This Day in History: John F. Kennedy & PT-109

On this day in 1943, surviving crew members of PT-109 are finally rescued. That small boat had been under the command of Lt. (j.g.) John F. Kennedy when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.

Kennedy would come home a war hero, but the incident has not been without controversy. Did Kennedy’s decisions put PT-109 in danger? Was he a hero or should he have been court-martialed? What about other heroes aboard the vessel? Why have they been forgotten?

On the night of August 1-2, Kennedy’s boat was one of 15 PTs sent to patrol the Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands. They were looking for the “Tokyo Express,” a Japanese supply convoy that ran through the area.

The mission was going badly. PTs fired upon the Japanese destroyers, but to no avail. Some PTs ran out of torpedoes and left. Kennedy’s boat was among those that remained behind.

They were waiting for the Japanese convoy to return, then they would try again.

Understanding what followed, a JFK library archivist writes, requires remembering “that it was dark—deeply, unrelievedly dark. . . . [The disorienting effect] of a moonless, starless night on the ocean should not be underestimated.”

At about 2:30 a.m., the Japanese destroyer Amagiri arrived.

“Suddenly a dark shape loomed upon PT 109’s starboard bow 200-300 yards distant,” a Navy report noted. “At first this shape was believed to be other PTs. However, it was soon seen to be a destroyer . . . . The 109 started to turn to starboard preparatory to firing torpedoes. However, when PT 109 had scarcely turned 30 degrees, the destroyer rammed the PT . . . .”

Was Kennedy at fault? He had only one engine running when Amagiri appeared. Kennedy was trying to avoid detection, but his decision made it hard to move quickly. On the other hand, the overall mission had been plagued by problems beyond Kennedy’s control. For instance, why were all the radar-equipped PTs ordered to leave so early? It handicapped those left behind.

The problems were so bad that one account calls the mission the “most confused and least effective action the PTs had been in.” Either way, no one disputes what came next.

Amagiri plowed into PT-109, cutting it in half. Fuel spilled out—and exploded. Two men were lost instantly. Eleven others survived, clinging to what remained of PT-109 as she slowly sank. Some of these men survived only because Kennedy swam out into the ocean to retrieve them. Twelve hours later, the men were finally forced to abandon ship. They’d have to swim to a small island several miles away.

One of the men—boat engineer “Pappy” McMahon—had serious burns. He lay on Kennedy’s back as Kennedy towed them both to the island, holding the strap of McMahon’s life jacket between his teeth.

Five hours later, the survivors finally reached a tiny, uninhabited island.

Kennedy had to have been exhausted. He’d accomplished all this, despite injuring his back during the initial collision. Yet he refused to rest. The little island was close to a passage used by other PT boats. Kennedy swam out in an (ultimately futile) attempt to flag down a friendly ship.

The ordeal was just beginning. In the days that followed, the survivors would relocate to another island, looking for food. Kennedy swam for help multiple times, as did another crew member. Fortunately, island scouts for the Allies would eventually find the survivors. Kennedy famously scratched out a message on a coconut shell, and the scouts took it to the Americans.

“NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY.”

It was the beginning of the end of the ordeal. On August 8, the men were finally rescued.

Primary Sources