1943: PT109

Torpedo Boat PT109

The story of what happened to Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 in the Solomon Islands during August 1943 reflects the dangers of Navy service and the heroism of those aboard. In most respects, the incident was little different from many others during World War II in which a ship was lost and her crew struggled to survive. What makes the PT-109 experience so remarkable is the identity of her skipper, Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR, the future President of the United States.

Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR, aboard the PT-109, Tulagi, Solomon Islands, 1943
Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR, aboard the PT-109, Tulagi, Solomon Islands, 1943.

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JFK and the PT-109

Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR (standing at right) with crew of PT-109, Solomon Islands, 1943
Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR (standing at right) with crew of PT-109, Solomon Islands, 1943.

Seeking combat duty, on 23 February 1943 Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR, transferred as a replacement officer to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron TWO, which was based at Tulagi Island in the Solomon Islands. He arrived at Tulagi on 14 April and took command of PT-109 on 23 April 1943. On 30 May, several PT boats, including PT-109 were ordered to the Russell Islands, in preparation for the invasion of New Georgia. After Rendova Island was occupied, PT-109 moved to Lumbari. From that base, PT boats conducted nightly operations to interdict the heavy Japanese barge traffic resupplying the Japanese garrisons in New Georgia and to patrol the Ferguson and Blackett Straits near the islands of Kolumbangara, Gizo, and Vella-Lavella. The PT patrols sighted and gave warning when the Japanese Tokyo Express warships came into the straits to assault U.S. forces in the New Georgia-Rendova area. [See 1942-1944: Solomon Islands.]

The Sinking of PT-109

PT-109 was one of fifteen boats on patrol on the night of 1-2 August 1943, sent to intercept Japanese warships in the straits. That night, PT-109 was commanded by Kennedy with Ensign Leonard Jay Thom as Executive Officer. Ten enlisted men formed the crew. A friend of Kennedy, Ensign George H. R. Ross, joined Kennedy's crew that night since his own ship was under repair.

PT-109 moved slowly at near idle speed to keep the wake and noise to a minimum, trying to avoid detection. Around 0200 with Kennedy at the helm, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, traveling at 40 knots, struck and cut PT-109 in two. The damage to PT-109 was severe, though the Japanese destroyer did not even notice the collision. At the impact, Kennedy was thrown into the cockpit where he landed on his bad back. As Amagiri steamed away, its wake doused the flames on the floating section of PT-109 to which five Americans clung: Kennedy, Thom, and three enlisted men, S1/c Raymond Albert, RM2/c John E. Maguire and QM3/c Edman Edgar Mauer.

Kennedy yelled out to identify others in the water and heard the replies of Ross and five members of the crew, two of whom were injured. GM3/c Charles A. Harris had a hurt leg and MoMM1/c Patrick Henry McMahon, the engineer, was badly burned. Kennedy swam to these men as Ross and Thom helped the others, MoMM2/c William Johnston, TM2/c Ray L. Starkey, and MoMM1/c Gerald E. Zinser, to reach the remnant of PT-109. Although they were only one hundred yards from the floating segment, in the dark it took Kennedy three hours to tow McMahon and help Harris back to the PT hulk. Two other men, TM2/c Andrew Jackson Kirksey and MoMM2/c Harold W. Marney, were not seen again, presumed killed in the collision with Amagiri.

Personal Heroism of Lt. Kennedy and Ensign Ross

Because the remnant was listing badly and starting to swamp, Kennedy decided to swim for a small island three miles away, barely visible to the southeast. Five hours later, all eleven survivors had made it to the island after having spent a total of fifteen hours in the water. Kennedy had given McMahon a life jacket and had towed him all three miles with the jacket's strap in his teeth. After finding no food or water on the baren island, Kennedy concluded that he should swim the route the PT boats took through Ferguson Passage in hopes of sighting another ship. Carrying a salvaged battle lantern, Kennedy donned a life jacket, and swam to a small island a half-mile to the southeast, then along the reef stretching into Ferguson Passage where he tried unsuccessfully to intercept patrolling PT boats. Returning in the morning, he turned the lantern over to Ensign Ross who swam the same route into Ferguson Passage that evening. Ross too saw no one and returned to the island.

During their swimming reconnaissance, Ross and Kennedy had spotted another slightly larger island with coconuts to eat. All the men swam there with Kennedy again towing McMahon. During their fourth day, Kennedy and Ross made it to Nauru Island and found several natives. Kennedy cut a message on a coconut that read "11 alive native knows posit & reef Nauru Island Kennedy." He purportedly handed the coconut to one of the natives and said, "Rendova, Rendova!," indicating that the coconut should be taken to the PT base on Rendova.

That night, Kennedy and Ross again attempted to look for boats with no luck. The next morning the natives returned with food and supplies, as well as a letter from the Coastwatcher commander of the New Zealand camp, Lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans. The message indicated that the natives should return with the American commander, and Kennedy complied immediately. He was greeted warmly and then taken to meet PT-157 which returned to the island on 8 August, finally rescuing the PT-109 survivors.

Kennedy was later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroics in the rescue of the crew of PT-109, as well as the Purple Heart Medal for injuries sustained in the accident on the night of 1 August 1943. His award citation read, in part:

Unmindful of personal danger, [Lt.] Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

An official account of the entire incident was written by intelligence officers in August 1943, a document that was not declassified until 1959.

Description of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109

PT-109 was one of the hundreds of Motor Torpedo Boats (PT) of the PT-103 class completed between 1942 and 1945 by Elco Naval Division of Electric Boat Company, Bayonne, NJ. The Elco boats were the largest in size of the three types of PT boats built for U.S. use during World War II. Wooden-hulled, 80 feet long with a 20-foot, 8-inch beam, the Elco PT boats had three 12-cylinder Packard gasoline engines generating a total of 4,500 horsepower for a designed speed of 41 knots. Its full-load displacement was 56 tons.

Motor Torpedo Boat 109 (PT-109) was laid down 4 March 1942, the seventh 40-ton Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) built at Elco. She was launched on 20 June, delivered to the Navy on 10 July 1942, and fitted out in the New York Naval Shipyard at Brooklyn. PT-109 arrived at Sesapi, Tulagi harbor, Nggela Islands, at the end of November 1942.

The PT-109 was normally manned by 3 officers and 9 to 14 enlisted men. PT-109 could carry as many as four 21-inch torpedoes and originally mounted four .50 caliber machine guns in two twin mounts. One 20-mm was mounted on the fantail aft. Small arms included submachine guns, rifles and 12-gauge shotguns. She could communicate with a blinker tube having an eight-inch searchlight, and by voice radio that had a range of 75 miles. Her maximum speed for a range of 358 miles was 35 knots (30 mph). A full-load patrol speed of nine knots would he usual in covering a 600-mile range. Under ideal conditions, and after torpedoes have been fired, a maximum speed of approximately 46-knots (roughly 40 mph) is possible.

Recommended Books about JFK and the PT-109

The story of PT-109 was the subject of a movie starring Cliff Robertson, released in 1963 during Kennedy's presidency.

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