Lieutenant John F. Kennedy's encounter with a Japanese destroyer on the night of August 1, 1943, may be the most famous small-craft engagement in naval history, and it was an unmitigated disaster.
At a later date, when asked to explain how he had come to be a hero, Kennedy replied laconically, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."
An Ambush Goes Awry
In Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands, the starless, moonless night of August 1, 1943, was profoundly dark. Inky blackness like this could have a disorienting effect, even on experienced sailors.
PT-109 stood at her station, one of fifteen PT boats ("Patrol Torpedo" boats) that had set out to engage, damage, and maybe even turn back the well-known "Tokyo Express." U.S. forces gave that name to the Japanese navy's more or less regular supply convoy to soldiers fighting the advance of U.S. forces in the islands farther south.
When the patrol actually did come in contact with the Tokyo Express—three Japanese destroyers acting as transports with a fourth serving as escort—the encounter did not go well. Thirty torpedoes were fired without damaging the Japanese ships. No U.S. vessels suffered hits or casualties. Boats that had used up their complement of torpedoes were ordered home. The few that still had torpedoes remained in the strait for another try.
PT-109 was one of the boats left behind. Lieutenant Kennedy rendezvoused his boat with two others, PT-162 and PT-169. The three boats spread out to make a picket line across the strait. At about 2:30 in the morning, a shape loomed out of the darkness three hundred yards off PT-109's starboard bow. The young lieutenant and his crew first believed it to be another PT boat. When it became apparent that it was one of the Japanese destroyers, Kennedy attempted to turn to starboard to bring his torpedoes to bear. But there was not enough time.
The destroyer, later identified as the Amagiri, struck PT-109 just forward of the forward starboard torpedo tube, ripping away the starboard aft side of the boat. The impact tossed Kennedy around the cockpit. Most of the crew were knocked into the water. The one man below decks, engineer Patrick McMahon, miraculously escaped, although he was badly burned by exploding fuel.
Fear that PT-109 would go up in flames drove Kennedy to order the men who still remained on the wreck to abandon ship. But the destroyer's wake dispersed the burning fuel, and when the fire began to subside, Kennedy sent his men back to what was left of the boat. From the wreckage, Kennedy ordered the men with him, Edgar Mauer and John E. Maguire, to identify the locations of their crewmates still in the water. Leonard Thom, Gerard Zinser, George Ross, and Raymond Albert were able to swim back on their own.
Kennedy swam out to McMahon and Charles Harris. Kennedy towed the injured McMahon by a life-vest strap, and alternately cajoled and berated the exhausted Harris to get him through the difficult swim. Meanwhile, Thom pulled in William Johnston, who was debilitated by the gasoline he had accidentally swallowed and the heavy fumes that lay on the water. Finally Raymond Starkey swam in from where he had been flung by the shock. Floating on and around the hulk, the crew took stock.
Harold Marney and Andrew Jackson Kirksey had disappeared in the collision, very likely killed at impact. All the men were exhausted, and a few were hurt, and several had been sickened by the fuel fumes. There was no sign of other boats or ships in the area; the men were afraid to fire their flare gun for fear of attracting the attention of the Japanese who were on islands on all sides. Although the wreckage was still afloat, it was taking on water, and it capsized on the morning of August 2.
After a discussion of options, the men abandoned the remains of PT-109 and struck out for an islet three and a half miles away.