Commander Kennedy and His Crew

The Overlook

By Tom Clavin

“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it).  Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.And don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!

As you know by now, anniversaries inspire me to write about notable events in the past, and this time it’s to be one that took place 78 years ago next Monday. At 2.30 a.m. on August 2, 1943, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri sliced through PT-109, manned by Lt. Jack Kennedy and his crew of 12. Two men were killed immediately. The other 11 men were tossed into the flaming waters of the Blackett Strait. They would be given up for dead by the U.S. Navy, despite the personal intervention of Admiral William Halsey, who ordered a search but was told by his chain of command that it would be useless.

It would not be until 5.30 a.m. on August 8, more than six days later, that Commander Kennedy and his dehydrated, wounded, and severely weakened crew were found very much alive. They were alive because of the heroism and leadership of the future president, who for his actions during those nightmarish days and night was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal as well as a Purple Heart.

The mission of PT-109 was one of many during the Solomon Islands campaign, which was the turning point in the war against the Japanese. Men like Jack Kennedy and boats like PT-109 played pivotal roles in the campaign, which represented America climbing back up off the canvas and counterpunching the Japanese, who up until then had scored victory after victory. More specifically, what happened that August was the story of audacious and courageous young men fighting in a theater that to many world leaders took second place to the campaigns in Europe. Kennedy and the guys like him were cowboys, with dangerous plywood boats instead of ponies, taming the Pacific instead of the Plains.

          Readers of a certain age might recall that the PT-109 event received a lot of attention when JFK was President, mostly in the form of the book by Robert Donovan and the subsequent movie starring Cliff Robertson. That was almost 60 years ago, meaning there are at least two generations who have little or no knowledge of the dramatic event that shaped the life and career of one of our very few presidents to actually experience combat, and one of three – the others being George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford – who came within a whisker of perishing in the Pacific in World War II. (Someday, someone will write a very good book like “Soldier Presidents” focusing on the battle experiences of Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, Roosevelt, etc.) The Donovan book was written with JFK’s approval and, predictably, tells only a portion of the story, and a pretty whitewashed one at that. The movie is very much a Disney version, with JFK something like Fred MacMurray in “My Three Son,” his crew being the sons, and cartoon Japanese characters. In fact, most of Kennedy’s experiences were dark and gritty. They greatly altered his life and, I think, led directly to his becoming the leader of the free world.

There were several times during and after the destruction of his boat that night when Commander Kennedy, then 26 years old, accepted that he was about to die. (A good tidbit is that a few days after the destroyer sank PT-109 and Kennedy and his crew were declared dead and services were held, this was announced on the radio by Tokyo Rose.) For public consumption, Kennedy’s exploits would be romanticized as well as sanitized. But a good pre-sanitized account was a lengthy article written by John Hersey in The New Yorker in 1944. Almost immediately afterward, the true story was twisted – by such Kennedy haters as Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to court martial JFK. (It galled “Dugout Doug” MacArthur that JFK had used his political connections to get into not out of combat service in the South Pacific.) By the time Donovan came along almost 20 years after that pivotal summer of ’43, the PT 109 story had become something of a fairy tale. Too bad, because what really happened was much more exciting, dramatic, and heroic.

On the starless, unrelievedly dark night of August 1, 15 PT boats set out to engage, damage, and possibly turn back the “Tokyo Express,” the regular supply convoy that enabled the Japanese forces to resist the advance of the Americans on the islands to the south. PT-109 took up station in the Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands. When Japanese destroyers and supply ships entered the strait, the PT boats attacked, but the 30 torpedoes launched did not score any hits. The enemy ships got through, and the PT boats that had used all their torpedoes were sent home. PT-109 remained in the strait, along with PT-162 and PT-169, with hopes of damaging the Tokyo Express on its way back. At 2.20 a.m., the Amagiri suddenly appeared out of the darkness. Lt. Kennedy attempted to turn his boat to starboard to bring his torpedoes to bear, but there was not enough time. The destroyer, traveling at 30 or more knots, struck PT-109 on the forward starboard torpedo tube and ripped away the starboard aft side of the boat.

Of the 11 survivors, Patrick McMahon was badly burned by exploding fuel, William Johnston had swallowed gasoline, and Charles “Bucky” Harris was also seriously injured. JFK was thrown backward into a bulkhead in the cockpit, and he would be plagued by the back injury for the rest of his life. Some of the water around them was in flames and what was left of their boat was sinking. There was no sign of the two other PT boats. The only option was to swim to an islet at least three miles away without knowing if it was occupied by Japanese or not. Edgar Mauer and the debilitated Johnston could not swim so they were lashed to a plank that was pushed and pulled by the seven men who could swim. JFK, who would spend much of the next 36 hours in water, put the burned McMahon on his back and towed him with a life vest belt clamped in his teeth. Exhausted, he and McMahon arrived on the islet first, where JFK collapsed, rousing when his men arrived.

Soon, when a Japanese barge passed close by and the men worried they would soon be discovered, JFK set out again, this time to the Ferguson Passage, a route for PT boats to and from the Blackett Strait. Island-hopping and clinging to reefs, he made his way out to the passage and treaded water. No boats appeared. The return trip to the islet was the second time he thought he would die as strong currents kept spinning him out into Blackett Strait and then back into Ferguson Passage before he could gain enough traction to swim in one direction. JFK was able to get some sleep during the day, then after dark he led the men back into the ocean, heading for Olasana Island where they hoped to find food and fresh water. Again, JFK hauled McMahon by the life vest strap.

There was no water on the island, and the available coconuts made the men sick. It was back into the water. On August 5, JFK and his crew made it to Naru Island, which looked out onto the Ferguson Passage. There they discovered a box of candy that had been left by Japanese troops as well as a tin of water and a one-man canoe. As JFK and George “Barney” Ross were walking on the beach they encountered two natives who, frightened, jumped into their canoe and took off. That night, JFK went out into the passage for what was an unsuccessful search for American PT boats. He returned to find that the two natives had returned and were actually island scouts for the Allies. JFK scratched out a message on a coconut shell (which would be a fixture on his Oval Office desk) and the natives left to deliver it to a coast watcher, Lt. Reginald Evans. After receiving the shell, Evans alerted the Navy and sent the natives back with food and water. On August 7, after his men ate, JFK, hidden in the canoe, was paddled to Gomu Island in the Blackett Strait. That night, two PT boats set out. JFK guided them to his men, who were brought aboard. Finally, at 5.30 a.m. on August 8, the PT-109 crew was back at their Rendova base.

When the mission had begun a week earlier there were 13 men on PT-109: Harold Marney from Massachusetts, Andrew Jackson Kirksey from Georgia, Ross (a friend of JFK’s from Princeton whose own PT boat had just been sunk), Leonard Thom from Ohio, Johnston from Massachusetts, Raymond Starkey and McMahon from Southern California, Mauer from St. Louis, Gerald Zinser from Illinois, John McGuire from upstate New York, Harris from Boston, and Raymond Albert from Cleveland. (Marney and Kirksey died.) They had become good friends and admired Kennedy’s leadership. They came from different ethnic backgrounds and parts of the U.S. As much as any crew, Kennedy’s men represented those who were in the U.S. Navy fighting for a great cause and not knowing what day would be their last.

There was a very good book about PT boats that was published while the war was still going on titled They Were Expendable. Some film buffs are familiar with the John Ford screen version with Robert Montgomery and John Wayne. (The Montgomery character was based on the officer who, ironically, commanded the PT boat that evacuated MacArthur from Corregidor as the Japanese closed in.) There have been at least a couple of books that focus specifically on Jack Kennedy’s wartime service and I recommend them as reminders that whatever people thought of him as a president, he was in the thick of things in World War II. (As an aside: For Gerry Ford’s adventures, see Halsey’s Typhoon by Bob Drury and moi.)

A final note: There was a reunion of the surviving members of the PT-109 crew in Washington D.C. on January 20, 1961. They were special guests to watch their former commander be sworn in as the nation’s 35th President. During his presidency, his staff was told to put through JFK’s crewmen whenever they called, and they were among the very few who visited the White House and called the president Jack.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.