May 29 is John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s birthday, and if he would have lived until today, he would have been a ripe old 96 years. By any standard he was a fascinating man, from a complex, intriguing family. John was the second oldest child of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and Rose Fitzgerald. The family was Irish Catholic, with all eight of Joseph Kennedy’s grandparents immigrating to the US from Ireland.
Kennedy attended the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, from 9th through 12th grades, where his brother Joe, who was two years ahead of him, had a reputation as an excellent student and football star. Not content to always live in the shadow of his older brother, Kennedy became a bit or a rebel at school, and attracted a like-minded crowd into his orbit. Kennedy’s most infamous of antics was to explode a toilet seat with a powerful firecracker. Despite a reprimand by the headmaster, the students voted Kennedy as the “most likely to succeed” of his graduating class.
In 1941 Kennedy joined the US Navy. In August, 1943 Kennedy’s boat, the PT-109 collided with a Japanese destroyer during a routine nighttime patrol near New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. Gathered around the wreckage of the boat with the surviving crew members, Kennedy asked his crew if they wanted to surrender, or try and make it to safety. He wanted his men to choose, because since he did not have a wife or children like some of his crew members, it did not make a difference to him. The crew voted against surrender and swam to a small, nearby island. In an amazing show of bravery, stamina and will power, Kennedy dragged a badly burned crew member to the island with the strap of the man’s life jacket clenched in his teeth. Later he did the same thing when the men moved to another island from where they were eventually rescued. For this heroic feet Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. Here is the 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 (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) 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.
His outstanding conduct during the PT-109 incident is well-known. Less known is the interesting fact that while he was “relaxing” at the Submarine Chaser Training Center in Miami, where he was minimally stationed, Kennedy took flying lessons. A student pilot’s log book, dated May 19- May 29, 1944, in the possession of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, attests to the fact that during those ten days Kennedy flew on 10 separate occasions, the last time flying solo, on his birthday. It is impossible not to take note of the fact that aviation was not a simple thing for the Kennedy family. Kennedy expressed worry over the mounting loss of aircraft in his older brother Joe’s squadron. Kennedy also advised his younger brother Robert not to go into flying because of its danger.
Unfortunately for the Kennedy family fear of flying was a well-founded emotion. Later, in August 1944 Kennedy’s beloved older brother Joe was killed flying over Europe. In 1948 his younger sister Kathleen died in a plane crash in France. And this apparent curse did not end with the death of Kennedy in 1963. Many years later, in July, 1999, Kennedy’s only son, John Jr, crashed the small plane which he was piloting into the ocean, killing himself along with his wife Carolyn and sister in-law Lauren Bessette.
It is close to 100 years since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born, and almost exactly 50 years since his death. His amazing life should be an inspiration to us all.