- Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 July 2013 00:19
- Published on Wednesday, 31 July 2013 00:18
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Just after college I had a job at a Northern Virginia credit union and as a part of my job I picked up the loan applications that had come by teletype from our overseas offices. The man who watched all of the teletype machines and coordinated the various transactions was in his mid-to late 60s. This was a post retirement job, and his name was John McGuire. In the course of getting to know him I learned that just like my father he had been in the Navy, and just like my Dad he had served in the Pacific. He had been a PT-Boat sailor. His service was like a lot of young men who served in the war, save that his skipper was Lieutenant John Kennedy and Maguire was aboard the famous PT-109 the night it was sunk, 70 years ago, on Aug. 1, 1943.
The 109 was a Patrol Torpedo Boat. There were several configurations, but many, like John Kennedy’s boat, were about 80 feet long, made of wood, with a sleek racing boat design and powered by two 12 piston aircraft engines. These boats were meant to go fast. With two torpedo tubes, 50 caliber machine guns, and a 20 mm cannon, they also had hitting power. However, there was virtually no armor and on such a small craft there wasn’t much in the way of luxuries.
In the summer of 1943 the Navy was trying to prevent the resupply of Japanese strongholds in the Solomon Islands. The passage the Japanese took in their almost nightly efforts to reach their bases was called the “slot,” and the Japanese ships, usually a mix of warships and barges, were called the “Tokyo Express.” It was some of the most difficult combat the U.S. Navy faced during the war. At the time, the Navy was still short on ships, and the Patrol Torpedo boats offered a flexible offensive weapon. However, it wasn’t easy work. Losses were heavy. On the night of Aug. 1, 1943, the Navy got word that the Japanese had dispatched yet another force to resupply the Japanese on New Georgia Island. The PT-109 was ordered into Ferguson passage.
The engagement was a confused business and the attack didn’t go well. One of the casualties was the PT-109. Operating in darkness and without radar, she was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer. That’s where the real story begins. Two men were lost, but 11 men were alive. They were clinging to the wreckage of the 109 when Kennedy and his officers decided that their only option was to abandon the remains of the boat and head to a nearby island. This required a three mile swim, during which the future president towed an injured crewman the entire distance. They made it to shore, but after two days, failing to signal a friendly vessel, decided to make yet another long swim to another island. It was a harrowing experience.
I told Mr. Maguire that I had seen the movie, “PT-109,” that came out in 1963. He smiled, and said, “Oh that” and proceeded to tell me some of the details. “We weren’t nearly as pretty as those boys in the movie. We were dirty, thirsty and sunburned, and when you eat coconuts for a day or two you get the worst diarrhea.” I know, “too much information,” and he still wasn’t quite sure how they made it. One thing he said the Hollywood folks got right, however, was Kennedy’s tenacity.
“Mr. Kennedy just wasn’t going to quit. He was going to get us out of there.” Which, he did, because just as they seemed to be reaching the end of their rope Kennedy persuaded two natives to deliver a note, carved on a coconut, to an Australian coast watcher, with the cryptic message, “NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY”. The crew was rescued two days later. John Kennedy wasn’t a likely Naval Officer. He was sickly. He already had back problems and probably passed the Navy medical exam only with thanks to help from his influential father. But, in the Pacific, on one of the Navy’s smallest ships, 70 years ago this week, he proved just what he was made of.