PT 109 AND JFK
PT 109 AND JFK
Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy aboard the PT-109, 1943.
It is arguably the most famous small-craft engagement in naval history, and it was an unmitigated disaster. At a later date, when asked to explain how he had come to be a hero, one of the young commanders involved, by then an aspiring politician, replied laconically, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."
John F. Kennedy's comment speaks a soldier's clear-eyed appraisal of the mechanics of heroism. It is of course unjust, however true it may be, and to do justice to the young Lieutenant Kennedy, we must look at everything that he leaves out— everything that happened after the Japanese sank his boat sixty years ago this summer in the South Pacific during World War II.
To understand the events of August 1 - 2, 1943, which culminated in the sinking of PT-109, it is important to remember that it was dark— deeply, unrelievedly dark. The disorienting effect, even for experienced sailors, of a moonless, starless night on the ocean should not be underestimated. In this profound darkness, PT-109 stood at her station in Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands, one of the remnants of an operation born into futility, the heir to bad planning and worse communication.
Fifteen PT boats ("Patrol Torpedo" boats) had set out to engage, damage, and maybe even turn back the well-known "Tokyo Express," the Japanese navy's more or less regular resupply convoy that enabled resistance to the advance of U.S. forces in the islands farther south. When the patrol actually did come in contact with the Tokyo Express— three Japanese destroyers acting as transports with a fourth serving as escort— the encounter had not gone well. Thirty torpedoes were fired with no more effect than to make the Japanese even warier than they had been. Boats that had used up their complement of torpedoes were ordered home. The few that still had torpedoes remained in the strait, in the doubtful hope of catching the Express on its return voyage. The only thing that could be said about the action was that if the Japanese had not been damaged, neither had the Americans. That was about to change.
PT-109 was one of the boats left behind. Lieutenant Kennedy rendezvoused his boat with PT-162 of his own patrol section and PT-169, which had been separated from another section, and the three boats spread out to make a picket line across the strait. At about 2:30 in the morning, a shape loomed out of the darkness three hundred yards off PT-109's starboard bow. So difficult was visibility that it was first believed to be another PT. When it became apparent that it was one of the Japanese destroyers, Kennedy attempted to turn to starboard to bring his torpedoes to bear. But there was not enough time. The destroyer, later identified as the Amagiri, the escort ship of the Express, struck PT-109 just forward of the forward starboard torpedo tube, ripping away the starboard aft side of the boat. Less than a minute had passed since the first sighting.
The impact tossed Kennedy around the cockpit, and his radioman, John E. Maguire, was actually thrown from it. Most of the crew were knocked or fell into the water. The one man below decks, engineer Patrick McMahon, miraculously escaped, although he was badly burned by exploding fuel. Fear that PT-109 would go up in flames drove Kennedy to order the men who still remained on the wreck to abandon ship. But the destroyer's wake dispersed the burning fuel, and when the fire began to subside, Kennedy sent his men back to what was left of the boat.
From the wreckage of the boat, Kennedy ordered the men with him, Edgar Mauer and John E. Maguire, to identify the location of their shipmates still in the water. Ens. Leonard Thom, Gerard Zinser, Ens. George Ross, and Raymond Albert were able to swim back on their own. Kennedy swam out to McMahon and Charles Harris. Towing the incapacitated McMahon by a life-vest strap, Kennedy returned to the boat, alternately cajoling and berating the hurt, exhausted Harris, who followed behind, to get him through the difficult swim. Meanwhile, Thom pulled in William Johnston, who was debilitated by the gasoline he had accidentally swallowed and the heavy fumes that lay on the water. Finally Raymond Starkey swam in from where he had been flung by the shock.
Floating on and around the hulk, the crew took stock. Two men, Harold Marney and Andrew Jackson Kirksey, had disappeared in the collision, very likely killed at the impact. All the men were exhausted, a few were hurt, although none as badly as McMahon, and several had been sickened by the fuel fumes, with Johnston the most severely affected. On the other hand, there had been no sign of other boats or ships in the area; the men were afraid to fire their flare gun for fear of attracting the attention of the Japanese who were on islands on all sides. Furthermore, although the wreckage was still afloat because of its sealed bulkheads, it was taking on water, and it capsized on the morning of August 2. After a discussion of options, and aware that time was running out, the men abandoned the remains of PT-109 and struck out for an islet, three and a half miles away, that they hoped was unoccupied.
Kennedy had been on the swim team at Harvard; even towing McMahon by a belt through his teeth, he was undaunted by the distance. Several of the other men were also good swimmers, but several were not; two, Johnston and Mauer, could not swim at all. These last two were lashed to a plank that the other seven men pulled and pushed as they could. Kennedy arrived first at the island, named Plum Pudding but called by the men "Bird" Island because of the guano that coated the bushes. So spent that he had to be helped up the beach by the man he had towed, Kennedy collapsed and waited for the rest of the crew.
But Kennedy's swimming was not over. Alarmed by a Japanese barge that passed close by, Kennedy determined to swim down into Ferguson Passage, through which the American PTs passed when they were operating in Blackett Strait. Island-hopping and clinging to reefs, Kennedy made his way out into the passage, where he treaded water for an hour before deciding that the PTs were in action elsewhere that night. The return voyage nearly killed him as strong currents spun him out into Blackett Strait and then back into Ferguson Passage.
Making the weary trip again, Kennedy stopped on Leorava Island, southeast of Bird Island, where he slept long enough to recoup himself for the final leg of the trip. Returning to Bird Island, Kennedy slept through the day but also made Ross promise to go out on the same trip that night. But Ross did not see any sign of the PTs either.
On August 4 Kennedy led the men back into the ocean, striking out for Olasana Island in hopes of finding food and fresh water but also wishing to be closer to Ferguson Passage. Kennedy again hauled McMahon by the strap of his life vest while the rest of the crew clustered around the plank and thrashed their way along. Olasana Island proved to be something of a disappointment. The coconuts were more plentiful but had a sickening effect on some of the men. Fresh water was not in evidence, and the men were too nervous about Japanese patrols to explore more than a small corner of this larger island. When the night of August 4 turned wet and cold, Kennedy determined to try the next island over the following day.
Naru, or Cross, Island is the last in the chain, and its eastern shores look out over Ferguson Passage. Kennedy and Ross climbed up on to its beach a little past noon on August 5. Fearing enemy patrols, the two men stepped carefully through the brush but only saw the wreck of a small Japanese vessel out on the reef. On the beach they spotted a small box with Japanese labels. When they broke it open, they were delighted to discover it contained Japanese candy. Even better, a little further up the island they discovered a tin of water and a one-man canoe hidden in the bushes. Having had a drink, Kennedy and Ross were just walking back onto the beach when they saw two men out at the Japanese wreck. The men, clearly islanders, took fright and paddled away from the wreck in a canoe, despite Kennedy's hails. Uncertain about the outcome of this encounter, that night Kennedy took the canoe into Ferguson Passage once more, with as little success as previously.
In this photo taken in 1943 at Tulagi, Solomon Islands, George "Barney" Ross (top) poses with (left to right) James "Jim" Reed, John F. Kennedy, and Paul "Red" Fay. Ross was on board PT-109 when the Amagiri struck the boat.
Kennedy decided to take the canoe back to Olasana; he stopped off long enough to gather the candy and the water to bring to the other men, leaving Ross to rest until the next morning. Arriving at Olasana, Kennedy discovered that the two men he and Ross had seen at Naru had made contact with the rest of the crew. The two men, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, were islander scouts for the Allies. Their hasty departure from Naru had left them tired and thirsty, and they had stopped for coconuts at Olasana, where Thom had been able to convince them that the crew was American. The next morning, August 6, Kennedy returned with Gasa and Kumana to Naru, intercepting Ross along the way as he was swimming back. The islanders showed the two Americans where a boat had been hidden on Naru. When Kennedy was at a loss for a way to send a message, Gasa showed him how it could be scratched into a green coconut husk. Gasa and Kumana left with the message—
— as well as a backup note that they got from Thom when they stopped at Olasana. Perhaps not fully believing that their luck had changed, Kennedy insisted on going out with Ross into Ferguson Passage in the two-man canoe. Heavy seas swamped the canoe and so battered the men that they barely made it back to Naru. But the next morning, August 7, eight islanders appeared at Naru shortly after Kennedy and Ross awoke. They brought food and instructions from the local Allied coastwatcher, Lt. A. Reginald Evans, that Kennedy should come over to Evans's post. Stopping long enough at Olasana to feed the crew, the islanders hid Kennedy under a pile of palm fronds and paddled him to Gomu Island in Blackett Strait. Early in the evening of the seventh, a little more than six days after PT-109's sinking, Kennedy stepped onto Gomu. There was still a rescue to be planned with Evans, no small thing in enemy-held waters, but the ordeal of PT-109 was over.
Evans had already notified Rendova of the discovery of PT 109's survivors, and the base commander was proposing to send the rescue mission directly to Olasana. Understandably somewhat wary of the ability of such a mission to be directed from afar, Kennedy insisted on being picked up first so that he could guide the rescue boats, PTs 157 and 171, among the reefs and shallows of the island chain. Late on the night of August 7, the boats met Kennedy at the rendezvous point, exchanging a prearranged signal of four shots. Kennedy's revolver was down to only three rounds, so he borrowed a rifle from Evans for the fourth. Standing up in the canoe to give the signal, Kennedy did not anticipate the rifle's recoil, which threw him off balance and dumped him in the water. It was a wet and thoroughly exasperated navy lieutenant who climbed aboard PT-157. The PTs crossed Blackett Strait under Kennedy's direction and eased up to Olasana Island early in the morning of August 8. The exhausted men of PT-109 were all asleep, and Kennedy, his relief and exhilaration enhanced by a couple of doses of medicinal brandy, began yelling for them, much to the chagrin of his rescuers, nervous over the proximity of the Japanese. But the rescue went forward without incident, and the men of PT-109 reached Rendova at 5:30 in the morning on August 8.
For his courage and leadership, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and injuries suffered during the incident qualified him for the Purple Heart; Ens. Leonard Thom also received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. But the consequences of the event for John F. Kennedy were more far-reaching than simple decorations for a uniform. The story was picked up by the writer John Hersey, who told it to the readers of The New Yorker and Reader's Digest, and it followed Kennedy into politics, where it was a strong foundation of his appeal. For here was a war hero who had not won battles but who had shown courage and dogged will, responsibility for those he led and the ability to inspire them— and it would be hard to better this as a short list of qualifications for a political leader.
"Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, 'I served in the United States Navy,'" wrote President John F. Kennedy in August 1963. A former naval officer, Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on 29 May 1917 to Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. After attending public schools in Brookline, Kennedy went on to The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, and attended the London School of Economics from 1935 to 1936. Kennedy graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1940 and began graduate school at Stanford University.
Despite having a bad back, Kennedy was able to join the U.S. Navy through the help of Captain Alan Kirk, the Director, Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) who had been the Naval Attache in London when Joseph Kennedy was the Ambassador. In October 1941, Kennedy was appointed an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve and joined the staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence. The office, for which Kennedy worked, prepared intelligence bulletins and briefing information for the Secretary of the Navy and other top officials. On 15 January 1942, he was assigned to an ONI field office the Sixth Naval District in Charleston, South Carolina. After spending most of April and May at Naval Hospitals at Charleston and at Chelsea, Massachusetts, Kennedy attended Naval Reserve Officers Training School at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, from 27 July through 27 September. After completing this training, Kennedy entered the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center, Melville, Rhode Island. On 10 October, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. Upon completing his training 2 December, he was ordered to the training squadron, Motor Torpedo Squadron FOUR, for duty as the Commanding Officer of a motor torpedo boat, PT 101, a 78- foot Higgins boat. In January 1943, PT 101 with four other boats was ordered to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron FOURTEEN, which was assigned to Panama.
Seeking combat duty, Kennedy transferred on 23 February as a replacement officer to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron TWO, which was based at Tulagi Island in the Solomons. Traveling to the Pacific on USSRochambeau, Kennedy 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 the invasion of Rendova, 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 in order to sight and to give warning when the Japanese Tokyo Express warships came into the straits to assault U.S. forces in the New Georgia-Rendova area.
PT 109 commanded by Kennedy with executive officer, Ensign Leonard Jay Thom, and ten enlisted men was one of the fifteen boats sent out on patrol on the night of 1-2 August 1943 to intercept Japanese warships in the straits. A friend of Kennedy, Ensign George H. R. Ross, whose ship was damaged, joined Kennedy's crew that night. The PT boat was creeping along to keep the wake and noise to a minimum in order to avoid detection. Around 0200 with Kennedy at the helm, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri traveling at 40 knots cut PT 109 in two in ten seconds. Although the Japanese destroyer had not realized that their ship had struck an enemy vessel, the damage to PT 109 was severe. 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 for others in the water and heard the replies of Ross and five members of the crew, two of which 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 the remnant of PT 109. Although they were only one hundred yards from the floating piece, in the dark it took Kennedy three hours to tow McMahon and help Harris back to the PT hulk. Unfortunately, TM2/c Andrew Jackson Kirksey and MoMM2/c Harold W. Marney were killed in the collision with Amagiri.
Because the remnant was listing badly and starting to swamp, Kennedy decided to swim for a small island barely visible (actually three miles) 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 strap of the device in his teeth. After finding no food or water on the island, Kennedy concluded that he should swim the route the PT boats took through Ferguson Passage in hopes of sighting another ship. After Kennedy had no luck, Ross also made an attempt, but saw no one and returned to the island. Ross and Kennedy had spotted another slightly larger island with coconuts to eat and all the men swam there with Kennedy again towing McMahon. Now at 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.
Kennedy and Ross again attempted to look for boats that night 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 and finally rescued the survivors on 8 August.
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. An official account of the entire incident was written by intelligence officers in August 1943 and subsequently declassified in 1959. As President, Kennedy met once again with his rescuers and was toasted by members of the Japanese destroyer crew.
In September, Kennedy went to Tulagi and accepted the command of PT 59 which was scheduled to be converted to a gunboat. In October 1943, Kennedy was promoted to Lieutenant and continued to command the motor torpedo boat when the squadron moved to Vella Lavella until a doctor directed him to leave PT 59 on 18 November. Kennedy left the Solomons on 21 December and returned to the U.S. in early January 1944.
On 15 February, Kennedy reported to the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center, Melville, Rhode Island. Due to the reinjury of his back during the sinking of PT 109, Kennedy entered a hospital for treatment. In March, Kennedy went to the Submarine Chaser Training Center, Miami, Florida. In May while still assigned to the Center, Kennedy entered the Naval Hospital, Chelsea, Massachusetts, for further treatment of his back injury. At the Hospital in June, he received his Navy and Marine Corps Medals. Under treatment as an outpatient, Kennedy was ordered detached from the Miami Center on 30 October 1944. Subsequently, Kennedy was released from all active duty and finally retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve on physical disability in March 1945.