Writer Kitty Kelley always wondered what her photographer friend Stanley Tretick kept in his Marine Corps locker that he used as a coffee table in his study. One day she asked him what was inside.
Nude pictures,” he told her, winking.
She took him at his word and thought no more about it. The two had been friends since 1981 but it wasn’t until 1999, when Tretick died, that Kelley found out what was really in the battered old trunk, as Tretick had left it to her in his will.
Inside she discovered a trove of keepsakes from Tretick’s days of photographing President John F. Kennedy for United Press International and Look magazine.
Among the signed photographs of the president and his wife, Jackie, handwritten notes and letters, and Kennedy buttons and bumper stickers was this PT-109 boat tie clasp that JFK had given Tretick when he followed him in his 1960 presidential campaign. (1)
The 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign distributed this boat pin as a reminder of Kennedy’s WWII military service aboard the patrol torpedo boat PT-109.
On the starless, moonless night of August 1, 1943, Lieutenant Kennedy was at the helm of PT-109, cruising the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to spot Japanese warships, when:
At about 2:30 in the morning, a shape loomed out of the darkness three hundred yards off PT-109’s starboard bow.”(2)
It was the Japanese destroyer the Amagiri, cruising at top speed. It rammed the PT-109 just forward of the forward starboard torpedo tube, ripping away the starboard aft side of the boat, and cutting the boat in two.
The extreme impact tossed Kennedy around the cockpit. Most of the crew were knocked into the water. Two died; two were injured. Fully expecting the boat to explode into flames, Kennedy ordered his crew to abandon ship.
The eleven survivors took to the water and struck out swimming for an islet three-and-a-half miles away.
Lieutenant Kennedy was a strong swimmer. He had been on the swim team at Harvard University. He saved one of his men by towing him ashore with a lifejacket strap clenched between his teeth. He was the first of his crew to reach the island.
Six days later, islanders scouting for the Allies on Naru Island found the men and sent for help, delivering the following SOS message Kennedy had scratched into the husk of a green coconut:
NAURO (sic) ISL
COMMANDER . . . NATIVE KNOWS
POS’IT . . . HE CAN PILOT . . . 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT . . . KENNEDY
Despite the proximity of the Japanese patrols, the crew was rescued without incident and the men reached the U.S. base at Rendova on the Solomon Islands on August 8, 1943.
Upon the crew’s return, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his leadership and courage. For injuries suffered, he also qualified for a Purple Heart.
(1) Kelley, Kitty. Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the Kennedys. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.