Motor Torpedo Boat 109 (PT-109) was one of 80 vessels built by the Elco Works Naval Division of the Electric Boat Company in Bayonne, New Jersey, and famous as the vessel commanded by then-Lieutenant (JG) John F. Kennedy in the Solomons during World War II.
The seventh 40-ton Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) built at Elco, she was laid down 4 March 1942, launched on 20 June, delivered to the Navy on 10 July 1942, and fitted out in the New York Naval Shipyard at Brooklyn. The Elco boats were the largest in size of the three types of PT boats built for U.S. use during World War II. Wooden-hulled, 80 feet long with a 20-foot, 8-inch beam, the Elco PT boats had three 12-cylinder Packard gasoline engines generating a total of 4,500 horsepower for a designed speed of 41 knots. With accommodations for 3 officers and 14 men, the crew varied from 12 to 14. Its full-load displacement was 56 tons. Early Elco boats had two 20mm guns, four .50-caliber machine guns, and two or four 21-inch torpedo tubes. Some of them carried depth charges or mine racks. Later boats mounted one 40mm gun and four torpedo launching racks. Many boats received ad-hoc refits at advanced bases, mounting such light guns as Army Air Forces 37mm aircraft guns and even Japanese 23mm guns. Some PTs later received rocket launchers.
Service in the Solomons
PT-109 joined MTB Squadron FIVE and shifted to Panama, replacing the first eight PT boats that sailed on transports for the south Pacific in early September. Six of the Elco boats, PTs 109 through 114, were then transferred to MTB Squadron TWO on 26 October 1942 and prepared for deployment to the Solomon Islands. The boats were loaded on cargo ships and sailed west, arriving at Sesapi, Tulagi harbor, Nggela Islands, at the end of November. There, the Elco boats joined the earlier boats--which had established the MTB base at Sesapi in October--to form Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla ONE, under Commander Allen P. Calvert.
The sound between the Nggela Islands and Guadalcanal, called "Iron Bottom Sound" for the number of warships sunk there, was geographically favorable for PT operations. The two western entrances, one between Cape Esperance and Savo Island to the south; and the other, between Savo Island and Sandfly Passage to the north, were relatively narrow. Finally, the western tip of Guadalcanal was less than thirty-five miles across sheltered water from the PT base at Sesapi.
Starting the night of 13-14 October, when four boats attacked a Japanese force bombarding Henderson Field, it became regular practice to send the MTBs out on patrol when Japanese warships were reported heading down the "slot"--the broad passage between New Georgia and Santa Isabel. These reinforcement missions--delivering men and supplies to the Japanese-held shore of Guadalcanal--were called the "Tokyo Express." When those forces were spotted by plane or coast watcher, the torpedo boats put out from Tulagi and stationed pickets in the channels around Savo Island. Other motor torpedo boats waited inside "Iron Bottom Sound," ready to move toward either passage when enemy ships were spotted.
The first action for PT-109, then commanded by Lt. Rollins E. Westholm, took place on the night of 7-8 December 1942, after reconnaissance planes reported eight Japanese destroyers moving down the "slot." Eight PTs split into three groups to meet this opposing force, with patrols off Kokumbona, another off Cape Esperance, and a four-boat division lay to [came to a stationary position] near Savo Island to act as a striking force. After initial contact took place off Cape Esperance, the striking group of four boats closed and unleashed a torpedo attack. In the ensuing running gun battle, the PTs weaved around the destroyers in a confused melee. Although PT-59 was hit by shellfire, and suffered minor damage, the Japanese withdrew, racing north with uncertain damage and without delivering their reinforcements.
Four days later, five patrolling PT boats encountered eleven Japanese destroyers northwest of Savo Island. In the melee, the MTBs managed to torpedo and sink destroyer Terutsuki at the cost of PT-44, sunk by two destroyers off Savo Island.
In early January 1943, PT-109 encountered the Japanese several more times as she and her sister boats continued intercepting "Tokyo Express" supply runs. On the night of 2-3 January, she had two bombs from an enemy plane explode off her port beam and, after firing torpedoes at an enemy destroyer, a Japanese patrol plane strafed her wake east of Savo Island. In the early morning darkness of 9 January, the PT boat closed [approached] the beach on Guadalcanal to destroy enemy stores by strafing a supply depot with .50 caliber and 20-mm guns. Then, on the night of 11-12 January, PT-109 joined eight other MTBs to attack eight Japanese destroyers off Cape Esperance. In the ensuing battle, PT-112 was sunk and PT-43 damaged, though not before a torpedo hit seriously damaged Japanese destroyer Hatsukaze.
On night patrol on 14-15 January 1943, PT-109 unsuccessfully searched northwest of Savo for signs of nine expected Japanese destroyers. At one point, a patrolling plane dropped a depth charge about 150 yards off the port quarter. Before dawn, she closed Cape Esperance looking for an opportunity to attack enemy troops and stores. At daylight, however, enemy shore batteries caught her in range and punched three holes in her hull. She then made an unsuccessful attempt to pull PT-72 off a reef southwest of Florida Island before returning to base.
During the night of 1-2 February 1943, twenty Japanese destroyers steamed down the slot as part of Operation "KE," the evacuation of their remaining troops from Guadalcanal. Although attacked by two waves of fighters and bombers from Henderson Field at dusk, only one destroyer was damaged. The rest closed Cape Esperance, covered by half a dozen patrol planes. The Japanese were spotted by eleven PT boats in positions around Savo Island, but heavy defensive fire drove off the attacking PT boats. Accurate gunfire from Kawakaze sank PT-111 and PT-37, while a Japanese seaplane destroyed PT-123. During the battle, both PT-115 and PT-38 beached themselves on the western side of Savo Island and were pulled off by PT-109. This was the most violent action the PTs participated in off Guadalcanal, and it was their last, as the Japanese completed their evacuation of that island on 7-8 February.
Over the next few months, while the MTB flotilla regrouped on Tulagi, the Japanese devoted most of their efforts to strengthening their garrisons in the upper Solomons. There were few offensive operations by either side, a respite sorely needed by PT-109 and her sister boats. The flotilla was short on manpower, with barely enough men to man the motor torpedo boats, let alone repair those damaged in combat and maintain adequate base facilities. Indeed, the crews were exhausted and easy prey to malaria, dengue fever and other tropical diseases. During this trying period, Lt. Westholm left PT-109 to become operations officer for the flotilla, leaving Ensign Bryant L. Larson in command of the boat.
On 21 February, the MTBs escorted transports for the invasion of the Russell Islands, with PT-109 personally delivering Col. E. J. Farrel and his staff to the beach in Renard Sound. After the transports landed the remaining Marine and Army troops, the PTs began nightly offshore security patrols to protect the beach head. Additional patrols covered the familiar channels off Savo Island in case the Japanese returned to the Solomons. These operations became more difficult on 5 March, when a single plane dropped four bombs on Senapi, destroying the operations office and riddling the hull of PT-118. Then, on 7 April, the last major Japanese air strike in the Solomons managed to sink three Allied ships in Tulagi harbor and damage two others, temporarily disrupting MTB base operations.
PT-109 under Kennedy
In between regular security patrols, PT-109 underwent several short maintenance periods, which included the installation of a surface search radar set. As radar sets were not issued with this class of PT-boats, the device was undoubtedly a "scrounged" item and it is unclear how long it lasted. Ensign Larson left the boat on 20 April 1943 and Ensign Leonard J. Thom, USNR, the executive officer, took charge until relieved by Lieutenant (jg) John Fitzgerald Kennedy, USNR, on the 24th. Starting in late April, the motor torpedo boat increasingly conducted patrols in the Russell Islands area and on 16 June, PT-109 shifted with other boats to a "bush" berth on Rendova Island in support of these forward operations.
On 1 August, an air strike by 18 Japanese bombers struck this temporary base, wrecking PT-117 and sinking PT-164. Two torpedoes were blown off the latter boat and ran erratically around the bay until they ran ashore on the beach without exploding. Intelligence reports indicated five enemy destroyers were scheduled to run that night from Bougainville Island through Blackett Strait to Vila, on the southern tip of Kolombangara Island. Despite the loss of two boats, the flotilla sent out fifteen motor torpedo boats out in four divisions to meet the Japanese destroyers.
Lieutenant Brantingham in PT-159 made radar contact at midnight with ships approaching from the north, close to Kolombangara. Soon after this he sighted what he believed to be large landing craft and closed range for a strafing run only to run into heavy shellfire that revealed the "landing craft" to be destroyers. He got off four torpedoes, and PT-157 launched two as well, before the two boats withdrew.
Lieutenant Kennedy in PT-109 patrolled without incident until gunfire and searchlights were seen in the direction of the southern shore of Kolombangara. The location was undetermined and the boat rendezvoused with PT-162 to determine the source of firing. PT-109 then intercepted a terse radio message [probably from PT-159] "I am being chased through Ferguson Passage! Have fired fish." At this time, PT-169 came alongside and reported an engine out of order. She lay to with PT-109 and PT-162 to await developments while instructions were requested from base. Orders were received to resume normal patrol station, and PT-162 being uncertain as to its position, requested Lieutenant Kennedy to lead the way back to patrol station. None of the three boats had radar.
Loss of PT-109
Lieutenant Kennedy started his patrol on one engine ahead at idling speed to avoid detection of her wake by Japanese aircraft. The three boats were due east of Gizo Island and headed south with PT-109 leading a right echelon formation. Unknown to them, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri was returning north after completing a supply mission to Kolobangara and had spotted the torpedo boats at a range of about 1,000 yards. Rather than open fire--and give away their position--the destroyer captain, Lieutenant Comander Kohei Hanami, turned to intercept and closed in the darkness at 30-knots. Initially spotted by PT-109 at 200 to 300 yards, Kennedy ordered the boat turned to starboard, preparatory to firing torpedoes. The turn was too slow, however, and the destroyer rammed, neither slowing or firing her guns as she split the PT boat apart. While the Japanese destroyer was slightly damaged in the collision, smashing in part of her bow and bending her screws, the warship still made 24-knots on the run home to Rabaul and arrived safely the following morning.
Meanwhile, the crew of PT-109 were thrown in the water as the Japanese destroyer knifed through their boat. Fire ignited spilled gasoline on the water some twenty yards around the wreckage, driving the crew in all directions. It quickly became clear that the forward half of the boat was still floating after the flames died down and Lieutenant Kennedy, Ensign Thom, Ensign George Ross, QM3 [Quarter Master Third Class] Edman Mauer, RM2 [Radioman Second Class] John Maguire and S1 [Seaman First Class] Raymond Albert all crawled back on board the hull. Shouting soon revealed three men were in the water some 100 yards to the southwest, while two others were an equal distance to the southeast. These were GM3 Charles Harris, MoMM2 [Motor Machinist Mate Second Class] William Johnston, MoMM1 [Motor Machinist Mate First Class] Patrick McMahon, TM2 [Torpedoman Second Class] Ray Starkey and MoMM1 [Motor Machinist Mate First Class] Gerald Zinser.
Lieutenant Kennedy swam to the group of three where he found one man helpless because of serious burns and another struggling to stay afloat owing to a water-logged kapok life jacket. Trading his life belt to the latter sailor, he towed the injured man back to the wreckage of PT-109. Returning to the scene, he helped tow the exhausted crew member back to the boat. Meanwhile Ensigns Thom and Ross towed the other two survivors back to the floating section. Two sailors, TM2 Andrew Kirksey and MoMM2 Harold Marney, were never seen and presumed killed in the collision with Amagiri.
Kennedy's attempts for rescue
Daylight on 2 August found all eleven survivors clinging to the wreckage of PT-109 about four miles north and slightly east of Gizo anchorage. When it became obvious the boat remnants would sink, Kennedy decided to abandon ship to a small island some four miles southeast of Gizo, hoping to avoid any Japanese barges and garrisons that way. At 1400, the crew pushed off for land, towing the two non-swimmers on a float rigged from a wooden post which had been a part of the 37mm gun mount; Kennedy towed badly burned machinist mate, MM1 Patrick McMahon. Arriving on shore, the group took cover and set up a temporary camp.
That night, Kennedy grabbed a salvaged battle lantern, donned a lifejacket, and swam to a small island a half-mile to the southeast, then along the reef stretching into Ferguson Passage where he tried unsuccessfully to intercept patrolling motor torpedo boats. Returning in the morning, he turned the lantern over to Ensign Ross who swam the same route into Ferguson Passage that evening. He too had no luck and returned the next morning.
When the remaining rations, and all the local coconuts, had been consumed, the survivors investigated a small islet west of Cross Island and took cover in the heavy brush the next day. Undaunted by the sight of a New Zealand P-40 strafing Cross Island itself, Kennedy and Ross swam to that island in search of food, boats or anything which might prove useful to their party. At one point, the two men found a Japanese box with 30-40 bags of crackers and candy and, a little farther up the beach, a native lean-to with a one-man canoe and a barrel of water alongside. About this time a canoe with two natives was sighted but they paddled swiftly off despite all efforts to attract their attention.
During the night of 5 August, Kennedy took the canoe into Ferguson Passage but found no PT boats. Returning home by way of Cross Island, where he picked up the food, he found the two natives there with the rest of the group. Ensign Thom, after telling them in as many ways as possible that he was an American and not a Japanese, had finally convinced the natives to help the Americans. The natives were then sent with messages to the coast watchers on Wana Wana, one was a pencilled note written the day before by Ensign Thom and the other a message written on a green coconut husk by Kennedy.
The next day, eight natives arrived with instructions from the coast watcher for the senior naval officer to go with the natives to Wana Wana. After the natives dropped off food and other supplies, including a cook stove, they hid Kennedy under ferns in a large war canoe and paddled him to Wana Wana. The war canoe reached its destination about 1600 [4 p.m.] and later that night Kennedy made rendezvous in Ferguson Passage with PT-157, piloted by Lieutenant (jg) W. F. Liebenow. In company with PT-171, and guided by natives who knew passages through the reefs, the survivors were picked up by small boats later that evening. Everything went off smoothly and PT-157 returned the survivors to Rendova by morning.
Lieutenant Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal
- "for extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Area on August 1-2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, junior grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
PT-109 earned two battle stars for the operations listed below:
1 Star/Capture and Defense of Guadalcanal: 7-8 December 1942; 13-15 January 1943; 1-2 February 1943.
1 Star/New Georgia Group Operation: New Georgia-Rendova-Gangunu Occupation: 1-2 August 1943.
After the PT-109
Kennedy went on to command the PT-59 in October 1943. It was converted into a gunboat with two 40 mm anti-aircraft guns, and extra .30 and .50-caliber machine guns added to the boat. In November 1943, PT-59 took part in the rescue of 40 to 50 Marines trapped on Choiseul Island. In January 1944, Kennedy left the PT-59 and returned to the US. He had back surgery that year which was not helpful and Kennedy was honorably discharged in the summer of 1945.
- ↑ Donovan (2001) pp. 95-99
- ↑ Donovan (2001) pp. 60, 61
- ↑ Donovan (2001) pp. 101-109
- ↑ Donovan (2001) pp. 123-124
- ↑ Donovan (2001), pp. 167-169, 173, 176-184
- Donovan, Robert J., PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II (2001) .
- Report on loss of PT-109
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