date published: May 23, 2005

A Profile of Courage
The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum pays tribute to the World War II service of the former President by Josh B. Wardrop

In 1941, nearly two decades before he would assume the nation’s highest office and establish himself as one of the greatest U.S. presidents, John F. Kennedy got a crash course in the art of leadership—literally. A Japanese destroyer slammed into his U.S. Navy motorboat, PT 109, killing two members of his crew and marooning the rest of the sailors in the hostile South Pacific. For seven days, the 24-year-old lieutenant rallied the dozen surviving crewmen, keeping them alive until rescue finally came.

“This place, and this time, was where Kennedy really showed he had the ability to relate to young men from all walks of life, and to lead them through adversity,” says Frank Rigg, curator of the Museum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, about the museum’s new exhibit, John F. Kennedy in World War II, which opened May 21.

The new display—timed in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II—boasts artifacts connected to JFK’s wartime experiences, including many never before displayed to the public. Among them are copies of the log book of PT 109 and JFK’s actual military record from the National Archives, as well as a personal scrapbook of JFK’s stint in the Solomon Islands.

Another highlight of the collection is JFK’s actual dog tags, which have been in the care of his brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, for many years. “The Senator was kind enough to loan us [the tags], and they’re part of a nice mixture of personal and official artifacts,” says Rigg.

The exhibit—which also includes the coconut shell upon which Kennedy scratched an SOS message, as well as frequent screenings of a 1962 film made by TV host Jack Paar revisiting the site where JFK was marooned—sheds light on a period of Kennedy’s life that the late president tended to address rather reluctantly, and even then with humility and self-deprecating humor.

“I don’t think JFK saw his service as anything special,” says Rigg. “He worked with many decorated war heroes throughout his career, and he tended to downplay his own service.” As an example, Rigg relays an anecdote about a young boy who once asked President Kennedy how he became a war hero. “The President simply responded that ‘It was unintentional—they sunk my boat,’” Rigg laughs.

But it’s clear to Kennedy scholars that JFK’s period of military service had a profound effect on the young leader’s presidency—a presidency that nearly saw the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalate the Cold War into an armed conflict the likes of which still remains too terrible to contemplate.

“Kennedy resisted military advice to invade Cuba, and we know now that had he not, the world would have been plunged into nuclear conflict,” says Rigg. “[That resolve] came from a skepticism that the military had all the answers. Kennedy didn’t hold military men in awe…his real-life war experiences gave him the ability to ask those men hard questions.”

Rigg says that the goal of JFK in World War II is not only to show museum visitors a side of the beloved president that they may not know, but also to celebrate “the contributions of all those young men like him that served America at a crucial time in world history.”

John F. Kennedy in World War II runs through the spring of 2006.

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