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21Jul/15Off

The True Story behind JFK’s PT-109


Former U.S. President and then U.S. Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy is seen aboard the Patrol Torpedo boat PT-109 boat during World War II in the Pacific theatre, in this handout photograph taken on March 4, 1942. (REUTERS/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Handout)

David Ellis and Roderick Eime

Only the more adventurous travellers make it to remote Gizo in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. It's a magical place with some of the world's best fishing as well as wreck and reef diving.

From Gizo you can venture a further 10 kilometres to a minuscule dot shown on most charts as either Kasolo Atoll or Plum Pudding Island. This sandy speck is better known in popular mythology as Kennedy Island – the place where a then 26 year old US Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, commander of the motor torpedo boat PT109 and future President of the United States, together with ten of his crew, waded ashore in pitch-blackness after their boat was rammed and sunk by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri on the night of 2 August 1943.

For decades, South Pacific adventurers have laid claim to finding and even salvaging the wreckage of PT109. But their assertions are in fact their imaginings. What little remains of PT109 lies at an impossible depth of 374 metres, 4km off Kasolo.

On 1 August 1943, PT109 had been one of fifteen PTs sent from the US Navy's base on Rendova Island to harass a Japanese convoy that had dropped reinforcements and supplies on the nearby and much larger Kolombangara Island as Japan tried to shore up their retreat after the end of their disastrous Guadalcanal campaign earlier that year.

But in the inkiness of that moonless night, the 2000 ton Amagiri, travelling at high speed, rammed the little 25m PT109, splitting her lengthwise and setting her fuel tanks ablaze in a massive fireball.

Artist impression of the collision between IJN destroyer Amagiri and PT-109. Remembering the actual event occurred in the dark of night.

Artist impression of the collision between IJN destroyer Amagiri and PT-109. Remembering the actual event occurred in the dark of night.

Two men died instantly in the violent collision. The stern section sank quickly, leaving the forward section afloat with the surviving crew clinging on for dear life amid a sea of flames. Such was the ferocity of the impact, that the rest of the flotilla left PT109 for dead and headed full speed for base.

With rescue fast becoming a forlorn hope, Lt. Kennedy and the survivors abandoned the sinking bow section and swam and drifted toward Kasolo – which locally means Gods of Paradise, and it must have seemed like salvation to the exhausted and hapless sailors.

In an extraordinary feat of endurance, the injured Kennedy had towed one badly injured seaman the entire four kilometres with the strap of his life vest clenched in his mouth.

Some accounts suggest that the PT109 crew were 'caught napping' when the Amagiri sliced her in two. Other accounts suggest that Amagiri was only aware of the collision after the fact, but witnesses also say that her commander, Lt. Cmdr. Kohei Hanami, made a deliberate effort to ram the allied patrol boat.

Crew of PT-109. JFK standing far right.

Crew of PT-109. JFK standing far right.

After a week of foraging the tiny atoll offered no more water or food, so the group then swam two kilometres south to Olasana Island, from where Kennedy and crewman George Ross swam another kilometre south to larger Naru Island in the hope of finding American troops. But they were surprised to be met instead by two villagers who were working secretly behind enemy lines alongside the Australian Coastwatcher, Reg Evans, who had seen the collision days earlier and been searching for survivors.

Kennedy needed to get a message to his base on Rendova, now 60 kilometres away, and one of the villagers, Biuku Gasa came up with an ingenious idea. He found a green coconut and showed Kennedy how to scratch a message into its surface with a piece of sharpened sea-shell.

Kennedy engraved: NAURO ISL / COMMANDER / NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT / HE CAN PILOT / 11 ALIVE / NEED SMALL BOAT / KENNEDY

Gasa and his teenage offsider, Aaron (Eroni) Kumana, then paddled their canoe all the way through dangerous waters to Rendova with the unusual coconut message and, under cover of the next night's darkness, a PT was summoned by Evans to come rescue Kennedy and his crew.

American dive-holiday operator, Danny Kennedy (no relation) has lived in Gizo for more than 30 years and joined the National Geographic team led by Dr Robert Ballard, famous for finding several long-lost wrecks including the Titanic and Bismarck. The team finally found the few remains of PT109 in 2002.

Danny told us when we visited him in Gizo that despite all the claims by others, all that was sighted by Ballard's ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) was a brass torpedo tube in 374 metres of water, and possibly a torpedo. Being of timber construction all else had succumbed to the sea, or disappeared under sand and coral debris. The ROV had nudged the torpedo tube but was unable to move it, suggesting it was still attached in some way to the wreck of PT109.

Neither Ballard nor Kennedy will reveal the exact location of PT109, saying they respect it as a war grave. In any case, it's way too deep for scuba divers.

In a heartwarming footnote, Kumana appeared in the National Geographic documentary and had his house paid for by the Kennedy family, National Geographic and other benefactors. He passed away last year at the ripe old age of 96.

For information about Gizo diving, fishing, WWII wreckage tours visit www.divegizo.com


JFKennedy Solomons PT-109

To be released in October, this thrilling, moment-by-moment account describes in fresh detail the famous WWII events and John F. Kennedy’s heroic actions that saved his crew and is also a fascinating examination of how that extraordinary episode shaped the future president’s life.

Drawing on new information from the American rescuers and recently released archives in both Japan and the U.S., PT-109 recounts this event in breathtaking detail and explores the incident’s remarkable aftermath on JFK’s life and legend. The author, William Doyle reveals that, while the incident transformed JFK into a “war hero” and helped propel him to the U.S. Senate and the White House, the wounds he suffered during that harrowing week continued to haunt him, physically and psychologically.

William Doyle will revisit the Solomon Islands in July to see first hand many of the significant WWII battle sites while on assignment for the New York Times.

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