John F. Kennedy remains unique among American presidents. Not only was he the youngest man ever elected president, at 43 years and 163 days on the day of his election, but he was also the only American president to ever win either the Navy and Marine Corps Medal or a Purple Heart- let alone both of those distinguished awards from World War II.
Yet when questioned about how he had become a war hero, Kennedy was famously tight-lipped and simply responded, “It was involuntary. They sunk my boat.”
The date is August 1st, 1943, and a young, twenty five year old Kennedy is a Lieutenant in the US Navy in charge of a Patrol Torpedo boat in the Solomon Islands. The PT boats as they were known were widely used by American forces across both the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean against the Axis powers.
While other navies of the world made use of small, high-speed patrol craft, it was the Americans who embraced this agile craft with a murderous gusto. Known as speed demons, or as “the Devil Fleet” by the Japanese, it terrorized, PT boats operated in groups and relied on sheer speed to overwhelm much larger and more dangerous opponents.
The PT boats
The boats were often made of nothing but light woods, with no armor plating and little if any protection. The light weight gave the boats incredible speeds, reaching as high as 46mph (74kmh), and allowed small groups of them to descend on much larger and slower vessels, launch their torpedoes, and tear away before the enemy could react.
Often PT boats would operate at night with the help of radar, and they would slowly cruise near enemy ships before launching into a high-speed suicidal charge and then howling away into the night.
The Americans made great use of PT boats in the Pacific, where they regularly went up against much larger ships such as destroyers, cruisers, and even battleships. Many of the first PT boat crews had either been high-speed boat racers back home or race aficionados, and their expertise was quickly put to use in developing tactics and upgrades for the PT boat fleet.
As the war raged, PT boat crews got particularly creative and often made very unofficial upgrades to their boats, like bolting down everything on board including the main battle tank guns and anti-aircraft cannons. A PT boat could never have too many guns, and bristled with firepower, making them a small but terrifying threat.
JFK’s PT boat- PT 109– was famously decked out with a stolen US Army 37mm antitank gun which was bolted to the bow of the boat. If it was big and it could shoot, PT boat crews would inevitably find some way to lash it onto their ships and roar off into combat with their completely unsanctioned upgrades.
John F. Kennedy’s PT boat went head to head with a Japanese destroyer
On the night of August 1st, 1943, John F. Kennedy’s PT boat was one of a four boat flotilla on a mission to intercept Japanese destroyers undertaking supply runs in the Soloman Islands. Intense island-to-island fighting had stretched out Japanese supply lines, and intercepting incoming supply drops was critical to the success of the men fighting on the beaches and jungles of the Pacific.
Each destroyer that made it to its destination full of vital supplies meant that many more American lives lost, and the PT crews were determined to stop the vital flow of supplies no matter the cost.
Yet going up against a modern Japanese destroyer was no easy feat, especially when a single shell from its main armament would be enough to kill all onboard the light and unarmored PT boats. Speed and mobility was their only protection, and the PT crews relied on surprise and sheer aggression to get home safely.
That night, however, the situation was about as poor as could be for a flotilla of PT boats on the prowl for a victim. There was no moon out and cloud cover blotted out the stars. Visibility was limited to only a few hundred meters, and to make things worse, only one of the four boats had a radar unit installed. Suddenly the boat with radar roared off into the dark, chasing after a Japanese target, but the other three boats were left behind completely blind.
They silently chugged along at low speed, because while the visibility was very poor, any Japanese aircraft would be able to easily spot the wake of the PT boats due to the phosphorescent plankton that their propellers churned up. John F. Kennedy was especially cautious as just days before on his first patrol a Japanese fighter had dropped two bombs near his boat and seriously injured two of his crew.
Scanning the pitch-dark ocean, a gunner in the forward gun turret peers carefully into the dark. Alarmed at what he suddenly realizes is a Japanese ship coming straight for them, he yells out a warning, “Ship at two o’clock!”. Scanning the ocean though Kennedy can’t see anything, until finally at two hundred yards and closing fast he sees it- a wall of rapidly approaching water, the wake from a large Japanese ship.
Kennedy attempts to move his boat into position to launch a torpedo at the oncoming ship, but while trying to avoid enemy air patrols he had turned off one of the engines. Now he desperately tries to throttle the second engine up while the first struggles to move the boat out of the way.
The Japanese however are equipped with radar and don’t need to see their target. They’ve realized the small PT boat isn’t running with both engines, and they accelerate and put themselves on a direct collision course.
With a roaring of sea water and splintering wood, the huge Japanese destroyer strikes the PT boat directly in the middle. The steel bow of the Japanese ship shatters the much smaller boat, and splits it in two across the midsection.
John F. Kennedy saves his fellow crew members while risking his own life
Two of the thirteen man crew are instantly killed, and a third is thrown overboard and sucked into the destroyer’s wake, where the force of the water displaced by the mighty propeller beats him mercilessly.
John F. Kennedy is himself hurled against his boat’s deck and severely injures his back, while an engineer below decks has his face and arms badly burned by the igniting gasoline before the ocean sucks him down into the depths and then spits him back up.
The Japanese ship doesn’t even bother to stop to pick up survivors and take them prisoners, and instead simply continues on into the inky darkness. The PT boat’s light wooden hulls prove to be a life saver here, as incredibly, both halves of the boat remain afloat.
John F. Kennedy, who had been a member of the Harvard swim team, then leaps into the water and spends the next half hour rescuing the eleven survivors and dragging them back to the remains of the boat.
At dawn though there was no sign of rescue, and John F. Kennedy knew that they couldn’t remain on their stricken vessel as it would eventually sink. An experienced sailor and navigator, Kennedy had familiarized himself with the Solomon Islands and their currents, and spotting a small smudge in the distance he knew to be a small island called Plum Island, he told his men to prepare for a very long swim.
The engineer who had been below decks, however still had fresh and agonizing burns across his body, and was in no shape to make the three mile swim on his own. Despite his injured back, Kennedy incredibly leaped into the water and cut a strap loose from the engineer’s life vest, gripping it in his teeth.
For five hours, John F. Kennedy slowly swam, pulling along the injured engineer, refusing to let the man drown. When he finally made it to shore, he had swallowed so much seawater that he became violently ill and immediately vomited.
Back at base, the crew of PT 109 had already been given up for dead
Leaving John F. Kennedy and his men on a tiny island behind enemy lines and armed with only two pistols, no food, and no fresh water. Determined to get his men safely back home, John F. Kennedy ignored the threat of prowling sharks and incredibly swam back out into the ocean that night, carrying a lantern and a pistol which he hoped he could use to signal any passing PT boat.
Unfortunately, none would materialize, and to make matters worse, as he tried to swim back, a rogue current dragged John F. Kennedy far from the island. The President-to-be would spend the entire night treading water, convinced he’d never see his men again and that he’d eventually drown.
Yet as the morning sun climbed into the sky, John F. Kennedy was amazed to find that another current had actually carried him back to the island! Having ditched his heavy boots so he could more easily swim, Kennedy then made his way across a razor sharp reef, badly cutting his feet.
With no food and water, Kennedy made sure his crew members survived
With no food, the crew was now starving, and the next day John F. Kennedy rallied them once more and convinced them to swim to another nearby island where there might be coconuts to eat. Once more, he towed the injured engineer for another incredible three hour swim, this time with badly lacerated feet and once more risking the threat of shark attack.
On the island, the men found edible coconuts and fresh water in the leaves of the island’s bushes and trees, which the men greedily drank up. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t notice until dawn that the leaves had all been covered in bird poop the entire time.
For the next few days, John F. Kennedy and another of his crew would swim from island to island, constantly looking for food to bring back to the crew. On August 5th, four days after the collision, Kennedy and his crewman were spotted by what he feared were Japanese soldiers, but turned out to be friendly natives.
John F. Kennedy inscribed a simple message onto a coconut shell with a knife so that the natives could relay it to US navy personnel, as they spoke no English. The message read: NAURO ISL COMMANDER… NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT… HE CAN PILOT… 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT… KENNEDY. Incredibly the shell made its way to a New Zealand infantry patrol who then put JFK in radio contact with his PT base.
John F. Kennedy would go on to use that shell as a paperweight in the oval office when he won the Presidency. Despite a serious injury, Kennedy did as he had promised and brought his men home, and the incredible fortitude and courage he showed serves as an example to this day.
Featured Image: Lieutenant (junior grade) Kennedy (standing at right) with his PT-109 crew in 1943, by Naval Historical Center, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons