PT boats were small, fast boats armed with machine guns and torpedoes that were used during WWII especially in the Pacific to harass and to sink Japanese warships and supply ships. One of those boats would become a part of American presidential history. It was PT-109 and it was skippered by Lt.(junior grade) John F. Kennedy. The video excerpt is from the movie PT-109 from 1963.
It was Aug. 1, 1943. The torpedo patrol boat, PT-109, and other PT boats were in a battle with some Japanese destroyers. In the midst of the battle in foggy conditions, the Japanese ship Amaqiri struck PT-109 amidships and broke her apart. As a result of this incident, two of PT-109’s crew would die, but 11 others clung to the remains of their boat for five hours.
Lt. Kennedy and his crew, knowing that they were in enemy territory and that both Japanese ships and planes would be looking for PT boats in the area, could see several small islands some miles away. They knew that they had to do something more than just cling to the fragile wreckage of PT-109. In the end, it was quite simple, either they swim to one of the islands, with of the risks involved, because survival on the sinking PT-109 was no longer an option. Kennedy could not be sure that the island they had chosen to swim to was Japanese occupied, or not. They knew that other small islands in the area were.
Kennedy himself was injured when PT-109 was struck. He sustained a nagging back injury that would plague him the rest of his life. After those 5 hours of clinging to the remains of their patrol boat, trying to discern what to do, Kennedy convinced the crew to make the swim to the island and was instrumental in helping those who were injured more severely to make the swim. When they got ashore, Kennedy chose to swim back out to sea in hopes of flagging down a passing American boat.
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In attempting to swim back ashore he was caught up in strong currents. His back injury made it even more difficult. He became sick after making it back to the island probably from the stress of days events, his back injury and from having swallowed a good deal of salt water in his efforts to get his men ashore and to flag down potential passing American boats.
When he recovered he got the crew to swim to yet another island. He thought it was Nauru Island, but it was actually Cross Island. Soon after arriving, they met two native inhabitants. He got them to agree to take a message south to an island where he knew an American spotter was located. He hastily carved a message into a coconut shell, “Nauru Is. Native knows posit. He can pilot. 11 alive need small boat.”
That message actually reached a Lt. Arthur Evans, who was spotting on an island next to another island that was occupied by the Japanese. Native canoers paddled Kennedy’s crew to the island Evans was on. Lt. Kennedy and the remaining 11 members of the P-109 crew were then picked up by another American PT Boat and taken back to their base at Rendova Island.
Lt. John F. Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for gallantry in action.
That coconut shell that Kennedy had carved a message into would find a place in the Oval Office when Kennedy was elected president of the United States in 1960.
Learn more in the video below.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.