PT-109 was a PT boat (Patrol Torpedo boat) last commanded by Lieutenant, junior grade (LTJG) John F. Kennedy (later President of the United States) in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Kennedy's actions to save his surviving crew after the sinking of PT-109 made him a war hero, which proved helpful in his political career.
The incident may have also contributed to Kennedy's long-term back problems. After he became president, the incident became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring a song, books, movies, various television series, collectible objects, scale model replicas, and toys. Interest was revived in May 2002, with the discovery of the wreck by Robert Ballard. PT-109 earned two battle stars during World War II operations.
PT-109 belonged to the PT-103 class, hundreds of which were completed between 1942 and 1945 by Elco in Bayonne, New Jersey. PT-109's keel was laid 4 March 1942 as the seventh Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) of the 80-foot-long (24 m)-class built by Elco and was launched on 20 June. She was delivered to the Navy on 10 July 1942, and fitted out in the New York Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn.
The Elco boats were the largest PT boats operated by the U.S. Navy during World War II. At 80 feet (24 m) and 40 tons, they had strong wooden hulls of two layers of 1-inch (2.5 cm) mahogany planking. Powered by three 12-cylinder 1,500 horsepower (1,100 kW) Packard gasoline engines (one per propeller shaft), their designed top speed was 41 knots (76 km/h; 47 mph).
The engines were fitted with mufflers on the transom to direct the exhaust under water, which had to be bypassed for anything other than idle speed. These mufflers were used not only to mask their own noise from the enemy, but to improve the crew's chance of hearing enemy aircraft, which were rarely detected overhead before firing their cannons or machine guns or dropping their bombs.
PT-109 could accommodate a crew of three officers and 14 enlisted, with the typical crew size between 12 and 14. Fully loaded, PT-109 displaced 56 tons. The principal offensive weapon was her torpedoes. She was fitted with four 21-inch (53 cm) torpedo tubes containing Mark 8 torpedoes. They weighed 3,150 pounds (1,430 kg) each, with 386-pound (175 kg) warheads and gave the tiny boats a punch at least theoretically effective even against armored ships.
Their typical speed of 36 knots (67 km/h; 41 mph) was effective against shipping, but because of rapid marine growth buildup on their hulls in the South Pacific and austere maintenance facilities in forward areas, PT boats ended up being slower than the top speed of the Japanese destroyers and cruisers they were assigned to attack in the Solomons. Torpedoes were also useless against shallow-draft barges, which were their most common targets. With their machine guns and 20 mm cannon, the PT boats could not return the large-caliber gunfire carried by destroyers, which had a much longer effective range, though they were effective against aircraft and ground targets.
Because they were fueled with aviation gasoline, a direct hit to a PT boat's engine compartment sometimes resulted in a total loss of boat and crew. In order to have a chance of hitting their target, PT boats had to close to within 2 miles (3.2 km) for a shot, well within the gun range of destroyers. At this distance, a target could easily maneuver to avoid being hit. The boats approached in darkness, fired their torpedoes, which sometimes gave away their positions, and then fled behind smoke screens.
Sometimes retreat was hampered by seaplanes dropping flares to render the boats visible in darkness. They would then attack the boats with bombs and machine gun fire. The firing of the boats' torpedoes imposed an additional risk of detection. The Elco launch tubes used 3-inch (76 mm) black powder charges to expel the torpedoes. Firing of the charge could sometimes ignite the grease with which the torpedoes were coated to facilitate their release from the tubes. The resultant flash could give away the position of the boat. Crews of PT boats relied on their smaller size, speed and maneuverability, and darkness, to survive.
Ahead of the torpedoes on PT-109 were two depth charges, omitted on most PTs, one on each side, about the same diameter as the torpedoes. These were designed to be used against submarines, but were sometimes used by PT commanders to confuse and discourage pursuing destroyers. PT-109 lost one of her two Mark 6 depth charges a month before Kennedy showed up when the starboard torpedo was inadvertently launched during a storm without first deploying the tube into firing position. The launching torpedo sheared away the depth charge mount and some of the footrail.
PT-109 had a single 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft mount at the rear with "109" painted on the mounting base, two open rotating turrets (designed by the same firm that produced the Tucker automobile), each with twin M2 .50 cal (12.7 mm) anti-aircraft machine guns at opposite corners of the open cockpit, and a smoke generator on her transom. These guns were effective against attacking aircraft.
The day before her final mission, PT-109's crew lashed a U.S. Army 37 mm antitank gun to the foredeck, replacing a small, 2-man life raft. Timbers used to secure the weapon to the deck later helped save their lives when used as a float.
PT-109 was transported from the Norfolk Navy Yard to the South Pacific in August 1942 on board the liberty ship SS Joseph Stanton. PT-109 arrived in the Solomon Islands in late 1942 and was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 2 based on Tulagi island. PT-109 participated in combat operations around Guadalcanal from 7 December 1942 to 2 February 1943 when the Japanese withdrew from the island.
Despite having a bad back, JFK used his father Joseph P. Kennedy's influence to get into the war. He started out in October 1941 as an ensign with a desk job for the Office of Naval Intelligence. Kennedy was reassigned to South Carolina in January 1942 because of his brief affair with Danish journalist Inga Arvad. On 27 July 1942, Kennedy entered the Naval Reserve Officers Training School in Chicago.
After completing this training on 27 September, Kennedy voluntarily entered the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center in Melville, Rhode Island, where he was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) (LTJG). He completed his training there on 2 December. He was then ordered to the training squadron, Motor Torpedo Squadron 4, to take over the command of motor torpedo boat PT-101, a 78-foot Huckins PT boat.
In January 1943, PT-101 and four other boats were ordered to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 14 (RON 14), which was assigned to Panama. He detached from RON 14 in February 1943 while the squadron was in Jacksonville, Florida, preparing for transfer to the Panama Canal Zone.
After the capture of Rendova Island, the PT boat operations were moved to a "bush" berth there on 16 June. From that base, PT boats conducted nightly operations, both to disturb the heavy Japanese barge traffic that was resupplying the Japanese garrisons in New Georgia, and to patrol the Ferguson and Blackett Straits 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.
On 1 August, an attack by 18 Japanese bombers struck the base, wrecking PT-117 and sinking PT-164. Two torpedoes were blown off PT-164 and ran erratically around the bay until they ran ashore on the beach without exploding. Despite the loss of two boats and two crewmen, Kennedy's PT-109 and 14 other boats were sent north on a mission through Ferguson Passage to Blackett Strait, after intelligence reports had indicated that five enemy destroyers were scheduled to run that night from Bougainville Island through Blackett Strait to Vila, on the southern tip of Kolombangara Island.
In the PT attack that followed, fifteen boats loaded with 60 torpedoes counted only a few observed explosions. However, of the thirty torpedoes fired by PT boats from the four divisions not a single hit was scored. Many of the torpedoes exploded prematurely or ran at the wrong depth. The boats were ordered to return when their torpedoes were expended, but the boats with radar shot their torpedoes first. When they left, remaining boats, including PT-109, were left without radar, and were not notified that other boats had already engaged the enemy.
The crew had less than ten seconds to get the engines up to speed, and were run down by the destroyer between Kolombangara and Ghizo Island, near .
Conflicting statements have been made as to whether the destroyer captain had spotted and steered towards the boat. Some reports suggest Amagiri's captain never realized what happened until after the fact. The author Donovan, having interviewed the men on the destroyer, concluded that it was not an accident. Damage to a propeller slowed the Japanese destroyer's trip to her own home base.
The captain of Amagiri was Lieutenant Commander Kohei Hanami. Also aboard was his senior officer, Captain Katsumori Yamashiro (commander, 11th Destroyer Flotilla), and on a following ship was Captain Tameichi Hara (Flotilla commander, Destroyer Div. #7), who claimed he noticed the resulting explosive fire after PT-109 had been rammed, cut in half, and left burning.
PT-109 was cut in two. Seamen Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold W. Marney were killed, and two other members of the crew were badly injured. For such a catastrophic collision, explosion, and fire, it was a low loss rate compared to other boats that were hit by shell fire. PT-109 was gravely damaged, with watertight compartments keeping only the forward hull afloat in a sea of flames.
The eleven survivors clung to PT-109's bow section as it drifted slowly south. By about 2:00 p.m., it was apparent that the hull was taking on water and would soon sink, so the men decided to abandon it and swim for land. As there were Japanese camps on all the nearby large islands, they chose the tiny deserted Plum Pudding Island, southwest of Kolombangara. They placed their lantern, shoes, and non-swimmers on one of the timbers used as a gun mount and began kicking together to propel it. Kennedy, who had been on the Harvard University swim team, used a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth to tow his badly-burned senior enlisted machinist mate, MM1 Patrick McMahon. It took four hours to reach their destination, 3.5 miles (5.6 km) away, which they reached without interference by sharks or crocodiles.
The island was only 100 yards (91 m) in diameter, with no food or water. The crew had to hide from passing Japanese barges. Kennedy swam to Naru and Olasana islands, a round trip of about 2.5 miles (4.0 km), in search of help and food. He then led his men to Olasana Island, which had coconut trees and drinkable water.
The explosion on 2 August was spotted by an Australian coastwatcher, Sub-lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans, who manned a secret observation post at the top of the Mount Veve volcano on Kolombangara, where more than 10,000 Japanese troops were garrisoned below on the southeast portion. The Navy and its squadron of PT boats held a memorial service for the crew of PT-109 after reports were made of the large explosion.
However, Evans dispatched islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana in a dugout canoe to look for possible survivors after decoding news that the explosion he had witnessed was probably from the lost PT-109. They could avoid detection by Japanese ships and aircraft and, if spotted, would probably be taken for native fishermen.
Kennedy and his men survived for six days on coconuts before they were found by the scouts. Gasa and Kumana disobeyed an order by stopping by Naru to investigate a Japanese wreck, from which they salvaged fuel and food. They first fled by canoe from Kennedy, who to them was simply a shouting stranger. On the next island, they pointed their Tommy guns at the rest of the crew since the only light-skinned people they expected to find were Japanese and they were not familiar with either the language or the people.
Gasa later said "All white people looked the same to me." Kennedy convinced them they were on the same side. The small canoe was not big enough for passengers. Though the Donovan book and movie depict Kennedy offering a coconut inscribed with a message, according to a National Geographic interview, it was Gasa who suggested it and Kumana who climbed a coconut tree to pick one. Kennedy cut the following message on a coconut:
Kennedy told Gasa and Kumana, "If Japan man comes, scratch out the message."NAURO ISL
COMMANDER... NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT...
HE CAN PILOT... 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT... KENNEDY
The message was delivered at great risk through 35 nmi (65 km; 40 mi) of hostile waters patrolled by the Japanese to the nearest Allied base at Rendova. Other coastwatcher natives who were caught had been tortured and killed. Later, a canoe returned for Kennedy, taking him to the coastwatcher to coordinate the rescue. PT-157, commanded by Lieutenant William Liebenow, was able to pick up the survivors.
The arranged signal was four shots, but since Kennedy only had three bullets in his pistol, Evans gave him a Japanese rifle for the fourth signal shot. The sailors sang "Yes Jesus Loves Me" to pass the time. Gasa and Kumana received little notice or credit in military reports, books, or movies until 2002 when they were interviewed by National Geographic shortly before Gasa's death.
In a more recent visit to the area, writer/photographer Jad Davenport managed to track down the then-90-year-old Eroni Kumana, and together they made a visit to view Kennedy Island. In typical fashion for the time, Kumana reports that the first thing the survivors asked for was cigarettes. When they realized they had no matches, Kumana surprised and delighted the men by making a fire by rubbing two sticks together.
The coconut shell came into the possession of Ernest W. Gibson, Jr. who was serving in the South Pacific with the 43rd Infantry Division. Gibson later returned it to Kennedy. Kennedy preserved it in a glass paperweight on his Oval Office desk during his presidency. It is now on display at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.
Kennedy's coconut message was not the only message given to the coastwatchers. A more detailed message was written by the executive officer of PT-109, Leonard Jay Thom. Thom's message was a "penciled note" written on paper. Kennedy's message was written on a more hidden location in case the native coastwatchers were stopped and searched by the Japanese.
Thom's message read:
To: Commanding Officer--Oak OThom and Kennedy were both awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. Kennedy was also awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he sustained in the collision. Following their rescue, Thom was assigned as commander of PT-587 and Kennedy was assigned as commander of PT-59 (a.k.a. PTGB-1). Kennedy and Thom remained friends, and when Thom died in a 1946 car accident, Kennedy was one of his pallbearers.
From:Crew P.T. 109 (Oak 14)
Subject: Rescue of 11(eleven) men lost since Sunday, August 1 in enemy action. Native knows our position & will bring P.T. Boat back to small islands of Ferguson Passage off NURU IS. A small boat (outboard or oars) is needed to take men off as some are seriously burned.
Signal at night three dashes (- - -) Password--Roger---Answer---Wilco If attempted at day time--advise air coverage or a PBY could set down. Please work out a suitable plan & act immediately Help is urgent & in sore need. Rely on native boys to any extent