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Explorer Finds Kennedy's WWII Boat
PT-109, Captained by a Young JFK, Located in Pacific

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July 11, 2002 -- U.S. Naval experts have confirmed that the wreckage found near the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific is that of PT-109, one of the most famous sunken ships of World War II. PT-109 was the Navy torpedo patrol boat captained by the dashing young John Kennedy, years before he became President Kennedy.

Two months ago, underwater explorer Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic 17 years ago, led a National Geographic expedition to the Solomon Islands to search for the ship. In a Radio Expeditions exclusive, NPR's Neal Conan was on location with Ballard when PT-109 was found.

Fifty-nine years ago, on a moonless August night, a squadron of American PT boats lay in wait for Japanese destroyers in the South Pacific. The enemy ships raced through passages in the Solomon Islands with supplies for their troops. Americans called it the Tokyo Express. In the waters around Blackett Strait, an obscure passage amidst a maze of islands and reefs, PT-109 was on patrol. At its helm was a young lieutenant, John F. Kennedy.

Around 2 a.m., according to Navy reports, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri was speeding through the area. It's unclear if the destroyer deliberately rammed PT-109. In the dark of the night, it may not have seen the small boat, which was less than 90 feet long.

PT-109 didn't see the Amagiri until it was too late. Official accounts say the destroyer was hidden by the black shadow of the island looming behind it. Most accounts agree that the crew of PT-109 had less than 15 seconds to react. In his own account, Kennedy recalled looking up and seeing the hull of the destroyer pass by, like a wall. And then as the ships collided, he was thrown and the PT boat was torn apart, and sank. Two crew members were killed, 11 survived.

Not much of the boat was left for Ballard to look for. It was small to begin with, and mostly made of wood. The collision broke the boat into pieces, and worms probably have since eaten away most of the mahogany and plywood. But in theory, its metal parts -- machine guns, torpedo tubes, engines parts -- would still be intact and show up on a sonar search.

Ballard's team focused on a sonar target sitting on the sandy ocean floor, a few miles from the island of Gizo. Remote-controlled submersibles revealed the target to be a torpedo launcher and torpedo sticking out of the side of huge underwater sand dune. The rest of the wreck may be hidden inside the dune. No other PT boats were downed anywhere in the vicinity, and after examining footage of the site, the crew was confident enough in its find to pass the information on to scholars at the Naval Historical Center for confirmation.

In the years since the collision, questions have been asked about Kennedy's conduct before the ramming: Why wasn't the PT crew more alert, why didn't they see the destroyer until the last minute? But there are no questions about what happened afterward. Kennedy rallied. He and his executive officer, Ensign Leonard Jay Thom, gathered the crew in the floating bow of the wreck.

Japanese troops were just a mile away on Kolombangara Island and could have seen the drifters come sun up. The crew decided to swim to an island three miles away. Kennedy took charge of the most seriously injured man, clenching the strap from Patrick Henry McMahon's life jacket between his teeth, and towing him as he swam to the island.

They came ashore at what was then known as Plum Pudding Island, though Kennedy called it "Bird Island." Later, it became Kennedy Island. It was barren, so after resting the crew members swam to another island with food. Eventually they made their way to an island inhabited by natives.

According to Naval archives, Kennedy cut a message on a coconut -- "11 alive native knows posit & reef Nauru Island Kennedy" -- and handed it to a native, shouting "Rendova, Rendova!," the name of a nearby island with a PT base. The message was received, and the crew was rescued a few days later. Kennedy was later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroics in the rescue of the crew of PT-109, as well as the Purple Heart for his injuries.

Prior to the incident, "JFK was a very junior, very green PT boat skipper who had never had a close encounter," says military historian Richard Frank. Before the collision, JFK's performance was about average, says Frank. The finest testimonial, he adds, was the way Kennedy's crew regarded him after the incident. "They revered him for his conduct -- and they were the judges who were best placed to assess what he was really like."

Other Resources

More on the expedition from National Geographic News

A history of JFK's naval service

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and Museum

Naval Historical Center PT-109 records

Lt. John F. Kennedy, USNR, standing aboard USS PT-109 in 1943.
Photo: Collections of the U.S. National Archives.

underwater image of a torpedo believed to be that of PT-109 An underwater image of a torpedo believed to be from PT-109. See a larger view.
Photo: © Odyssey Enterprises/Institute for Exploration

Kennedy Island The shipwrecked crew of PT-109 swam to this island, now called Kennedy Island.
Photo: Neal Conan, NPR News

The Search Area The search site in the Solomon Islands. See a detailed expedition map.
Graphic: Katherine Parker, NPR

Robert Ballard Underwater explorer Robert Ballard aboard Grayscout.
Photo: Neal Conan, NPR News

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