By Harvey Goldberg
There are often two histories for most events: what actually happened and what is perceived to have happened. This is akin to “remembering only the good times” from the past. Regarding JFK and PT-109, many believe that the history of the 109 boat began and ended with Lt. John F. Kennedy. Not true. At least the ‘beginning’ part.
Because of their much publicized exploits during World War II, the U.S. Navy's motor torpedo boats - the PT or 'mosquito' boats - have long caught the imagination of untold numbers of Americans. A total of 625 of the craft were built for the U. S. Navy during the war. They were too small and too numerous to be given individual names, so they were referred to by “number”. Two of the boats remain in the public consciousness; PT-41 was publicized for evacuating General McArthur from the Philippines in a subsequent book and movie, “They Were Expendable” and of course, PT-109, the story of which most of us are aware – in part. The 109 boat became famous because of her last skipper who just happened to be elected the 35th President of the United States.
PT-109 was delivered to the Navy on July 10, 1942 from the Norfolk (VA) Navy Yard. She was transported with other boats in her squadron aboard the Liberty Ship S.S. Joseph Stanton to the Solomon Islands where the 109 saw extensive action in the waters around Guadalcanal between August 7, 1942 and February 1, 1943, America’s first offensive operation of the war.
The boat took part in the battles off Savo Island, Ironbottom Sound, Tulagi, Gavutu, Tanambogo, and Florida Islands, responsible for almost nightly combat patrols against Japans infamous “Tokyo Express” during 22 patrols. She sank a number of barges carrying Japanese reinforcements, was credited with shooting down three Japanese aircraft, also attacking several enemy destroyers and cargo vessels; The PT also performed life-saving duties, picking up sailors from other boats that were sunk in combat. They suffered casualties and battle damage, and the original crew of the 109 was replaced over time.
Lt. J/G John F. Kennedy sailed to the Pacific as a replacement aboard LST 449. He was quickly introduced to the war when the convoy was attacked by a flight of Japanese dive bombers. Fresh from stateside PT-Boat duty, Kennedy did not look the part of a warship commander; He was thin, frail-looking, and had a “strange [Boston] accent”. Kennedy was designated as a replacement for MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) Squadron 2, and took command of PT-109 on April 25, 1943. The boat had already been at war for nearly eight months.
The crew of the 109 now included Commanding Officer Lt. Kennedy, Exec. Ensign Leonard Thom, Ensign George ‘Barney’ Ross, and ten seamen
The first duty of the new crew was repair and refurbishing PT-109: repainting, engine replacement, tune-ups, equipment repair, and above all, training, training, and more training – until they could operate as a team. The daily routine was the same. After a night of patrolling, the men would refuel the boat, try to get a few hours sleep, make repairs, and re-supply. The most difficult job was refueling. It was done by hand, hauling 55-gallon drums of gasoline on deck and pumping them into the boat’s fuel tanks. It took about 3,300 gallons (and 4½ or more hours) to fill a PT’s tanks.
On May 30 several boats, including the 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 there. From that base PT boats conducted nightly operations around New Georgia and patrolled the Ferguson and Blackett Straits to give warning of Japanese warships approaching U.S. forces in the area.
On August 1st, Japanese bombers struck the base, destroying two of the boats in the squadron. Kennedy’s PT-109 and 14 other boats were later sent on patrol through Ferguson Passage to Blackett Strait.
In the PT attack that followed, half the boats spotted and attacked enemy destroyers. After firing their torpedoes, they were ordered to return and reload. None of the remaining boats, including PT-109, had radar and none were unaware that others had already engaged the enemy. PT-109, PT-162, and PT-169 were ordered to continue patrolling the area in case the enemy ships returned. Around 2:00 a.m. on August 2, 1943, on a moonless night, Kennedy’s boat was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, instantly killing two members of the crew. This was followed by the crew’s survival and eventual rescue and pickup on August 8, 1943 by PT-157
John F Kennedy PT 109 John F Kennedy PT-109 crew