PACIFIC OCEAN – The night was darker than ink, the sea cascaded on the horizon like a black velvet blanket. An eerie calmness was in the dense tropical air of the Solomon Islands. The 1942 campaign on Solomon Islands was one of the most critical of World War II. It saw a massive joint effort from the Navy and Marine Corps to liberate the islands from the Japanese.
On Aug. 1, 1943, Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat 109 was one of 16 PT boats tasked with disrupting and turning back the “Tokyo Express,” the main supply route the Imperial Japanese Navy used to equip their forces while fighting the U.S. in the islands further south. The commanding officer of PT 109 Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy fought to be in that dark, hostile environment. A privileged upbringing provided many opportunities for Kennedy, one that may not have initially included the military. But the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything.
Due to a bad back, Kennedy knew it was doubtful the Navy—the service his older brother joined—would take him. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a U.S. ambassador and good friends with the Director of Naval Intelligence. This connection helped the junior Kennedy get his foot in the door and secure a commission into the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1941. Initially Kennedy found himself working in offices stateside, but he yearned to support the war effort more directly. His persistence and further training enabled him to be assigned to an operational command as a PT boat skipper in 1942. Kennedy felt right at home on the water, although the Navy vessel he commanded included torpedoes and heavy machine guns, unlike the boats he grew up with in Cape Cod.
In the dark night of Aug.1, 1943, Kennedy and his crew of 12 Sailors had yet to see any action. Suddenly, they were propelled into the middle of it. Three Japanese destroyers acting as troop transports, with a fourth acting as their escort, transited the Tokyo Express right into the paths of the PT boats. A naval skirmish broke out, with the U.S. vessels firing 30 torpedoes and the Japanese firing back. The bright orange from the gun tracks and muzzle flares was the only light. PT boats that had fired all their torpedoes were ordered to return to base while those with ordnance remaining stayed on station to combat counterattacks in the Blackett Strait to face the Japanese. PT 109 was one of the boats left behind, with Kennedy coordinating with PT 162 and PT 169 to form a “picket line” across the strait to prevent the Japanese vessels from passing.
Early in the morning of Aug. 2, a large shape steamed towards PT 109, emerging out of the night’s darkness. Kennedy attempted to maneuver the boat into firing position, but in a matter of moments, Japanese destroyer Amagiri collided with PT 109, ripping the ship in two. Two Sailors disappeared in the collision, likely killed on impact. Kennedy initially ordered all who remained on PT 109 to abandon ship due to leaking fuel. Later deemed safe, they later returned to the boat and began searching for their shipmates still in the water. PT 109 capsized and sank just a few hours later.
After discussing options, Kennedy and his remaining crew decided to swim for an islet three and a half miles away. Kennedy, a former member of the Harvard swim team, towed a Sailor who was too injured along by holding on to his life vest strap with his teeth.
Once arriving on the islet, Kennedy made sure his shipmates were secure before he again swam out to neighboring islets in search of rescue. He returned to sea in search of other PT boats. When unsuccessful, he led his crew to another island seeking food and fresh water. Not as fruitful as he hoped, Kennedy and his friend, a fellow junior officer, pursued another island, Naru, further away, requiring more open-water swimming. He encountered natives who shared a message from Kennedy inscribed on a coconut with instructions on where to find the crew. The message was received and six days after the sinking, an allied boat arrived to rescue the crew on Aug. 8.
For his courage and leadership, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, as well as the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during the sinking of PT 109. The injuries contributed to him needing a back brace later on in his life. The actions displayed by Kennedy epitomizes the Navy core values of honor, courage and commitment. Kennedy went on to become the 35th president of the United States in 1961, serving until his assassination on November 11, 1963 at the age of 46. Three months before his death, Kennedy addressed midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy and reflected upon his time in service.
“Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”