Another Myth About PT-109

Fact & Fiction

Edward J. Renehan, Jr. is the author of a number of books, most recently The Kennedys at War, 1937-1945, published by Doubleday. His home on the web is

In May of 2002, a group of National Geographic oceanographers led by Robert Ballard hit historical paydirt in the Solomon Islands. Exploring the Blackett Strait between the islands of Gizo and Kolombangara, Ballard and his colleagues found a Mark 18 torpedo tube, a Mark 8 torpedo, and PT-boat training gear (a cranking mechanism used to position a torpedo tube for firing). These items were lodged in sand 1,320 feet below the surface.

On July 10th, experts at the US Naval Historical Center concluded that Ballard’s discovery is probably the wreck of John Kennedy's PT-109.

Ballard believes that at least part of the PT-109 hull lies buried beneath the sand of the ocean floor and is connected to the torpedo tube. As Ballard points out, the torpedo gear he discovered is positioned as it would have been on an intact boat. When the search team tried to nudge the gear, it wouldn't budge, as though it were still attached to decking. Additionally, Ballard's sonar indicates something significant under the sand: a target some 7 meters (23 feet) wide, roughly the width of a PT boat. Nevertheless, as Ballard admits, the largely wooden hull has probably disintegrated or been eaten by woodborers. It is likely that only metal objects — such as engines, gas tanks, and torpedo tubes — remain intact.

Ballard says he promised the Kennedy family he would not raise artifacts from the boat."We consider the ship a grave. We have an understanding with the Kennedy family as well as others who lost loved ones--there were two people lost from the boat--that we will not disturb the site and we will not dig it up."

In fact, neither Ballard, the Kennedy family, nor the families of the two men who died have any say in the matter. As a US warship, PT-109 belongs to the US Navy, which has a policy of leaving wrecks undisturbed. Nevertheless--and for the record--the wreck-site identified by Ballard is not a grave. Here's why:

PT-109 was rammed and split in two by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri at about 2:30 am on the morning of August 2, 1943. Barney Ross, one of thirteen souls on the 109 at the time of the collision, remembered that the Amigiri" caught us on the starboard bow at about a 20 degree angle to the longitudinal center of the boat. So [the Amagiri] split the boat sort of longways--not across the boat. [It] hit the bow up there about five feet from my right, and it continued on back, completely obliterating the starboard turret where I believe a young fellow named Kirksey was on watch, about two feet from the skipper's right."

Seamen Andrew Kirksey and Harold Marney died almost immediately--either at the moment of impact or in the gasoline-fire that followed soon thereafter.

Eleven survivors--several of them banged up and burned quite badly--climbed aboard the only part of the boat still afloat after the collision. This was the fragmented lengthwise section embracing the bow. Here they remained for several hours, moving with the current.

"As dawn came up," remembered Ross,"we found ... the boat under water all the way up to the bow. There was about 15 feet of the boat, which was 80 feet long, sticking out of the water at a 45 degree angle, right side up. So we were hanging on to the boat, in the middle or toward the Gizo side of Blackett Strait."

The PT took on additional water as the morning progressed, slowly starting to settle and turning her keel up so that it became hard for the crew to hold on. It seemed just a matter of time before she turned turtle for good. She was also showing alarming signs of drifting towards Japanese-controlled Gizo, where Kennedy and his men would almost certainly be taken prisoner. It was at this point that Kennedy decided to evacuate his men and make a swim for a small island barely visible in the distance, about four miles away.

By the time the crew of the 109 abandoned what was left of their vessel, the hulk had floated about five miles to the south of the spot where Kirksey and Marney died. When the hulk finally sank, it did so nowhere near the dead men's bodies.

Ballard spent several days searching the immediate area of the collision in hopes of finding the half of 109 that sank at that location. He eventually gave up on this, however, in favor of seeking the section of the boat upon which Kennedy and the other survivors gathered on that terrible night 59 years ago.

Had Ballard found the hardware that lingers somewhere beneath the site of the actual accident, he would also have identified a legitimate war grave. What he discovered instead--though fascinating--is by no means a tomb.

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More Comments:

Mike Silvert - 3/10/2004

I find the comments of the author indicative of someone not well versed on the facts or history.

Destroyers, "Greyhounds of the Sea", may not have been as manouverable as a PT, but they, and the Japanese Fubuki class with their 38 knot speed, were fast. Indeed, Japanese destroyers could outrun the American Mark VIII (27 knot) torpedo, making attacks on them difficult to say the least. PT tactics were to be steathly and catch their targets by surprise. A PT racing around at high speed gave away its position to both its target and the Japanese floatplanes that were ever present at night.

The author is mistaken that Kennedy was decorated for loosing his command. The Navy and Marine Corps medal is not awarded for heroism in combat action, but for heroism in rescuing and saving lives in a combat zone. The medal ranks higher than the Bronze Star and Kennedy's rescue of three men in the water after the collision and organizing the rescue after his command had not organized a search for survivors is completely in line with the requirements of the citation. Kennedy was not a war hero for loosing his boat, but for saving the lives of his crew while behind enemy lines when his command had given them all up for dead.

I suggest the following books for more information about that night's overall events and a much clearer picture of the circumstances that lead to the collision. "PT 105" by Dick Keresy, "Hunters in the Shallows" and the Navy history of PT's, "At Close Quarters".

Robert Green - 11/16/2003

PT 109s crew must have been asleep

FisherKingKQJ - 8/28/2003

How did a destroyer get in so close to a PT? Four mile swim must've included a makeshift flutterboard or two, surely. Split sort of down the middle end to end sounds like a tactical chase. The destroyer didn't stick around to finish them off. IMO, some sort of freak accident must've happened: a low cloud, an onboard fire or an inaccurate radio report etc.

Graeme Marney - 8/26/2003

As a cousin of Harold Marney who lost his life on PT109 I find your incredulity as to JFK's heroism rather incredible. Heroism in war is not something reserved for acts in the heat of battle. If Nick Mallory had read any of the information about Kennedy's undeniable acts of heroism courage and dedication to the well being of his crew following the destruction of his boat I would hazard to say he might well reconsider his commentary. John F. Kennedy was most certainly a hero by any measure in connection with this incident.

nick mallory - 10/10/2002

This has always intrigued me. How JFK became a war hero for being rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. How does a fast patrol craft get rammed by a slower and much less manouvrable destroyer? Someone was asleep at the wheel here. You sink the destroyer, you're a hero, you get rammed by it - this is a world war 2 Chappaquiddik i think. JFK has been given an easy ride by history on this one.

Brad - 7/24/2002

Any chance they can find Ted Kennedy's car next?