The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II

Larry Holzwarth - January 26, 2020

PT boats (Patrol Torpedo boats) were deployed in all theaters of the Second World War. They were fast, maneuverable, and capable of operating on inland waterways and the open seas. Hundreds of them were built in the United States and provided to allied navies, including the fleet of the Soviet Union. Often referred to as built from plywood, the majority of them had hulls of either cedar or mahogany. The PT 103 class had hulls of layered mahogany, creating a hull which was two inches thick. Designed to plane on the water at the speed of 23 knots, the hull was capable of a top speed of over 40 knots. PT 109 was of this class.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
PT 109 aboard the Liberty ship Joseph Stanton at Norfolk Navy Yard. US Navy

Three Packard twelve-cylinder engines delivered a total of 4,500 horsepower, with each engine driving a separate propeller. The engines were muffled to allow the crew to hear aircraft overhead. Four torpedo tubes provided offensive punch against enemy shipping, and machine-gun mounts offered defensive protection. Most were designed to accommodate a crew of 17 – three commissioned officers and 14 enlisted. PTs were popular among junior officers, since they afforded the opportunity for an independent command at relatively junior rank. All of the officers and crews were volunteers. The danger of the duty was evident from their motto during the war – They Were Expendable. Here is the story of two of them, PT 109 and PT 59.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
A Coast Guard sentry guards a PT boat under construction in the southern United States. Wikimedia

1. PT boat duty was extra hazardous for several reasons

PT boats were developed between the wars, and most of the testing and evaluating of the various designs took place in Atlantic waters near Long Island or the Chesapeake Bay. When they deployed to the South Pacific in World War II, several problems presented themselves. The boats could seldom make their top-designed speeds after just a few weeks in the theater, due to the marine growth on their wooden hulls. Japanese destroyers could outrun them. The torpedo launching system was problematic, often failing to eject a torpedo after its motor had started. This led to the motor overheating and exploding in the tube.

Torpedoes which did launch properly often failed to detonate when reaching their target, a problem which also plagued American submarine commanders in the first two years of the war. PT boat commanders often added additional firepower to their boats, including 20 mm and larger anti-aircraft cannons. Many also added armor around the deckhouse and machine gun mounts as protection for their crews. The added weight further slowed the boats, a disadvantage because they were designed to use speed as their primary weapon against the enemy. The boats were designed to operate in small flotillas, with speed and maneuverability overcoming the defensive armament of the ships they encountered.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
A PT boat manufacturing line in New Orleans, building Higgins type hulls. Wikimedia

2. PT 109 was built in New Jersey in 1942

Electric Launch Company (Elco) built PT 109 in its Bayonne, New Jersey yard in the spring, 1942. The boat was fitted out at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and delivered to the Navy in Norfolk. From there it was carried by a Liberty ship to the Pacific, arriving at New Caledonia in late summer. PT 109 was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 2, which operated out of Tulagi. At the time the naval operations supporting the American invasion of Guadalcanal were at their height. Japanese attempts to reinforce their troops on the island led to heavy action in the waters surrounding the Solomon Islands. PT 109 began its combat career in December, 1942.

On February 23, 1943, Lt JG John F. Kennedy was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 2 as a replacement officer. Kennedy completed his training in PT boats in Rhode Island, with his performance so commendable he was asked to remain at the school as an instructor. The young officer wanted to go to the Pacific, and he contacted Massachusetts Senator David Walsh, who was then chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee in the Senate. The Senator pulled the appropriate strings and Kennedy received his orders to the Solomon Islands. He arrived in April, after a voyage in which the ship he was on was attacked by Japanese aircraft, killing its captain, and giving Kennedy his baptism of fire.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
A PT boat on patrol off New Guinea in 1943. US Navy

3. PT 109 was in bad shape when Kennedy took command

Kennedy was assigned to command PT 109 on April 23, 1943. The boat had been in combat for several months, and was barely seaworthy. Its engines needed overhauls and its hull was fouled. The boat’s radar and radio were inoperable, and its torpedo tubes had exhibited the undesirable tendencies which plagued all PTs at the time. Kennedy was also assigned a crew that had not served together as a unit before, though some of the men had served together on other boats. Spare parts were scarce, and many were scavenged from other boats. The Navy art of bargaining with other crews for parts – known as cumshaw – was used to get the boat ready for duty.

At the end of May, Kennedy was ordered to move to the Russell Islands in preparation for the invasion of New Georgia, part of the island-hopping campaign as the Allies secured the Solomons. Following the capture of Rendova, the PT boats were moved to a primitive base on the island’s tip. Rations were for the most part canned. The crews were exposed to tropical diseases, including dengue fever and malaria, which Kennedy contracted during his time on the island. Rats, mosquitos, and cockroaches tormented the crews. So did Japanese bombers, who recognized the damage done to supply lines by the PT boats on their nightly raids. In one raid in July, Japanese bombers sank one PT boat and destroyed another.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
PT boats training in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island during World War II. US Navy

4. PT 109 departed on its last mission on August 1, 1943

On August 1, 1943, PT 109 was one of fifteen boats which departed Rendova, informed by American code breakers of Japanese Naval activity. Kennedy was in command of 109, which carried a crew of ten enlisted and, in addition to Kennedy, two commissioned officers. One, Ensign George Ross – known as Barney – was an observer. Ross had lost his boat in action previously. Their orders were to prevent the Japanese from reinforcing and resupplying the garrison on the island of New Georgia. Codebreakers had provided the information that five Japanese destroyers were planning to run through a body of water known as Blackett Strait.

The PT boats were to engage the enemy destroyers in the dark of night, surprising them with a torpedo barrage and retiring at high speed. The fifteen boats were the largest coordinated PT boat assault of the war. Kennedy and PT 109 were assigned to a group of four boats led by PT 159. In the attack, PT 159 advanced and launched a torpedo attack without informing Kennedy of its actions. In the dark, and in radio silence, PT 109 waited while another boat, PT 157 launched a second supportive attack. The American boats launched 6 torpedoes, none of which found their targets, before retiring behind a smoke screen. PT 109 waited in the Blackett Strait, its engines idling, as the supporting boats sped away and the Japanese flotilla bore down upon its position.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
PT 105 leads boats of its squadron in the South Pacific in 1942. US Navy

5. PT boats dealt out punishment to Japanese resupply barges

Japan resupplied its island garrisons with troops, food, and fuel with barges which were relatively easy pickings for the American PT boats. In midsummer, the Japanese Navy began to use destroyers to deliver supplies and troops to their positions. American PT boats did not fare well against Japanese destroyers at that stage of the war. Unreliable torpedoes made attacks a risky operation with little chance of success. Japanese destroyers were also faster than the boats, though the PTs were more maneuverable at high speed. The fifteen boats launched against the five Japanese destroyers were to have been supported by American destroyers, which were late arriving at the scene.

The Japanese destroyers completed their missions and returned through the passage where the American PT boats which had not expended their torpedoes remained, Kennedy’s included. While waiting to sight the enemy destroyers, or to receive information on their whereabouts, Kennedy idled in the strait. PT boats (as well as other ships) created wakes when underway, which was phosphorescent, easily spotted from the air, as well as from the elevated bridge of an enemy destroyer. The Japanese destroyer Amagiri, returning from the island of Kolombanga, bore down on the American vessel, which was unaware of its presence.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Japanese destroyer Amagiri sliced PT 109 in two and created a massive fireball. Wikimedia

6. PT 109’s destruction was visible to other boats

Kennedy and his crew had mounted a 37 mm anti-tank gun in the bow of their boat, a modification made without authorization. Such modifications were common, as young commanders tried to give their commands greater punch against the enemy. Kennedy ordered Ensign Barney Ross to fire the anti-tank gun as he revved up the engines and attempted to turn the boat into a position from which it could launch a torpedo at the destroyer which appeared suddenly in the gloom. The destroyer loomed out of the darkness at high speed. Ross did not have time to get a shell into the breech of the gun. The bow of the onrushing destroyer crashed into the PT boat, sliced it in two, and continued on its way.

PT boats were fueled with aviation gasoline in 1943. The destroyer’s passing ignited the fuel, which exploded, sending aloft a fireball which reached 100 feet. Two men were killed in the explosion, two others were severely burned, and some of the crew were thrown into the sea. Kennedy ordered the remainder to abandon the ship. The stern section of the boat sank, the forward section remained afloat, though sinking slowly, and the sea itself was covered with flames. Two remaining PT boats saw the destruction of their comrades’ boat, launched another futile attack on the destroyer, and departed the area without searching for survivors from PT 109. Several were in the water and on the remains of the boat.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Kennedy and some of the crew of PT 109. The officer on the far left was not aboard the night of the collision. US Navy

7. Kennedy and ten men survived the explosion and flames

In the darkness, Kennedy located the most severely injured of his crew, Machinist’s Mate First Class Patrick McMahon. The seaman was burned over 70% of his body. Kennedy brought him to the forward section of the boat, where he left him and set out searching for more of the crew. He found two more, who he escorted to the remains of his boat. By sunrise, August 2, eleven men were on the bow of the wrecked PT boat, which drifted southward in the current, toward the Japanese-held islands. It was also taking on water and by late morning it was clear the remains of the boat would soon sink. The men were ringed with islands occupied by the Japanese.

One which wasn’t identified on American charts as Plum Pudding Island. The island was too small to be of any significance, and no Japanese troops occupied it, so Kennedy directed his crew to swim for the island. Kennedy had injured his back in the explosion of his boat, but he towed the injured McMahon, taking the latter’s lifebelt strap between his teeth while he swam the three and a half-mile distance. Several of the men pushed a timber on which the anti-tank gun had been mounted, using it to carry their shoes and the remaining battle lantern. The journey through the water took about four hours, with the men reaching the shore of Plum Pudding Island in the late afternoon.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Kennedy in the cockpit of PT 109 during the boat’s refit at Tulagi in 1943. US Navy

8. Plum Pudding Island offered no comforts to the stranded men

Tiny Plum Pudding Island offered no water, no coconuts, and little in the way of shelter. Kennedy ordered the men to remain behind the tree line, which obscured them from Japanese ships and barges which were likely to come down the slot that evening. While his crew rested, Kennedy swam to Ferguson Passage, about two miles distance, and remained there hoping to see a passing American PT boat. None came. He swam back to his men, having spent the night treading water near Ferguson Passage. On August 3, the exhausted Kennedy decided the crew would have to move to an island which at least offered drinking water.

Olasana Island sat about three and three-quarter miles from Plum Pudding Island, across a passage in which a strong current flowed toward the latter. Once again Kennedy took a lifebelt strap in his teeth to tow the most severely injured of his crew. The night of August 4 was taken up by the difficult swim. The current hampered all of the men as they crossed to the island, but Kennedy most of all, since McMahon was too severely injured to help in any way. Kennedy was forced to deal with a dead weight as he fought the current toward the island. The entire crew arrived safely, and found shelter from the sun, coconut trees with ripe coconuts, but no fresh water.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
A map showing the point of the collision and the distance between the islands where Kennedy and his men entered the water. Wikimedia

9. The crew of PT 109 was considered to be lost

PT 109 was rammed in waters which were surrounded Japanese-held islands. On several of them, coastwatchers operated in secret. Their job was to observe the movements of Japanese troops, ships, and aircraft and report them to military authorities. The confused melee in the Brackett Strait had been seen as had the huge fireball which marked the destruction of PT 109. Motor Torpedo Squadron 2 held a memorial service for Kennedy and his crew. An aerial search of the area where the explosion occurred was ordered to locate survivors. It located the remains of the wreck, but by the time it was conducted the crew had moved to hide on the islands.

An Australian coastwatcher had seen the explosion from his hidden lair on Kolombangara, an island he shared with more than 10,000 Japanese troops. The coast watcher, Arthur Reginald Evans, decoded radio messages reporting PT 109 missing and lost. Evans sent natives with whom he worked, to search for survivors from the crew. While Kennedy sought help near Ferguson Passage, natives passed between the islands in a dugout canoe, ignored by the Japanese and the Allies as they went about their business. Two Melanesian natives, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, began to probe the small islands in search of survivors from the American crew.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Coastwatchers contributed to the rescue of crewmen from ships and planes throughout the Solomons Campaign. Wikimedia

10. Kennedy swam to another island in search of help on August 5

About a half-mile distant from Olasana Island was Naru Island, which was both unoccupied by the Japanese and closer to Ferguson Passage. On August 5, Kennedy and Ensign George Ross, known as Barney, swam to Naru, with Kennedy intending to again spend the night treading water in Ferguson Passage. He hoped to encounter an American PT boat on patrol. They found a wreck of a Japanese vessel on a reef. The Americans also discovered crackers and candy in several packages, as well as canned drinking water, left behind by the Japanese. They also discovered a native dugout canoe. Two natives exploring the Japanese wreck fled in their canoe when Kennedy approached.

When Kennedy returned to Olasana Ross remained on Naru Island to rest. Kennedy found the two natives had encountered his crew. The natives were talking with Lenny Thom, Kennedy’s executive officer. Kennedy and the natives returned to Naru, found Ross swimming back and picked him up on the way. On Naru, Kennedy carved a message into the husk of a cocoanut, at Gasa’s suggestion, and using a nut which Kumana climbed a tree to acquire. The natives then departed for Wana Wana Island, which was patrolled by the Japanese. Kennedy continued to attempt to find an American boat on patrol in Ferguson Passage, using the native canoe they had discovered on Naru Island, and carrying the battle lantern to signal any boat which might appear.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Japanese held islands ringed the area where Kennedy’s men were hiding as they awaited rescue. Wikimedia

11. The Coastwatcher Scout Service operated under the eyes of the Japanese

On Wana Wana, the natives carrying Kennedy’s and Thom’s messages met with a Senior Scout named Benjamin Kevu. Kevu provided them with a better canoe for the treacherous journey to the American base at Rendova, and sent another native to inform Evans that Kennedy’s crew had been located. Neither message carried the location where the crew was hiding from the Japanese. Only the two natives, Gasa and Kumana, were aware of where the Americans could be found. A third scout known to Thom, John Kari, joined them on the long paddle to an Allied outpost on Roviana Island, a distance of some 38 miles from Wana Wana.

The waters they traversed were rough, with a high current running against them, and heavily patrolled by the Japanese against the possibility of American boats coming out from Rendova. It took the three natives more than fifteen hours of steady paddling for the canoe to cover the distance. At the same time, Kevu informed Evans of the men waiting on Olasana. The Australian dispatched a canoe laden with food to the Americans. The food arrived along with instructions for Kennedy to return it to a small island which was part of Kolombangara. Kennedy was hidden by lying under palm fronds at the bottom of the canoe as the natives paddled the distance. On the morning of August 7, Evans informed the Americans at Rendova that Kennedy’s crew had been found.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Admiral William Halsey lost faith in the PT boats against Japanese destroyers in the summer of 1943. US Navy

12. The Battle of Vella Gulf, August 6-7, 1943

The Japanese continued to use destroyers to supply their garrisons following the action which sank PT 109. On the night of August 6, the commander of American forces in the theater, Admiral William F. Halsey, sent a force of six American destroyers to intercept and destroy the Japanese reinforcement effort. The American force knew of the Japanese intention through decoded radio intercepts. This allowed the Americans to set an ambush for the Japanese between the islands of Vella LaVella and Kolombangara. The Americans were also equipped with advanced radar, which allowed detection of the Japanese ships before the latter were aware of the enemy’s presence.

Three Japanese destroyers were sunk out of the force of four. The attempt to resupply the island garrison failed. It was the first time American destroyers operated in action independently of cruisers. It was also the first time the Japanese were beaten in a complete destroyer action at night. There were no American casualties other than a gun loader crushing a bone in an accident. The action ended in a complete American victory, which demonstrated to the Japanese they were no longer able to support the garrison on Kolombangara. American troops fighting on New Georgia captured the island’s airfield the same day, further threatening the Japanese garrison.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Supplies being unloaded by human conveyor belts at Rendova in 1943. Wikimedia

13. The natives arrived at Rendova on August 7

On the morning of August 7, Gasa and Kumana were escorted south the final three miles from Roviana to Rendova. Gasa still carried the coconut on which Kennedy had scratched his message. Navy Commander Thomas Warfield, the commanding officer at the Rendova base, received the two Solomon Islanders with disbelief. Warfield did not know either of the natives and in general, was distrustful of the islanders. Kennedy’s scratched message did not name the island where the men were, nor give a reference to a position other than “NATIVE KNOWS PO’SIT…HE CAN PILOT”. Warfield considered the possibility the natives were an attempt by the Japanese to lure PT boats into a trap.

The message from Evans arrived that same day, after Kennedy was delivered to the Australian on Gomu Island. Warfield ordered two boats prepared to rescue the crew, after first picking up Kennedy from Gomu Island, where he waited with Evans. Kennedy was informed by radio. When the boat arrived to pick him up Kennedy was to signal his position by firing four shots into the air. Kennedy had but three bullets, and the final signal was fired from a Japanese rifle, given to him by Evans. PT 157 escorted by PT 171, arrived to extract Kennedy after dark on August 7. With Kennedy aboard, the boat then went to Olasana Island.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
The Navy used Kennedy’s dramatic rescue to boost recruiting for the PT boats. National Archives

14. The entire rescue was accomplished in the darkness

Kennedy was picked up from the water off Gomu after dark on August 7, and the PT boats arrived at Olasana around midnight. He had noted the many reefs and coral protrusions around the island, which had cut his feet on his swims, as well as those of the other men who had taken to the water. The presence of Japanese on islands throughout the area threatened the operation. Olasana Island was large enough that the men had only explored a small portion during their searches for food. Whether there was a Japanese presence on the island was unknown. Japanese patrol boats were always possible.

The boats operated without lights, and Kennedy navigated through the reefs until they were close enough in to launch rubber rafts, which carried him and an escort ashore. After rousing the sleeping survivors of PT 109, the men were carried to the boats. By dawn, the boats were back at the base on Rendova, where the crew of PT 109 all received medical attention. Naval authorities opened an investigation into the loss of the boat. Kennedy’s action report claimed the boat was unable to “get out of the way” because it had been idling on one engine (idling meant a forward way of about six knots, with no wake). Kennedy later told a reporter that he spun the wheel to attack the destroyer, but his boat responded sluggishly.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
PT 59 was converted to a gunboat under Kennedy’s direction and supervision in late 1943. US Navy

15. Kennedy elected to remain in the Southwest Pacific

Naval tradition allowed a period of survival leave in the United States following the loss of a ship. Kennedy elected to remain in the Solomon Islands. He was assigned to command PT 59, a slightly smaller boat than his previous command. Like PT 109, his new command was powered by three 1,500 horsepower Packard engines which ran on aviation gasoline. A pair of 3,000-gallon gasoline tanks provided fuel. Fourteen officers and men provided the crew. Admiral Halsey ordered some PT Boats converted to gunboats. Halsey lost faith in PT Boats opposite destroyers using torpedoes. But he still liked their maneuverability and speed.

Kennedy supervised and designed much of the conversion of his boat. The torpedo tubes were removed. Additional guns were added. Armor was installed around the fuel tanks. Three fifty-caliber machine gun nests were added to each side, and twin-gun mounts were installed. Heavy anti-aircraft guns were mounted fore and aft. A superior radar system was installed, with longer range and a clearer readout. Kennedy lived aboard the boat during the refit, rather than ashore in the officer’s barracks. Lenny Thom assisted in the refit, until he was assigned his own boat, on which he adopted many of the modifications designed by Kennedy.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
A PT boat at a New Guinea jetty in 1943, probably delivering mail. US Navy

16. Kennedy spent September 1943 refitting the boat at Tulagi

The refit of PT 59 took five weeks. Kennedy lived on the boat throughout the conversion. Two other boats went through the same process. The boats were ordered to move to Lambu Lambu Cove, on Vella LaVella, where one gunboat was assigned to each of the three PT boat commands. The addition of extra guns and armor reduced the speed of the boats to well below their initial design. They also consumed more fuel than in their lighter configurations. Their range was reduced as a result. The boats were moved into a position to support the next phase of the Solomon Islands campaign; the capture of Bougainville. First, the Americans planned a diversionary attack on Choiseul Island.

The diversionary tactic was called Operation Blissful. It involved a Marine parachute operation which led to Marines being trapped at the mouth of the Warrior River on Choiseul. The Marine commander requested Navy assistance to evacuate the troops trapped on the island, under heavy Japanese fire. Operation Blissful was intended to force the Japanese to station more troops on Choiseul, thus weakening their garrison on Bougainville. Kennedy, by then a full lieutenant, was assigned by his commanding officer, Lt. Arthur Berndsten, to go to the aid of the beleaguered Marines. Berndsten had commanded one of the two boats which rescued the crew of PT 109 earlier that year.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
President Kennedy received this letter from a grateful Marine less than three weeks before he was assassinated. National Archives

17. Kennedy was ordered on a mission with insufficient fuel to complete it

Because Kennedy’s gasoline tanks were less than half full, he requested time to refuel before he departed. He was told there wasn’t time. Two other boats were assigned to escort PT 59. Kennedy departed on the mission with the full knowledge he may have to abandon his boat if it could not be taken in tow under fire. PT 59 picked up two officers as guides, including Marine Lt. Col. Victor Krulak, commander of Operation Blissful. The boats then proceeded to the mouth of the Warrior River, where during a rainy night, Kennedy used his boat as a shield as Marines were evacuated via landing craft from the island.

PT 59 picked up ten Marines of its own, several of them wounded. One died of his wounds in Kennedy’s bunk that night. The PT boats then moved down the coast of Choiseul toward a Marine outpost at Voza, where they had picked up their guides earlier. The boats then turned back to their base. At 3.00 AM, November 2, 1943, Kennedy’s engines died, their fuel supply exhausted. He called for one of the escorting boats to tow him and requested air cover, since both boats would be vulnerable. Six Australian fighters were sent to provide cover, and all six were shot down. PT 59 and its escorts arrived safely at Lambu Lambu and were quickly refueled.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Another letter from a grateful Marine, rescued at Choiseul by Kennedy’s PT 59. National Archives

18. Kennedy led another mission to Choiseul the next day

PT 59 and four additional boats returned to Voza the night of November 3. They were sent to escort the slow landing craft which was used to evacuate the remaining Marines, carrying them 45 miles to Vella LaVella. The boats were to counter Japanese fire on the withdrawing Marines and provide anti-aircraft protection in the event the landing craft were attacked by Japanese aircraft. The withdrawal was accomplished successfully, with relatively light casualties, though the guns of the PTs exchanged fire with Japanese forward positions ashore.

On November 5, Kennedy was again in action, using the guns of PT 59 to destroy three Japanese barges, supported by two other PT boats. On November 11, PT 59 drove off two more Japanese barges with its guns. November 13 found the boat engaging shore batteries in the Warrior River. One the boat silenced with heavy machine guns. Kennedy was by then suffering from several tropical ailments, but his commanding officer gave him the highest possible marks for his leadership, judgment, and performance in command. On November 18, Lt. Kennedy was relieved of command due to his health.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
PT Boat Officers James Reed, John F. Kennedy, George Ross, (behind Kennedy) and Paul Fay, at Tulagi, 1943

19. Kennedy’s health was permanently damaged during his war service

Kennedy’s weight dropped from 165 pounds to 140 during the last three months of his combat service. His back was injured during the collision with the Japanese destroyer, and aggravated further during his exertions while attempting to find aid. The Navy physicians at Lambu Lambu sent him to Tulagi for further evaluation. Lt. Alvin Cluster, his last commanding officer in combat, learned of Kennedy’s condition. He had Kennedy transferred to the United States. Kennedy arrived in San Francisco in the first week of January, 1944. After hospitalization, he was transferred to the Submarine Chaser Training Center in Miami.

He remained in the Navy, despite several more bouts of illness and hospitalization In May, until December, 1944. His last command, PT 59, remained in the Solomons until August, 1944, when it was shipped to Rhode Island via the Panama Canal for use as a training vessel. It was later sold, used as a fishing boat for many years, and eventually sank at its moorings after a fire. Nearly all of the wooden-hulled PT boats built for service during World War II were destroyed by the Navy after the war, after their equipment was removed for salvage. The hulls were then burned. By the time a movie was made to tell PT 109’s story in the early 1960s, service boats owned by the Air Force had to be modified to portray the Navy’s PTs.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
A painting of a PT boat in action by a former Naval officer. Wikimedia

20. The debate over PT boats continued throughout the war

PT Boats were used during the slow withdrawal in the Philippines early in the war. Commanded by Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley, PT boats were used to harass the enemy and evacuated General MacArthur and his family to Australia. Bulkeley greatly exaggerated the effectiveness of the boats during the campaign, making claims of kills which were later proved false. For example, he claimed PT boats under his command sank a cruiser, a sea-plane tender, and a troopship during the campaign. Senior Navy officials knew the claims were false, but allowed them to stand because they boosted morale and were an aid in recruiting volunteers.

PT boat operations against the parade of Japanese warships known as the Tokyo Express during the Guadalcanal and Solomons campaigns were not particularly effective. But they were highly effective against Japanese barges which provided reinforcements and supplies to their island garrisons. They also proved useful in recovering downed airmen and in rescuing trapped troops. Their torpedo problems were resolved by the beginning of 1944. Later in the war, some boats were armed with rockets, giving them a weapon equivalent to the five-inch guns mounted on most American destroyers. About 100 PT boats were lost during World War II in all theaters, eight of them from being rammed by an enemy vessel.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Kennedy’s role in the loss of PT 109 became a subject of debate among armchair admirals in the 1950s. US Navy

21. Several different versions of how PT 109 was lost arose in the 1960s

The Navy found Lieutenant John F. Kennedy was not culpable in the loss of his command, and the lives of two of his men. Inevitably, given his chosen profession after the war, conflicting opinions over how the boat was lost surfaced. None of the officers and crew who were present when the boat was struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri ever blamed the loss on Kennedy. Once the destroyer was seen looming in the darkness, Kennedy, idling on one engine, may or may not have immediately throttled up. But his act of throttling up had no immediate connection to the engines. That was provided by the motor machinist, who actually opened the muffler flaps and the engine’s throttles.

The motor machinist on duty at the time was Patrick McMahon, who was severely burned in the ensuing explosion. If he moved to open the flaps and the throttles he never said so. One writer commented that Kennedy said he throttled up without opening the flaps. Perhaps he did, but Kennedy throttling up was a signal to the engine room, which had to respond. Kennedy had no control of the muffler flaps, their proper positioning was part of engine room protocol. After the war the Japanese commander of the Amagiri claimed that he spotted the PT boat and steered directly toward it at high speed, over 35 knots, intent on destroying it by ramming.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Kennedy in 1942, befire deployment to the South Pacific. Wikimedia

22. Kennedy wrote to the commander of the ship which sank his boat

In September, 1952, Congressman Kennedy asked his staff and the US Navy to locate Kohei Hanami, who had commanded Amagiri on the night the ship rammed PT 109. He then wrote to his former adversary, a personal letter in which he offered his best wishes and suggested that if two former enemies could exchange friendly greetings it spoke well of relations between their corresponding nations. Hanami responded in a friendly manner of his own. Eventually, the two former naval officers became friends, and Hanami also went into politics in Japan. He was elected mayor of Shiokawa in 1962.

Kennedy appointed several PT boat veterans to positions within his administration when he entered the White House in 1961. Byron White was a Navy lieutenant who investigated the incident and wrote the intelligence report describing the Navy’s findings in the loss of PT 109. He was appointed to the Supreme Court by Kennedy in 1962. The coconut on which Kennedy carved the cryptic message notifying naval authorities of his survival and the need for rescue entered the White House with him. It was encased in glass and wood, and was used as a paperweight on the president’s desk.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
Actor Cliff Robertson portrayed Kennedy in the 1963 film PT 109. Pinterest

23. The 1963 film PT 109 told a Hollywood version of the story

In June, 1963, the film PT 109 was released, starring Cliff Robertson as John F. Kennedy. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. had a leading role in the production. The film was based on the book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II, by Robert J. Donovan. Like most Hollywood films, it took some liberties with facts, such as Kennedy’s boat being reported as missing and a search initiated immediately. In reality, Kennedy and his crew were presumed lost, and a memorial service was held. It also depicted the boats in Navy gray paint. PT boats were typically painted dark green during the Solomon Islands Campaign. The film also called into question how Kennedy could have allowed his boat to be rammed.

Kennedy invited several men with whom he served in the South Pacific to a screening of the film at the White House. One guest was former Navy Commander Arthur Murray Preston. Preston was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions while commanding a PT boat in the Pacific. He was asked following the film if the result would have been the same had he, rather than Kennedy, encountered the Japanese destroyer under the same circumstances. Would his boat have been destroyed? His only reply was a succinct, “Damned right”.

The Epic Story of PT 109 and its Crew in World War II
The story of PT 109 and PT boats in the Pacific has been debated since the end of World War II. National Archives

24. The story of PT 109 has been distorted ever since

The loss of PT 109 was reported as soon as Kennedy and his crew were rescued. His role in the rescue appeared in newspapers and newsreels across the country. He and two officers, Ross and Thom, were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and Kennedy was also entitled to wear the Purple Heart as a result of the injuries he sustained. It remained, for the rest of his life, the public image of his wartime service, his later actions in PT 59 were all but ignored. In the 1950s and ever since his detractors blamed him for the loss of the boat and claimed his actions in the aftermath were exaggerated for political purposes. But none of the men who served with and under him joined in the negative claims.

Ensign Thom died in 1946 in an automobile accident. John Kennedy served as one of his pallbearers. “Barney” Ross served in the Kennedy Administration and died in 1965. Patrick McMahon, at 37 the oldest member of PT 109’s crew when it was sunk, died in 1990. For the rest of his life, he told the story of his commanding officer towing him as he led his men to safety, despite his frequent requests for Kennedy to leave him behind. As President, Kennedy occasionally visited his former shipmate when in Florida. In 2001 Gerard E. Zinser, the last surviving member of PT 109’s crew, passed away at the age of 82. Until he died, he kept a picture of Kennedy in his bedroom, always referring to him as “the skipper”.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Farthest Forward”. Dick Keresey, American Heritage Magazine. July/August, 1998

“PT Boats of World War II: From Home Front to Battle”. Article, National Park Service. Online

“Survival”. John Hersey, The New Yorker. June 17, 1944

“Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons”. Walter Lord. 1977

“Sixty Years Later, the Story of PT 109 Still Captivates”. Stephen Plotkin, Prologue Magazine. Summer, 2003

“PT 109”. Article, United States Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“John F. Kennedy and PT 109”. Article. JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Online

“Naval officer who helped save John F. Kennedy during WWII dies at age 97”. Mackenzie Wolf, Navy Times. February 27, 2017

“Operation Blissful”. Greg Bradsher, Prologue Magazine. Fall, 2010

“Luck of the Toss”. The Readers, American Heritage Magazine. October, 1992

“An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 – 1963”. Robert Dallek. 2003

“Gerard E. Zinser, Chief Petty Officer, United States “, Obituary, Arlington National Cemetery. Online

“PT 109 Survivor Saved in War by JFK Dead at 84”. Dennis Georgatos, Associated Press. February 21, 1990. Online