What’s PT-109?

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The PT-109 was a famous boat in the US Navy during World War II, commanded by John F. Kennedy. It was sunk by a Japanese destroyer, but Kennedy and 10 others survived and swam to a nearby island. Kennedy’s leadership and bravery helped the crew survive and they were eventually rescued. The story of PT-109 helped Kennedy become President of the United States. The wreck of the boat was discovered in 2002.

The Patrol Torpedo (PT) series of boats figured prominently in the United States (US) Navy during World War II. The most famous of all these boats was the PT-109. During the war, PT-109 was recognized for the heroic struggle her crew waged to survive after being sunk by a Japanese destroyer. The ship’s commanding officer, John F. Kennedy, later became the 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 vessels manufactured by Elco Corporation. At 80 feet (24m) long, these boats were among the largest vessels used by the United States during World War II. They featured three large engines for speed, as well as a torpedo bay designed to sink enemy shipping.

In the summer of 1943, PT-109 was sent to Rendora Harbor to conduct patrols. On August 2, 1943, the ship’s crew found themselves in the path of the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. Amagiri sank PT-109 in Blackett Strait, 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 found themselves in a critical and desperate position.

Led by Commander 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 seriously injured crewman behind him onto a wooden plank. After the crew reached dry 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 swam out and used a flashlight in an attempt to signal for help to passing vessels. Eventually he met a Soloman Island native couple, 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 across the United States celebrated Kennedy and the crew of PT-109 for their bravery and heroic survival. This reputation as a war hero helped John F. Kennedy launch a successful campaign for President of the United States in 1960. In May 2002, the wreck of PT-109 was finally discovered by an explorer named Robert Ballard.

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