John F. Kennedy

Americans remember John F. Kennedy as a president, but long before that, he was a decorated veteran. The military record JFK compiled assisted him enormously on the road to the White House.

A sickly child and teenager, Kennedy was nonetheless determined to serve in the military. He refused to change his plans despite failing physicals to enter both the Army and the Navy. While some scions used family connections to avoid wearing the uniform, Kennedy used his contacts to override the results of the physical exams so he could enlist in October 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor. Later – when he suspected his father was pulling strings to keep him away from combat – young Kennedy bypassed his old man and used a U.S. senator to get him transferred to the South Pacific on a PT boat in the Solomon Islands, where battles were already raging. Instead of the safe postings offered Kennedy stateside and in the Panama Canal Zone, where he could easily have waited out the war, Kennedy insisted on active duty at the front lines.

There is little question that the defining experience of Kennedy’s pre-presidential life was the sinking of PT-109, the vessel commanded by young Lt. j.g. Kennedy. JFK had been a privileged bon vivant, the son of one of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful men, former Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. His world changed Aug. 2, 1943, when the Japanese destroyer Amagiri cut his PT boat in half; young Kennedy was tested in a way that few ever are.

Two PT-109 crewmen were killed, but 11 others, including Kennedy, survived. He helped round up his men and bring them to the listing hull, where they clung desperately for nine hours. Realizing they would have to organize their own rescue, they swam for the deserted, 70-yard-wide Plum Pudding Island. Despite his severely injured back, Kennedy stayed on course for five grueling hours while towing a badly burned crewman by clenching the ties of his life jacket between his teeth. Over the next few days, JFK reconnoitered nearby islands in search of aid and provisions before establishing contact with two native islanders who were working as scouts for the Allies. Kennedy convinced them to deliver a coconut he had etched with an SOS message to the closest Allied base. Rescue followed two days later. On June 12, 1944, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. When asked how he had become a hero, JFK quipped, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.”

Elected president by a narrow margin in 1960, Kennedy proved a friend of fellow veterans and U.S. military forces, and a fierce advocate of preparedness. He established the Navy SEALs in 1962, authorized the “Green Beret” as the official headgear for all U.S. Army Special Forces, and dramatically increased the defense budget, the number of Navy ships and Army divisions, and the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. As JFK explained on Jan. 20, 1961, “For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”

As with tens of thousands of veterans, Kennedy’s war wounds continued to plague him throughout the years. His back had sustained such major injury that he underwent two operations in the 1950s while a U.S. senator – and nearly died in 1954. As president, he was on crutches from time to time. “At least one-half of the days he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain,” said his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, after JFK’s death.

JFK’s sturdy Oval Office rocking chair, which helped ease the muscle strains, became a symbol of his Presidency. (He also kept the carved coconut that had saved his and his crew’s lives on his desk.) A photographer captured the rocker’s removal from the Oval Office shortly after Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. That empty chair symbolized the void a grieving public felt.

It was Kennedy’s military service, and his tragic death, that gave full meaning to his famous inaugural declaration: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” This statement is a timeless reminder to Americans of John F. Kennedy, veteran and president, and it is a precious legacy that those in the military, past and present, have carried on by means of their sacrifices for the nation.

Larry J. Sabato, author of “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy”

Read more about John F. Kennedy here and here.