In the early morning hours of August 2, 1943, a small American torpedo boat was moving just west of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. In command was a young Irish-American destined to be the first Catholic president of the United States: Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Left: Kennedy, at far right, and the crew of PT 109.
The 26 year-old Kennedy was the son of former Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Massachusetts millionaire Joe Kennedy. John was a Harvard graduate, but was the farthest thing in the world from the usual Boston Brahmin snob that graduated from there in years past. Though they had money, he and his family had retained that easy, gregarious Irish-American charm that would assist him one day in politics. It was equally valuable to him here in the South Pacific, commanding the small tight-knit group of men that made up the crew of a US Navy PT boat.
American PT (Patrol torpedo) boats were essentially a much smaller and faster version of destroyers, in that the torpedo was their main weapon and speed was their main defense. In the case of the flimsy, wood-decked PT boats, speed was virtually their only defense. Nearly any direct hit by enemy ordinance was likely to be fatal. Kennedy’s PT 109 was built in the summer of 1942 at the Elco Boat Works in Bayonne, New Jersey.
John Kennedy himself was perhaps as fragile as the boat he would command. John had endured a series of childhood diseases, including scarlet fever, diphtheria, appendicitis, whooping cough, jaundice, asthma, and pneumonia. And though he would sustain a back injury during the sinking of PT 109, he had been suffering with back problems earlier in his life. He twice flunked armed-forces physicals. Perhaps with the help of his father’s political influence, he “passed” the physical to enlist in the Navy. One physical activity that John’s ailments never impeded was swimming. He was on the swim team at Harvard, and this skill would be vital in the days after the sinking of PT 109.
Right: Kennedy at the helm of PT 109.
Once in the Navy, John’s early career was in a frustrating desk job at the office of Naval Intelligence. Finally in September 1942 he was assigned to the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center in Melville, Rhode Island. On April 14, 1943, Kennedy arrived at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, and took command of PT 109.
On the night of August 1st, PT 109 and the other boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 2 were ordered out on a mission through Ferguson Passage to Blackett Strait to intercept an expected run to an enemy-held island by Japanese destroyers, the “Tokyo Express.” As the night went on, several of the boats found targets and fired their torpedoes and returned home. Unfortunately that included all those equipped with radar. PT 109 and several other boats remained on patrol deep into the pitch black night without radar, depending entirely on what they could see.
As PT-109 moved through the gloomy morning, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri suddenly appeared like a ghost ship just a few hundred yards away. The PT boat was running on one idling engine and had almost no speed to maneuver. The commander of the Amagiri, Kohai Hanami, spotted the tiny ship. It was too close to fire upon; Hanami turned to ram it. Kennedy didn't have enough speed to to avoid them. They sliced through the middle of the wooden PT boat, which burst into flames.
Two of the crewmen were killed, but Kennedy and 10 others survived. Some were still on board the floating stern, but several were out in the water, where a combination of oil and gas was burning on the surface of the water. Kennedy dove into the burning water and dragged two seriously injured crewmen back to the floating section. They spent the night on there, but as the morning light was coming up, here in Japanese-held water, Kennedy knew they couldn’t stay there for long.
And so, around midmorning, with no rescue in sight, they set off for a small nearby atoll. Now the many hours of swimming at Harvard stood Kennedy in good stead, as he towed one of the badly burned crewmen to the atoll by holding his Mae West strap in his mouth. Though Kennedy was suffering greatly from his recurring back injury, he and Ensign Ross made several dangerous night trips into Ferguson Passage over the next few days, swimming out, and later using a canoe they found, in a bid to contact help.
On August 5, the group was found by two natives who worked for an Australian coast watcher, Lt. Reginald Evans. Kennedy quickly carved a note on a coconut for them to bring to Evans. Evans got word back to the Navy, and, on the night of August 8, all 11 survivors of PT 109 were rescued by PT 157. President Kennedy kept that carved coconut (pictured left) on his desk in the Oval Office until the day he was assassinated. -- Joseph Gannon