Eighty years ago, then-US Navy lieutenant and future US President John F. Kennedy heroically swam between Pacific islands to help save the crew of his torpedo boat that had been destroyed by a Japanese warship during World War II.
Kennedy’s heroism as the commander of PT-109 helped set the foundation for a military and leadership record that would help get him elected the United States’ 35th president in 1960.
On Wednesday, his daughter Caroline Kennedy, now US ambassador to Australia, recreated a portion her father’s feat, swimming about three quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) in some 30 minutes between two tiny palm-fringed islets in the Solomon Islands.
“It gave me a renewed appreciation of the heroism of my father and his crew,” the ambassador said in a post on the US Embassy’s account on Twitter, now known as X.
Kennedy, 65, made the swim with her son, the late president’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg.
“I have a lot of appreciation and admiration for what my grandfather did, and the perseverance it must have taken to survive,” Schlossberg said in a Twitter post.
JFK’s PT-109 was struck by a Japanese Imperial Navy destroyer in the early morning darkness of August 1, 1943. The wooden-hulled small boat was ripped open by the Japanese ship and capsized. Kennedy gathered his surviving crew – 11 of the 13 aboard PT-109 – and set them out on a 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometer) swim to tiny Plum Pudding Island, which is now named after him.
In subsequent days, according to an account from his presidential library, JFK and his crew would swim to nearby islands, including Olasana and Naru, in search of food and rescue. The swim between Olasana and Naru, which her father made multiple times, was recreated by Ambassador Kennedy on Wednesday.
Eventually, the PT-109 crew would get help from two islanders, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, who were scouts for the Allies and put Kennedy in contact with the US Navy.
‘Responsibility of leadership’
On August 8, 1943, a week after the PT-109 was lost, its surviving crew were safely back in US Navy hands. Kennedy was later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal “for his courage and leadership,” according to the presidential library account.
In a speech on Kennedy Island on Tuesday, the late president’s daughter saluted her father as well as Gasa and Kumana, whose families were in attendance.
“My son and I are honored to be able to thank you in person for what your fathers did 80 years ago,” she told them.
“My father owed his life to their courage, their willingness to put themselves at risk, and to serve their country in the battle for freedom,” the US ambassador said.
And she explained why the Solomon Islands holds a special place in her heart.
“This place made President Kennedy the man he was. It is where he first experienced the responsibility of leadership – the knowledge that the lives and safety of his crew depended on him. He risked his own life to save theirs. That became the way he lived his life,” Caroline Kennedy said.
JFK was assassinated in Dallas in 1963 and later buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
On Monday, Caroline Kennedy told how 15 years ago she got word that Kumana had made a tribute he wished to be laid on the president’s grave.
“It turned out to be a rare and precious example of ‘kustom money’ that had been in the family for more than 100 years. Carved from a giant clam shell in ways that are not fully understood by Western anthropologists, the shells are used in important ceremonies, including formal tributes to honor one’s chief,” the US diplomat said.
Gestures like Kumana’s make connections that stand the test of time, she said. And she had a gift for the islanders’ families in return.
“As a small token of our gratitude, I would like to present you with the last two PT Boat pins that I have, that belonged to President Kennedy,” she said.
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