Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (February 2013)|
LTJG Kennedy (standing at right) on the PT-109 in 1943. For other photos see
|Laid down:||4 March 1942 at Bayonne, New Jersey|
|Launched:||20 June 1942|
|Out of service:||2 August 1943|
|Motto:||They were expendable|
|Fate:||Run down by Japanese destroyer Amagiri (torpedo tube located in May 2002)|
|Notes:||Skipper was future president of United States, two crew killed|
|Displacement:||56 tons (full load)|
|Length:||80 ft (24 m) overall|
|Beam:||20 ft 8 in (6.30 m)|
|Draft:||3 ft 6 in (1.07 m) maximum (aft)|
|Propulsion:||three 12-cylinder Packard gasoline engines 1500 hp each; three shafts|
|Speed:||41 knots (76 km/h) maximum (trials)|
|Endurance:||12 hours, 6 hours at top speed|
|Complement:||3 officers, 14 enlisted men (design)|
|Armament:||4 21-inch torpedo tubes (four Mark 8 torpedoes), 20 mm cannon aft, four M2 .50 cal .5" (12.7 mm) machine guns (2×2), 37 mm anti-tank gun mounted forward (a field modification)|
|Armor:||gunboat deck house protected against rifle bullets and splinter, some crews fitted armor plate to refrigerators|
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 the 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, many 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 belonged to the PT 103 class, hundreds of which were completed between 1942 and 1945 by Elco. 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).
For space and weight-distribution reasons, the center engine was mounted with the output end facing forward, with power transmitted through a Vee-drive gearbox to the propeller shaft. Because the center propeller was deeper, it left less of a wake, and was preferred by skippers for low-wake loitering. Both wing engines were mounted with the output flange facing aft, and power was transmitted directly to the propeller shafts.
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 3 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 lb (1,429 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) 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, American 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.
Under Kennedy's command
Despite having a bad back, Kennedy used his family influence to get into the war. He started out as an ensign with a desk job for the Office of Naval Intelligence in October 1941.  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 he completed this training on 27 September, he voluntarily entered the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center in Melville, Rhode Island, where he was promoted to Lieutenant, junior grade (LTJG) before completing his training 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 Higgins PT boat. In January 1943, PT-101 and four other boats were ordered to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 14, which was assigned to Panama.
The Allies had been in a campaign of island hopping since securing Guadalcanal in a bloody battle in early 1943. Seeking combat duty, Kennedy transferred on 23 February 1943 as a replacement officer to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 2, which was based at Tulagi Island in the Solomon Islands. Traveling to the Pacific on USS Rochambeau, Kennedy arrived at Tulagi on 14 April and took command of PT-109 on 23 April. On 30 May, several PT boats, including PT-109, were ordered to the Russell Islands in preparation for the invasion of New Georgia.
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, 15 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, such as PT-109, were left without radar, and were not notified that other boats had already engaged the enemy.
Collision with the Amagiri
PT-109, with PT-162 and PT-169, were ordered to continue patrolling the area in case the enemy ships returned. Around 02:00, on a moonless night, Kennedy's boat was idling on one engine to avoid detection of her wake by Japanese aircraft when the crew realized they were in the path of the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, which was returning to Rabaul from Vila, Kolombangara, after offloading supplies and 900 soldiers. Amagiri was traveling at a relatively high speed of between 23 knots (43 km/h) and 40 kt (75 km/h) in order to reach harbor by dawn, when Allied air patrols were likely to appear.
Conflicting statements have been made as to whether the destroyer captain had spotted and steered towards the boat. Some reports suggest the 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 the Amagiri was Lt. Cmdr. Kohei Hanami. Also aboard was his senior officer, Capt. Katsumori Yamashiro (commander, 11th Destroyer Flotilla), and on a following ship was Capt. Tameichi Hara (Flotilla commander, Destroyer Div. #7), who claimed he noticed the resulting explosive fire after the 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.
PT-169 launched two torpedoes that missed the destroyer and PT-162's torpedoes failed to fire at all. Both boats then turned away from the scene of the action and returned to base without checking for survivors.
All of the nearby large islands had Japanese camps on them. The survivors chose the tiny deserted Plum Pudding Island, southwest of Kolombangara island. They placed their lantern, shoes, and nonswimmers on one of the timbers used as a gun mount and began kicking together to propel it. It took four hours for the survivors to reach their destination, 3.5 miles (5.6 km) away, which they reached without interference by sharks or crocodiles.
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. The island was only 100 yards (90 m) in diameter, with no food or water. The crew had to hide from passing Japanese barges. Kennedy swam about 4 km more, to Naru and Olasana islands, 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 island, 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 Solomon 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. The canoes were similar to those used for thousands of years in the Pacific by indigenous peoples from Polynesia and coastal North and South America. 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
COMMANDER... NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT...
HE CAN PILOT... 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT... KENNEDY
This message was delivered at great risk through 35 nmi (65 km) 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. The 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.
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. The shell was preserved in a glass container by Kennedy on his Oval Office desk during his presidency. It is now on display at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.
PT-59 was one of the first PT boats converted to a gunboat primarily tasked with hunting down targets their own size or smaller, and was crewed by Kennedy and those from PT-109 who chose to stay in the war rather than go home. On 2 November 1943, (in an incident portrayed as an action by PT-109 in the film PT-109) PT-59 went on to rescue Marines ambushed during a raid on Choiseul Island. One gravely wounded Marine died in Lt Kennedy's bunk aboard PT-59 that night.
The search for PT-109
The wreckage of PT-109 was located in May 2002 when a National Geographic Society expedition headed by Robert Ballard found a torpedo tube from wreckage matching the description and location of Kennedy's vessel in the Solomon Islands. The boat was identified by Dale Ridder, a weapons and explosives expert on the U.S. Marine Forensics Panel.
The stern section was not found, but a search using remote vehicles found the forward section, which had drifted south of the collision site. Much of the half-buried wreckage and grave site was left undisturbed in accordance with Navy policy. Max Kennedy, who joined Ballard on the expedition, presented a bust of JFK to the islanders who had found Kennedy and his crew.
Uniforms and last crew
A standard uniform was blue dungarees with a white, round dixie cap for enlisted sailors, washed khakis and service cap for officers. During General Quarters, the crew manned their battle stations wearing dark blue kapok life vests and U.S. Army/U.S. Marine Corps-style steel helmets painted gray. The skipper's helmet had stripes and a star (approximating his dress uniform sleeve rank or shoulder board insignia...normally that of LTJG or LT), while the other officer was labeled "XO".
The crew aboard PT-109 on her last mission:
- Lieutenant, junior grade (LTJG) John F. Kennedy (Boston, Massachusetts), Commanding Officer ("CO" or "Skipper"). Became 35th President of the United States
- Ensign (ENS) Leonard J. Thom (Sandusky, Ohio), Executive Officer ("exec" or "XO")
- Ensign (ENS) George H. R. "Barney" Ross (Highland Park, Illinois); on board as an observer after losing his own boat, attempted to operate the 37mm gun but suffered from night blindness
- Seaman 2/c Raymond Albert (Akron, Ohio) KIA 8 October 1943
- Gunner's Mate 3/c (GM3) Charles A. "Bucky" Harris (Watertown, Massachusetts)
- Motor Machinist's Mate 2/c (MM2) William Johnston (Dorchester, Massachusetts)
- Torpedoman's Mate 2/c (TM2) Andrew Jackson Kirksey (Reynolds, Georgia) (killed in collision, listed as missing by National Geographic account)
- Radioman 2/c (RM2) John E. Maguire (Dobbs Ferry, New York)
- Motor Machinist's Mate 2/c (MM2) Harold William Marney (Springfield, Massachusetts) (killed in collision, manning turret closest to impact point)
- Quartermaster 3/c (QM3) Edman Edgar Mauer (St. Louis, Missouri)
- Motor Machinist's Mate 1/c (MM1) Patrick H. "Pappy" McMahon (Wyanet, Illinois) (Only man in engine room during collision, was badly burned, but recovered from his wounds. He's the only member of the crew besides Kennedy mentioned by name in the song)
- Torpedoman's Mate 2/c (TM2) Ray L. Starkey (Garden Grove, California)
- Motor Machinist's Mate 1/c (MM1) Gerard E. Zinser (Belleville, Illinois) (erroneously called "Gerald" in many publications)
Gerard Zinser, a retired chief petty officer and the last survivor of PT-109, died in Florida in 2001. Both Solomon Islanders Biuki Gasa and Eroni Kumana were alive when visited by National Geographic in 2002. They were each presented with a gift from the Kennedy family.
Biuki Gasa died in late August 2005, his passing noted only in a single blog by a relative. According to Time Pacific magazine, Gasa and Kumana were invited to Kennedy's inauguration. However, the island authorities tricked them into giving their trip to local officials. Gasa and Kumana gained a little fame only after being identified by National Geographic. In 2007, the commanding officer of the USS Peleliu, Captain Ed Rhoades, presented Eroni Kumana with gifts, including an American flag for his actions more than 60 years earlier. In 2008, Mark Roche visited Kumana and discussed the PT 109 incident. Kumana was a scout for the Coastwatchers throughout the war, and besides rescuing the crew of 109, also rescued two downed American pilots who parachuted into the sea. Kumana noted that Kennedy visited him several times after the rescue and always brought trinkets to swap. Regarding attending the inauguration, Kumana noted that he and Gasa made it to the airport in Honiara, but were turned back by Solomon Island officials on the grounds that they would be an embarrassment in their appearance. Kumana lives atop a cliff on his native island with his extended family. His most prized possession is his bust of President Kennedy, given him by the Kennedy family. Kumana gave Roche a valuable family heirloom, a large piece of Kustom Money, to place on the President's grave. Among other uses, Kustom Money was used to pay tribute to a chief, especially by placing it on the chief's grave. In November 2008, Roche placed the tribute on the President's grave in a private ceremony. The artifact was then taken to the Kennedy Library and placed on display beside the coconut with the rescue message. 
The episode of PT-109's sinking featured in a book and a 1963 movie, PT 109, starring Cliff Robertson. It had some historical inaccuracies, such as the Navy searching for the boat rather than holding a memorial service for the crew. President Kennedy personally selected Robertson to play him in the film version. As there were only a few Elco PT-105 class hulls in existence by that time (none in operable condition or resembling their WW-II appearance) a few 82' USAF Crash Rescue boats were converted to resemble PT-109 and a few other Elco PT's in the movie.
Plum Pudding Island was later renamed Kennedy Island. A controversy arose when the government sold the land to a private investor who charged admission to tourists.
The 1958 movie South Pacific preceded PT-109 as a drama about Navy sailors in the Pacific theater.
PT-109 was also a subject of toy, plastic and RC model ships in the 1960s, familiar to boys who grew up as Baby Boomers. It was still a popular 1/72 scale Revell model kit in the 21st century. Hasbro also released a PT-109 edition John F. Kennedy G.I. Joe action figure, dressed in Navy khakis with a miniature version of the famous coconut shell.
The tale is much less familiar to later generations, as the movie was out of print in VHS in the U.S. by 2006 and was not released in the U.S. on DVD until 2011. It is now available outside of the U.S. as a DVD.
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