Monday, August 2, 1943, 1943

The Charlotte News

Monday, August 2, 1943


Site Ed. Note: Because of a computer glitch today, we are without the front page or editorial page and therefore will have to provide them another day.

Instead, we shall spend a little time on what turned out two decades later to have been the most famous incident of the day, which scarcely ever made a ripple at the time in the news, was never reported on the front page of The Charlotte News, that being the story of the PT-109. Time had briefly reported it after the fact in its August 30 issue, ironically under the caption "Losers", encapsulating the event and the eventual rescue of Skipper Kennedy and his crew. When informed of the adventure, former Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy was quoted as saying simply, "Phew."

The episode began on the evening of August 1 as PT-109 and three other PT-boats, led by PT-159, skippered by Lt. Henry Brantingham--a veteran of Philippines duty and one of those involved in helping to transport General MacArthur from Corregidor to Mindanao for air transport to Brisbane, Australia, in mid-March, 1942--ventured out on patrol looking for Japanese transport convoys.

Onboard Lt. j.g. John Kennedy's 109 boat were twelve men: Ensign Leonard Thom; lookout and machine gunner, Ensign Barney Ross, added to the crew at the last minute; machinist mate Gerard Zinser; gunner’s mate Charles Harris; radioman John Maguire; machinist mate William Johnston; ordnance tender Edgar Mauer; torpedo man Ray Starkey; Seaman First Class Raymond Albert; machinist mate Patrick "Pappy" McMahon; motor machinist mate Harold Marney; and Andrew Kirksey. Kirksey, of Macon, Georgia, had suffered a premonition in the days leading up to the mission, believing he was to die soon.

The purpose of the mission was to patrol Blackett Strait for Japanese sea traffic delivering supplies along the Tokyo Express to Kolombangara Island, north of New Georgia where the ground forces of General MacArthur were moving yard by yard closer to taking the Munda airstrip.

The Amagiri, translated "Divine Mist", and three other Japanese destroyers, had completed a run from Rabaul on New Britain to Vila airfield on Kolombangara and were headed back to Rabaul.

The night was pitch black and the crews of the four PT-boats could see nothing, not even the outline of a ship on the horizon. Looking south, however, toward the position of the PT-boats, the Japanese could spot them on the water.

The person assigned to the watch duty of 109 was newcomer to the crew Barney Ross. He had not informed the skipper that he was night blind.

At around 2:00 a.m., the silence of the night which had pervaded for a time, interspersed by gunfire in the distance which the crew of PT-109 took to be from Japanese shore batteries, was suddenly broken as the giant bow of a ship appeared, bearing down on PT-109 from out the blackness, reported coursing fast, at between 30 and 40 knots. With but forty seconds to react, the crew could do little to avoid the impending disaster.

Onboard Amagiri, Captain Yamashiro--who would later attend President Kennedy's inaugural--gave the order to ram the plywood boat, the Amagiri’s torpedo tubes being too close to fire and hit the small craft.

The ship rammed the boat just behind the pilot house on the starboard side, splitting it in half. Kennedy was thrown within feet of death by fire, slammed against the rear bulkhead of the wheelhouse, as the 100-octane fuel ignited on the surface of the water. The stern of the boat, carrying the three heavy Packard engines, immediately sunk, but the bow remained afloat. The broad wake of the destroyer carried away much of the burning fuel, fortuitously working to save the lives of most of the men of PT-109.

Two of the crew, however, were already dead, Andrew Kirksey having realized his premonition of death. He had been resting on the starboard side of the boat and received the full force of the destroyer’s ramming bow. Harold Marney, who had been taking his first turn manning the forward gun turret, likewise was hit by the ship without mercy and killed instantly.

“Pappy” McMahon was burned badly and could barely stay afloat amid the wreckage, thanks to his life jacket. Charles Harris had lost all feeling in one leg.

The other boats of the squadron had seen the brief fire on the water from the fuel of PT-109 but interpreted it from the distance to be only flickering flares, probably from the Japanese. They had seen many that night.

No one realized the peril which 109 had encountered. No search was undertaken therefore that night.

Initially, each of the surviving crew thought he might be the only one left alive as the first dark, chaotic moments after the collision rushed over them. Eventually, the ten men and Kennedy were assembled about the floating bow section to which they clung for survival for the next ten to eleven hours.

In the early afternoon of August 2, at around 1:00 o'clock, a decision was made by Kennedy that the nine able men would paddle and swim to the nearest island unlikely inhabited by Japanese, Kasolo or Plum Pudding Island, about three and a half miles distant, southeast of Gizo. Other, closer islands were either too small to hide them or were believed too likely inhabited by Japanese.

For the next four hours, they paddled and swam, with the Skipper holding "Pappy" McMahon against his back, his jacket strap clenched in Kennedy's teeth. The crew clung tenaciously to a board salvaged from the wreckage. By the time they reached land, Kennedy was completely spent, throwing up sea water and needing a hand from Pappy just to stand up.

Once all reached Plum Pudding, a decision next had to be made as to how to effect rescue. They had no food or fresh water among them, no medical supplies. Decisions had to be made quickly. Skipper Kennedy made that decision--though against strong objection by the others as being fraught with too much risk--to swim into the strait with a flotation belt, his pistol, and lantern, to try to spot and obtain the attention of a passing patrol plane or boat. He thus swam out among the reefs and passed into the strait of Ferguson Passage where he stayed all night, swimming, wading, walking yet another three to four miles. By dawn, he had seen nothing and was collapsing from exhaustion. He tried to reach the reef again but found the tides pushing him further out to sea. Eventually, nearly drowning, he was able to reach Leorava Island after swimming six to seven miles. There, the skipper passed out on the beach and slept for several hours.

His crew, on the morning of August 3, became worried when Kennedy did not return.

An air search for PT-109 had been initiated on the afternoon of August 2 and, while spotting the wrecked hull, there was no sign of the crew. It was believed that all aboard the boat had been lost.

As fate would have it, two teenage native scouts, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, were patrolling by dugout canoe and had spotted several hundred Japanese troops being offloaded at Gizo. As they returned to report their reconnaissance, they passed by some wreckage and gathered up a shaving kit and a letter from Raymond Albert, delivering it to another native scout who could read English.

On the late morning of August 3, after grabbing some sleep, Kennedy swam almost two miles back to Plum Pudding Island and rejoined his men. Too tired to move the rest of the day, Kennedy appointed Barney Ross to swim out into the strait on the late afternoon of August 3 to try to draw the attention of rescuers. Ross made the swim but likewise was able to attract no help during the night, slept on Leorava, and returned to Plum Pudding on the morning of August 4.

The two native scouts set out to return to their home base at Sepo Island, passing close to the position of Plum Pudding, spending the night at Wana Wana, but spotted no one despite having been advised to look for survivors of PT-109.

By August 4, the crew was becoming increasingly despondent and angry that they had not been rescued. Something had to be done before they starved.

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