Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The coconut that saved 11 lives

On this day in 1963, we lost a great man when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas.  The nation and the world changed for us more in the next year than in any 365-day period before or after. Gone was Camelot, the era of good feeling and mystical wonder we felt about the fine young family in the White House. By the following fall, Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon Johnson, was elected to a full term of his own.  He would not seek a second.

In the spring of 1964 there was a traveling exhibit of Kennedy memorabilia that was displayed in Baltimore at the State Office Building. We went to see some of his personal effects on display, and not one of them impressed me nearly as much as the coconut that saved his life.

Now that calls for a retelling.  You see, twenty years before a man with a rifle took him away from us, Kennedy was a naval officer in World War II, skipper of the PT-109, a patrol-torpedo boat in the Pacific front assigned to the waters around the Solomon Islands.

It was August 2 of 1943 when the Japanese destroyer Amagiri collided (intentionally) with the 109; two of the crew of fourteen were killed at once as the American boat was cut in half in the dark of night.

Kennedy and his crew swam for an island to seek refuge. One of the sailors, Patrick McMahon, was badly burned and unable to swim. Kennedy, a strong swimmer who had been on the swim team at Harvard, fashioned a tow rope out of the canvas strap of a life jacket and the men eventually arrived at an islet three and a half miles away, with Kennedy tugging McMahon the whole way.

It's in the Kennedy Museum in Boston now.
After six days in hiding, two natives, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, came along to help the American sailors. Gasa climbed a palm tree to get a coconut, upon which Kennedy carved the following message:


The natives traveled the 35 miles to the naval base at Nauro Island by canoe, and help arrived for Kennedy and his crew soon thereafter.

But had it not been for that message, the rescue would not have been possible.

Kennedy kept that coconut encased in plastic on his desk in the White House, where it stayed until twenty years ago today. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and his injuries also qualified him for a Purple Heart.

Aboard PT-109
The arduous swim and towing of the man contributed to the back trouble Kennedy suffered for the rest of his life, which is why he often sat in a rocking chair, even in the Oval Office.

But he got there because a native helped him send a message that saved all those lives.

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