John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 Disaster

By Jennifer Berry

In April 1943, 25-year-old John F. Kennedy arrived in the Pacific and took  command of the PT-109.  Just months later, the boat collided with a Japanese ship, killing two of his men (John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, PC101).
In April 1943, 25-year-old John F. Kennedy arrived in the Pacific and took command of the PT-109. Just months later, the boat collided with a Japanese ship, killing two of his men (John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, PC101).

The most famous collision in U.S. Navy history occurred at about 2:30 a.m. on August 2, 1943, a hot, moonless night in the Pacific. Patrol Torpedo boat 109 was idling in Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands. The 80-foot craft had orders to attack enemy ships on a resupply mission. With virtually no warning, a Japanese destroyer emerged from the black night and smashed into PT-109, slicing it in two and igniting its fuel tanks. The collision was part of a wild night of blunders by 109 and other boats that one historian later described as "the most screwed up PT boat action of World War II." Yet American newspapers and magazines reported the PT-109 mishap as a triumph. Eleven of the 13 men aboard survived, and their tale, declared the Boston Globe, "was one of the great stories of heroism in this war." Crew members who were initially ashamed of the accident found themselves depicted as patriots of the first order, their behavior a model of valor.

The PT-109 disaster made JFK a hero. But his fury and grief at the loss of two men sent him on a dangerous quest to get even

The Globe story and others heaped praise on Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy, commander of the 109 and son of the millionaire and former diplomat Joseph Kennedy. KENNEDY’S SON IS HERO IN PACIFIC AS DESTROYER SPLITS HIS PT BOAT, declared a New York Times headline. It was Kennedy’s presence, of course, that made the collision big news. And it was his father’s media savvy that helped turn an embarrassing disaster into a tale worthy of Homer.

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