JFK and PT-109 – How Historical Perspective Can Shift

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”

The issue of Military History Quarterly containing a fascinating piece about PT-109

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,”

JFK hand-picked Cliff Robertson to place him in the movie version of 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”

the only  Hollywood movie about a president to come out during his term of office. Chris Matthews’ insightful new biography: “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero”

A terrific read, and many new insights are offered in Chris Matthews’ new book.

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.

 

41 thoughts on “JFK and PT-109 – How Historical Perspective Can Shift

  1. Well said. Every hero has committed frauds, every institution has acted in a fashion contrary to its stated mission. Historical figures become symbols, and have meaning only as it is assigned to them by historians, cinematographers, and the press, and that meaning endures only until skilled revisionists assault it. The truth is too manifold for any mind to comprehend. I think I need a nap…

    • Mike,

      Your observation about historical figures becoming symbols is extremely accurate and tremendously important. My blog entry on the film, “Young Mr. Lincoln” tries to make that point. Read it and tell me what you think-your opinion is highly valued!

  2. Sometimes its sad that someone’s name is bashed after his or her deaths.WhAT happened up to the moment of the sinking is up to each person on what they believe took place.The fact remains that JFK saved the remaining crewmen from harm.

    • Bob,

      Thank you for your comment and for reading the blog. There are 2 key points which I think you may have missed.

      First, the criticism of JFK’s actions before the sinking war NOT nearly brought up to “bash his name after his death.” The questions were raised immediately after the sinking of the boat, including the formal Navy investigation. The quotes in the blog were from other Navy PT boat captains speaking from professional experience, having served in the same capacity as JFK.

      Second, I do not for one moment dismissed the heroic nature of JFK’s courageous leadership after the sinking. I mention this more than once in the blog, and there is no one-even JFK’s most severe critics, who question it.

      The account of the harrowing days after the sinking of the PT 109 that best and most accurately captures JFK’s heroics can be found in the Chris Matthews book: ” Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”

      As a historian, I believe in neither indiscriminate bashing of people’s reputations, nor do I believe in unquestioning hero worship. Some of the people I most admire-Edward R Murrow, Abraham Lincoln, and Ernie Pyle were decidedly flawed, yet absolutely worthy of our respect.

    • Bob,

      Thank you for reading my blog!I appreciate your comment – but I disagree with two of your statements.

      First, I am certainly not bashing JFK’s name. The critique of his handling of PT 109 began 70 years ago and continued while he was alive.

      Second, as a historian, I don’t think historical events should be judged by “what we believe took place.” There is a historical record, eyewitnesses, protocols for handling PT boats and so on. From there, reasonable people may reach differing conclusions, but they must be based on the evidence.

      You will note that I dod NOT conclude JFK was negligent, just tried to point out the facts. I completely agree – and made this point in my post – that he was absolutely heroic in his leadership AFTER the sinking.

  3. I hate to be picky, but 70 years ago today the Marines were at sea and had not even landed on Guadalcanal. The sinking of PT 109 occurred 69 years ago in 1943. As to JFK’s pre-sinking leadership, it may be safe to say that it was lacking and cost the lives of 2 of his crew; however, I think you give him a pass on that for his later actions in saving the rest of the crew. It’s covered in the Bible under “he who is without sin.”

    • Nat –

      THANK YOU so much for catching my error! I corrected it at once. It is not being picky to expect a historian to get the date right!

      You are gracious in your forgiving attitude toward an officer whose actions needlessly cost the lives of two men. However, I agree that one must look at life in context, a position I take in the blog. In fact, that is the basis of my conclusion.

  4. As someone who has served overseas in WW 2,
    I can testify that when required to take action on the spur of the moment,the “wrong” decision can be made. You can actually cry afterwards (which I did), but nothing can be done to change what happened.

    • Mr. Winick,

      I have 4 points I’d like to make in response:

      (1) Thank you for your service!
      (2) THANK YOU for your service!
      (3) THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE!
      (4) The knock on JFK was not just his decision making the night the PT-109 was hit. Reread the comments of his peers and you will see that he had already had a checkered reputation as an officer. At some point I will post about his service after the surviving PT-109 crew was rescued. It is a little known and fascinating story! I think JFK grew from the experience and certainly became more focused!

  5. The criticism of JFK by Navy men immediately after PT 109 was rammed and sunk, and ever since, has to taken in several different contexts.

    Any – repeat, any – loss of a naval vessel, even in combat with the enemy, is always blamed on the captain. Naval tradition holds the captain responsible for that loss with an almost automatic assumption that the loss could have been prevented, so the criticism of JFK for the 109’s loss was to be expected.

    Warfield had a negative reputation among PT men as a distant, harsh commander who refused to ride any of the PTs in combat, preferring to try to direct their operations over the radio from a rear area, and Gibson’s criticism, as well as many other’s at the time and since, is typical “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”

    While its true the 109’s combat record under JFK wasn’t particularly distinguished, this is also true of many other PTs and skippers.

    JFK was considered a good boat handler, being graded as “superior in ship-handling” at the PT school in Melville, Rhode Island, and held back as an instructor because of this.

    The Amagiri could have run down any of the 15 PT boats out on patrol that night, particularly the other two boats in JFK’s section, PT 162 and PT 169. It just happened to have been the 109.

    The rest is hstory.

    • Drew,

      I completely agree that historical criticism needs to be put into context. However, what you call “Monday morning quarterbacking” could also simply be referred to as military procedure investigating the reckless loss of life and the vessel under the command of the captain who, as you point out, did not have a “particularly distinguished” combat record.

      To suggest that the PT 109 was sunk merely as an act of fate, diminishes the role of the captain and crew in the protection of their boat.

      While JFK did excel in boat handling in noncombat situations in Rhode Island, it is neither unfair nor unjust to scrutinize his actions with the PT 109. What I think we would all agree on is that his actions after his boat was lost and his crew members killed, is that he acted with tremendous courage, intelligence, and leadership in the days that followed.

      Barry

  6. Pingback: Which Presidents Have Killed A Man? | Speaking For A Change

  7. Armchair historians can debate this issue for the rest of time. Unless you have been out on the ocean at night, far from city lights and navigation beacons, you really can’t make a fair judgement about what might have been. In the late 80’s I was the officer of the deck on a surfaced submarine approximately 30 miles off the coast of GA. On radar, we had a clear radar contact about 4 miles away- a transiting aircraft carrier. The sky was clear, the weather calm. I knew where to look, I knew what I was looking for. I had a very good set of binoculars and I was on a stable platform 20′ above sea level. I had two lookouts, also with binoculars in the bridge with me. With all of that, and no chance that someone was going to shoot at me, I and my lookouts had a great deal of difficulty.
    That JKF or his crew did see a bow aspect ship closing on them under combat conditions does not surprise me in the least.

    • Hi,

      THANK YOU for your service! It is not just “armchair historians” who have raised legitimate and important questions about the loss of PT-109. Many professional military historians and, indeed, the Navy itself, have raised the questions as well.

  8. Kennedy was told not to run on one engine to save fuel while on patrol. He ignored the order and when the Japanese hove into sight, with one engine shut down , kennedys response was too late , without both engines on line , they were a sitting duck. Mac Arthur hearing of this said he should have been court martialed. A pt boat was large and heavy and with a full crew , fuel, guns and supply’s, needed both engines to perform correctly.

    • Jimmy,

      Your comment proves my point; there are many different ways to assess Kennedy’s command on the night in question.

      Thanks for reading my blog and for your contribution.

      Barry

    • My father that was in the South Pacific, right in that area when this happened told me that what Kennedy did was shut both his engines so they could hear better what was happening. It had nothing to do with saving fuel. He said those PT Boats has 6v electrical systems, and after the engines got hot, that were a bugger to start.

      He said pretty much everyone down around there know what Kennedy did.

      I think I even have him on recording talking about it, but maybe not. He never was much for talking about his war time.

      • Hi,

        First, I want to thank your dad for his service. My father was similar. He did not often talk about his service, but when he did, I listened.

        It’s a really interesting perspective!We may never know what really happened, so I always love it when I learn a new way of looking at the events.

        Thanks!

        Barry

        Barry

  9. I realize this post is 4 years old but I have just come across it and would like to add in one fact. The commander of the Amagiri, Kohei Hanami, sent a letter to JFK in September 1952 in which he takes the blame for the sinking of PT 109 as he had seen the boat moving to attack and ordered the crew to ram PT 109.
    Letter can be found here:
    http://amview.japan.usembassy.gov/en/hanami-to-jfk/

  10. When I first heard that story as a little grade school kid I immediately thought how could a smaller much nimbler boat get run down like that. Everyone must have been asleep.

  11. Loved the article. You are correct that no one is questioning JFK’s heroics after the 109 sank but I think it is fair to ask how did this incident occur in the first place? His own brother called this into question and a fair question indeed. America loves their war heroes and by saving his crew JFK my also have saved himself.

  12. Jimmy Mcgee back from last year is wrong about the 109, it had 3 Packard engines not 2. All the WW II PT’s had 3 engines, elcos or Higgens.

  13. I think the more proper criticism of Kennedy and the PT 109 is the way he handled his crew. All the reports from people who knew Kennedy and the crew have said how Kennedy was very lax with his crew. Basically, he wanted to be their friend, and was not a tough commander. That could very well lead to what happened that night. Kennedy and his lax command style was perhaps not very concerned with his crew members keeping a sharp lookout. A sharp crew well trained should have been able to spot the Destroyer and the PT boat should have been able to avoid it. Remember, the Japanese Destroyers could not muffle their engines so even if you could not see the Destroyer, you certainly should have been able to hear it.

  14. Hi, I was told that 109 only had one engine running because when three were fired up, the vibration was so bad it would hurt JFK’s back. JFK medical problems should have kept him out of military service.

  15. In times of war msitakes are made. In this case 2 servicemen dies because of it. We have all made mistakes. Some that are even deadly. And can be excused “perhaps” in war. But I own up to my mistakes. This is the character flaw that can never be corrected.

  16. Does anyone who’s not a Kennedy avoid being court martialed if they lost a PT boat to a ramming by destroyer ?????????

    • Jeffrey,

      Certainly the Kennedy name was a factor in the resolution of the matter, but definitely not the only factor. JFK’s heroism after losing his boat was certainly an important consideration.

      Thank you for reading my blog,

      Barry

  17. Amazing that everyone blames JFK and not the commander’s tactical negligence enter Thomas Warfield who by all accounts got along with no one who refused to experience the fighting from anywhere but safety. He also ordered 1 engine to save fuel which led to drifting in the sfrong currents for silence. This led JFK to come under attack from a Jap controlled island as he drifted to close this is probably key as to why he was rammed because as he maneuvered away from that island with all 3 engines running he became even more seperated from the already strung out patrol. Another left out piece of important information is the outrageous fact that only 4 of the 15 PT boats had radar and they were under strict radio silence orders so you have 15 boats in the pitch dark with radio silence trying to coordinante an attack all strung out over a large distance in the pitch of darkness? This should fall under Warfields failure as a commander. It’s no secret that nobody liked him and that JFK didn’t get along with him either. After the ramming the explosion was reported and Thomas Warfield didn’t send out a rescue boat determining they were all dead that’s outrageous. This whole operation was a snafu from the start and that was Warfieds failure.Some of the comments i have read are incredible he had 1 engine running because having them all running hurt his back? It didn’t stop JFK from cutting a wounded man’s life vest putting the strap in his mouth and swimming FIVE miles in strong currents with a man on his back to the island. My grandfather always said it’s easy for people to second guess now when you were not there at the time. JFK was in command of one boat Warfield was responsible for the operational planning and all involved that is key and should have been investigated. Let’s not forget wooden boats armed with WW-1 next to useless torpedoes. JFK’s PT-109 used Elco design while others were Higgins powered by 3 4M-2500 Packards and later the newer 5M-2500 Supercharged version. PT-109 stayed afloat for 12 hours after being cut in half by the Jap destroyer Amgiri.

  18. There are a host of obvious readiness errors aboard the PT 109 prior to being sunk. The crew was unarmed, no watch, no life jackets, so on and so on. My theory is JFK accrued downtime for he and his crew based on active patrol time. They just pulled up where they thought they would be safe and went to sleep instead of returning to base. I could find no record of an official US Navy board of inquiry regarding the loss of this ship.

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