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Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Last Mission of PT-109, August 1, 1943

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On August 1st, 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 sickly 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.

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.

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. Despite being in a seemingly hopeless situation, Lieutenant Kennedy showed personal courage and disregard for his own safety in leading his crew back to friendly waters. 


Alternate Historian said...

For an alternate history where Lieutenant Kennedy is killed please read our Profiles in Courage article.

Dominic said...

Lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans was not a New Zealander. He was an Australian, although he sent his coded messages in ROYAL NEW ZEALAND NAVY cipher, which may explain why some Americans refer to him as a New Zealander. A bit like calling an American a Canadian.

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