What Is the PT-109?

B. Turner

The patrol torpedo (PT) series of boats featured prominently in the United States (US) Navy during World War II. The most famous of all of these boats was PT-109. During the war, PT-109 was recognized for the heroic struggle its crew made to survive after being sunk by a Japanese destroyer. The ship's commanding officer, John F. Kennedy, later become president of the United States. This vessel was immortalized in a 1962 song by Jimmy Dean, as well as the 1963 film PT-109.

John F. Kennedy was the commanding officer of PT-109 during World War II.
John F. Kennedy was the commanding officer of PT-109 during World War II.

PT-109 was part of the PT103 series of ships manufactured by the Elco Corporation. At 80 feet (24 m) in length, these boats were among the largest vessels used by the US during World War II. They featured three large engines for speed, as well as a torpedo bay designed to sink enemy ships.

In the summer of 1943, PT-109 was sent to Rendora Harbor to perform patrols. On 2 August 1943, the ship's crew found itself in the path of the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. Amagiri sunk the PT-109 in the Blackett Strait, within the Soloman Islands. While two crew members died instantly, Kennedy and ten other men survived the attack. In hostile waters, with many of the nearby islands home to Japanese military bases, the crew was in a critical and desperate position.

Led by commanding officer Kennedy, the crew swam to a small unoccupied island known as Plum Pudding Island. During the 3.5 mile (5.6 km) swim, Kennedy dragged a badly injured crew member behind him on a wooden board. After the crew reached land, Kennedy swam further to find a source of food and water, then led his crew to a new location. For several days, they survived on water and coconuts.

Each night, Kennedy would swim out and use a flashlight in an attempt to signal passing ships for help. Eventually he met a pair of Soloman Island natives, who agreed to carry a message that Kennedy had written on a piece of coconut shell. The natives carried this message at great personal risk, and traveled a long distance through hostile Japanese territory. This message helped US allies find the crew and transport them to safety.

People in the US celebrated Kennedy and the PT-109 crew for their bravery and heroic survival. This reputation as a war hero helped John F. Kennedy as he launched a successful campaign for US President in 1960. In May 2002, the wreckage of PT-109 was finally discovered by an explorer named Robert Ballard.

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Discussion Comments


Anyone notice the name Robert Ballard in this article? For anyone who does not know who this man is he is the explorer that found the Titanic.

I find this to be quite amazing that he found the PT 109 even more so than the Titanic because the Titanic was a massive ship and the PT 109 was just a little torpedo boat. To find the PT 109 wreck is something that I find a little incredible considering that it had been lost for over sixty years and is a small boat that may never have been found.

Also, there were hundreds of boats like this that were sunk during the course of the war, so it would be very hard after sixty years, at least I would think, to distinguish this particular boat from others like it that may have been sunk during the war.


@Izzy78 - You may be right, but the popularity of stories depends on how people perceive them. Kennedy's story is unlike anyone else's and also occurred in the modern era of the Presidency. He compiled his war story during WWII and was actually stranded on a remote island, this is something that no other President can claim.

I think that the story itself is something that separates it from other war stories and allows him to stand out among some other Presidents who had more distinguished military careers.

Now as far as using this to his advantage in getting elected President, anyone running for President has to bring up their war record and stories like this, and it only works to his advantage that it was verified and not fabricated.

Now I do believe though he did not put a whole lot of emphasis on pushing his war hero status and focused more on politicking and getting his ideas accepted by the American people in order to be elected President.


@jcraig - It is a very incredible story, but I would not doubt that there were a lot of Presidents in the past that can provide similar war stories such as this.

Each and every Republican President after Lincoln through McKinley was a General in the Union Army in some capacity. There is also George Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison all had distinguished military careers that far exceeded Kennedy and I am sure they could provide some incredible stories, if one were to research their papers or diaries.

Not to take anything away from Kennedy, but his claim is small in comparison to some men that led the Armies and later became President of the United States. I think that his story is furthered because it occurred in the 20th century and these stories seem to not be as common as combat has evolved over time.


The most surprising thing about John F. Kennedy's claim to being a war hero is that it is actually a true story.

He was a captain on this small boat with a small crew, and all the things that he has said to have happened have been verified. It is incredible to think that he later became President of the United States and although he was well known for saving his crew, he was more well known as being a successful politician and diplomat and this is what fueled his Presidential campaign in 1960, not just claims he was making.

A story like this is incredible and I doubt many other President's have verified claims of being a war hero such as this.

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