Today in 1943, the Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 put to sea on her last mission. Before sunrise on August 2nd, she would be sunk and her surviving crew would find themselves in danger from both the elements and Japanese garrisons located on nearby islands. The story of their survival over the next six days and the ultimate fate of her commanding officer ensured that PT boats would earn their place in American naval history.
Motor Torpedo Boats, or PT boats, were the smallest warships used by the United States Navy during the Second World War. There were several different types, each built by a different boat yard. PT-109 was representative of the boats built early in the war by the Elco Company of New Jersey. She was 80 feet long, almost 21 feet wide and fully loaded weighed in at 56 tons. Unlike other warships of the day, PT boats were built from wood; in PT-109's case, it was 2-inch thick mahogany.
For their size, the PT boats packed a mighty punch. On the day of her last mission, PT-109 carried four 21-inch torpedo tubes load with Mark 8 torpedoes, a troublesome model designed during the First World War. She carried a 20MM cannon near the stern, twin-.50cal machine gun turrets on opposite corners of the deckhouse and a 37MM anti-tank gun that the crew had "liberated" from some unknown source and mounted forward of the deckhouse. Field modifications were common on the boats. If the water was calm and her three 1,500HP Packard engines were running right, she could top out at 43 knots, or 48 miles per hour.
PT-109 had been delivered to the Navy in July, 1942 and by the first of August of the next year, she had seen more than her share of combat. She had arrived in the Solomon Islands in October, 1942 and spent most evenings trying to stop the Japanese Imperial Navy from resupplying the empire's ground forces fighting desperately on Guadalcanal. The Japanese used destroyers for resupply as well as small barges, both targets for the PT boats. While in theory a PT could handle a destroyer under the right conditions, in truth it was never a fair fight. Destroyers carried more firepower with longer range and could outrun the relatively slow Mark 8 torpedo. Except for parts of the deckhouse, PT boats had no armor; a five-inch shell landing in the engine room often ended a PTs life in one blinding flash.
Lieutenant (j.g.) John Fitzgerald Kennedy took command of PT-109 on March 23, 1943. Kennedy was an unlikely naval officer. He had been sick often as a young man and his back was a continual problem. He was only able to secure a position in the Navy through the help of his father, who had been Ambassador to England earlier in the war. According to most sources, Kennedy was eager for a combat assignment, possibly hoping to outshine his older brother Joseph, who became a naval aviator and would die later in the war. Regardless of his intentions, at the age of 25 Kennedy found himself fighting a war in the dark as the commander of a wooden boat in an armor-plated world.
From their base on Rendova Island, PT-109 and her sister vessels conducted nightly operations to interdict the heavy Japanese barge traffic resupplying the Japanese garrisons on New Georgia and patrolled the Ferguson and Blackett Straits to give warning when Japanese warships sailed into the straits to assault U.S. forces in the New Georgia-Rendova area.
Commanded by Kennedy with executive officer Ensign Leonard Jay Thom and ten enlisted men aboard, PT-109 was one of fifteen boats sent out on patrol on the night of August 1st, 1943 to intercept Japanese warships. A friend of Kennedy, Ensign George H. R. Ross, whose boat was under repair, joined Kennedy's crew that night as an observer. The PT boat was creeping along to keep the wake and noise to a minimum in order to avoid detection. Around 2AM, with Kennedy at the helm, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri traveling at nearly 40 knots collided with PT-109, cutting the boat in two. Contrary to popular belief, the crew of the -109 were not completely surprised by the destroyer; rather, by the time they saw the ship 200 yards away it was too late to move out of her path.
The damage to PT-109 was severe. Kennedy was thrown into the cockpit by the force of the collision and landed on his bad back. As Amagiri steamed away, her wake doused the flames on the floating section of the boat to which five Americans clung: Kennedy, Thom, and three enlisted men, Raymond Albert, John Maguire and Edman Mauer. Kennedy yelled out for others in the water and heard the replies from Ross and five members of the crew, two of which were injured: Charles Harris had a hurt leg and Patrick McMahon was badly burned. Kennedy swam to these men as Ross and Thom helped the others, William Johnston, Ray Starkey, and Gerald 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. Two crew members, Andrew Kirksey and Harold Marney were killed in the collision. The survivors, clinging to the remains of their boat in enemy-held waters, desperately needed a plan.