The sinking of PT-109

John F. Kennedy’s shipwreck and rescue in the Pacific

Kennedy (right) and the crew of PT-109. (Some men missing, others present did not go on the last mission.) (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

Future President John Fitzgerald Kennedy served as the skipper of a patrol torpedo boat in World War II. He achieved a war hero’s fame in 1943, when his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, and Kennedy played a vital role in the rescue of his surviving crewmembers. In one of our other articles (Read our earlier article – The “devil boats” of America), we promised to relate the whole story; now we’ll make good on that promise.
 
Kennedy wanted to fight in World War II, but was initially rejected on medical grounds. He was very fit at a young age, playing football, swimming on the Harvard University team, and sailing, but he had a chronic back pain (possibly caused by a football injury) as well as asthma, ulcers, abdominal pain and scarlet fever as an infant, which earned him a 4-F (“unfit for military service”). His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, used his influence to get him into the military anyway in 1941, with a desk job at the Office of Naval Intelligence.

John F. Kennedy as a lieutenant in the Navy (Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Kennedy had a romantic relationship with Danish-American society news journalist Inga Arvad while he was working there. It was a passing affair, but it nevertheless got Kennedy into trouble. Arvad had interviewed Adolf Hitler once, and was Hitler’s guest at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. (Read our earlier article – The 1936 Olympics Games in Berlin) Her fling with Kennedy was considered, rather paranoidly, to be a security risk, and Kennedy was transferred to a seagoing unit to make sure he couldn’t leak any sensitive information to Inga.

Inga Arvad in 1931 (Photo: Getty Images)
Inga Arvad in 1931 (Photo: Getty Images)

Joseph Kennedy found another safe posting for his son, patrolling near the Panama Canal, but John desperately wanted a combat posting. He reached out to one of his father’s friends and cronies behind his father’s back, and managed to get transferred to the Solomon Islands in February 1943, where he was given command of PT-109, an 80’ Elco PT boat.

PT-109 being transported to the Pacific aboard a Liberty Ship (Photo: U.S. Navy)
PT-109 being transported to the Pacific aboard a Liberty Ship (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The island hopping campaign was in full swing. Japanese forces held numerous islands in the Solomons, and kept receiving supplies and reinforcements by barges and the destroyers of the Tokyo Express. American PT boats patrolled the straits between the six major and 900 smaller islands in an attempt to cut off these supplies.

Kennedy at the helm of PT-109 (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Kennedy at the helm of PT-109 (Photo: U.S. Navy)

In June, PT-109 and 16 other PTs were sent to a “bush berth” on Rendova island, a makeshift base where the crew had to contend with roaches, rats, tropical diseases and the monotony and malnutrition of canned food. Two notable events happened there on August 1. One, a force of Japanese bombers attacked the berth, destroying two boats and killing two men. Two, Kennedy and his crews installed a 37mm anti-tank gun he bartered from the Army on board PT-109. The Mark 8 torpedoes used by the boats were notoriously unreliable, and crews were eager to supplement them with whatever weapons they could get their hands on. The gun was secured to the deck with wooden timbers, which would soon save the lives of several crewmen.

Boats at Rendova PT Boat base (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Boats at Rendova PT Boat base (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Intelligence reports revealed that the Tokyo Express was going to make a supply run with five destroyers to a Japanese garrison of 10,000 men on nearby Kolombangara Island. The ships were going to arrive on the night between the 1st and 2nd of August. The 15 PT boats that survived the bomber attack were sent out in four divisions to set an ambush in the Blackett Strait. Only four of the boats had radar with which to find the destroyers in the dark, so those four were made the division leaders. PT-109 was not among them.

Japanese troops boarding a destroyer for a Tokyo Express run (Photo: unknown photographer)
Japanese troops boarding a destroyer for a Tokyo Express run (Photo: unknown photographer)

The four PT divisions reached their appointed ambush positions by around 8:30 p.m., and waited for nightfall. PT-159, the radar-equipped leader of PT-109’s division, was positioned next to Kennedy’s boat when the Japanese destroyers finally showed up on its radar. The boat advanced and fired all four of its torpedoes at the first ship from 1 mile (1.6 km) out, but did not radio Kennedy to do the same, leaving him behind in the darkness, clueless to what was happening. All of PT-159’s torpedoes missed, but her torpedo tubes caught on fire, forcing another boat from the division to pull up ahead of PT-159 and shield the light of the flames from Japanese observers. That second boat then also fired torpedoes and also missed; the two attackers then turned on their smoke generators, zigzagged away and headed for home – all the while never giving any orders, or even relaying the location of the Japanese vessels, to PT-109 or the division’s fourth boat. Similar scenarios played out with the other three divisions as well.

Maps of the ambush site and nearby islands to help you follow the events. Note that map is oriented east. (Photo: orwelltoday.com)
Maps of the ambush site and nearby islands to help you follow the events. Note that map is oriented east. (Photo: orwelltoday.com)

The attack was a complete failure. About half of the PT force’s 60 torpedoes were fired… and all of them missed. The Mark 8 torpedo was simply awful. Even ignoring the difficulty of attacking fast-moving, unseen ships in the dark, some failed to launch properly, some ran too deep to hit the destroyers, and some exploded prematurely. 12 of the 15 PT boats turned home after their ineffective attack runs, leaving PT-109 and two other radarless boats in the area with orders to patrol for any Japanese stragglers. Kennedy had two of his boat’s three engines turned off and idled on a single one – this was done to avoid making a phosphorescent wake which would have pinpointed the boat’s location to Japanese aircraft flying at night.
 
At roughly 2 a.m. on August 2, Kennedy’s crew spotted a Japanese destroyer steaming straight for them at high speed. It was the Amagiri, one of the destroyers the squadron tried to engage earlier in the night. Since then, the Amagiri had dropped her supplies at Kolombangara and was now returning north at high speed to get out of the range of Allied planes by morning. Kennedy tried to turn the boat towards Amagiri to launch torpedoes and also ordered the new anti-tank gun to be loaded, but the less than ten seconds he had was not enough. Amagiri rammed the boat, cutting it in two, and sped on.

The destroyer Amagiri (Photo: Shizuo Fukui)
The destroyer Amagiri (Photo: Shizuo Fukui)

At 2:27 a.m., the fuel aboard PT-109 exploded, killing two of the 13 crewmen and giving several others serious burns as the flaming fuel spread across the water. One of the other two PT boats tried to launch two torpedoes at the destroyer, failed to do so, and promptly turned home without checking for survivors – the officer in charge of planning the mission did not prepare any instructions on what to do if a boat was lost, and it’s also quite likely that the boat’s skipper assumed that everybody was killed by the 100-foot (30 m)-high fireball.

Artist’s depiction of Amagiri ramming PT-109 (Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
Artist’s depiction of Amagiri ramming PT-109 (Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

The aft half of PT-109 sank rapidly, but the front of the wooden-hulled vessel had some airtight compartments which kept it afloat for a while. The survivors hanged on to it in hopes that rescue will come. Kennedy himself swam over to three wounded survivors, one of whom, Patrick McMahon, had burns on 70% of his body, and dragged them to the boat’s nose so they could grab it.
 
After half a day of drifting southward and waiting, the hull started to take on water, so the crew decided to abandon it. They took the timbers that were used to secure the anti-tank gun, placed their shoes, lantern and crewmembers too injured to swim on them, and started pushing them toward the nearby tiny island of Kasolo, also known as Plum Pudding Island. Kennedy, an excellent swimmer, clenched his teeth around the strap of the badly burned McMahon’s life jacket and towed him that way. The island was 3.5 miles (5.6 km) away, a distance the survivors covered in four grueling hours.

(Photo: Nash Belarus / Wikipedia)
Plum Pudding Island in 2012. It’s also known as Kennedy Island, and has a shrine to Kennedy built by one of his rescuers, Eroni Kumana. (Photo: Nash Belarus / Wikipedia)

Plum Pudding Island had no food or water, but the crew was too exhausted to continue, and spent the rest of the afternoon hiding behind the trees from possible Japanese barges. Once night fell, Kennedy took their lantern and went on another swim, back to a gap in the reefs called Ferguson Passage. The ill-fated PT-squadron got to their ambush spots by traversing this passage, and Kennedy, knowing that other PT boats often passed through, hoped to flag one down with light signals. Much to his despair, no boats were in the passage that night. Kennedy turned back after four hours of treading water, but he was trapped in a current that pulled him out into Blackett Strait, away from Plum Pudding Island. He very well might have died, had the current not changed direction at dawn, carrying him to another nearby island called Naru. Exhausted, he slept a few hours, then walked out onto the reef as far as he could (cutting his feet on the sharp coral, as he had kicked his shoes off during the night), and swam back to his crewmen with the bad news. On the same day, August 3, Kennedy and Ensign George Ross (present as an observer after having lost his own boat) made a second swim to Ferguson Passage in the afternoon, but came up empty once more.

PT-109 during tactical training (Photo: U.S. Navy)
PT-109 during tactical training (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The next day, on August 4, the hungry and injured crew departed Plum Pudding Island and swam 3.75 miles (6 km) to Olasana, another island in the chain, with Kennedy towing McMahon once more. Olasana didn’t have fresh water either, but it had ripe coconuts and it was closer to the passage, and thus to rescue (though Naru was closer still). 
 
On August 5, Kennedy and Ross went on yet another swim to Naru to look for food and to be closer to the passage should PT boats finally show up. Once at Naru, they saw a small Japanese boat smashed up against the reef, and found a wooden box with some hard candy in it. Walking through the island, they also found a large tin full of rainwater, and a dugout canoe hidden in the bushes nearby.
 
As Kennedy and Ross were walking back to the beach, they spotted two people next to the crashed Japanese boat. Believing them to be Japanese, the two Americans hid in the bush, but not before the other two spotted them. The unknown people rushed to the canoe and paddled away as quickly as they could. (Some accounts state that they got away without a boat, leaving the canoe for Kennedy and Ross to use.)

Kennedy in the Swimming Squad at Harvard. The skills he picked up there came very handy during World War II. (Photo: unknown photographer)

Now, it should be noted at this point that the Amagiri and one other PT boat were not the only witnesses of PT-109’s destruction on the night of August 1-2. On nearby Kolombangara Island, the one with the 10,000-strong Japanese garrison that the Tokyo Express was resupplying that night, Australian Sub-Lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans also saw the fireball from a hidden observation post atop the island’s volcano. Evans was an officer in a secret military intelligence organization called the Coastwatchers. Australian officers led native Pacific Islanders, New Zealand servicemen, Allied soldiers who escaped from Japanese POW camps, and even some helpful civilians in an effort to secretly watch Japanese movements in the sprawling Solomon Islands and other locations, and to rescue stranded Allied personnel. Evans received a radio message about the loss of PT-109 on the morning of the 2nd, and immediately realized it was the explosion he saw the previous night. He sent one of his five Pacific Islander teams, two men named Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, to go search for survivors with their canoe.

Former Coastwatcher Arthur R. Evans with President Kennedy (Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

After several days of searching, Gasa and Kumana spotted the Japanese wreck on Naru Island and decided to look for salvageable supplies and to get some water from their secret cache hidden on the island. That was the moment when they ran into Kennedy and Ross, who had just discovered their canoe and drank their water. Gasa and Kumana were surprised, and the ragged, red-skinned, unkempt look of the two Americans made them believe they were Japanese survivors – the same belief the Americans had about them. The two scouts quickly escaped in the canoe. With their water tin gone, they decided to stop at the nearby island of Olasana to get some coconut milk - the same island the rest of Kennedy’s crew were hiding out on.

Gasa and Kumana (Photo: orwelltoday.com)
Gasa and Kumana (Photo: orwelltoday.com)

Ross stayed on Naru in preparation of yet another swim out to Ferguson Passage, but Kennedy returned to Olasana to share the candy they found with the others. He was surprised to encounter the same two men whom they have spooked on Naru earlier that day in the company of his crew, but the case of mistaken identities was eventually cleared up. Using sign language and a few words of pidgin English Kennedy had picked up, they asked the two locals to take a message to their superior. Kennedy famously scratched a message in a coconut with a knife:
NAURO ISL
COMMANDER... NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT...
HE CAN PILOT... 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT... KENNEDY

 
(It seems like Kennedy mixed up the islands, writing Nauro (sic) while he was really on Olasana.)
 

Kennedy’s coconut message cast into a paperweight 	(Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
Kennedy’s coconut message cast into a paperweight (Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

What is less commonly known is that his executive officer, Ensign Leonard Thom, also wrote a more verbose message on paper, assumably before Kennedy returned to the island.
 
On August 6, the day following the crew’s discovery by the Coastwatchers, Gasa and Kumana departed with the two written messages. They stopped at the larger island of Wana Wana to link up with Senior Scout Benjamin Kevu, who received their report about finding the crew of PT-109. Kevu gave them a better canoe and told them to head for a U.S. military base on Roviana Island, near the PT boat based on Rendova. Paddling for fifteen hours through the night in bad weather and across Japanese-patrolled waters, Gasa and Kumana eventually made it to Roviana, and from there to Rendova where they presented the two written messages. They were greeted with suspicion at first, but a radio message from Sub-Lieutenant Evans confirmed that the messages were authentic.

Gasa and Kumana reenacting their arrival to Olasana Island (Photo: orwelltoday.com)
Gasa and Kumana reenacting their arrival to Olasana Island (Photo: orwelltoday.com)

Meanwhile, Sub-Lieutenant Evans was notified of the finding of the survivors, and he relocated from the volcano-top hideout to yet another secret Coastwatcher base on Gomu. A large canoe was sent to Olasana with seven men and supplies of fresh fish, yams, potatoes, corned beef hash and rice, along with a written message to Kennedy to return with the rowers to Gomu. Kennedy did so, hiding under palm fronds to avoid being discovered by low-flying Japanese airplanes or passing ships.

Reenactment of the seven scouts taking Kennedy to Gomu Island (Photo: orwelltoday.com)
Reenactment of the seven scouts taking Kennedy to Gomu Island (Photo: orwelltoday.com)

The rescue operation got underway in the evening of August 8, when two PT boats, one of them carrying Gasa and Kumana as navigators, left Rendova. Traveling slowly and quietly to avoid detection, they picked up Kennedy at Gomu, and reached Olasana without trouble, bringing the crew back to a hero’s welcome on Rendova.

A Coastwatcher officer with scouts from the Solomon Islands police force 	(Photo: United States Marine Corps)
A Coastwatcher officer with scouts from the Solomon Islands police force (Photo: United States Marine Corps)

Once they arrived safely, Kennedy took Gasa and Kumana aside. He gave them a medal and a ribbon from his uniform, promising that he’ll either visit them in the future, or he’ll have them come and visit him in America. He visited Kumana several times while he was posted on Rendova, always bringing trinkets to swap.

Eroni Kumana in his later years (Photo: orwelltoday.com)
Eroni Kumana in his later years (Photo: orwelltoday.com)

Seventeen years later, Kennedy invited Gasa and Kumana to his Presidential inauguration. The gods, however, can be fickle, and human pettiness knows no bounds. When the two Pacific Islanders got to the airport on the Solomon Islands, the local authorities refused to let them board the plane, claiming that their appearance and lack of English were an embarrassment. The two rescuers later gained recognition thanks to an article in National Geographic and a book written about PT-109.

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WWII veteran, Jack Appel celebrated by the visitors of the Normandy American Cemetery (Photo: Author’s own)

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