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.
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.