The Unknown History of PT 109
Copyright 2003 by Gene Kirkland
Chapter One: Background

Chapter Two: Off to War


Chapter Three: Combat

Chapter Four: Sunk at Sea

Chapter Five: Tulagi to the
                     
Russells and
                     
Back

Sources
Chapter One--Background
Because of their numerous and much publicized exploits during the Second World War, the United States Navy’s motor torpedo boats—the PT or “mosquito” boat—have long caught the imagination of thousands of Americans. A total of 808 boats were contracted for by the Navy during the war; 525 of these speedy little torpedo-carriers were actually built, including those Lend-Leased to the navies of Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Far too small and built in too many numbers to be awarded the dignity of names, two boats have still managed to become known to historians and the general public alike. PT 41 was a unit of the six-boat Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three based in the Philippines at the outbreak of war with Japan in December 1941. The squadron is best known to most Americans of the World War II period as the PT unit that spirited General Douglas MacArthur, his family, and his staff from the Philippine fortress of Corregidor in March 1942. A dedicated and pugnacious Navy lieutenant named John D. Bulkeley was in command of the squadron, and it was aboard his PT 41 the General and his family rode during the trip to the southern Philippines, where US Army Air Force bombers were waiting to carry them to Australia. The feat earned the scrappy Bulkeley the Medal of Honor; every other officer and man in the squadron who participated in the mission was awarded the Silver Star. Both the boat and the squadron (not to mention Lieutenant Bulkeley) were made famous by the publication in late 1942 of the book “They Were Expendable”, which detailed and romanticized MTB Squadron Three’s operations between December 1941 and the squadron’s destruction in April 1942. The best-selling book was later made into a film released in December 1945 starring Robert Montgomery (himself a former PT officer) and John Wayne. The movie has been a staple for late night television and classic movie cable channels for years, and has recently been made available on video and DVD.
Lt. Cmdr. John D. Bulkeley USN
(National Archives)
 
  
On the other hand, the PT 109 owes its fame to the man who would command her last—and who some seventeen years after the boat’s premature demise would be elected the thirty-fifth President of the United States—John F. Kennedy. Because of books, magazine articles, a film, and several documentaries, most adults are slightly familiar with the basic story of  PT 109’s end. Rammed by a Japanese destroyer, trapped behind enemy lines and all but given up for dead by their comrades, and ultimately their rescue by friendly Melanesians and an Australian coastwatcher. The discovery of the boat’s remains in May 2002 has focused even more attention onto what was admittedly a minor event in the course of the war. Due to Mr. Kennedy’s election as President in 1961 quite a bit has been written about the late president’s Navy service, either good, bad, or irrelevant, and leaving many to mistakenly conclude that JFK’s naval career and the boat’s service life began and ended together. But what most people are unaware of is that the 109 had a combat history long before John Kennedy was ever aware of the boat’s existence. Much has been written of this particular PT’s famous final skipper; but what was the 109’s story before the man from Massachusetts first trod upon her deck?
  
  
Delivered to the Navy  in July 1942, the PT 109 would see considerable action off the shores of a Pacific island whose name has become legendary in the pantheon of battles:  Guadalcanal. Before then-Lieutenant (junior grade) Kennedy took command of the 109 in April of 1943, the boat was just another of the many small fighting craft sent to the South Pacific to intercept and harass the ships of the Nihon Kaigun—the Imperial Japanese Navy—that operated an almost-nightly “delivery service” of food, men, and supplies to their Army garrisons occupying Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. On August 7, 1942 the United States
Lt. John F. Kennedy USNR
(JFK Library)
Marine Corps' First Division conducted landings on Guadalcanal and the nearby islands of Florida, Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, initiating the first offensive action by United States forces in the Pacific War. Altho- ugh stunned and surprised, the Japanese were determ- ined to drive the Americans out of their newly established toehold, and made those intentions painfully clear the night following the initial landings. During the Battle of Savo Island a Japanese cruiser force attacked a similar Allied unit guarding Marine transports anchored off the Guadalcanal beachhead. The Japanese sailors, well-trained in night battle, caught the Allied ships unprepared and were victorious in little over twenty minutes—leaving US cruisers Astoria, Quincy, Vincennes, and the Australian cruiser Canberra to permanently rest and rust at the floor of what would quickly become known as “Ironbottom Sound”. The Battle of Savo Island would set the tone for the fighting to come, both on land and at sea—a six-month siege that would see both sides sacrifice many men, planes, and ships for possession of this strategically-placed ninety-mile long island crowned with foul, stinking, disease-ridden and insect-infested jungle.
Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida islands

  
During August the Japanese would make many air attacks on Guadalcanal, and several times landed troop reinforcements in an attempt to push the dug-in Marines off the island. In September and October Emperor Hirohito’s sailors redoubled their efforts, using their cruisers and destroyers to make small nighttime landings. Because of both the tremendous losses at Pearl Harbor and the demands of fighting a two-ocean war, the US Navy suffered from a grevious lack of capital ships, and simply did not have the resources to counter all of the Imperial Navy’s nocturnal incursions. Even prior to December 1941 American shipyards were desperately going hammer-and-tongs around the clock turning out the warships and auxiliaries so desperately needed by the Navy, but it would be many months before new ships with trained crews would arrive in the combat zone. At Guadalcanal, as the battle on land progressed, the fighting at sea took on a peculiar pattern. Thanks to the presence of American aircraft based at Henderson Field on the island, control of the waters around the island underwent a regular “shift change” every twelve hours. “Day shift” belonged to the Americans. US warships and transports operated quite openly in the sea around Guadalcanal and Tulagi without fear of interference from Japanese surface ships, all the while keeping one wary eye skyward in case Japanese air elements elected to put in their almost-daily appearance. The Imperial Navy knew better than to run their warships in daylight around the islands while the Americans enjoyed local air superiority—it was rumored even the birds wore American air force insignia. The few times the Japanese sailors felt bold enough to attempt a daylight sortie, their ships became lunchmeat for the “Cactus Air Force” of Marine, Navy, and Army Air Force planes based at Henderson. But as the day faded and the dusk approached, all ships of the Stars and Stripes energetically hoisted anchor and hurried out of the area, to use the words of one eminent historian, “like frightened children running home from a graveyard.” The arrival of Japanese warships—the “Tokyo Express”—heralded the “night shift”. From bases at Rabaul in New Britain and Bougainville and Shortland in the northern Solomons, and flying their Rising Sun banner of Imperial Japan, the Express (so-called because their nocturnal deliveries were made with express-train regularity) sailed unchallenged into Ironbottom Sound like a seagoing Santa Claus loaded with presents. These ships of the Imperial Navy brought food for hungry Japanese bellies, men to increase the number of Japanese soldiery ashore, and weapons and ammunition with to diminish the number of their Marine enemies. The samurai seamen even had a present (an unwelcome one, from the Marine point of view) for the American defenders...as their warships withdrew from the landing areas and cruised past the Marine-occupied sector of the island, the Japanese pointed the muzzles of their heavy guns toward the American positions and treated the weary Leathernecks and their much-prized airfield to a sleep-destroying, plane-wrecking bombardment. But the sailors of the Rising Sun didn’t stay around too long to exult in their disruption of American shut-eye, or to greet their flag's heavenly namesake. First light usually found the Imperials steaming up the New Georgia Sound--nicknamed "The Slot"--as fast as their ships’ boilers would allow, well out of range from any prowling American aircraft from Henderson that survived the previous night’s shelling. Any attempt by either side to change this constant and wholly undesirable state of affairs usually resulted in a major naval confrontation, and the ensuing clash promised to be phenomenally violent. The end result of such an engagement for the Americans would be the pitifully few US warships nursing their wounds in rear area bases. For the Japanese—with more vessels readily at hand—it was back to business as usual resupplying their men ashore and making the Marines’ existence more miserable. The mission of the PT boats, conceived “in a mood of desperate optimism”, was to prevent both the reinforcement runs and the bombardments by the Tokyo Express when the US Navy’s big guns were unavailable. For four months—from October 14, 1942 to February 1, 1943, PT’s of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Two, Three, and Six sortied out into Ironbottom Sound night after night to intercept the Japanese. As flagship of MTB Squadron Two, the PT 109 participated in twenty-two patrols, coming in contact with the enemy six times between November 1942 and February 1943. These encounters consisted of torpedo attacks on enemy ships, strafing enemy shore positions, shootouts with cargo-carrying barges, dodging night-flying floatplanes that would bomb and strafe the PT boats as they attempted attacks on Japanese destroyers, and the destruction of supplies dropped off by the Express. In addition, other jobs the 109 performed were searching for downed pilots, pulling sister boats off of the treacherous, unmarked reefs that surrounded the islands, and picking up not only survivors of the intense PT-versus-destroyer duels of the campaign, but also those sailors of ships sunk during the mighty big-ship battles waged between Japanese and US task forces.
  The vessel destined to become the most famous PT boat of World War II (due to the subsequent employment of her last skipper) took shape in in the boatyards of the Elco Naval Division of the Electric Boat Company, located in Bayonne, New Jersey. The PT 109’s keel was laid down on March 4, 1942, and she was launched on June 20th. The Electric Boat Company was one of the three main builders of motor torpedo boats for the Navy, the other two being Higgins Industries of New Orleans and the Huckins Yacht Company of Jacksonville. The 109 was a unit of the PT 103-196 class, the contract of which was awarded to Elco by the Navy in December 1941. The PT 103 series were successors to Elco’s prewar 77-foot boats of the PT 20-68 class that first saw action at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, and were of an entirely new design built to capitalize on the strengths of the 77-foot model, while attempting to
PT 117, an Elco 80-footer (PT Boats, Inc.)
overcome some of its drawbacks. Eighty feet long, with a twenty foot beam and weighing in at 50 tons fully loaded, the new boats were a knot or two slower than their predecessors, and were slightly less manuverable than the earlier PT’s. But they were a more comfortable riding boat than the 77-footers, which had a tendency to pound heavily while underway at sea. The 80-footers’ slightly larger size and more robust construction also allowed the boat to carry more and more guns as the war progressed. Like the pre-war PT’s, the new series boats were constructed from many materials: the hull was initially constructed upside down with frames made from laminated spruce, white oak, and mahogany, the keel made from spruce and oak, and the whole assembly double planked with 1 inch thick, six inch wide mahogany boards. Between the two layers of planking was sandwiched aircraft canvas liberally soaked in marine glue, enabling the hull to maintain its strength and watertight integrity. After the hull was completed, it was turned over to begin assembly of the deck, which was double-planked in a similar manner as the hull. The cabins were fabricated using spruce frames covered with plywood sheets. Three Packard 4M-2500 engines were the boats' powerplants; initially rated
An Elco 77' PT boat at speed, circa 1941 (National Archives)
boats’ powerplants; initially rated for 1,200 horsepower, later variants were upgraded to 1,350 and 1500 horsepower as the boats’ warloads increased. Especially developed for PT use, these powerful and reliable engines consumed three thousand gallons of 100-octane aviation grade fuel, allowing the boat to plane across the water at a maximum speed of forty-two knots.  Mufflers attached to the exhaust ports at the stern enabled the boats to silently creep along at about ten knots. Armament included four .50 caliber Browning M-1 machine guns installed en echelon—one moun-ted forward and to starboard of the cockpit, the other aft and installed on the port side of the dayroom canopy. This layout gave the guns a better field of fire than the side-by-side arrangement of the unreliable hydraulic gun turrets mounted on some of the early Elco-77’s, and enabled both pairs of guns to be brought to bear on a target coming from broadside. A 20mm Oerlikon Mark IV automatic cannon was mounted on the stern for anti-aircraft defense, while four 21-inch Mark VIII destroyer torpedoes launched from Mark XVIII tubes utilizing a black powder charge completed the factory inst-alled armament fit. Unfortunately for the PT sailors, not until they were in the heat of combat would they realize that their primary weapon was quite literally an embarrassing dud. An obsolescent relic from the First World War, the Mark VIII was plagued by many vices, chief of which was its slow speed (27 knots), a small warhead containing about 300 pounds of TNT, a tend-ency to run wild especially when set for shallow depth, and a defective exploder that would detonate prematurely, if it bothered to explode at all. It was later estimated that sixty-three percent of the Mark VIII torpedoes in service had problems in either their depth-setting mechanisms or deficencies in the exploder. Another problem was the method of launching the weapon...in combat the powder charge occasionally misfired, causing the torpedo's fins to strike the deck of the PT as it left the tube, and making the weapon run erratically as it entered the water, missing the intended target. An even greater hazard was the "hot run"--the torpedo would remain in the tube with the torpedo motor running wildly and setting up a tremendous racket. In such a situation there were only a few hair-raising seconds for the torpedoman to shut the motor down before it disintegrated and exploded, sending shrapnel-like fragments of torpedo and tube flying all across the deck.
PT weaponry. (Upper left) Browning M2 twin .50 caliber machine guns. (Center) 20mm Oerlikon automatic cannon. (Right) Mark 6 300 poumd Type C depth charge. (Below) Mark 8 21-inch torpedo being loaded into its tube aboard PT 21. (PT Boats, Inc; Natonal Archives)
Torpedoes were also covered with a heavy coating of grease and oil prior to instal- lation in the tubes, in order to assure the weapon’s smooth ejection. But the powder charge occasionally had the disconcerting habit of igniting the oil as the torpedo left the tube, causing a brilliant red flash. This naturally rev-ealed the boat’s position to the enemy, enabling the target to maneuver out of the way of the PT’s torpedoes, while making the boat an excellent target for retaliatory gunfire. Maximum range of the Mark VIII was 10,000 yards, but this was excessive because the boats’ torpedo fire control apparatus was not accurate enough to permit such a long-range shot. In actual practice the PT’s usually crept to within 1000 to 100 yards of their intended victim with engines muffled before letting loose with a torpedo spread. In contrast, the Japanese Type 93 destroyer torpedo (the infamous “Long Lance”) was 24 inches in diameter, possessed a massive warhead in which was packed 1,080 pounds of high explosive, a top speed of 45 knots, and a range of up to 40,000 yards. Some time later two 300 pound Mark VI depth charges were added to the 80-Elcos for possible anti-submarine work, but since the Navy was unable to obtain satisfactory sound gear for motor torpedo boats, the best the PT’s could do with the depth charges would be to harass (if not destroy) enemy submarines. Depth charges later came to be used to destroy barges that were built too tough to be sunk by PT gunfire, or discouraging the pursuit of any Japanese destroyer that came too close to a fleeing PT. The depth charge’s three hundred pounds of TNT was just enough to break the back of any enemy destroyer if it went off at the right moment. The crew’s personal weapons (Colt .45 automatic pistols, Thompson .45 submachine guns, Springfield rifles, a riot gun, and the occasional hand grenade) and a 35 gallon non-refillable smoke generator on the stern rounded out the additional equipment. The crew complement normally numbered eleven officers and men: the boat captain, the executive officer, the radioman, a quartermaster, the gunner’s mate, the machinist’s mate, two firemen, a torpedoman, the ship’s cook, and a seaman.
  After  several days of exhaustive trial runs by Elco workers, the Navy unceremoniously took posession of PT 109 on July 10, 1942  The new PT was delivered to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and placed in service with Motor Torpedo Boat Squad- ron Five, commissioned on June 16 as the first squadron to be equipped with the new Elco eighty-footers. Ensign Jack J. Ke- mpner came aboard to take command of the new boat, with his initial crew made up temporarily of five men from one of the Navy Yard’s floating workshops, the YR 28. The sixth man reporting aboard that day, Seaman 1/c Adam S. Sennick, arrived with orders permanently attaching him to the 109. One other officer and eight more crewmen arrived for permanent duty on the 109 on July 18; Ensign Bryant L. Larson, Quartermaster’s Mate 2/c James G. Manning, Motor Machinist’s Mate 2/c Clayton A. Craig, Ship’s Cook 2/c Joseph J. Morrissey, Torpedoman’s Mate 2/c Jack Edgar,  Radioman’s Mate 3/c Edward R. Guenther, Fireman 2/c Lawrence R. Wallace,  Seaman 2/c James R.  Marney, and Fireman 3/c Joseph F. Hubler, Except for Seaman Marney and Machinist’s Mate Craig, both officers and the rest of the crew were Naval Reserve. Ensign Larson, who had been one
Edward R. Guenther, RM3/c USNR.
109's radioman, July 1942-January 1943.
(courtesy Ed Guenther)
Ens. Bryant L. Larson, USNR. PT 109's exec and skipper, July 1942- April 1943. (PT Boats, Inc.)
class behind  Kempner at the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Center at Melville, Rhode Island, was made the boat's executive officer. At this time, the commander of  Squadron Five was Lieutenant Commander Henry Farrow; like most PT squadron CO's at the time, he was a career Navy man. PT personnel were normally drawn from reservist volunteers, but in order to have a cadre of career Navy people in the program, a number of Regular Navy officers and men were simply assigned to the first squadrons. Farrow was a quiet, reserved officer; old-school Navy to the core, he apparently did not care much for his assignment to motor torpedo boats. It has been said that he rarely rode the boats (never even learned how to operate a PT), ran his squadron as if he were the captain of a battleship, with a certain detachment towards his junior officers, and was content to let his squadron executive officer handle the day-to-day running of the outfit. But the commander was competent in his profession, and schooled his young reserve officers in the ways of the Navy. Shakedown trials continued from the Navy Yard, Ensign Kempner and his new crew putting the boat through her paces by running cruises in Long Island Sound and participating in squadron formation exercises, while at the same time welding boat and crew into a cohesive unit. At the end of the day, the PT's returned to the Yard’s floating workshops, which served the boats as sort of a tender. Ocasionally, longer trips were made between the Navy Yard and the Training Center at Melville. All hands felt they had a good boat—but the “exec,” Mr. Larson, was of the opinion that the boat was not as fast as other PT’s in the same class. But the brand-new boat was well built, powerful, seaworthy, and maneuverable.
Return to Main Page                                                                                                                         Next
Hosting by WebRing.