Remarkable Tales: The Coconut That Saved John F. Kennedy
In this week's remarkable tale, we tell the true story of how President John F. Kennedy's life was saved during WWII by a humble coconut.
More than half a century after his death, John F. Kennedy continues to cast a spell over the American public.
A handsome young liberal icon, who carried the hopes of a country on his shoulders.
A U.S President brutally murdered as the nation watched in horror.
The affairs, the rumours, the conspiracies. Organized crime and Marilyn Monroe.
And a coconut.
From a young age, two things were perfectly clear about John F. Kennedy. He loved to be on the water, and he had an eye for the bigger picture.
In 1940, having spent a year travelling throughout Europe on the brink of war as a college student, he completed his Harvard Master's thesis entitled "Appeasement in Munich".
The work criticized England for their initial role in the Munich Agreement, and called for a strong alliance between the U.S and the U.K to stand against the rising tide of fascism.
It was an opinion in strict opposition to his father Joseph Kennedy, who wanted nothing to do with the war. He was an isolationist, and tried to strike a deal of appeasement with Adolf Hitler, costing him his role as ambassador to Britain.
His son, however, had other ideas. He wanted to fight Nazis, not hold hands with them.
Not only did Kennedy believe the U.S should intervene in the fight against the Axis of Evil, but he wanted to be personally involved.
And in a boat, if at all possible.
Despite being medically disqualified due to his chronic lower back problems, Kennedy was determined to enlist. And following months of gruelling exercises to help straighten his back, he used his wealth and family connections to join the United States Naval Reserve.
In October 1941 he joined the staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C., and in 1942 voluntarily entered the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center in Melville, Rhode Island.
Six months later Kennedy was assigned to Motor Torpedo Squadron TWO, stationed in the Solomon Islands at the heart of the Pacific Theatre.
On April 24, 1943 Kennedy took command of the patrol torpedo boat PT-109, and began hunting for the enemy.
Four months later, the enemy found him.
On the night of August 1, during a routine night time patrol, Kennedy and his crew spotted a vessel approaching. At first they believed it to be another PT boat, but instead the huge Japanese destroyer Amagiri loomed out of the darkness.
Although the crew of PT-109 attempted to turn and fire torpedoes, the ship was on them in an instant. Kennedy's ship was torn in half and the crew tossed overboard, as a fireball erupted into the night sky.
The explosion caused by the crash was spotted by an eagle-eyed coastwatcher, Sub-lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans, from his secret observation post several miles away at the top of the Mount Veve volcano.
Following his report the rest of the naval squadron feared the worst, and with heavy hearts they held a memorial service for Kennedy and the crew of PT-109.
A few miles away, Kennedy was still very much alive, although he was growing slightly sick of coconuts.
The collision with the Japanese destroyer had indeed caused an explosion, and leaking fuel had turned the surrounding waters into a sea of flames.
Seamen Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold W. Marney had tragically been killed, but the rest of the crew had miraculously survived, albeit with several injuries.
As the burning fuel dispersed and the flames subsided, Kennedy and his crew clung to the floating wreckage for around 12 hours. But as it finally started to sink in shark-infested waters, they were forced to swim for shore.
Unfortunately, the neighbouring islands were all heavily occupied by the Japanese, so they had to make a four-hour swim to a tiny uninhabited strip of land known as Plum Pudding Island.
Kennedy, once a member of the Harvard University swim team, dragged his badly-burned crew mate Patrick McMahon behind him by grasping the gunner's life-jacket strap between his teeth.
Once they reached the island they discovered it had no food or water, and measured just 100 yards wide. They quickly renamed it 'Bird Island', because the only thing it seemed to offer was large piles of guano.
With Japanese barges passing by with alarming regularity, the tiny island offered few places for 11 men to hide, and so an exhausted Kennedy swam off to find another more suitable spot.
He discovered Olasana Island around 2km away, then returned and led his crew to shore where they spent several days hiding and surviving on nothing but coconuts.
Kennedy swam out several times into Ferguson Passage, through which the American PT boats passed during patrols, but there was no sign of rescue.
And so they waited.
Despite the explosion and the subsequent memorial service, Sub-lieutenant Evans was still hopeful there may be survivors.
He enlisted the help of Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, two brave local islanders who served as scouts for the Allies, to search the nearby waters for signs of life.
The two men knew every inch of shoreline throughout the chain of islands, and could easily pass for native fishermen if spotted by the Japanese.
They eventually discovered Kennedy and his crew on Olasana, although they were initially suspicious, and held them at gunpoint until they realised they were the men they were looking for.
"All white people looked the same to me," Gasa later recalled.
With no room for a return trip in their two-man canoe, Kennedy needed to send a message back to base to alert them of his position.
Gasa and Kumana suggested carving it into the husk of a green coconut, and Kennedy scratched out the following message:
COMMANDER... NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT...
HE CAN PILOT... 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT... KENNEDY"
He told Gasa and Kumana "If Japan man comes, scratch out the message."
But they knew the risks all too well. If the Japanese caught them carrying messages for the Allies, they would be tortured and killed.
They carried the dangerous message through 40 miles of hostile waters to the nearest Allied base at Rendova, where news of the crew's improbable survival was met with great relief.
Another canoe was quickly dispatched for Kennedy, and he was brought to Rendova to help plan the full rescue mission whilst his crew waited anxiously on Olasana.
They sang 'Yes Jesus Loves Me' to pass the time, waiting for the sound of an approaching boat, not knowing whether it would be rescue or the enemy.
But on August 7 Kennedy arrived, having carefully guided boats PT-157 and PT-171 through the dangerous reefs and shallows of the island chain.
The surviving crew of PT-109 were finally saved, and John F. Kennedy's legend was born.
For his courage Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and for his injuries was presented with a Purple Heart.
His official citation stated:
"Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant 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."
Back in the U.S, the story of PT-109 and Kennedy's strong leadership continued to grow, thanks in large part to Pulitzer prize-winning journalist John Hersey.
Hershey brought the tale to the public in June 1944, in an epic story for the New Yorker magazine entitled 'Survival'.
It painted Kennedy as a hero, a man to rely on in times of crisis, who saved the lives of his crew through tough choices and personal bravery.
As a springboard for a leap into politics, they couldn't have set it higher, and the story followed Kennedy all the way to the White House in 1961.
But what of the coconut that saved the day?
Through unknown circumstances, the carved shell fell into the possession of Ernest W. Gibson, Jr., who was serving in the South Pacific with the 43rd Infantry Division.
Gibson also entered the world of politics following the war, serving as the governor of Vermont, and then ended his career as a federal judge.
When Kennedy became president in 1961, Gibson returned the coconut to him. Almost 20 years after it had saved his life, Kennedy had the coconut encased under glass and sat it proudly on his desk in the Oval Office.
Today it can be found on display at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, serving as a reminder that the history of mankind isn't always written by large personalities.
Sometimes it's the small objects that make the biggest difference.
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