October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
The simple flip of a coin between two young naval officers in Motor Torpedo boats in the South Pacific could have produced very different results for both. I won. Had I lost, I’m convinced neither of us would have survived the events that ensued, and American history would have been very different.
One of us—John F. Kennedy—proceeded to a near-fatal collision with a Japanese destroyer. He was an excellent swimmer (far better than I) and led all but two of his crew to eventual rescue. The story of the loss of his boat, PT-109, is well known; my boat, PT-IlO, was blown up later in New Guinea with a heavy loss of life. Having been in combat areas months longer than Kennedy, I had been posted stateside when my boat was lost. Kennedy would have been aboard.
In the spring of 1943 Comdr. A. R Calvert, head of PT operations in the Solomon Islands, was ordered to detach six boats and send them to New Guinea, some two thousand miles away. All six were set to depart when a Japanese bomber made a direct hit on one at a fueling dock. As luck would have it, both Kennedy’s boat and mine had just been repaired in dry dock and were available for that arduous journey.
I’m often asked what Kennedy was like in his mid-twenties. There was an unspoken snobbery among officers in the PT Navy. We divided ourselves informally into the Ivy League (grads of prestigious Eastern universities, like Harvard) and the “Weed League” (schools like my own—Georgia Tech). To me Kennedy was, on the surface, another Ivy Leaguer. But to them he was an “upstart Irishman.” His rejection by the Ivy Leaguers meant he had to find his friends elsewhere, and it seems to me that his ability to do so reflected itself in his political life and doubtless explained his broad appeal to the United States populace.
Calvert invited Kennedy and me into his tent to ask which of us wanted to go to New Guinea. We both had friends in the departing group, and there was supposed to be more action in New Guinea. When we both said we’d like to be chosen for the assignment, Calvert said we should step outside and flip a coin. I won the toss.
Our boats departed with the PT tender USS Niagara on May 22. On the morning of our second day at sea, a Mitsubishi 97 twin-engine bomber appeared overhead and dropped several bombs on the Niagara —not a direct hit, but the attack left the ship with her rudder jammed, steaming in a circle.
Less than an hour later, several Japanese bombers appeared overhead and dropped more bombs on the stricken vessel, which began to burn. The Niagara ’s modest antiaircraft gun was useless, and she was loaded with aviation gasoline; the skipper quickly gave the order to abandon ship. I well recall the Japanese pilots giving us a jubilant wave before they left. We had fired our small-arms ammunition into the air hopelessly out of range.
We sank our burning ship with torpedoes before running at rather high speed back to our base on the island of Tulagi, where we got a replacement for the Niagara . We finally arrived in New Guinea a week or two late and were still operating there when we heard that Kennedy and his crew had been lost. We held a memorial service.
Of course, we were mistaken. As it happened, the official Navy record on the loss of Kennedy’s 109 on August 1, 1943, was written by a young legal naval officer named Byron White, whom Kennedy later elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. White tells the story: “The Japanese destroyer Amigiri knifed out of the darkness at 40 knots. First believed to be another PT, the Amigiri ’s two raked stacks dispelled this notion. Kennedy turned starboard, preparatory to firing torpedoes. He had scarcely turned 30 degrees in the ten seconds when the destroyer rammed and split the boat apart.” Kennedy and the other officers swam to nearby islands and were eventually rescued when natives contacted their PT base.
I am often asked, “How did a fast PT like Kennedy’s manage to get overrun by a destroyer?” My answer: “You have to have been there to know.” In the first place, our boats in the tropics grew “beards"—a speed-killing green shag on rudder and bottom. Also, Kennedy’s boat had no operational radar, and the New Guinea nights were intensely black. Because the enemy had a trick of following the wake of a boat in the phosphorescent water, we often proceeded with only one of our three engines engaged—at idling speed of less than five knots.
A few weeks before the movie PT 109 was released, Kennedy invited several of us who had known him in World War II over to the White House to see it. One former crewman was Murray Preston, a local bank executive who had been a superb seaman: he was awarded the Medal of Honor as a PT skipper in the Philippines in 1944. As we strolled away from the White House, I asked Murray if, under the same circumstances as Kennedy, he would have lost his boat. Without hesitation he replied, “Damned right.” Enough said.