JFK Part I: Before he was President

By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer

This week, Clubhouse News examines the life of John F. Kennedy (JFK), leading up to the 50th anniversary of his assassination on November 22. In “JFK Part I: Before he was President,” we explore JFK’s childhood, military service, and years in Congress.

Kennedy brothers and father
JFK (on the right) sits next to his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (middle), and older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (left).

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline Massachusetts on May 29, 1917 to a Roman Catholic family. His father, Joseph Patrick “Joe” Kennedy, Sr., was a wealthy businessman who wanted his sons to become politicians. He was a highly competitive man with a lot of connections to powerful people in America, and raised his kids to be strongly motivated from an early age. JFK’s mother, Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, was heavily involved in charity work, and even earned the title of “countess” from Pope Pius XII in 1951 for her “exemplary motherhood and many charitable works.”

So, as you can imagine, there’s no way JFK’s parents would ever let him be a slacker! When he turned 10, his family moved to New York, and when it was time to enter high school, JFK attended Choate, a very elite Connecticut boarding school. His older brother, Joseph Patrick “Joe” Kennedy, Jr., had already been there for two years, and was both a football star and top student.

Because JFK had to live under his older brother’s impressive shadow, he made up for it by being a little rebellious. In fact, he once blew up a toilet seat with a firecracker! This led the strict headmaster, George St. John, to wave the toilet seat in front of all the students at an assembly, criticizing the “muckers” who “spit in our sea.” JFK, rather than being ashamed, decided to name his group of troublemakers The Muckers Club. Fortunately, JFK performed well enough to make it to Harvard College, where he earned a spot on the varsity swimming team.

In 1939, Kennedy took a world tour in preparation for his Harvard senior honors thesis, visiting the Middle East, Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Balkans. He then traveled to Czechoslovakia and Germany, before returning to London on the very same day the Germans invaded Poland – September 1, 1939. This dramatic act by Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, would set in motion the events leading up to World War II. After graduating Harvard in 1940, JFK joined the military.

Kennedy soldier
JFK hangs out on his navy patrol boat, the PT-109, which was rammed by the Japanese destroyer. The heroic rescue efforts of JFK to save his crew after the wreck earned him military honors.

Even though he was disqualified by the Army in September 1941 for lower back issues, JFK  joined the Navy by pulling some political strings. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, JFK attended the Naval Reserve Officer Corps and entered the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron. Working his way up the ranks, JFK became lieutenant and commanded a patrol torpedo (PT) boat!

On August 2, 1943, the Japanese destroyer Amagin rammed his PT-109 ship. As JFK gathered his surviving crew together in the water around the wreck, he gave them the option to fight or surrender. He said, “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.” They decided not to surrender, and swam towards a tiny island.  One badly burned fellow soldier couldn’t swim on his own, so JFK towed him with a life jacket strap clenched in his teeth to the island, and then after to a second island.

Because of his heroism, JFK received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, with a description that mentioned: “Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant Junior Grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore.” By the time JFK finished military service in early 1945, right before Japan surrendered, he was a decorated World War II soldier who’d been awarded the Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal, and World War II Victory Medal, among others.

In April 1945, because JFK’s father was a buddy of William Randolph Hearst (the American newspaper publisher who built the country’s biggest newspaper chain), he helped his son get a position writing for Hearst Newspapers. Just one year later, US Representative James Michael Curley left his seat in the heavily Democratic 11th Congressional district of Massachusetts to become mayor of Boston, and JFK ran for the position. He won easily and served as a congressman in the House of Representatives for six years before winning a Senate seat in 1952. One year after, he married Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier, who was destined to become one of the most legendary First Ladies of the United States in 1960… the year JFK won the presidency.

Image of JFK with his father and older brother courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum