Posted by: SJS | May 12, 2011

JFK and PT 109

During John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency in 1960 the nation and the world became familiar with the distinguished history of the PT boats in WWII.  The young Senator Kennedy from Massachusetts was a war hero. His leadership skills which emerged during the war became a major asset to his political success later in life.

JFK on PT 109

The defining experience of Kennedy’s military career occurred in the Pacific in early August 1943.  Under Kennedy’s command, PT 109 was on nighttime patrol in the waters near New Georgia in the Solomon Islands.  At about 2:30 am, in the inky blackness of a starless night, PT 109 was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri.  The Japanese ship crashed into the starboard side of PT 109, slicing into the wooden hull of the PT and cutting the boat in two.

Kennedy gathered his surviving crew members together in the water around the wreckage and held a vote on whether to “fight or surrender.”  He said to his crew, “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this.   A lot of you men have family and some of you have children.  What do you want to do?  I have nothing to lose.”  Deciding against surrender, the men swam towards a small island three miles distant.  Kennedy, despite reinjuring his back in the collision, towed a badly burned crewman through the water with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth.  He got the wounded man to the island and later to a second island from where his crew was subsequently rescued.  For these actions Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

When asked by a reporter how he became a war hero, Kennedy joked: “It was involuntary.  They sank my boat.”  
 
One of the most enduring legacies of the Kennedy Administration was the creation in 1961 of the United States Navy SEALs, the elite special fighting forces, which Kennedy enthusiastically supported.   And as the entire world now knows, the SEALs are extremely good at what they do.  Just like the sailors who served on the PT boats in WWII.
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Responses

  1. Steve –

    This is an incredible piece of history that I only knew a small amount about. Thanks for telling the story.

  2. Dudley,

    Delving back into the story of PT 109 and its famous skipper was an eye-opener for me, too. I didn’t know the part about “taking a vote” on how to decide what to do next in the aftermath of the collision. No wonder Kennedy was so good in the arena of politics!

    Thanks much,

    Steve

  3. Steve,

    What a great story!!! That whole generation was modest about what they did. My Uncle Joe, who will be 99 in August, served with the Fifth Army Infantry Division in Europe. Outside of telling and convincing my baby sister that he captured Hitler with a squirt gun, he NEVER spoke about his service. When I researched his unit and where he had been, he saw some very heavy combat in France, Belgium, and Germany. The only other thing he ever wrote or said about the war was the following from a family history he wrote about 15 years ago:
    “I was stationed at Vilhosen, Germany on VE Day which was the end of World War II in Eurpoe. Our Division was ordered back to the United States for special training, and ultimately to be shipped to the Far East as replacement troops for the invasion of Japan. Our orders were to travel via convoy to Le Havre, France where we would board ship for home. When we arrived in Reims, France the Commanding Officer decided to interupt the trip and hold a Memorial Service to honor the hundreds and hundreds of Fifth Infantry Division soldiers who lost their lives and were buried in U.S. cemteries throughout the European Continent. I was asked to sing an “Ave Maria” at that service. I’ll never forget the deep feeling of emotion we all experienced as we stood on the stage looking out over those fifteen thousand soldiers who were standing at ease and openly displaying their sorrow, not only for the loss of their buddies, but also because they had to leave them behind…” Just like your dad and Tom, that was a very special generation, the kind that only comes along once in a lifetime.

    Rich

    • Rich,

      That story from your Uncle Joe is deeply moving. In its own way, it captures the dignity and dedication of that generation which is richly deserving of the title bestowed by Tom Brokaw, “The Greatest Generation.” I feel very fortunate to have been able to connect with some of the PT veterans who served with my father and who finally feel comfortable, after all these years, telling their stories and the stories of my father, stories which he could never tell me himself.

      Thanks so much for sharing this important moment in your uncle’s life. It resonates with deep meaning for all of us who had family members who served in WWII.

      Steve

      • Steve,

        Your dad’s experience, his friend Tom’s experience, the story about JFK, and my Uncle’s story just all highlight what a humble generation that was. For Christmas my wife gave me a book about Don Larsen’s Perfect Game in the 1956 World Series. The book has accounts from various ball players on the ’56 Dodgers and Yankees teams as well as from some of their familiy members. Many of those players had served in WWII, and it is uncanny how many of their children stated that their dad’s saw heavy action, but that they never talked about their experience. Thanks to you for taking the time to put together such a terrific blog and for providing me and others to share our memories as well.
        Rich

  4. Rich,

    The stories you’ve shared about your relatives have been truly inspiring. Please keep them coming! So many of the great ballplayers of the 1950s had impressive WWII experiences (Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, etc) and they were such great role models for us kids growing up during that era.

    Thanks again.

    Steve


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