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Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Last Mission of PT-109 (Part Two), 1943

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Because the remnant of the boat the men were holding onto was listing badly and starting to sink, Kennedy decided to swim for a small island 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, who was badly burned, 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 every night 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 then communicated to the natives that the message was to go 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 a nearby coastwatcher, New Zealander 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 August 8th.

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 August 1st, 1943. An official account of the entire incident was written by intelligence officers that month but was not declassified until 1959. As President, Kennedy met once again with his rescuers and was toasted by members of the Japanese destroyer crew. While Kennedy and his men had assumed that the destroyer rammed them by accident, members of the Japanese crew contend that their path was intentional as the ship was to close to the PT boat to use her guns. They knew that their ship would have no problem cutting through the mahogany-hulled boat.

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 the boat in November. Kennedy left the Solomons on December 21st and returned to the U.S. in early January 1944.

In February of that year, Kennedy reported to the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center at 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 October 30, 1944. Subsequently, Kennedy was released from all active duty and finally retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve on physical disability in March, 1945.

Some critics of Kennedy's presidency and personal life have attempted to revise the events surrounding the sinking of PT-109 to be solely the result of careless, incompetent leadership on the part of the future President. As one talk show host said, "How could a 50-knot PT boat be run down by a 30-knot destroyer?" Statements such as this demonstrate a lack of understanding of the circumstances surrounding the event.

The largest factor that contributed to the sinking was PT-109's lack of surface search radar. Some PT boats had radar aboard, but those on patrol that night had inexplicably returned to base earlier in the evening, leaving several PTs on patrol with no protection other than the eyes of the men on watch. PT-109 had surface search radar installed at one time, but it had been removed by the time Kennedy took command. The reason behind the removal is unclear.

Another reason why the Amagiri was able to sneak up on PT-109 was the light and sound environment present that evening. The PT boat was moving using just one of her engines, but even so, that low rumble kept the men from hearing certain frequencies. There was no moon that night, so the unlit destroyer melded in perfectly with the surrounding darkness. Since she was approaching bow on, the crew only saw a slender silhouette of the destroyer, and this when the ship was only 200 yards away.

In the end, I believe it is fair to say that the sinking of PT-109 resulted from poor operational planning on the part of Kennedy's superiors and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless, Lieutenant Kennedy showed personal courage and disregard for his own safety in his attempt to lead his crew back to friendly waters. That fact of history is irrefutable.

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