The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.


                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.






PT 109 Where Are You?

Bizarre, Fascinating, and Wacky World War I & ll Secrets.

by Cecil Owen

The night was pitch black, no moon or stars could be seen. Motor Torpedo Boat PT 109 was creeping along on only one engine. This was to keep the wake and noise at a minimum to avoid detection. Suddenly, without warning, the sharp steel bow of a big warship knifed broadside into the small wooden boat. As the larger warship was speeding along at 30 knots (34.54 miles per hour), it cut the smaller boat completely in two. The time was 0200 hours (2:00 am), and the date was Wednesday August 2, 1943.

The Solomon Islands are located in the South Pacific due north of Australia. Between two of these Islands, Gizo and Kolombangara, is a channel of water called the Blackett Straits. Three motor torpedo boats, and PT 109 were prowling, looking for the "Japanese Express," which this time consisted of four sleek destroyers of the Imperial Japanese Navy (the Amagiri, Arashi, Hagikaze and Shigure). These destroyers were a special type of warship, 378.3 feet long, 34 feet wide, and armed with 6 each 5mm. guns, 2 each 13mm antiaircraft guns, and 18 depth charges. Top speed was 30 knots (43.76 miles per hour), which is very fast on the water. They were comparable to our U.S. destroyers of the "Fletcher" class, our best and most popular destroyer.

These warships had been overloaded with seventy tons of food and ammunition, along with nine hundred Japanese soldiers to put ashore. Everything and everybody had just been unloaded at the Japanese seaport of Vila, Kolombangara island. The warships were now returning to their home base at Rabaul, New Guinea. This would put them

Cecil Owen

directly into the path of  the three US. navy PT boats.

A PT boat (motor patrol torpedo boat) is a small craft, seventy-seven feet in length, built of marine plywood. They have three engines and rely on speed to get out of harms way. A PT boat with all three engines running smoothly could easily reach 65 knots (74.85 mph). PT 109 was also heavily armed ... 4 torpedo tubes, one 37mm army anti-tank gun, one 20mm anti-aircraft gun, and two .50 caliber machine guns.

The skipper of PT 109 was a tall skinny young man, twenty-six years of age but with a baby face. Many of his shipmates did not think he was old enough to be in the Navy, and his idea of an officer's uniform was also a little odd. It consisted of a pair of Khaki shorts, a holstered .38 caliber revolver, a rubber life belt, and a pair of shoes. Then sunglasses and a cap of some kind completed his uniform. The cap might be Navy, Army or Marine, he kept a collection. His nickname was "Shafty," as his favorite expression was, "I always get shafted if anything goes wrong." The skipper of PT 109, his full name was Lieutenant Junior Grade John Fitzgerald Kennedy, from Boston Massachusetts. Yes, the same Kennedy that would become our 35th President in 1961.

Lt. Kennedy was troubled by a bad back which he injured playing football at Harvard University. In the summer of 1941, he examined a PT boat on display and decided that it was the Navy duty for him. After joining the navy he persevered until he became the skipper of PT 109.

So ... now there he was, with part of his crew, clinging to one half of PT 109. The other half carried all three heavy engines, so it sank very quickly. Two crewmen, Harold Marney and Andrew Jackson Kirksey disappeared  and their bodies were never found. Lt. Kennedy could hear some of his men calling for help, so he swam out to locate them. It took several hours because the night was so dark. In fact, Kennedy spent the next thirty hours in the water. Seven of his crewmen were scattered about in the thick

darkness. His executive officer, Ensign Leonard Thom, helped guide them back to the damaged boat. Only two were badly injured. Patrick McMahon, called "Pop" because he was 37 years old. He received 3rd degree burns on his face, arms, hands, legs, and feet. He was completely helpless in the water. Lt. Kennedy pulled him back to the boat. William Johnson was conscious only part of the time, and was racked by spells of vomiting. He could not speak, so no one knew what was wrong with him. They were afraid that he was going to die.

The skipper, Lt. Kennedy knew that they could not stay onboard the floating half of their boat much longer, for it could sink at any moment. He studied the different islands nearby and decided that Plum Pudding island would be the best choice. However, it was at least three and one half miles away. Most of his crewmen were poor swimmers and one could not even swim. So they cut a large two-by-eight foot plank loose from the boat's bow. Then grouped themselves about the plank and shoved off, (kicking and swimming with one arm). Lt. Kennedy had to tow McMahon with a long strap fastened to the end of his kapok life belt. He held onto the end of the strap with his teeth. This was extremely difficult to do, as he began swimming the breast stroke. This feat of courage was reported by McMahon and the other members of his crew later. It took almost four hours to reach Plum Pudding island but Kennedy still arrived there before the other nine crewmen on their plank.

Two days later, he had to repeat this spectacular feat, for Plum Pudding island had only two coconut trees and very few coconuts, and coconuts were all there was to eat and drink. Coconut milk will sustain your thirst, and raw coconut meat is delicious.

The neighboring island was Olasana island, over two miles away, but with a whole grove of coconut palm trees. Lt. Kennedy was a member of the varsity swimming team, so he could swim like a fish. That night he decided to swim out into Blackett Strait. Maybe another PT boat could be intercepted as it passed by. Everyone thought he was loco, but he was the senior officer present, so he stripped down to his "skivvies" (Navy underwear) and strapped his rubber life belt around his waist. He wore shoes to protect from the sharp coral reefs. His .38 caliber revolver was hanging around his neck, this completed his bazaar uniform. Kennedy also wrapped a Navy battle lantern in kapok (life preserver material) to float it. If I find a PT boat, "I will flash the lantern twice, he said. The password will be "Roger" and the answer will be "Willco." Then he swam out into the water and disappeared. Lt.

Kennedy was gone all night, but late in the morning he finally returned. Then very unexpectedly, two young native men, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, beached their dugout canoe on the  island. Lt. Kennedy carved a message on a quarter of a coconut shell and the natives took it to Lt. Arthur Reginald Evans, an Australian coast-watcher stationed on Gomu island. On his radio he contacted Kennedy's Navy base on Rendova island. Soon PT boat 157, with Lt. Liebenow as skipper, was dispatched to pick up the crew members of PT 109.

Lt. Kennedy insisted that he meet the PT boat to guide it through a hole in the coral reef. No one believed a hole big enough to allow them in really existed. However, as usual Kennedy insisted and got his way. PT 157 reached the Brackett Strait shortly after midnight, and again it was pitch black. And right away he found the way through the reef to Olasana island.

All of the survivors of PT 109 were finally reunited and rescued. The rescue PT boat arrived back at their Navy base at Rendova harbor about dawn. It was Sunday August 8, 1943, just one week after the accident. A big celebration awaited them for they had been listed as dead. A big ribbing also awaited them for losing their boat. Even the natives with their pidgin English joined in. "What, you one fella Mary ... cause you lousim boat belong you." (Roughly translated: Are you not an old lady for losing your boat).

Lt. John Fitzgerald Kennedy for his heroism was given a Navy citation by Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey. And in 1945, he was given the Navy and Marine Corps medal.

Navy custom allowed an officer that had been shipwrecked to go home for a discharge. But Lt. Kennedy said, "I do not want to go home, I want another PT boat please." So he was promoted to full Lieutenant and became skipper of PT boat 59.