65 years ago, Aug 2nd .... PT109 and its crew met its fate with a IJN destroyer Pt.1

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
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.

PT-109 patrolled 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, they realized they had parked squarely in the path of a Japanese destroyer, which was returning to Rabaul from Vila, Kolombangara after offloading 912 soldiers and supplies.

The crew spotted the destroyer bearing down on them at speeds reported by some sources as high as 30 or 40 kt. Others believe it might have been as slow as 23 knots. With no time to get the engines up to speed, they were run down by the Amagiri on 2 August 1943 in the Blackett Strait between Kolombangara and Arundel in the Solomon Islands near 8.063626° S 157.1515° E.

PT-109 was cut in two. Seamen Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold W. Marney were lost. For such a catastrophic collision, explosion, and fire, it was a low loss rate compared to other boats that were hit by shell fire. 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 even realized he had run down the PT. Damage to the propeller slowed the destroyer's trip home. The PT-109 was gravely damaged, with watertight compartments keeping only the forward hull afloat in a sea of flames.


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 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 Nauru and Olasana islands in search of help and food. He then led his men to Olasana Island, which had coconut trees and water.


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 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. 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.


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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.

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 maneuverable 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 109

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. See [11]
* 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.
As much as I dislike the Kennedys and their illusional aura, I have to say the JFK did this one right after the collision. I once read that PT boats had a "clutch" and on the PT-109 it wasn't engaged, another reason why some brass wanted JFK court marshaled. Also read that Joe Kennedy Sr. tried to get Macarthur to award JFK the MOH.

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