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In ‘Young Jack,’ JFK’s early days come to life

The centerpiece of the exhibit, this carved coconut tells a remarkable story from World War II.handout

When Stacey Bredhoff, curator at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, looks around the “Young Jack” exhibit, she’s thrilled that visitors can peer into the 35th president’s early days. After all, by the time JFK turned 30, he already had enough wild, funny, and terrifying experiences to last a lifetime.

“What we have in this room, I think it helps bring him alive and make him more real,” she says. “He’s one of the most compelling figures of the 20th century, but I think this exhibit brings visitors in touch with the real person.”

The permanent exhibit, which opened in November, displays artifacts and photographs from Kennedy’s youth, including his life at boarding school Choate, his Harvard days, and his time in the Navy during World War II. Some pieces are humorous, like a letter to Kennedy’s father warning him of an upcoming poor report card, and some are illuminating, like a column Kennedy penned as a war correspondent where he wrote, “Youth is a time for direct action and for simplification.” Some of the most historically significant artifacts hold fascinating back stories.

A page from JFK’s travel journal

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In 1937, after his freshman year at Harvard, Kennedy and close friend Lem Billings made their way through France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands. Kennedy, already interested in European affairs, was fascinated by what he saw, and made sure to have fun as well. Some of Billings’s photos from the trip are displayed in the exhibit, showing Kennedy posing with the Leaning Tower of Pisa and scaling the walls of Carcassonne Castle in France. A page from the end of the journal, mounted on the wall (the original journal pages are too fragile to display), features questions the 20-year-old Kennedy has about Europe’s tense climate. “Isn’t the chance of war less as Britain gets stronger – or is a country like Italy liable to go to war when economic discontent is rife,” Kennedy wrote. “He was very interested in observing the political situation wherever he was,” Bredhoff says. “Even when he was doing poorly in other subjects in high school, he always did well in history.”

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Early edition of ‘Why England Slept’

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This book began as JFK’s Harvard honors thesis. Kennedy wrote about why Britain was so slow to rearm after World War I, even amid the rise of Nazism, and strongly endorsed democracy. Kennedy, son of the US ambassador to Great Britain, wrote, “England made many mistakes; she is paying heavily for them now. In studying the reasons why England slept, let us try to profit by them and save ourselves her anguish.” “Why England Slept” was published in 1940, when Kennedy was 23, and New York Times columnist Arthur Krock helped revise it. The JFK museum has an original 1940 first edition with browned pages.

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Carved coconut

The centerpiece of the exhibit, this coconut tells a remarkable story from World War II. In August 1943, Lieutenant Junior Grade Kennedy was the commander of PT-109 in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. One night, a Japanese destroyer rammed into PT-109, breaking the boat into pieces. Two men died, and the rest spent the night clinging to debris in the water. The next day, the men swam to a nearby island, part of the Solomon Islands, with Kennedy pulling an injured man behind him with a strap from a life vest.

After six days, two native men paddled by in a canoe, and they taught Kennedy how to carve a message into a coconut. The message reads: “NAURO ISL . . . COMMANDER . . . NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT . . . HE CAN PILOT . . . 11 ALIVE . . . NEED SMALL BOAT . . . KENNEDY.” The coconut was brought to an Australian coastwatcher, who called for the men’s rescue. The story prompted sensational headlines back in the US. Preserved in a plastic and wooden mount since the 1940s, the coconut sat on Kennedy’s desk in the Oval Office.

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A pair of JFK’s crutches

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Kennedy’s life was partially defined by physical ailments. Old crutches, fashioned out of wood with a thick layer of stained gauze wrapping at the top, tell a depressing story. “They are just the saddest, oldest looking things,” Bredhoff says. “Belonging to someone who was so physically active and projected an image of happiness, that’s what makes them even sadder.” Little is known about the crutches except that they were Kennedy’s, but he did have back surgery when he returned from the war, and given their size, they could’ve been used during that period.

Kennedy’s Purple Heart and dog tag

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Kennedy received a Purple Heart for the PT-109 incident. He was injured in the initial collision, and sustained injuries to his legs and feet while looking for rescue. Kennedy continued serving for a few months after that incident before his 1944 medical discharge. Kennedy wore his dog tag during his time in the Pacific. On the chain, he added a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, and an 1854 coin given to him by Clare Boothe Luce, a family friend, writer, and politician. The tag hung in a frame in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office for many years. Along with the coconut, the tag recently returned to the museum after being on loan to the National Archives of Japan for an exhibit on Kennedy’s life.

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Jon Mael can be reached at jmael2014@gmail.com.