“Without PT-109, there never would have been a President John F. Kennedy.”
By William Doyle
FOR 26-YEAR-OLD John F. Kennedy, everything changed at 2:27 a.m. Aug. 2, 1943 – so did the history of the United States and that of the wider world.
The 26-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant (junior grade) was skipper of the motor torpedo boat PT-109. Kennedy and his crew of 12 were drifting in the Blackett Strait, a span of water between Gizo and Arundel islands in the Solomons. Their mission: to locate and attack the “Tokyo Express”, an elusive Japanese convoy that was carrying supplies to enemy troops operating in the Solomon Islands.
As the 80-foot-long craft sat bobbing in the warm tropical waters, a Japanese destroyer, the Amagiri, suddenly hurtled out of the gloom travelling at full speed. The 1,750-ton enemy warship plowed through PT-109 shearing the smaller craft’s hull in two. Of the 13 men aboard, two were killed instantly. The remaining 11 clung to wreckage as the sea around them burned. A thousand feet of ink-black, shark-infested water loomed beneath their kicking feet. Kennedy, the son of the former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, led his crew to a 100-yard-long island in the channel.
For six days, the survivors struggled against thirst, exhaustion and starvation, awaiting rescue. After being spotted by local islanders in an outrigger canoe, Kennedy and his men were eventually picked up by another U.S. torpedo boat.
The entire incident not only altered Kennedy’s life but U.S. and world history as well. Despite the long-simmering controversy among veterans and military historians over whether the future president was negligent in the loss of his boat, Kennedy emerged from the Pacific War a decorated hero, having won the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for “his courage, endurance, and excellent leadership [which] contributed to the saving of several lives.”
The entire episode was soon immortalized in a now classic 1944 New Yorker article by John Hersey. The piece was later reprinted in Readers Digest where it received an even wider circulation. After the war, Joseph Kennedy drew from the family fortune to reproduce and distribute copies of the article by the hundreds of thousands. His PR blitz was a critical factor in propelling the young John Kennedy into the House of Representatives in 1947, the U.S. Senate five years later, and eventually the White House.
The PT-109 incident made Kennedy—both the man and the myth. It also a critical “ripple point” in the history of the United States. Without it, there might not have been a President Kennedy, and in turn, the contours of modern American history that JFK helped shape during his brief but consequential presidency—including civil rights, the Vietnam War, space travel, the Cold War, and the nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union—might have played out quite differently.
Kennedy himself considered his command of the PT-109, as well as his other experiences in combat during World War Two, to be central to his own destiny.
“I firmly believe,” he wrote, “that as much as I was shaped by anything, so I was shaped by the hand of fate moving in World War Two. Of course, the same can be said of almost any American or British or Australian man of my generation. The war made us get serious for the first time in our lives. We’ve been serious ever since.”
Before his death in 1963, JFK hoped, as veterans sometimes do, to seek out and reconcile with his former enemy. He sent his younger brother Robert to Tokyo in 1962 to begin preliminary planning for what would be the first-ever U.S. presidential state visit to Japan, a journey that would culminate in an emotional reunion with the surviving members of Kennedy’s PT-109 and the veterans of the Japanese warship that destroyed her.
Robert Kennedy’s trip was marred as student peace protesters caused an uproar just as the attorney general was about to take the podium during a live televised event.
In the chaos, Robert delivered an impassioned, impromptu speech that amazed the people of Japan and strengthened the bond between the two former enemies. It’s a relationship that was vividly renewed with the arrival of John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline as the U.S. ambassador to Japan in 2013.
Of course, John F. Kennedy was far from perfect in his private or public lives. During his 1960 presidential campaign, he misrepresented the severity of his own medical chronic problems, and lied about the extent of the so-called “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. In the critical West Virginia Democratic primary, his campaign staff sanctioned the “dirty trick” exploitation of his PT-109 experience that torpedoed the chances of his opponent Hubert Humphrey by inaccurately labeling the Minnesota Democrat a draft dodger. Humphrey quit the race in despair, clearing the path for JFK to seize his party’s nomination. Kennedy’s brief presidency was a roller-coaster ride of crises, failures, and occasional triumphs, like the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis and passage of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
But once in office, Americans showered Kennedy with the highest average presidential approval ratings Gallup has ever measured. In many polls since his death, JFK has repeatedly ranked near or at the very top of the list of most admired presidents.
And it all began in a moment of death and disaster in the blackness of the South Pacific in 1943.
“Without PT-109,” said JFK’s top aide David Powers, “there never would have been a President John F. Kennedy.”
William Doyle is the author of the new book PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy. His other works include A Soldier’s Dream: Captain Travis Patriquin and the Awakening of Iraq, Navy SEALs: Their Untold Story and American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms, which was co-written with the late Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame. Doyle lives in New York.