It’s hard to see in this picture, but this paperweight is actually a hardened, almost petrified coconut with a message scratched into its surface. The message reads “NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY.” The Kennedy in question is, of course, John F. Kennedy, later the 35th President of the United States, and he kept this coconut paperweight on his desk in the Oval Office during his term of office from 1961 to 1963.
This object is great for this series because not only does it have a fascinating story, but it unites two eras of U.S. history, the World War II era with the 1960s. In April 1943, Kennedy, then a lieutenant (junior grade), was given command of the small torpedo-armed motor launch PT-109, a sort of light raiding craft designed to wreak havoc among Japanese naval vessels in the Pacific. On August 2 of that year, after a series of actions against the Japanese, PT-109 was deliberately rammed by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy’s boat was cut in half and began sinking. Two of the crew were killed immediately but the 11 survivors, under Kennedy’s command, tried to cling to part of the wreck until help arrived. When Kennedy realized this was impossible he organized an epic swim to a neighboring island, Plum Pudding Island (later renamed Kennedy Island). Kennedy himself dragged one of his critically wounded men through the water by clutching the strap of the man’s life jacket with his teeth. They survived on this small island for six days, eating nothing but coconuts.
When some Solomon Islanders found them, Kennedy scratched a message into this coconut and convinced one of the natives to take it to a nearby Allied base. Ultimately he and his crew were rescued. Kennedy’s cool composure and brave actions saved the lives of the men under his command and qualified him as a genuine war hero. This reputation served Kennedy well as he entered politics after the war, a career that culminated in his improbable–but ultimately successful–quest for the White House in 1960.
I will admit I’m an unabashed fanboy of John F. Kennedy, so I think the PT-109 story is a very cool one. The coconut paperweight, returned to Kennedy during the war and a fixture of the Oval Office during his term, is currently in the possession of the Kennedy Presidential Library. I hope to see it when I visit the JFK Presidential Library this summer.