Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109: Wikis


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PT-109 crew.jpg
Lt(jg). Kennedy (standing at right) on the PT-109 in 1943. For other Ids see[1]
Career (United States)
Name: PT 109
Ordered: 1942
Laid down: 4 March 1942 at Bayonne, New Jersey
Launched: 20 June 1942
In service: 1942/3
Out of service: 2 August 1943, sunk
Homeport: Rendova, Tulagi, Solomon Islands
Motto: They were expendable
Nickname: John F. Kennedy's PT-109
Fate: Run down by Japanese destroyer Amagiri (torpedo tube located in May 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 (6.30 m)
Draft: 3 ft 6 in (1.07 m) aximum (aft)
Propulsion: three 12-cylinder Packard gasoline engines 1500 hp each; three shafts
Speed: 41 knots (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 (originally a field modification)
Armour: gunboat deck house protected against rifle bullets and splinter, some crews fitted armour plate to refrigerators

United States Ship PT-109 was a PT boat last commanded by then-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 a song, many books, movies, television series and collectible objects and toys. Interest was revived in May 2002, with the alleged discovery of the wreck by Robert Ballard.



Official U.S. Navy model, lacking field mounted 37 mm cannon.

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) of the 80-foot long PT 103 class boat built by Elco, 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 layers of 1-inch (2.54 cm) mahogany planking. Powered by three 12-cylinder 1,500 horsepower (1,100 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 center engine was mounted with the output end facing aft, with power directly transmitted to the propeller shaft. Because the center propeller was deeper, it left less of a wake, and was preferred by skippers for low-wake loitering. Both of the wing engines were mounted with the output flange facing forward, and then power was transmitted through a Vee drive gearbox to the propeller shaft.[2] The engines were fitted with mufflers on the transom to direct the exhaust under water, which had to be bypassed for anything other than idle speed. These mufflers 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 firing their cannons or machine guns or dropping their bombs.[3]

PT 109 could accommodate a crew of 3 officers and 14 enlisted, 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 2,600 lb (1,200 kg) each, with 466 lb warheads,[citation needed] and gave the tiny boats a punch at least theoretically effective even against armored ships. Their typical speed of 36 knots (67 km/h) was very effective against shipping, but because of rapid marine growth buildup on their hulls in the South Pacific theater and austere maintenance facilities in forward areas, American PT boats ended up being slower than the top speed of the Japanese 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 fueled with 100 octane aviation gasoline, a direct hit to a PT boat's engine compartment sometimes resulted in a total loss of boat and crew. In order to have a chance of hitting their target, a boat would have to close to within 2 miles (5 km) for a shot, well within the gun range of destroyers; at this distance, a target could easily maneuver to avoid being hit. The boats would have to approach masked by darkness, fire their torpedoes which sometimes 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. The Elco torpedo launching tubes were powered by a 3 inch black powder charge to expel the torpedo from the tube. Additionally, the torpedo was well greased so it would slide out of the tube. Sometimes, the powder charge caused the grease to ignite upon firing, and the resulting flash could give away the position of the PT boat. Crews of PT boats relied on their smaller size, speed & maneuverability, 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. The PT-109 lost one of its two Mark 6 depth charges a month before Kennedy showed up when the starboard torpedo was inadvertently launched during a storm without first deploying the tube into firing position. The launching torpedo sheared away the depth charge mount and some of the footrail.

PT-109 was configured with a single, 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft mount at the rear with "109" painted on its mounting base, 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.

The day before the fateful mission, PT-109 was retrofitted with a US Army 37 mm antitank gun that the crew had commandeered and lashed to the foredeck, replacing a small, 2-man life raft. However, the timbers used to secure the weapon to the deck would later help save their lives when used as a float.[4]

Under Kennedy's command

Lt(jg). John F. Kennedy aboard the PT-109

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 Army 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 August 1943, Kennedy's PT-109 was sent out north on a night mission through Ferguson Passage to Blackett Strait, and was one of 15 boats sent to intercept the Tokyo Express.[5]

In the PT Attack, 15 boats loaded with 60 torpedoes counted only a few observed explosions.[6] However, of the thirty torpedoes fired by PT boats from the four divisions not a single hit was scored.[7] Many of the torpedoes had exploded prematurely or ran at the wrong depth. The boats were ordered to return when their torpedoes were expended, but the boats with radar shot their torpedoes first. When they left, remaining boats, such as PT-109, were left without radar, and were not notified that other boats had engaged the enemy.[8]

PT-109, along with PT-162 and PT-169, were ordered to continue patrol of the area in case the enemy ships returned.[9] Around 0200, on a moonless night, Kennedy's boat was idling on one engine to avoid detection of her wake by Japanese aircraft.[10] With only about 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 900 soldiers.[11] Amagiri was traveling at high speed in order to be safely back in harbor 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). However, 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°06′44″S 156°54′20″E / 8.112140°S 156.905488°E / -8.112140; 156.905488.

Conflicting statements have been made as to whether the destroyer captain had spotted and steered towards the boat; author Donovan, who interviewed members of the destroyer crew, believed the collision was not an accident, though other reports suggest the Amagiri's captain never realized what happened until after the fact. Damage to a propeller slowed the destroyer's trip to its home base.[12]

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.[13]

PT-169 launched two torpedoes that missed the destroyer and PT-162'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 (5.6 km) away, braving the danger of sharks and crocodiles. Kennedy, who had been on the varsity swim team at Harvard University, used a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth and towed his badly-burned senior enlisted machinist mate, MM1 Patrick McMahon.[14] 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.[15]


The explosion on 2 August was spotted by an 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 Naru 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

The coconut with the carved message, cast in a paperweight.


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. 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 Japanese 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. On November 2, 1943, (in an incident which was portrayed as an action by PT-109 in the film PT-109) PT-59 went on to rescue Marines ambushed during a raid on Choiseul Island. One gravely wounded Marine died in LT Kennedy's bunk aboard PT-59 that night.[16]


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.[17]

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.[18] 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 humourous reply was, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."

The search for Kennedy's PT 109

The wreckage of PT-109 was allegedly 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.[19] 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 US Army/US Marine Corps-style steel helmets painted gray. 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 (LTJG) John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Boston, Massachusetts), Commanding Officer ("CO" or "Skipper"). Became 35th President of the United States
  • Ensign (ENS) Leonard J. Thom (Sandusky, Ohio), Executive Officer ("exec" or "XO")
  • Ensign (ENS) 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 8 October 1943. See [20]
  • Gunner's Mate 3/c (GM3) Charles A. "Bucky" Harris (Watertown, Massachusetts)
  • Motor Machinist's Mate 2/c (MM2) William Johnston (Dorchester, Massachusetts)
  • Torpedoman's Mate 2/c (TM2) Andrew Jackson Kirksey (Reynolds, Georgia) (killed in collision, listed as missing by National Geographic account)
  • Radioman 2/c (RM2) John E. Maguire (Dobbs Ferry, New York)
  • Motor Machinist’s Mate 2/c (MM2) Harold William Marney (Springfield, Massachusetts) (killed in collision, manning turret closest to impact point)
  • Quartermaster 3/c (QM3) Edman Edgar Mauer (St. Louis, Missouri)
  • Motor Machinist's Mate 1/c (MM1) 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 (TM2) Ray L. Starkey (Garden Grove, California)
  • Motor Machinist's Mate 1/c (MM1) Gerard E. Zinser (Belleville, Illinois) (erroneously called "Gerald" in many publications). Mr. Zinser, the last living survivor, died in Florida on 21 August 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 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 on the pop music, and #3 on the country music charts 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.[21] 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.

A version of the story was published in comic book form by Classics Illustrated.


  • Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, 40th Anniversary Edition, McGraw Hill (reprint), 2001, ISBN 0-07-137643-7
  • Renehan,Jr. Edward J. (2002). The Kennedys at War, 1937-1945. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-50165-X. 
  • Tregaskis, Richard (1966). John F. Kennedy and PT-109. Garden City, N.Y.: American Printing House for the Blind. ASIN B0007HSN7S. 
  • Hove, Duane (2003). American Warriors: Five Presidents in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press. ISBN 157249-260-0. 
  • Kimmatsu, Haruyoshi The night We sank John Kennedy's PT 109 appeared in Argosy Magazine December 1970 Vol 371 # 6.
  • Keresey, Dick Farthest Forward appeared in American Heritage magazine, July-August 1998.
  • Hara, Tameichi Japanese Destroyer Captain (Ballantine Books, 1978) ISBN 0-345-27894-1.
  • Ballard, Robert D. (2002). Collision With History: The Search for John F. Kennedy's PT 109. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. ISBN 0-7922-6876-8. 


  1. ^ MaritimeQuest - USS PT-109 p. 1.
  2. ^ PT Boat 127.
  3. ^ DANF PT-109 13 September 2002.
  4. ^ Scalecraft history.
  5. ^ "Kennedy and four other presidents served in the World War II Navy". 
  6. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, pp 95, 99.
  7. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, p 98.
  8. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, pp 96-99.
  9. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, pp 99, 100.
  10. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, pp 60, 61, 73, 100.
  11. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, pp 101, 102, 106, 107.
  12. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, pp 105, 108, 109.
  13. ^ John F Kennedy’s Military Story at Medal of Freedom.
  14. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, pp. 7, 123-124.
  15. ^ "JFK's epic Solomons swim" BBC News 30 July 2003.
  16. ^ Donovan, Robert J. PT-109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, pp 176-184.
  17. ^ The story of PT 109 undated.
  18. ^ Navy and Marine Corps Medal undated.
  19. ^ "JFK's PT-109 Found, U.S. Navy Confirms".
  20. ^ MaritimeQuest - Raymond Albert.
  21. ^ Seven Against The Sea.


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