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John F. Kennedy and PT-109
By Richard Tregaskis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1962 Richard Tregaskis
All rights reserved.
A Lieutenant Joins the PTs
At 1:43 on the morning of Sunday, August 9, 1942, the cannonading began. Men of the First Marine Raider Battalion saw the flashes against the rainy night sky to the southwest. But they did not stir from their sleeping places, for it was a rule among the marines that anything moving at night would be shot at.
After two days of hard fighting, the Raiders had virtually secured the tiny island of Tulagi, across the bay from Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. Colonel Merritt A. "Red Mike" Edson's First Marine Raider Battalion had encountered suicidally determined resistance from the tough defending Japanese forces dug into the caves and ravines of jungly Tulagi. And through the night there had been occasional crackling outbursts of small-arms fire as marines fired at isolated enemy snipers, real or imagined. But for the most part, the island of Tulagi — once the seat of British colonial government in the Solomon Islands — had been quiet until the cannonading broke out.
The men looked up from the foxholes they had dug, or peered out the windows of the few remaining shacks which had not been smashed by the fighting. Tired eyes, gleaming white in faces begrimed by two days of sweating, fighting and suffering in the jungle, watched the greenish-white flashes. Ears keyed to the slightest of sounds listened to the steady brroom-brroom of the distant cannons.
As the Raiders listened and watched, they realized that a major sea battle was being waged somewhere between Tulagi and Guadalcanal. They sensed that their future was being settled among the green flashes and metallic thunderings of the naval guns. As the crashing of the guns increased in tempo, it also grew louder, and seemed to be moving toward Tulagi. Then, at about 2:30 A.M., the flickering lights began to fade in the sky, and the thunder of guns grew fainter. No one on Tulagi knew whether the lull in the heavy firing meant that the engagement was over or would renew itself with mounting fury a second later.
Not until years later, when the war was over, were the facts of this First Battle of Savo Island known. Japanese Admiral Mikawa, in his flagship Chokai, had led a marauding force of Japanese cruisers and destroyers into "The Slot" between Guadalcanal and Savo Island. Here he had pounced upon the unaware force of American cruisers and destroyers supposedly guarding the transport ships which had just landed the Marine forces invading the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo.
Mikawa's forces had quickly made expert torpedo and gunnery attacks, and left four Allied heavy cruisers burning — the United States ships Quincy, Astoria and Vincennes, and the pride of the Australian Pacific navy, the Canberra. During the night, all four were to sink, with a loss of more than 1,000 lives. The engagement was the first of the many violent sea battles to rage in the waters around the Solomon Islands.
Back in the United States very little information was reaching the public beyond the brief Navy communiqués reporting that marines had landed in the Solomon Islands at Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Gavutu. But at the very moment when the marines on Tulagi were wondering about the meaning of the naval action out there in the dark, a small group of men at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York was making its own contribution to eventual victory for America.
At the Navy yard, 10,000 miles away from the Solomons, it was 11:30 A.M., bright midday. And the crew of PT Boat 109 (PT meaning Patrol Torpedo) had just taken a hard-earned lunch break from their work of fitting out PT-109 at the Brooklyn yard. PT-109 was one of the latest models of a so-called "miracle weapon" — an 80-foot plywood-and-mahogany speedboat armed with torpedoes and machine guns. General Douglas MacArthur had said this weapon might have made a considerable difference in the defense of the Philippines if it had been available in much larger quantities. Now, four months after the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese war machine, mass production of the PT boats had just begun.
The 109 boat was the sixth of a new class of PTs designed to be mass-produced at the Elco Boat Works at Bayonne, New Jersey. As the crewmen of the 109 boat stopped for lunch, nine more boats in the same series were coming off the Elco production lines, and a hundred more would be built in the next year.
Like Kaiser's Liberty ships, which were built in large sections like automobile parts and assembled on a giant factory line, the Elco 80-footers came together in two major pieces, hull and deckhouse. After the decks were in, a giant hoist lifted the 30-ton hull and swung it into the water. From there it was guided to the giant, hangar-like fitting-out building where the hull would be made into a fighting boat with the addition of two dual .50-caliber gun mounts on the right forward and left rear sections of the deckhouse. Four torpedo tubes, two even with the bridge structure amidship, and two on the afterdeck, were also installed on the boat. Like fat steel crayons, these were oriented fore and aft, so that they were aimed generally in the same direction as the boat. When an attack was to be made, they would be trained out a few degrees. In this way the torpedoes, when fired, would clear the side of the boat. Then, once in the water, they would be trained by gyroscope mechanism so that their course would follow the direction the boat had been pursuing. Besides the .50-caliber dual mounts and the torpedo tubes, some of the boats were equipped with two depth-charge mountings on the bow.
With the mountings of the armor-plated deckhouse, the rakish windshield with its base of armor-plate, the guns, the four torpedo tubes, and the depth-charge cradles, the little plywood "destroyers" began to look more formidable.
In July of 1942, PT-109 was ready to leave the Elco Boat Works. At the Bayonne fitting-out basin, a crew went aboard the spic-and-span new motor torpedo boat and started the short trek down Newark Bay toward New York Harbor and Brooklyn.
At the Brooklyn Navy Yard the fitting out of the PT boat was completed and she was taken on a series of shake-down cruises. PT-109 had been routinely assigned to Ensign Bryant L. Larson as part of a squadron of six new boats under the command of Lieutenant Commander Clifton B. Maddox. The squadron was as yet unassigned but rumor had it that they would be sent to action in the South Pacific.
At this time the Navy skipper who was later to win fame for his command of PT-109 had not the slightest inkling that she would ever be his boat. A tall, slim, intense young man with gray eyes and a pug nose, he was attending the Naval Reserve Officers' Training School at Northwestern University, Chicago. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was one of tens of thousands of young American men wearing the single gold bar of ensign.
This young freckle-faced, mop-haired ensign differed from the average, however, in that he bore a famous name. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, a Boston multimillionaire, had until recently been American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, at that time considered America's top diplomatic post.
John Kennedy, the second oldest son of former Ambassador Kennedy, had succeeded in joining the naval service in October of 1941. He had tried unsuccessfully to volunteer for duty in the Army. But the Army had rejected him on account of a back injury incurred while he was playing junior varsity football at Harvard University. After his rejection by the Army, he had taken a course of corrective exercises and had at last managed to be accepted as an officer in the U. S. Navy.
His first assignments had been dull ones. The young officer had felt restive and frustrated (especially since his older brother Joe had gone to a fighting front in Europe). John had quickly volunteered his services for a more exciting and dangerous assignment, somewhat nearer the front. But the wheels of bureaucracy, even during wartime, turn very slowly, and weeks went by with no change of assignment.
Finally, at the same time the first communiqués of action in the Solomons were being released, new orders were put in the works for Ensign John F. Kennedy. He was being assigned to the PT training school at Melville, Rhode Island, the Little Annapolis of the torpedo boat squadrons. Some students already called it "Mudville," a newly constructed line of Quonset huts ranged along the shore of Narragansett Bay. But at the time it was the best and only school for officers and crewmen being trained to man the fleet of thunder boats which the United States Navy was to send out into the Solomons area to battle with Japanese destroyers and cruisers.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been in many ways well prepared through his twenty-five years of life for the job he was to undertake as a PT skipper and naval officer. Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917, he was the second son of a man who had proved to be a financial genius. Consequently young John grew up in wealthy surroundings, and for recreation he was used to sailing small boats at various yachting centers. He had also acquired a fine education at Harvard University and the London School of Economics. It was almost an automatic requirement for officership in the armed services that a young man must have at least two years of college training. And Navy Procurement always looked for yachting and motorboating experience in the men they sent to the PT school at Melville.
As John's father rose in wealth and position, the family grew rapidly. Besides John and his brother Joseph, Jr., who was two years older, there were seven other children. To keep up with the expanding family, the Kennedy household moved periodically to larger, more sumptuous quarters: to Naples Road in Brookline, then to Riverdale, New York. After Riverdale, the family moved to another, still more splendid house in another New York suburb, Bronxville. In the Bronxville estate the lawns were large enough for the children to play baseball and football.
In the pleasant environment of large family estates and good schools, John began to build a strong physique, which was to stand him in good stead during his naval service. At preparatory school he tried out for the squad in football and baseball, but his best sport was swimming. When he was thirteen, he could swim fifty yards in thirty seconds which was then, as now, good speed for a boy of that age.
During the summers, John (better known as Jack) had his fill of sailing, swimming and other water sports at the large family summer homes in Palm Beach, Florida, and Hyannis Port on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The children arranged games of tennis (on the family court), softball, and touch football, but racing sailboats seemed to be the predominant passion of the two oldest boys. At the age of twelve, Jack had his first sailboat, which he named Victura, proving that his sailing might have been good and competitive, but that his Latin was lacking something. His intention was to give the boat the Latin name for victory, Victoria, but — well, Latin was his worst subject. In general, in the tough preparatory schools of Canterbury and Choate, his grades were average, sometimes even less than that. At Choate, he graduated 64th in a class of 112.
In his college years, John began to come into his own. He played as a member of the freshman football team (incidentally injuring his back in the process), swam backstroke on the swimming squad; and not only graduated cum laude in history, government and economics, but wrote a thesis which won a rating of magna cum laude. With some changes and additions, it was published by Wilfred Funk, Inc., under the title Why England Slept. On the eve of America's entry into World War II, it became a best seller.
After his graduation in June of 1940, indecision temporarily plagued Jack Kennedy. At first, he planned to study at the Yale Law School. Then he went to California to study at the Business School in Stanford University for six months, and gave that up too. He next set out on a rambling trip through South America (at the same time the Nazis were successfully attacking and annexing the Balkans and then invading Russia).
By December 7, 1941, the date of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, both John and his older brother were in the armed services. Joseph, Jr., had managed to join the Navy as an officer, and was sent to Britain, where he became involved in a top-secret air operation for the Navy. Jack, after being turned down by the Army, took exercises to improve the muscular tone of his back, which had bothered him so persistently. After being admitted to the Navy and commissioned as an officer, he was sent to two dull office jobs: working on plans to defend defense factories in the event they should be subjected to aerial attack; and then, after that, editing a news digest for the Navy staff in Washington. He was next sent to the Naval Reserve Officers' Training School at Northwestern University, where he was still located in September when he finally received his orders to report to the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center in Rhode Island.CHAPTER 2
The PTs Have Arrived
Meanwhile, something very important to the naval career of John F. Kennedy, and to the future of the desperate battle then raging in the Solomons, had been happening in the Panama Canal Zone. Lieutenant Commander Alan R. Montgomery, one of the few naval officers with PT boat experience and training, had been authorized to form a new torpedo boat squadron. For boats and men he was to draw from the only available stock in the U. S. Navy — eleven old Elco 77-footers and 190 officers and men then assembled at Coco Solo in the Canal Zone.
The boats had been built by painstaking hand methods at the Elco plant during the previous year. They were roughly of the same vintage as the torpedo boats sent out to help General MacArthur in the defense of the Philippines during the early months of 1941. The six boats sent to the Philippines had been called Squadron Three. Under Lieutenant Commander John D. Bulkeley they had reportedly sunk two 5,000-ton Japanese ships — an armed transport and an aircraft tender — as well as several landing barges. They also had hit and damaged a Japanese cruiser, and disabled three enemy aircraft with deck guns. These brave actions had encouraged the American people to fight on in the hour of defeat.
But all of the boats of Squadron Three, and more than two-thirds of the officers and men, had been lost in the Philippine defeat. So the illustrious name of PT Squadron Three was bestowed on the new group of boats and men organized in the Canal Zone.
During the summer of 1942, the boats of Montgomery's 'Ron Three had been practicing, maneuvering, working out kinks and developing team play in the waters around the Canal Zone. Their tactical practice was based mainly on the experience of Commander Bulkeley's original Squadron Three in the Philippines. The combat reports had been sifted, noted, discussed and digested at Navy headquarters in Washington. The "Book" of school solutions issued to Commander Montgomery, and to the new PT school at Melville, was based on successful attacks made on Japanese transports and auxiliary vessels around Subic Bay.
Honored at being given the designation of a squadron which had acquitted itself so gloriously in the Philippines campaign, the men of 'Ron Three were eager for action on any front. However, they surmised they were most apt to be sent to the South Pacific.
Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations in Washington, had determined to send every available ounce of naval strength to the Solomon Islands battlefield. He wanted to bolster the position of the marines who had seized ground in the first American land offensive of World War II. In addition to sending all available warships to the Pacific, he ordered a step-up in PT boat construction and the organization of PT squadrons. From General MacArthur's experience in the Philippines, Admiral King had learned that PT boats could be valuable for naval operations, both offensive and defensive, in the area of an amphibious landing.
Toward the end of August, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery had his orders to move. He was not immediately told of his destination, for it was still a military secret. Specifically he knew only that the squadron was being sent into the South Pacific. But by now Montgomery had guessed that his squadron was probably going to be the first into action in the critical Solomons campaign.
Excerpted from John F. Kennedy and PT-109 by Richard Tregaskis. Copyright © 1962 Richard Tregaskis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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