John W. Flores is a writer in Albuquerque, N.M. Born in Dallas, he is a former reporter for the Dallas Morning News, has written three biographies and is a veteran search-and-rescue crewman of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The young, skinny Navy officer walked along the dock at a South Pacific base and met his new crewmen for the first time as they stood on the sun-drenched deck of a nondescript, navy green torpedo boat.
Some of the men on board were crusty old sailors and war veterans, others just young and cocky “swabbies” new to the U.S. Navy's war against the vaunted and feared Japanese Imperial Navy. Some of the guys aboard heard the scuttlebutt that this new captain of the 80-foot torpedo boat, Lt. John Kennedy, was the son of ultra-wealthy Joe Kennedy of Boston.
When Lt. Kennedy walked on deck, the men dropped their mops and paint brushes and saluted the new skipper, said Gerard Zinser in his last interview prior to his death a few years ago.
Zinser was the last survivor from the final 13-member crew of the boat, and he was a few years older than the rest. He was called “Pops” by the young bucks.
Zinser, 79 when I interviewed him for that story, published in the Boston Globe, was on board on Aug. 2, 1943. On that fateful, starless night, the PT 109 was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, which means heavenly mist in Japanese. Though it was a lot more like a storm from hell.
“I was a 'motormac.' That's what they called the guys who kept the engines going,” Zinser said. At 25, and already a first class petty officer, he was the 109's only career Navy man.
PT (Patrol Torpedo) 109 was an 80-foot boat with hulls constructed primarily of light plywood to facilitate speed and evasive maneuvers. Kennedy, whose nickname was “Shafty,” also was known as a scrounger — a man who could somehow get very unauthorized items and had the skills of a horse trader; he obtained an artillery piece (37 mm) to mount on the deck, forward of the bridge. This, the skipper felt, would give the boat an edge in close combat. It also was outfitted with torpedoes, and .50-caliber machine guns. Its three 12-cylinder Packard gasoline engines generated great speed, and it was highly maneuverable — capable of attacking enemy vessels and quickly retreating, dodging enemy fire.
The 109 was one of 15 PT boats sent out from the Navy base at Rendova Harbor in the South Pacific islands. Their mission that night was primarily to locate a fleet of enemy ships loaded with soldiers, expected to pass through the islands.
But the Amagiri found 109 quite by accident. The collision at 2:30 a.m. happened so suddenly that no one had a chance to fire a single shot, from either vessel.
According to an official Navy report: “Kennedy spotted the ship about 200 yards away and ordered the boat to starboard, preparing to launch torpedoes.
But the turn was too slow, and the destroyer rammed, neither slowing or firing her guns as she split the boat apart.”
The crew of the 109 were violently jerked into the water, and fire erupted from ruptured gasoline tanks at least 20 yards around the doomed boat, forcing the crew to swim outward in all directions. When the flames began to dissipate, Kennedy saw that the forward part of the boat was still floating. So he and five others crawled back on board.
Soon the men heard shouting from three sailors about 100 yards away, then two others, including Zinser.
Kennedy and the other men helped those in the water back to the crippled boat, but two sailors were killed in the collision.
“The skipper had injured his back severely in the collision,” Zinser said. “Though we didn't know what was happening to anyone at the time, or what condition we were in. The ship damned near cut him (Kennedy) in half, because it hit right behind where he was on watch at the captain's chair on the bridge.”
Hours later, about 2 p.m., Kennedy told the men they'd all have to try and make it to an island a few miles away. The forward portion of the boat began to punctuate Kennedy's words with an ominous finality. It was beginning to roll, and would soon be headed for the bottom. And where the men were located, near some floating wreckage items, they were also vulnerable to enemy aircraft sightings, Zinser said.
Kennedy determined that Pappy McMahon, older and severely burned, probably with dehydration problems, would have to be towed. Just about everyone else had their hands full just surviving, so Kennedy took McMahon and towed him along by the strap of his life preserver. Sometimes, when his arms got tired, Kennedy would place the strap between his teeth and tow Pappy that way.
“He had Mac's life jacket clenched in his teeth and it wore him out,” said Zinser. “He might rest a minute, but he kept going. Then Mac started moaning and saying: 'Skip, I'm all done. I can't make it. Leave me here.' And the skipper said one time, 'Whether you like it or not, you're coming, Pappy. Don't you know only the good die young?' ”
They collapsed when reaching the sandy shores of a small island that was thick with palm trees, but no fresh water. Kennedy knew they had to act fast in order to effect rescue as soon as possible. He was worried that some of the men would die soon if he didn't get in contact with the Navy PT base at Rendova, 40 miles away. So Kennedy rested up for several hours and then that first evening equipped himself with a battle lantern from the PT 109, placed a rope around his neck that was tied to a Colt .38-caliber revolver, put on a life jacket, and waded slowly back into the ocean waves in hopes of swimming far enough out into the wide passage between the main ship channel of Solomon Islands to signal a U.S. vessel — maybe even a passing PT boat sent to search for survivors of PT 109. But nothing would come.
What Kennedy couldn't have known was that his boat's wreckage and the fire was sighted by an allied coast watcher reported to the distant Rendova Navy Base with the final words: “No survivors.” The Navy later officially listed Kennedy and his crew as killed in action.
Meanwhile, strong currents pulled him away from the island and took him out toward the open sea. After a night floating in shifting ocean currents, he slowly swam back to their new home.
Zinser said Kennedy crawled back on shore and vomited for a few minutes from the ingestion of salt water and from fatigue and lack of water or food. He may have even contracted malaria at that time — a condition later diagnosed by a Navy doctor.
Zinser said: “We didn't eat anything, and the only time we'd get anything to drink was when it would rain and we'd try and catch a few drops on our tongue.”
Luck finally turned the 109 crew's way, when Kennedy and a fellow sailor were spotted by local native islanders as they scouted a nearby island for food, water and shelter. The two men found a large cache of Japanese crackers and candy and, nearby on the beach, a lean-to with a small canoe and barrel full of rainwater. The natives paddled quickly away. Things could have gone either way — the natives may have turned them in to the Japanese patrols in the area. Instead, the natives reported to an Australian coast watcher that they'd seen two stranded Americans.
On the night of Aug. 5, “Kennedy took the canoe into Ferguson Passage but found no PT boats,” according to an official report. Kennedy passed by the small island he had scouted and found Ensign Leonard Thom and the crew already there, trying to communicate with the natives.
Finally the natives agreed to help the Americans — despite considerable risk to themselves and their families. Thom wrote a message requesting rescue with pencil and paper, and Kennedy carved a message on a green coconut husk. The natives left with the messages, and the next day several more natives arrived by canoes with instructions from the coast watcher for the senior naval officer to go with them. The natives dropped off food and medical
supplies and a stove, then hid Kennedy under ferns in a large canoe and paddled him to the coast watcher.
The night of Aug. 6, Kennedy was taken to meet up with PT 157, commanded by Lt. W.F. Liebenow, and the natives guided his boat and another, PT 171, to the survivors. By morning the marooned sailors were all high and dry at the Rendova PT base.
Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal “for extremely heroic conduct. ... His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Two months after his near-death experience as captain of 109, Kennedy volunteered to stay in Rendova and fight in the Pacific theater of the war. He would take charge of PT-59, with all of his original crew who were able to serve.
Zinser said he was invited to many events by President Kennedy and his staff during his presidency, beginning with the inauguration — where a replica of PT 109 was made for the parade. All the crewmen who made it through that terrible week in the South Pacific were riding on the replica boat that frigid day in Washington, D.C.
These older Navy war veterans seemed to be young men again, shouting and jeering at one another just as they had years before, and they saluted the man who had kept them alive, through his sustained courage and coolness under the harshest and most hopeless of conditions.
As the replica of PT 109 passed Kennedy, the men acted as if they were at their battle stations, Zinser recalled, half-expecting that their once young and skinny skipper would halt the parade, and take command again. Zinser grinned at the thought.
He remembered JFK's incandescent smile, the proud crewmen and that frozen fragment of time when the new chief executive raised his hand to return their salutes.
“I never was much for crying, but I found myself wiping tears from my eyes all evening on Nov. 22, 1963,” Zinser said, looking up on his wall of a picture when JFK was president.
“He was very special to all of us. I felt that day, when he died, it felt like I'd lost the best friend of my life. ... That's what John Kennedy meant to me,” he said. “I think we all felt that way.”