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5 little known facts about the life of JFK

Image: JFK speaks at Rice University in September 1962 | Public Domain

To mark the 60th anniversary of his assassination, Kennedy explores the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. This series takes an intimate look at JFK's early years, his time in World War II, his journey onto the political scene and the dramatic twists and turns of his presidency. Kennedy starts Tuesday, 28th November on Sky HISTORY.

John F. Kennedy’s tenure in the White House was dramatic, glamorous and tragic, brought to a sudden end by an assassin in Dallas on 22nd November 1963. To mark the 60th anniversary of that earth-shaking event, here are some things you might not have known about the 35th president of the United States.

1. His brother was ‘supposed’ to be president

Hard as it may be to imagine now, JFK originally played second fiddle to his older brother Joe Jr, who was the one originally groomed to go into politics.

The boys’ father, Joseph Kennedy Sr, had once dreamt of becoming president himself and had transferred this ambition onto his oldest son. Joe Jr laid the groundwork by serving as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in 1940 and was expected to run for the US House of Representatives once World War II was over. From there, it would be a short hop and a skip to the White House.

However, fate had other plans. Serving as a pilot during the war, Joe Jr survived dozens of combat missions in Europe, only to be killed when an experimental aircraft exploded during a test flight in England. From that moment on, JFK was the anointed one, expected to fulfil the destiny of his brother.

As he later told a reporter, ‘It was like being drafted. My father wanted his oldest son in politics. “Wanted” isn’t the right word. He demanded it.’

2. He was almost constantly ill

When JFK was elected president, the world was captivated by his air of youthful vitality – a glamorous contrast to grandfatherly predecessors like Truman and Eisenhower. But behind the swashbuckling façade, JFK struggled with terrible health almost every day of his life.

Almost dying from scarlet fever as an infant, the young Kennedy suffered a litany of illnesses and medical tests throughout his childhood. ‘God what a beating I’m taking,’ the teenage JFK wrote to a classmate after having a bowel inspection. ‘My poor bedraggled rectum is looking at me very reproachfully these days.’

As well as dealing with ulcers, colitis and a potentially fatal adrenal gland disease, he also suffered debilitating back pain. Attempts to treat this almost killed him in 1954, when he developed a serious infection after back surgery and was given the last rites.

Forced to take heavy doses of painkillers and stimulants to endure his many ailments, JFK also wore a stiff back brace to support his problematic spine. Some experts believe the brace directly aided his assassin, as it may have prevented the president from ducking when shots were fired at his open-top limousine in Dallas in 1963.

3. He kept a coconut paperweight on his desk

A distinctive feature of the Oval Office during the Kennedy years was a peculiar paperweight consisting of a piece of preserved coconut shell. This was a cherished artefact for JFK, as it was a relic of one of the most astounding episodes of his life.

Back in 1943, then-Lieutenant Kennedy was the commander of a torpedo boat in the South Pacific. While sailing in the vicinity of the Solomon Islands one August night, the boat was sheared in half by a huge Japanese destroyer, instantly killing two of Kennedy’s crew and leaving the rest of them adrift among the wreckage.

Refusing to succumb to a seemingly hopeless situation, the group swam 3.5 miles to a tiny, uninhabited island. Kennedy towed an injured crewmate all the way by clenching his lifejacket strap between his teeth. A few days later, he led his men on another arduous swim to a larger island, again towing his mate throughout the epic journey.

After surviving on a diet of coconuts and rainwater, the castaways eventually made contact with native Solomon Islanders who were working with the Allies. Kennedy scratched a message on a piece of coconut shell (later turned into a paperweight), which was delivered to the islanders’ handlers and led to help finally coming.

The remarkable story made Kennedy a bona fide war hero and helped him win support during his political career. It was also the basis of a film, PT 109, which was released in 1963 just months before the assassination.

4. He was the youngest elected president (but not the youngest ever)

It’s a common misconception that the 43-year-old JFK is the youngest person to become president. In fact, he’s the youngest to have been elected president. The youngest-ever president remains Theodore Roosevelt, who was 42 when he automatically took over following the assassination of his predecessor William McKinley in 1901.

5. There was a previous assassination attempt

Arguments still rage over the Kennedy assassination, and whether Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman who mortally wounded the president in 1963. But what is beyond dispute is that a man named Richard Paul Pavlick tried to kill Kennedy long before that.

JFK was still merely the president-elect when Pavlick, a retired postal worker, plotted to blow him up on 11th December 1960. An angry loner who hated the Kennedys for their wealth and their Catholicism, Pavlick planned to murder JFK while he was on his way to Mass at a church in Palm Beach, Florida.

It would have been a suicide bombing, with Pavlick ramming his dynamite-laden car into Kennedy’s limo. But the unexpected presence of JFK’s wife and kids made Pavlick abort the attempt and he was apprehended several days later. Pavlick was ruled to be mentally ill and committed to psychiatric care, while Kennedy himself was said to have been ‘bemused’ by the audacious plot.