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Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109

Solomon Islands - Melanesia - Pacific Ocean

Solomon Islands History and Facts in Brief

Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109
Excerpted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lt. Kennedy (standing at right) on the PT-109 in 1943.
For crew see *
Career (United States)
Name:PT 109
Laid down:March 4 1942 at Bayonne, New Jersey
Launched:June 20 1942
In service:1942
Out of service:August 2 1943, sunk
Homeport:Rendova, Tulagi, Solomon Islands
Motto:They were expendable
Nickname:John F. Kennedy's PT-109
Fate:run down by destroyer Amagiri, torpedo tube located in 2002
Notes:Skipper was future president of
United States, only two crew lost
General characteristics
Displacement:56 tons (full load)
Length:80 ft (24 m) overall
Beam:20 ft 8 in (6.3 m)
Draft: 3 ft 6 in (1.1 m) maximum (aft)
Propulsion:three 12-cylinder Packard gasoline
engines 1500 hp each; three shafts
Speed:41knots (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
VIII torpedoes), 20 mm cannon aft,
four .5" (12.7 mm) machineguns
(2x2), 37 mm anti-tank gun
mounted forward (field modification)
Armour:gunboat deck house protected
against rifle bullets and splinter,
some crews fitted armour plate to
United States Ship PT-109 was a PT 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 contributed to Kennedy's long-term back problems.
After he became President, the incident was thoroughly studied and celebrated, becoming a cultural phenomenon inspiring many books, movies, television series and collectible objects and toys.
Interest was revived in the 2000s with the discovery of the wreck by Robert Ballard.

2 Under Kennedy's command
2.1 Survival
2.2 Rescue
3 PT-59
4 Aftermath
5 The search for Kennedy's PT 109
6 Crew
7 Survivors
8 Legacy
9 Further reading

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) built there, and she was launched on 20 June.
Delivered to the Navy on 10 July 1942, she was fitted out in the New York Naval Shipyard at Brooklyn.

The Elco boats were the largest PT boats operated by the US Navy during World War II.
At 80 feet (24 m) and 40 tons, they had strong wooden hulls of 2-inch (5 cm) mahogany planking.
Powered by three 12-cylinder 1,500 hp (1100 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 centre engine was mounted with the output end facing forward, with power transmitted to the propeller shaft through a V-drive gearbox.
Because the centre propeller was deeper, it left less of a wake, and was preferred by skippers for low-wake loitering.
The engines were fitted with mufflers in the stern to direct the exhaust under water, which had to be bypassed for high speed.
These were used not only to mask their own noise from the enemy, but to be able to hear enemy aircraft, which were rarely detected overhead before dropping their bombs.

She could accommodate 3 officers and a crew of 14 sailors, 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 VIII torpedoes.
They weighed about 2,000 lb (907 kg) each, with 800 lb warheads, and gave the tiny boats a punch at least theoretically effective even against armoured ships.
Their speed of 27 knots (50 km/h) was very effective against shipping, but they were slower than the top speed of the destroyers and cruisers they were tasked with targeting in the Solomons.
Torpedoes were also useless against shallow draft barges, which would become the majority of the PT 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 normally fuelled with 145 octane aviation gasoline, a direct shell hit in a PT boat's engine compartment sometimes resulted in a total loss of boat and crew.
A boat would have to close to within 5 miles (9 km) for a shot, well within the gun range of destroyers; at this distance, a target could easily manoeuvre to avoid being hit.
The boats would have to approach masked by darkness, fire their torpedoes which gave away their positions, and then flee behind a smoke screen.
Sometimes retreat was hampered by seaplanes which dropped flares and bombs on the boats.
PT boats had to rely on their smaller size, speed, manoeuvrability and darkness to survive.
They were often seen in the context of David and Goliath, pitting wooden boats filled with gasoline against steel destroyers with large-caliber shells.
A less optimistic description might be "plywood coffins".

Ahead of the torpedoes were two depth charges, omitted on most PTs, one on each side, about the same diameter as the torpedoes.
Normally designed to be used against submarines, they were sometimes used to confuse and discourage pursuing destroyers.

PT-109 was configured with a single, 20 mm anti-aircraft gun mounted at the rear with "109" painted on it, two open rotating turrets (designed by the same firm that produced the Tucker automobiles), each with twin, .50-caliber (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 various aircraft, including one B-25.

The day before the fateful mission, PT-109 was fitted with a 37 mm antitank gun the crew had commandeered and lashed to the foredeck, replacing a small, 2-man life raft.
The timbers used to secure the weapon to the deck would later help save their lives when used as a floats.

Under Kennedy's command
Kennedy had used his family influence to get into the war quickly.
The Allies were in a campaign of island hopping since securing Guadalcanal in a bloody battle in early 1943.
Kennedy was assigned PT-109 upon arriving at Tulagi.
By August 1943, the Allies had captured Rendova and moved PT boat operations there.
The US Marine Corps was driving the Japanese out of Munda airfield at New Georgia by August.
All of the islands around Blackett Strait were still held by the Japanese.

In an action considered too inconsequential by military historians to even have a formal name, PT-109 was sent out north on a night mission through Ferguson Passage to Blackett Strait.
She was one of 15 boats sent to intercept the Tokyo Express.

In what would be later considered to be a textbook example of a poorly planned and uncoordinated PT attack, 15 boats loaded with 60 torpedoes counted only a few observed explosions (which did not necessarily mean hits).
Many torpedoes exploded prematurely or ran at the wrong depth, so no enemy ships were sunk.
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, such as PT-109, were left without radar, and were not notified that other boats had engaged the enemy.

PT-109, along with PT-162 and PT-169, continued to patrol the area in case the enemy ships returned.
Around 0200, on a moonless night, Kennedy's boat was idling on one engine to avoid detection of her wake by Japanese aircraft, which had killed a PT officer in a previous night attack.
With only ten seconds warning, PT-109's crew realized they were squarely in the path of the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, which was returning to Rabaul from Vila, Kolombangara after offloading supplies and 912 soldiers.
Amagiri was traveling at high speed in order to be safely back in harbour before dawn, when Allied air patrols were likely to appear.


The crew spotted the destroyer bearing down on them at speeds reported by some sources as high as 30 or 40 kt (55 to 75 km/h).
Others believe it might have been as slow as 23 knots (43 km/h).
With no time to get the engines up to speed, they were run down by the destroyer on 2 August 1943 in the Blackett Strait between Kolombangara and Arundel in the Solomon Islands near 8°03'49S 157°09'05E / -8.063626, 157.1515.
Conflicting statements have been made as to whether the destroyer captain had spotted and steered towards the boat; author Donovan, who interviewed many of the destroyer crew, believes the collision was not an accident, though other reports suggest the Amagiri's captain never realised he had run down the PT.
Damage to a propeller slowed the destroyer's trip home.

PT-109 was cut in two.
Seamen Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold W. Marney were lost, 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 fired two torpedoes that missed the destroyer, and PT162'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 carefully 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 (6 kilometers) away, braving the danger of sharks and crocodiles.
Kennedy had swum at Harvard University, so, using a life jacket strap he clenched in his mouth, he towed the badly-burned McMahon.
The island was only a hundred yards in diameter, with no food or water.
The crew had to hide from passing Japanese barge traffic.
Kennedy swam about 4 kilometers 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 water.

Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109
The explosion on August 2 was spotted by Australian coastwatcher Sub Lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans, who manned a secret observation post at the top of the volcano on Kolombangara Island; over ten thousand Japanese troops were garrisoned in the southeast.
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.
These canoes were similar to those used for thousands of years by people in the Pacific and by Native Americans.
In retrospect, these were by far the oldest technology and smallest manned craft used by the Allies in the war, but they could avoid detection by Japanese ships and aircraft and, if spotted, would likely 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 Nauru 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:

This message was delivered at great risk through 35 nautical miles (65 km) of hostile waters patrolled by the Japanese to the nearest Allied base at Rendova.
Some coastwatcher natives 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 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 was preserved in a glass container by Kennedy on his 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.
PT-59 went on to rescue ambushed marines - one gravely wounded officer died in Kennedy's bunk.
The movie included this story, but portrayed it as an action of PT-109.

One of the most detailed accounts ever published appeared in The New Yorker with the title "Survival," written by a reporter who interviewed Kennedy after the incident.
Another account was printed in Reader's Digest just before Kennedy's first Congressional run.
The campaign reproduced the article and distributed it to potential voters.
A campaign pin of PT-109 was distributed during his presidential campaign.

Navy and Marine Corps Medal

Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his lifesaving actions following the collision; it was established in 1941 for heroic actions at risk of the person's own life but not involving actual combat.
A few in the military, including Andrew Fitzgerald, thought he should have faced a court-martial instead for losing his boat in such a manner.
It was thought by many such a quick and manoeuvrable craft should have been able to escape a collision with a slower enemy craft, though fellow skippers would point out a PT, especially those with tired engines that had spent significant time in the combat zone (like PT 109), could not accelerate quickly enough under such circumstances.

During his presidency, Kennedy privately admitted to friends he didn't feel he deserved the medals he had received, because the PT 109 incident had been the result of a botched military operation that had cost the lives of two members of his crew.
When asked by interviewers how he became a war hero, Kennedy's grim reply was, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."

The search for Kennedy's PT 10
The wreckage of PT-109 was located in May 2002 when a National Geographic expedition headed by Dr. Robert Ballard found a torpedo tube from wreckage matching the description and location of Kennedy's vessel in the Solomon Islands.
The Boat was actually identified by Dale Ridder (Beach Park, Illinois).
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.
At around this time, Max Kennedy also came to present a bust of JFK to the islanders who had found Kennedy and his 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 would man their battle stations wearing dark blue kapok life vests and steel helmets.
The skipper's helmet would have stripes and an inverted star (approximating his dress uniform sleeve rank or shoulder board insignia, normally that of LTJG or LT), while the other officer would be labeled "XO".

* The crew aboard PT-109 on her last mission:
  • Lieutenant, junior grade John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Boston, Massachusetts), Commanding Officer ("CO" or "Skipper").
    Became 34th President of the United States.
  • Ensign Leonard J. Thom (Sandusky, Ohio), Executive Officer ("exec" or "XO")
  • Ensign 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 OCtober 8, 1943.
  • Gunner's Mate 3/c Charles A. "Bucky" Harris (Watertown, Massachusetts)
  • Motor Machinist's Mate 2/c William Johnston, Dorchester, Massachusetts
  • Torpedoman's Mate 2/c Andrew Jackson Kirksey, Reynolds, Georgia (killed in collision, listed as missing by National Geographic account)
  • Radioman 2/c John E. Maguire, Dobbs Ferry, New York
  • Motor Machinist's Mate 2/c Harold William Marney, Springfield, Massachusetts (killed in collision, manning turret closest to impact point)
  • Quartermaster 3/c Edman Edgar Mauer, St. Louis, Missouri
  • Motor Machinist's Mate 1/c Patrick H. "Pappy" McMahon, Wyanet, Illinois (Only man in engine room during collision, was badly burned, but recovered from his wounds)
  • Torpedoman's Mate 2/c Ray L. Starkey, Garden Grove, California
  • Motor Machinist's Mate 1/c Gerard E. Zinser, Belleville, Illinois (erroneously called "Gerald" in many publications). Mr. Zinser, the last living survivor, passed away in Florida on August 21, 2001.

Gerard Zinser, the last survivor of PT-109, died 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 late in August 2005, his passing noted only in a single blog by a relative.
According to Time Pacific magazine, Gasa and Eroni were invited to Kennedy's inauguration.
However, the island authorities tricked Gasa into giving his trip to more important local officials.
Gasa and Eroni gained a little fame only after being identified by National Geographic, but are among the most famous Solomon Islanders who ever lived.
On 22 August 2007, Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter presented Eroni "Aaron" Kumana with the flag from USS Peleliu for his courageous efforts more than 60 years ago.

In addition to a book, the episode of PT-109's sinking was also made into a 1963 movie, PT 109, starring Cliff Robertson.
Though it had some historical inaccuracies, such as the Navy searching for the boat rather than holding a memorial service for the crew, it was nonetheless regarded as a fitting tribute to the events that transpired.
Then - President Kennedy personally selected Robertson to play him in the film version.

A song entitled "PT-109" by Jimmy Dean rose to #8 in 1962, making it one of Dean's most successful recordings.

Tiny Plum Pudding Island was later renamed Kennedy Island.
The island caused a controversy when the government sold off 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.
In 1961, Premiere Theater presented "Seven Against The Sea", a drama about a resourceful group of stranded American PT boat crewmen hiding out on a South Pacific island controlled by the Japanese Navy, a situation which would appear to be inspired by the adventures of Kennedy and his men.
This later became the pilot of McHale's Navy, a successful television situation comedy series.
One episode of the series had a 'cameo' appearance of a PT boat marked "109"

PT-109 was also a famous subjects 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 available into the 21st Century.
Hasbro also released a special 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 VHS movie was out of print in the US by 2006.
It is available outside of the US as a Video CD, but not yet as a DVD.

Spectrum Holobyte released a naval simulation game roughly based on the events named "PT-109" for the Apple Macintosh and MS-DOS-compatible computers in 1987.
In the video game Battlestations Midway, PT-109 is featured in the second mission of the US Campaign.

The novel Gilligan's Wake is a fictional re-imagining of Gilligan's island where the Skipper served with both John F. Kennedy and the skipper of McHale's Navy.
Leslie Martinson directed both the PT-109 movie and Rescue from Gilligan's Island.

Further reading
  • Robert J. Donovan (1961). PT 109 : John F. Kennedy in WWII. International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press. ISBN 0-07-137643-7.
  • Edward J. Renehan, Jr (2002). The Kennedys at War, 1937-1945. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-50165-X.
  • Richard Tregaskis (1966). John F. Kennedy and PT-109. Garden City, N.Y: American Printing House for the Blind. ASIN B0007HSN7S.
  • Duane Hove (2003). American Warriors: Five Presidents in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press. ISBN 157249-260-0.
  • Haruyoshi Kimmatsu, The night We sank John Kennedy's PT 109 appeared in Argosy Magazine December 1970 Vol 371 # 6
  • Dick Keresey, Farthest Forward appeared in American Heritage magazine, July-August 1998.
  • Tameichi Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain (Ballantine Books, 1978) ISBN 0-345-27894-1
  • Robert D. Ballard, (2002). Collision With History: The Search for John F. Kennedy's PT 109. Washington, D.C: National Geographic. ISBN 0-7922-6876-8.

For more information about Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 see Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This page was retrieved and condensed from (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motor_Torpedo_Boat_PT-109) see Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, November 2008.
All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License (see Copyrights for details).
About Wikipedia

This information was correct in November 2008. E. & O.E.

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