The Sinking Of PT-109 And The Mystery Of History
As a child, I grew up thrilled to hear the story of John F. Kennedy and the PT-109. For those of us who were children of World War II veterans, it always seemed as if every story of that conflict was glorious. America was right. Our allies were valiant. The enemy was evil.
All of that is basically true, except for the part about every moment being glorious. American historians are brutally frank and tremendously honest when it comes to looking at our past. World War II was fought for the right reasons; America was right, our enemy was evil.
But history is not static. We constantly learn more about events that happened many years ago. As a history geek I love those moments when an accidental discovery of a journal, or photograph, or a government document thought to be lost sheds new light on a famous moment in history.
The story of Lieut. John F. Kennedy’s actions after the PT-109 was sunk by a Japanese boat on August 1-2 1943 is an inspiring tale of leadership, encourage, and valor. With his ship destroyed and on fire, two men dead, others injured and great confusion all around, JFK led his men to safety. Kennedy, already suffering from a serious back problem, saved the life of badly injured “Pappy” McMahon. By using his knife to cut the strap of McMahon’s life jacket, putting it between his own teeth, and swimming forfour hours before washing up on Plum Pudding Island, JFK towed the man to safety.
Risking his life again and again, despite his own tremendous pain, JFK eventually made contact with Solomon islanders who were able to lead rescuers to evacuate the PT-109 crew.
There is simply no denying that John F. Kennedy was a tremendous hero in the minutes, hours, and days after the PT-109 went down.
But what about his actions just before the PT 109 was hit?
Immediately after the sinking, many Navy men were bitterly critical of Kennedy and his actions that led to the loss of PT-109. Even JFK’s older brother Joe wrote:
“What I really want to know is where the hell were you when the destroyer hove into sight, and exactly what were your moves?”
The Navy launched an inquiry. JFK caught a break when a good friend of his, whom he would later appoint to the US Supreme Court, Byron “Whizzer” White was appointed to help write the report. John Hersey, a brilliant Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and writer, met JFK and was fascinated by the story of PT 109. His article created the public image of the heroic young Lieut. Kennedy. Interestingly, Hersey says very little about how the sinking itself actually happened. Naval historians have often written about the illogic of the speedy PT 109 being hit by a boat four times its size in open water.
From “Military History Quarterly”
In the PT fleet, some blamed “Crash” Kennedy for the collision. His crew should have been on high alert, they said. Warfield, the commander at Lumbari that night, later claimed that Kennedy “wasn’t a particularly good boat commander.” Lieutenant Commander Jack Gibson, Warfield’s successor, was even tougher. “He lost the 109 through very poor organization of his crew,” Gibson later said. “Everything he did up until he was in the water was the wrong thing.”
When I speak before audiences comprised of Navy veterans I often hear the same criticism. I am always amazed by the number of veterans who told me that they were great supporters of JFK, yet contemptuous of his actions in the moments before his boat was sunk and two of his men were killed.
Criticism of JFK’s actions is limited to historians and military men. The public’s mind was made up by Life magazine, John Hersey, and Cliff Robertson in “PT 109,”
the only Hollywood movie about a president to come out during his term of office. Chris Matthews’ insightful new biography: “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero”
is mesmerizing in its long descriptions of JFK’s heroism, but reports only fleetingly and without criticism of the actions which led to the sinking of PT-109.
Today the remnants of PT-109 blade deep under the ocean. The torpedo, unused, from JFK’s boat was found not long ago, a silent reminder of the story of failure, heroism, and leadership that occurred on that August night so long ago.
History, like life, is full of contradictions. Should we lambaste JFK for his failures that led to the deaths of two of his men and the loss of PT-109? Or should we lionize him for the stunning courage and leadership he showed afterwards? The answer, I think, is to recognize that all of us have made mistakes, sometimes grievous ones. It is the way we respond, the lessons we learn, the character we show as we acknowledge our failings, that define our characters.