Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109
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LTJG Kennedy (standing at right) on 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:||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; 47 mph) 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 PT-109 made him a war hero, which proved helpful in his political career. The incident may have also contributed to his 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).
For space and weight-distribution reasons, the outboard or wing engines were mounted with their output ends facing forward, with power transmitted through Vee-drive gearboxes to the propeller shafts. The center engine was mounted with the output flange facing aft, and power was transmitted directly to the propeller shaft.
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. At one point, the port Mark 6 depth charge was knocked through the foredeck by the port forward torpedo when the torpedo was inadvertently launched while PT 109 maneuvered in high seas during a storm with Kennedy's squadron commander, Lt. Alvin Cluster, at the wheel. Cluster had asked Kennedy for a turn at PT 109's wheel, as he had only had experience with the older, Elco 77-foot PTs. The torpedo stayed in the tube, half in and half out on a hot run, its propellers spinning, until Kennedy's executive officer Ensign Leonard Thom deactivated it. PT 109 returned to Tulagi for repairs to the foredeck and the replacement of the depth charge.
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, two-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. It is believed PT-109 was painted a flat, dark green at Noumea, New Caledonia after being off-loaded from 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.
Under Kennedy's command
Despite having a bad back, John F. Kennedy 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.
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, 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, the remaining boats, including PT-109, were left without radar, and were not notified that other boats had already engaged the enemy.
Collision with Amagiri
PT-109, PT-162, and PT-169 were ordered to continue patrolling the area in case the enemy ships returned. Around 2 a.m. on 2 August 1943, 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 and 40 knots (43 and 74 km/h; 26 and 46 mph) 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 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.
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.
The eleven survivors clung to PT-109's bow section as it drifted slowly south. By about 2 p.m., it was apparent that the hull was taking on water and would soon sink, so the men decided to 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 that had been 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:
COMMANDER... NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT...
HE CAN PILOT... 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT... KENNEDY
Kennedy told Gasa and Kumana, "If Japan man comes, scratch out the message."
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. Kumana recounted 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 O
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
Thom 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.
Crew on PT-109's last mission
- John F. Kennedy, Lieutenant, junior grade (LTJG), Commanding Officer (Boston, Massachusetts).
- Leonard J. Thom, Ensign (ENS), Executive Officer (Sandusky, Ohio).
- George H. R. "Barney" Ross, Ensign (ENS) (Highland Park, Illinois). On board as an observer after losing his own boat. Attempted to operate the 37 mm gun but suffered from night blindness.
- Raymond Albert, Seaman 2/c (Akron, Ohio). Killed in action 8 October 1943.
- Charles A. "Bucky" Harris, Gunner's Mate 3/c (GM3) (Watertown, Massachusetts).
- William Johnston, Motor Machinist's Mate 2/c (MM2) (Dorchester, Massachusetts).
- Andrew Jackson Kirksey, Torpedoman's Mate 2/c (TM2) (Reynolds, Georgia). Killed in collision, listed as missing by National Geographic account.
- John E. Maguire, Radioman 2/c (RM2) (Dobbs Ferry, New York).
- Harold William Marney, Motor Machinist's Mate 2/c (MM2) (Springfield, Massachusetts). Killed in collision, manning turret closest to impact point.
- Edman Edgar Mauer, Quartermaster 3/c (QM3) (St. Louis, Missouri).
- Patrick H. "Pappy" McMahon, Motor Machinist's Mate 1/c (MM1) (Wyanet, Illinois). Only man in engine room during collision, was badly burned, but recovered from his wounds. Only member of the crew besides Kennedy mentioned by name in the song.
- Ray L. Starkey, Torpedoman's Mate 2/c (TM2) (Garden Grove, California).
- Gerard E. Zinser, Motor Machinist's Mate 1/c (MM1) (Belleville, Illinois). Erroneously called "Gerald" in many publications, Zinser remained in the Navy for a career following the end of World War II, eventually retiring as a chief petty officer. The last living survivor of PT-109, he died in Florida in 2001.
Gasa and Kumana
Both Solomon Islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana were alive when visited by National Geographic in 2002. They were each presented with a gift from the Kennedy family.
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. 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 their appearance would be an embarrassment. Gasa and Kumana gained a little fame only after being identified by National Geographic.
Gasa died in late August 2005, his passing noted only in a single blog post by a relative.
In 2008, Mark Roche visited Kumana and discussed the PT-109 incident. Kumana had been a scout for the Coastwatchers throughout the war, and besides rescuing the crew of PT-109, he had 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. Kumana lived atop a cliff on his native island with his extended family. His most prized possession was 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.
Kumana died on 2 August 2014, exactly 71 years after PT-109's collision with Amagiri. He was 93.
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. 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, JFK's nephew, who joined Ballard on the expedition, presented a bust of JFK to the islanders who had found Kennedy and his crew.
This was the subject of the National Geographic TV special The Search for Kennedy's PT 109. A DVD and book were also released.
President Kennedy presented PT-109 tie clasps to his close friends and key staff members, which were highly prized by the recipients. Replicas of the tie clasps are sold to the public by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The original flag from PT-109 is now kept in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
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 80 foot Elco PT-103 class hulls in existence by that time (none in operable condition or resembling their World War II appearance) 82-foot (25 m), United States Air Force crash rescue boats were converted to resemble PT-109 and other Elco PT's in the movie. However, in lieu of the dark green paint configuration used by PT boats in the Western Pacific theater during World War II, the film versions were painted the same gray color as contemporary U.S. naval vessels of the 1960s.
Eroni Kumana named his son "John F. Kennedy." 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.
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 PT-109 (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 also available outside the U.S. as a DVD.
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