President John F. Kennedy: World War II and Early Political Life

About the early life and career of President of the United States John F. Kennedy including his time in World War II, Profiles in Courage, and his early political career.


In October, 1941, as the U.S. moved close to war, Kennedy dropped everything to accept a commission in the Navy. On a summer night in the South Pacific in 1943, Lieutenant Kennedy was in command of PT-109 when it was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. He was thrown against the wall of the cockpit, severely aggravating the old football injury to his back, but he still managed to marshal the 10 surviving members of his crew and swim with them to a nearby island. One of the men was too badly injured to swim, so Kennedy took the man's life preserver in his teeth and, for several hours, towed his wounded shipmate through the dark water. For his heroism, Kennedy won the Navy Medal and the Purple Heart, and he was sent back to a navy hospital in the U.S. for treatment of malaria and complications concerning his back. It was while he was still hospitalized that Jack learned that his older brother Joe had been killed while flying a dangerous mission over Europe. This in effect settled Jack's career plans-though he got a job as a reporter for the Hearst newspapers and continued to talk about a writing career, his family now demanded that he go into politics. As his father recalled years later: "I told him Joe was dead and it was his responsibility to run for Congress. He didn't want to. But I told him he had to." The Cambridge district, which the family selected as a target, was one in which John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald-Jack's grandfather and a former mayor of Boston-still had a considerable following. An energetic, well-organized campaign, with the emphasis on the young candidate's distinguished war record, brought Kennedy an easy victory. In January of 1947 he entered Congress, and impressed one of his new colleagues as a "29-year-old kid who looked 19 and showed up for House debates in khaki pants with his shirttail out." This didn't seem to bother Jack's constituents, who twice reelected him by lopsided margins. In 1952, Congressman Kennedy felt ready to challenge the State's incumbent Republican senator, Henry Cabot Lodge. In the battle which followed, Kennedy dazzled the voters with the most intensive and professional campaign in Massachusetts history. Papa Joe not only provided generous financing for these efforts, but came through with a timely "business loan" of $500,000 to the failing Boston Post, and that normally Republican paper soon came out strongly for Kennedy. In November, Eisenhower swept the State by 200,000 votes, but Kennedy managed to buck the Republican tide and beat Lodge by 70,000. At the age of 35, Jack moved up to the U.S. Senate.

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