In the early morning hours of August 2, 1943, torpedo boat PT-109 was patrolling the Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands when suddenly a black shape loomed in the darkness off the starboard bow. A crewman yelled, “Ship at two o’clock!” but it was too late. The Japanese destroyer Amagiri plowed into the little boat, slicing it in half. The collision threw the PT’s commander, Lt. John F. Kennedy Jr., hard against the side of the cockpit, and as gasoline ignited on the water around him, he thought, So this is how it feels to die.
Two crew members were killed in the crash. The eleven who survived, including Kennedy, clung to wreckage. When the remains of the hull began to sink, they made a four-hour swim to a tiny deserted island three miles away. Most of the crew clung to a large piece of timber as they swam, but one man was badly burned, so Kennedy clenched the straps of the man’s life jacket in his teeth and towed him, swimming the breaststroke.
Leaving his crew on the island, Kennedy swam out again, hoping to flag down another PT boat, but none appeared. Exhausted, he barely made it back to the island. The next day he led his men to another islet. Several times he ventured out into the shark-infested waters, looking for help but found none.
On August 6, two Solomon Islanders in a dugout canoe found the stranded sailors. Kennedy carved a message onto a coconut, which they took to Allied troops: NAURO ISL NATIVE KNOWS POSIT HE CAN PILOT 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT KENNEDY. Within two more days, the PT crew had been rescued. When he became president of the United States, Kennedy kept the coconut with its scratched message on his desk in the Oval Office to remind himself of the awful ordeal and his two lost comrades.