JF Kennedy’s PT-109 – Towing A Wounded Crew Member To Safety With His Teeth For 3.5 Miles Before Going For Help


PT-109 - 2

In 1963, Warner Bros. released a film about the WWII sinking of JF Kennedy’s Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat. Called ‘PT 109’ the film was the first commercial movie about a serving American President.

Recently Producers Beau Flynn and Basil Iwanyk have teamed up to make ‘Mayday 109’, a film that will tell the real story of how Kennedy’s PT boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer.

PT boats were small, fast attack boats armed with torpedoes. Powered by liquid cooled aircraft engines, these vessels could touch 45 miles per hour and although they were limited to coastal waters they were formidable in action – the Japanese Navy referred to them as ‘Devil boats’.

PT-109 stowed on board the liberty ship SS Joseph Stanton for transport to the Pacific, 20 August 1942

PT-109 stowed on board the liberty ship SS Joseph Stanton for transport to the Pacific, 20 August 1942

Born on 29th May 1917, John F. Kennedy desperately wanted to join the US navy. His wealthy, well- connected father pulled some strings, and in 1942 Jack (as he was known) volunteered for service with a PT boat unit in the pacific.

On the night of 2nd August 1943, the 40-ton PT boat 109 commanded by 26-year-old Lieutenant J.F. Kennedy was on patrol in the Solomon Islands in company with two other PT boats. Their mission was to patrol following intelligence reports that three Japanese destroyers were to run through the area that night.

Around 2:00 a.m. on a moonless night, Kennedy’s boat was idling on one engine to avoid detection of her wake by Japanese aircraft when the crew realized they were in the path of the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, which was returning to Rabaul. Amagiri was traveling at a relatively high speed of between 23 and 40 knots in order to reach harbor by dawn, when Allied air patrols were likely to appear.

The crew had less than ten seconds to get the engines up to speed, and were run down by the destroyer between Kolombangara and Ghizo Island.

Amagiri in 1930

Amagiri in 1930

Conflicting statements have been made as to whether the destroyer captain had spotted and steered towards the boat. Some reports suggest Amagiri‍ ’​s captain never realized what happened until after the fact. Damage to a propeller slowed the Japanese destroyer’s trip to her own home base.

PT-109 was cut in two. Seamen Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold W. Marney were killed, 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.

The eleven survivors clung to PT-109’s bow section as it drifted slowly south. By about 2:00 p.m. it was apparent that the hull was taking on water and would soon sink, so the men decided to abandon it and swim for land.

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