Farthest Forward

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Ranking the virtue of being good company on the same level as those of skill and courage may have been peculiar to the PT service.

The biggest mistake, in that night of mistakes—worse than the recalling of all boats that had expended their torpedoes, which included all four boats with radar, so that the rest of us wandered around blind; worse than ordering radio silence (once firing started, anybody interested knew that a bunch of Japanese destroyers and American PT boats were having a go at each other in Blackett Strait); worse than tactical commands issuing forth from a dugout on the base fifty miles away—worst of all these was the decision not to send PTs back to search for survivors of PT-109.

An amphibious plane was sent up to Blackett Strait, but it never saw the bow of the 109 with its crew still clinging to it, hoping that we would come back for them. After some hours drifting there in daylight, concerned now that the only search party that would find them would belong to the enemy, Jack gave the order to swim the three long miles to little islets to the west. Seven days later they returned from the dead, having been rescued by natives sent seeking them by an Australian coastwatcher.

Why didn’t we boat captains volunteer to go back? For one thing, we all heard the flat statement at the debriefing by a boat captain not more than a hundred yards away that the boat had exploded when rammed by the enemy destroyer and there could not have been survivors. It made sense. It did not occur to us that the huge ball of flame that the two nearby boats saw barely touched a few of the crew before it was whisked away by the vacuum at the stern of the speeding destroyer. That was not a good excuse. Try this then: None of us were thinking straight. My case was no different from the others’.

I had been without sleep for twenty-four hours, and here is what would have appeared in my appointment book. At twelve noon the day of the Blackett Strait battle, twelve Japanese dive bombers caught twenty PTs moored in pods of two in Rendova Harbor and destroyed two moored so close to the 105 that sawdust sifted over us. Half an hour later the 105 got involved in a close-to-the-water duel between a Zero and a TBF, which our guy was losing. Seven hours later on the way to Blackett Strait, a bomb exploded in the exact center of our three-boat Vee formation, doing the usual trick of first lifting me on my toes and then pushing me into the deck. Three hours after that I made a fruitless torpedo attack, and several hours later I made another fruitless torpedo attack, all accompanied by shell and bomb bursts and stupid, useless, and frightening radio transmissions. All this adds up to a fatigue so severe that thought processes start shutting down. That morning I did not think about the consequence for me, for all boat captains, of failing to look for survivors of the 109. The gain in going back is in the message it sends. Even if you are seen to disappear in a ball of flame, your friends will come looking for you. We should have gone back.

I might have forgotten that fiasco in Blackett Strait but for the incredible coincidence that a future President was the victim. I think it needs retelling, not only because it misrepresents the effectiveness of PT boats but also because it has been used to demean Jack Kennedy, PT-boat captain, and this is wrong. John F. Kennedy, President, is a subject about which I have no worthwhile opinion. The President is a man I met only once, for ten minutes in the Oval Office, where we talked happily about the boats. But as a captain, Jack Kennedy was a man of courage, a good PT-boat man, and he was good company. Ranking the virtue of good company on a level with the other two may have been peculiar to those on PT boats. We were almost always in the front lines. We knew it was time to pack when the base got showers; when the movies showed up, we were long gone. So we were highly dependent on conversation to divert ourselves, and Kennedy was a good listener and an amusing talker. Our conversation was seldom deep and never about future plans, for this brought bad luck. Mostly it was rough banter about one another’s habits and humiliations—and, to us, was very entertaining. I do not think there has ever been a time in my life when I have laughed as much. Kennedy was one of a score of PT friends who made this possible. He was one of the “happy few,” a phrase from Shakespeare’s Henry V where the king speaks to his men before the Battle of Agincourt:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition: And gentlemen in England now abed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.