It was pitch black in the middle of the open Japanese waters, where Navy Lt. Cmdr Ted Robinson was serving one night in August 1943. As he and his crew navigated through the darkness, a fiery explosion lit up the skyline.
The crew soon learned that the explosion came from one of their own boats, the PT-109, when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. The boat carried Robinson’s colleague, John F. Kennedy.
Though a U.S. plane that flew over the wreckage initially said there were no survivors, Japanese natives came to Robinson a week later, to give him a coconut shell that read “"NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY."
Robinson climbed aboard the PT-157 boat that would rescue the future president and his crew. All had starved for a week in the Solomon Islands, 30 miles behind enemy lines. “Jack was pretty beat up,” Robinson said at a recent press conference at the National Museum of American History. Robinson was the first to reach Kennedy and ask for details about the accident. Kennedy could barely stand when he was first rescued, Robinson reported.
A month later, Robinson lost his own PT boat about 70 miles behind enemy lines. He was sent to the island of Tulagi to share a tent with Kennedy, who was there recovering from a back injury he'd suffered in the explosion.
For the next two and a half months, the men shared not only a tent, but also many stories. One day, Robinson was out with his camera and found Kennedy walking around with a cane that Robinson had received from a village chief. He offered to take Kennedy’s picture as he stood, leaning on the wooden cane with one leg crossed. And Kennedy returned the favor, taking Robinson’s picture in the same pose.
After the war and after Kennedy became president, Robinson kept both pictures and the cane proudly on display in his living room. On Wednesday April 21, more than 60 years after the rescuer had first acquired them, Robinson, now 91, brought both pictures, the camera and the cane to the American History Museum, their new home.
Harry Rubenstein, chair of the museum's division of politics and reform, said the donations are important because they remind historians that history is richer than just “big-picture” events.
“We often forget that these major events are the result of personal stories, everyday folks who do incredible things in time of need,” he added. “These are seemingly everyday objects, but they embody self-sacrifice. They turn the mythic into flesh and blood.”
Though the cane that was donated belonged to Robinson, he said Kennedy had a similar cane of his own, too. Both men received them as gifts from chiefs of villages hidden deep in the swamps of the Solomon Islands, where the American men spent the days in between their nighttime missions to stop the Japanese supply lines.
The chief of every village carried a cane, Robinson said. Robinson was given his cane after he earned the nickname “Safari Robinson,” for the trips he took around the villages while the other men in his crew played poker.
But Kennedy earned his simply because of his character, Robinson said.
“He always got friendly with the chief wherever we went. I should have known then he would be a politician,” Robinson said at the donation ceremony. He hopes that young people who come to see the cane will better understand what happened in those waters.
“Jack Kennedy was a real hero,” Robinson said. “He was in such bad condition that he had his orders to go home, but he ripped them up. I hope people remember that.”