were children at the time. For the rest of us, his presidency is largely defined by the sub headers on his Wikipedia page. His Ich bin ein Berliner speech; his ups and downs in Cuba; an Oliver Stone conspiracy fantasy; and of course, 26.6 seconds of mesmerizing, gruesome footage captured by unwitting bystander Abraham Zapruder.
Somewhere in the Afterlife, ask Jack Kennedy what his singular life achievement was, and he'll likely state the conventional -- his election as the 35th president of the United States. Perhaps he'll offer you a wry smile and add that he scored one for the Catholics. Or maybe he'll share with you the tale of when he and Kevin Costner stared down Nikita Khrushchev and forced Fidel Castro onto a glide path to democracy.
But for a small group of World War II veterans, the man's political accomplishments are dwarfed by the lengths he went to, and the incredible courage he exhibited, in keeping them alive over the course of several white-knuckle days during the height of the war in the Pacific.
Those close to me may suspect that my writings are all destined to circle back to World War II. It may be. There are just too many feats of extraordinary accomplishment by legions of ordinary men, most of whom remained humble and unassuming in the years and decades following their exploits. I have written stories about Normandy and Bastogne. I could write a thousand more.
And so we have Jack Kennedy, just 24 years old when the war began. A son of privilege, Jack was educated at the finest prep schools, attended the London School of Economics, and finally Harvard, where his chronic back problems could not keep him off the swim team. Yet when America entered the war in 1941, the young man never considered leveraging his father's influence to evade military service. On the contrary, he used it instead to circumvent the medical flags that military doctors had raised, and was soon sworn in as a junior officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Kennedy eventually volunteered for one of the most hazardous duties in the entire Navy, the fledgling PT force engaged against the Japanese in the pivotal year of the Pacific War, 1943. During that summer, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kennedy took command of a Patrol Torpedo (PT) Boat in the South Pacific. PT boats were just 80 feet long, wooden hulled, and lightly armed with machine guns, small cannons, and four torpedo tubes. They were built for speed, up to 40 knots, and maneuverability. Their mission was to infiltrate the Japanese shipping lanes, targeting the supply ships that had become a lifeline to their tenacious soldiers fighting on islands against the forces of General MacArthur.
So important were these supply ships that they sailed with heavily-armed escort ships, lethal to the smaller PT boats. In August of 1943, on a pitch black night in the Solomon Islands, Kennedy's boat was rammed with little warning by a Japanese escort destroyer. The collision split PT-109 in half, killing two crew members instantly. Ten others remained in the water with their commander, clinging to wreckage, including one man who was badly burned and could not swim on his own. The next morning, the boat halves had capsized, and Kennedy understood he needed to get his exhausted men to dry land. They swam more than three miles to the nearest islet, so small it was barely 100 yards in diameter. Kennedy swam this entire distance towing his injured crewman, the strap of the man's lifejacket sandwiched between his teeth. Three miles.
The next several days proved to be harrowing for the survivors. The tiny islet lacked food and fresh water, so Kennedy was compelled to lead his spent and battered crew on another swim to a more sustainable island. Using the cover of darkness, Kennedy and his executive officer would alternate nights, swimming out into the open ocean or clinging to razor-sharp reefs that sliced their skin. They treaded shark-infested, Japanese-held waters for hours, hoping an American boat would come by.
Eventually, Kennedy came into contact with two friendly native islanders, who agreed to carry a message to the Allies. Lacking paper and pen, Kennedy carved a handful of words into a coconut. The islanders later returned, and led Kennedy on a grueling journey to an Allied base. Once there, Kennedy guided a rescue mission to retrieve the rest of his crew. All ten survived. For his exploits, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medals, the Navy's highest decoration for heroism in a non-combat setting.
Asked how he had become a hero, young Jack replied at the time, "They sank my boat." Ah, how 1943ish of you, Mr. Kennedy.
November 22 should be remembered for the day an angry, resentful Lee Harvey Oswald took down one of our countrymen through a telescopic gun sight. But Jack Kennedy lived 16,601 days. He served as president for 1,035 of those. And yet our collective remembrance of this presidency is seemingly limited to a single day in November, and for the 26.6 seconds after an open-topped limousine turned that corner on Dealey Plaza.
The cause for that is understandable, as the historic and cultural significance of Kennedy's assassination cannot be overstated. This pivotal event catapulted America into a new era. I get that.
Yet I am struck by how often we fixate on death -- our friends, our families, our public figures -- and lose sight of how those we cherish lived. Kennedy was a flawed man to be sure, as we all are. But he was no millionaire playboy who used his family name to shirk what he saw as his duty and responsibility. He served his country, as millions of others did at the time, and did not leave active duty until he was physically incapable of serving any further. We now know, of course, how physically debilitated he was.
In subsequent years, he viewed political office as a calling and noble endeavor, what his brother Robert would later call an "honorable profession." Yes, those were different times. Good times.
Perhaps, when he said these words in 1962, President Kennedy was thinking about a junior naval officer from two decades prior:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do these other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
There is much to Kennedy's life and presidency to discuss and debate. 2013 is the 50th anniversary of his assassination, but it is also the 70th anniversary of his remarkable feat in the perilous waters of the South Pacific. We all remember what we choose to remember. Happy Anniversary, Lieutenant Kennedy.