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August 02, 2004

A Better Band Of Brothers

On this day, sixty one years ago, the United States Navy motor torpedo boat number 109, commanded by Lieutenant, Junior Grade John F. Kennedy, was struck and cut in half by the 1750 ton Japanese destroyer Amagiri.

The PT boat was creeping along to keep the wake and noise to a minimum in order to avoid detection. Around 0200 with Kennedy at the helm, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri traveling at 40 knots cut PT 109 in two in ten seconds. Although the Japanese destroyer had not realized that their ship had struck an enemy vessel, the damage to PT 109 was severe. At the impact, Kennedy was thrown into the cockpit where he landed on his bad back. As Amagiri steamed away, its wake doused the flames on the floating section of PT 109 to which five Americans clung: Kennedy, Thom, and three enlisted men, S1/c Raymond Albert, RM2/c John E. Maguire and QM3/c Edman Edgar Mauer. Kennedy yelled out for others in the water and heard the replies of Ross and five members of the crew, two of which were injured. GM3/c Charles A. Harris had a hurt leg and MoMM1/c Patrick Henry McMahon, the engineer was badly burned. Kennedy swam to these men as Ross and Thom helped the others, MoMM2/c William Johnston, TM2/c Ray L. Starkey, and MoMM1/c Gerald E. Zinser to the remnant of PT 109. Although they were only one hundred yards from the floating piece, in the dark it took Kennedy three hours to tow McMahon and help Harris back to the PT hulk. Unfortunately, TM2/c Andrew Jackson Kirksey and MoMM2/c Harold W. Marney were killed in the collision with Amagiri.

Because the remnant was listing badly and starting to swamp, Kennedy decided to swim for a small island barely visible (actually three miles) to the southeast. Five hours later, all eleven survivors had made it to the island after having spent a total of fifteen hours in the water. Kennedy had given McMahon a life-jacket and had towed him all three miles with the strap of the device in his teeth. After finding no food or water on the island, Kennedy concluded that he should swim the route the PT boats took through Ferguson Passage in hopes of sighting another ship. After Kennedy had no luck, Ross also made an attempt, but saw no one and returned to the island. Ross and Kennedy had spotted another slightly larger island with coconuts to eat and all the men swam there with Kennedy again towing McMahon. Now at their fourth day, Kennedy and Ross made it to Nauru Island and found several natives. Kennedy cut a message on a coconut that read '11 alive native knows posit & reef Nauru Island Kennedy.' He purportedly handed the coconut to one of the natives and said, 'Rendova, Rendova!,' indicating that the coconut should be taken to the PT base on Rendova.

Kennedy and Ross again attempted to look for boats that night with no luck. The next morning the natives returned with food and supplies, as well as a letter from the coastwatcher commander of the New Zealand camp, Lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans. The message indicated that the natives should return with the American commander, and Kennedy complied immediately. He was greeted warmly and then taken to meet PT 157 which returned to the island and finally rescued the survivors on 8 August.

Kennedy was later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroics in the rescue of the crew of PT 109, as well as the Purple Heart Medal for injuries sustained in the accident on the night of 1 August 1943.

As you may know, Kennedy never fully recovered from the re-injury to his bad back sustained in the collision. He lived with the constant pain for the rest of his life (with the help of heavy doses of drugs, it has recently been disclosed). The coconut became a fixture atop his desk in the oval office. The destroyer Amagiri did not survive the war. She struck a mine and sunk on April 23, 1944.

For a more detailed and prosaic version of the story, here's the transcription of a 1944 article by John Hersey in the New Yorker about the events.

Posted by annika, Aug. 2, 2004 |
Rubric: History


I read in detail years ago the events of PT109. I've always been intrigued by Kennedy, even though I was only 1 year old when he was elected president.

Posted by: Brent on Aug. 2, 2004

Jeez, almost as big a ton of bullshit as Kerry's three Purple Hearts. Destroyers don't do "40-knots", and any other PT skipper would have stood a courts martial. But few others had fathers who were pals with Henry Luce.

Posted by: Casca on Aug. 2, 2004