To the misfortune of Kennedy and his crew, the barren island was uninhabited, with no food or water to be found. Kennedy persuaded his crew to swim to another island a couple of miles away that hopefully had some vegetation. The men reached the island after several hours of exhausting swimming; their ordeal was worsened by the constant fear of Japanese patrol ships. They also feared military outposts that could have been hidden on the island. When they arrived, they discovered that the island, then known as Plum Pudding Island and today known as Kennedy Island, was also uninhabited. But it had palm trees.
For the following six days, the crew survived only on coconuts that they found on the palm trees. On the seventh day, they encountered two men in a canoe: the men were natives from a nearby island and, fortunately for Kennedy and his men, they worked with the Coastwatchers, a secret network of agents that informed the Allies of the positions of Japanese military outposts.
They agreed to help the stranded men, so Kennedy etched a message on a coconut shell, and the two islanders brought it to the Allied forces stationed at Tulagi Island. The two islanders managed to safely avoid a network of Japanese scouts and patrol ships in the waters around the Solomon Islands, and the message found its way to the Allies. After the crew of the ill-fated PT-109 were transported back to safety, Kennedy’s bravery and tactical thinking earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart.
The story was picked up by a writer, John Hersey, who wrote about it for The New Yorker and Reader’s Digest. Eventually, the episode was turned into a film that was released in June 1963, starring Cliff Robertson as a young Kennedy.