Tuesday, August 3, 1943, 1943

The Charlotte News

Tuesday, August 3, 1943


Site Ed. Note: Still beset by our computer's stubborn refusal to give up the August files, we shall instead conclude the saga of PT-109, taking place in these hot August days of history out in Blackett Strait, between Arundel and Kolombangara islands in the Solomons, north of New Georgia, 8,600 miles from Boston, Massachusetts.

On August 4, 1943, with thirst and hunger setting in after three days since their last nourishment and no satiety available from Plum Pudding Island, the crew of the presumed lost motor torpedo boat decided to undertake another swim to a more densely forested island where it was believed they could have their fill of refreshing coconuts. The problem in the change was that the other island was larger and might provide haven for a Japanese patrol. Regardless, their stomachs made the decision and they swam the mile and a half, taking several hours because of the varying currents and eddies among the small islands, as well their malnourishment. The swim proceeded as the initial journey from the wreckage to Plum Pudding, with John Kennedy pulling the burned Pappy McMahon and the others rowing and swimming, clinging to the scrap of wood salvaged from the wreck.

Once on the new island, Olasana, the crew was too drained to do anything further that night to signal for help. It proved bitterly ironic for it was the first time since the ramming that PT-boats were patrolling the area around Ferguson Passage.

A coast watcher on Kolombangara, Reginald Evans, had spotted the drifting debris of PT-109 and radioed its position. He was instructed to destroy it before the Japanese could gain access, but was unable to get close enough.

On the morning of August 5, Kennedy and Barney Ross swam about three-quarters of a mile to Naru Island, the last island in the chain, providing an unobstructed view of Ferguson Passage. Again, the relocation was risky for its possibly providing a vantage point for the Japanese as well.

The two found on the deserted island a shelled wreck of a small Japanese vessel. Onboard the remains of the craft, they were able to requisition candy and immediately began to chow down on the minor miracle--lifesavers, as it were--saving enough for the crew. They also found a dugout canoe with fresh water onboard, hidden by the native scouts.

During the day, the two native scouts, Biuku and Eroni, passed by Naru after spending the night on Wana Wana, saw the wreck and saw Kennedy and Ross, thinking them Japanese. The two Americans also saw the two natives, but were too wary of them being Japanese informants to dare signal any friendly intention. The natives took what they could gather from the wreck and immediately paddled back out to sea, worried of trouble from the two men. They then paddled to Olasana, the location of the crew, to obtain fresh coconuts.

Leonard Thom, having been left in charge of the crew, saw the two paddle in to shore and waded toward them seeking to communicate, yelling that they were American. The two natives understood nothing Thom was saying and maintained their distance, still thinking the Americans to be Japanese. Finally Thom was able to say the magic words, “White star,” pointing to the sky. This remark hit home and Biuku and Eroni understood that these were Americans, represented by the insignia on the airplane wings.

The two were able to communicate to Thom that there were Japanese on Naru, that being based on their mistaken perception of Kennedy and Ross. The crew, taking the comment on face, thus believed that Kennedy and Ross might be in imminent danger.

An attempt by Thom, Ray Starkey, and Biuku to paddle the 38 miles to Rendova aboard the dugout failed aborning as heavy seas forced them back at Ferguson Passage.

About the time of their return in the afternoon, John Kennedy arrived back at Olasana by the dugout procured on Naru. He met with the two natives, not realizing he had seen them earlier in the day off Naru. The skipper provided the candy to the crew and then asked for a coconut. He proceeded to carve into its famous shell the words:

Nauro Isl.
Native Knows Posit
He Can Pilot
11 Alive Need
Small Boat

The determined skipper then paddled back to Naru to pick up Barney Ross. The two then paddled into the strait again to try to signal for help. The sea, however, proved too rough to accommodate, the canoe capsizing, hurling its occupants against the coral reefs.

Again, the fortuity proved counter to the generosity of a just fate as PT-boats patrolled the strait on the night of August 5-6.

On August 6, the message on the coconut, along with a handwritten version by Leonard Thom, were given Biuku and Eroni as they began the 38-mile course to Rendova. They first stopped at Wana Wana and informed Benjamin Kevu of the American survivors. In turn, Kevu sent a scout to Gomu to inform Evans, who had changed his position from Kolombangara the day before to obtain a better vantage point of activity in Blackett Strait.

Upon hearing the news, Evans, on the night of August 6, sent out a canoe to Olasana to inform the men that their location was known. The canoe, laden with rations and supplies, was to return with the skipper.

By the morning of August 7, Biuku and Eroni had reached the vicinity of Rendova but instead turned toward the Navy base at Roviana, near Munda, as it was considerably closer than Rendova.

Kennedy met with Evans on Gomu and was able to radio to the Navy the crew's exact position and that he would meet the PT-boats at Patparan, fire four shots as a signal, and lead them to the survivors on Olasana. At ten o’clock that night, the rendezvous took place and Kennedy climbed aboard PT-157, skippered by Al Liebenow, with Alvin Cluster, Edward Brantingham, Biuku, Eroni, and several American journalists onboard.

It took two more hours to reach the crew on Olasana, but shortly after midnight on August 8, the ten other survivors of PT-109 were hauled aboard PT-157 and all returned safely to Lumbari.

After time spent recuperating from the ordeal, John Kennedy, on September 1, was given command of another boat, PT-59. On the night of November 2, he skippered a daring rescue of some Marines trapped on Choiseul, landed there as a diversionary force to distract Japanese attention from a landing on Bougainville. The surviving Marines of a unit which had been cut to pieces by an outnumbering Japanese force were loaded onto Kennedy’s boat and taken to Vella Lavella.

At the end of 1943, John Kennedy was sent stateside for rest and recuperation from his back injury, attending sporadically the Submarine Chaser Training School in Miami. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in March, 1945 for physical disability from his back injury. For his actions in the Pacific, he received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, awarded in June, 1944.

Later, he became a Congressman, then Senator, then 35th President of the United States.

General MacArthur, who voiced some criticism of the PT-109 episode, that John Kennedy should have fired the boat's torpedoes and departed the area, was never elected to any position, but nevertheless died an old soldier, April 5, 1964.

A few days later, we visited Arlington National Cemetery for the first time.

In 2002, Robert Ballard, well-known explorer of the sea depths, discoverer of the wreckage field of the Titanic, took his undersea robotic gear and cameras to Blackett Strait, in search of PT-109. It is from his book, co-authored with Michael H. Morgan, published in 2002 by National Geographic, that we have abstracted most of the facts stated herein and yesterday.

Dr. Ballard and his crew--joined by Robert Kennedy's son, Max, and Dick Keresey, who skippered PT-105, a part of a different squadron from PT-109 but positioned only a few miles from its location at 2:00 a.m. on the night of August 2, 1943--found what indubitably was the wreckage of the vessel. To show for it, above the sandy bottom, however, were only a broken torpedo tube and a broken torpedo, albeit enough to identify the craft which left them as an Elco-built American PT-boat. Only one PT-boat was lost in the vicinity, PT-109, built by Elco.

PT-109 was the only PT-boat ever rammed during World War II, though others nearly suffered the same fate.

John F. Kennedy was only the fourth President of the United States assassinated, though others have nearly suffered the same fate, before and since.

His death, of course, came on a crisp autumn day under the bright sunshine on a crowded street in Texas, not in springtime, not in summer, not thousands of miles away from home on a pitch black night in Blackett Strait, rammed by a Japanese destroyer. But, nonetheless, at a disputed barricade of sorts.

On November 2, 1963, twenty years to the day after PT-59 rescued the Marines from Choiseul, Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of South Vietnam, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, chief political adviser to the President, were both assassinated in a military coup in Saigon, with the tacit imprimatur of the CIA, though without that of the President of the United States.

There were twelve crewmen and a skipper onboard PT-109 on August 2, 1943. Two died, Harold Marney and Andrew Kirksey. Eleven survived to tell the tale. Patrick Henry McMahon, whom Kennedy carried twice to safety, lived until February, 1990, passing away at age 84.

There were thirteen fateful days for the world in October, 1962, the 16th through the 28th. One man died, Major Rudolf Anderson, a U-2 reconnaissance pilot shot down over Cuba by a Russian surface-to-air missile. Millions survived to tell the tale, in the United States, in Cuba, in Berlin, in the Soviet Union, and at all points in between.

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