All through his meteoric political career, John F. Kennedy was often asked to tell the story of what happened to him in the South Pacific in World War II. With some embarrassment and a bit of modesty, he usually replied, "They sank my boat."
That moment and that boat — PT 109 — became an important part of his public persona, as famous as Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill nearly 50 years before, and solidified his own image as a genuine hero.
Now, Bob Ballard — the man who located the Titanic — has discovered the remains of PT 109, 1,200 feet down on the bottom of the Pacific. Leading an expedition funded by the National Geographic Society, Ballard, who grew up on Cape Cod where Kennedy often vacationed, found an old torpedo and its rusted launching tube. The Navy identified these as belong to the vessel the future president commanded for 99 days in the spring and summer of 1943.
A Difficult Expedition
Finding it wasn't easy.
"The strong underwater currents we encountered made this unlike any of my past expeditions," Ballard said. "It was like conducting a search in the Sahara Desert during a blinding sandstorm. We needed all our skills and technology plus a healthy dose of luck."
Luck of a different variety — bad — was also instrumental in the loss of the boat.
The PT class (the initials stand for Patrol Torpedo) had first appeared in 1940, before the United States went to war. About 80-feet long and 20 feet wide, they were of plywood construction and, with three powerful engines, lightning fast.
Kennedy Assigned Skipper
Once Kennedy had heard of them, he wanted to command one. After a period of training in Rhode Island, he was dispatched to the Solomon Islands as a 26-year-old lieutenant junior grade. He arrived in April, 1943, a couple of months after the United States captured Guadalcanal from the Japanese, and he was assigned as the new skipper of a boat with the number 109.
Like so many of his generation, he found himself thousands of miles from home, in the middle of a war, in the company of strangers — the 12-man crew he would lead on several missions of harassment against Japanese war-ships in the waters around the Solomon Islands.
In the tropical twilight, on Aug. 1, 1943, Kennedy took 109 roaring out of harbor along with 14 other PTs. Late that night, as three Japanese destroyers came churning through Blackett Strait, which separates the island of Kolombangara from New Georgia, many of the boats launched their torpedoes. All missed.
Kennedy's stayed in their tubes for he found himself and his boat directly in the path of the Amagiri, which rammed PT 109, and cut it in two, killing two of the crew. In a flaming, gasoline-saturated sea, Kennedy and the 10 other survivors swam to a part of the boat that remained afloat, then swam to a nearby island the next morning. Kennedy towed a badly injured sailor ashore.
The next night, he swam back out into the strait, with a pistol and a lantern, to signal any passing U.S. ship. None passed. The next day, he carved a message on a coconut shell and asked a friendly islander to take it to an Australian coast-watcher who then radioed for help.
For six days, Kennedy and his men lived on coconut milk and berries before they were taken to safety in a camouflaged outrigger-canoe.
A Piece of History Remains
Ballard believes his sophisticated radar detected the shape of the boat itself, buried beneath the sand — but only the torpedo, its tube and a cranking mechanism were actually photographed by his underwater cameras.
The Navy says the type of torpedo found was used on PT boats until a year after 109 was lost; and since no other PT boat was lost in the area, it seems likely that Ballard has found the most famous one of its class.
It will not be moved or excavated but rather will simply be the final resting place of the boat and the two men who died.
All the sailors who survived with Kennedy are now, like him, dead; but 1,200-feet deep in the Pacific, a piece of their history — and his — and ours — remains.