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John F. Kennedy and PT Boat 59

Today’s post is written by archivist Dr. Greg Bradsher.

When one thinks about President Kennedy’s naval career in World War II, what most often comes to mind is his command of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109.

Thanks to the 1963 movie PT 109, adapted from the 1961 book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II by Robert J. Donovan, Kennedy’s wartime exploits with PT-109 were well-publicized and became part of the Kennedy legend (see Stephen Plotkins’s “Sixty Years Later, the Story of PT-109 Still Captivates” in the summer 2003 issue of Prologue.)

What few people realize is that after the loss of PT-109, Kennedy was given command of another boat: PT-59. Actually, the last scene in the movie PT 109 shows Kennedy and this boat sailing off into the sunset to begin new adventures on his path to the White House.

Lt. John F. Kennedy's PT-59, photographed in an unspecified location near Vella Lavella and Choiseul, played a key role in the diversionary mission at Choiseul Island in early November 1943. (John F. Kennedy Library)

The story of Kennedy and PT-59 begins on the morning of August 2, 1943, in the Solomon Islands, when PT-109. Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, USNR, was in command when PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and sunk. Kennedy and the surviving crew members were rescued on August 8, and Kennedy was then sent to Tulagi Island to recover.

But Kennedy was eager to get back into the fight, and he was soon was assigned to command PT-59. He reported to the new boat (technically the PTGB-1, Gunboat No. 1) on September 1.

During the next five weeks, PT-59 was converted into a gunboat for use against Japanese barges in the northern Solomon Islands. The four torpedo tubes were removed and replaced with additional .50- and .30-caliber machine guns behind armor shields. The 20-millimeter anti-aircraft gun on the stern was replaced by 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns fore and aft that could be lowered to fire on ground targets. With the refitting completed, Kennedy took his boat to the base at Lambu Lambu Cove on Vella Lavella Island.

When PT-59 arrived on October 18, it was sent out on patrol with two other PT boats across the New Georgia Sound to the northwestern tip of Choiseul Bay on Choiseul Island, an important Japanese barge base.

The PT boats were ordered to block the western and southern approaches to Choiseul Bay and intercept barges. At this point the Japanese were frantically moving troops by barge in anticipation of American landings in the northern Solomons. Kennedy, now promoted to full lieutenant, took PT-59 on eight similar patrols during the next ten nights.

On November 1, Kennedy participated in a rescue mission to Choiseul Island where Marines, part of Lt. Col. Victor H. Krulak’s Second Marine Parachute Battalion(1st Marine Parachute Regiment, First Marine Amphibious Corps) had been surrounded by Japanese forces, and needed to be evacuated. This mission, told in the fall 2010 issue of Prologue, was a successful one, although one of the wounded Marines died in Kennedy’s bunk aboard PT-59. Interestingly, this dramatic rescue mission was depicted in the movie as having been accomplished by PT-109.

On the night of November 5, Kennedy led three PT boats to Moli Point and Choiseul Bay, where they attacked Japanese barges. During the next week and a half, PT-59 would prowl off Choiseul Bay looking for barges.

Kennedy’s final action was on the night of November 16, when he took PT-59 on an uneventful patrol. On November 18, a doctor directed Kennedy—who was mentally and physically exhausted and had lost 25 pounds over the preceding three months—to go the hospital at Tulagi.

Kennedy gave up his command of PT-59 that day and left the Solomon Islands on December 21 for the United States. He left the Navy on physical disability in March of 1945. Soon, he would begin his career in Congress. As for PT-59, she remained in the Solomon Islands until August 1944, when she was transported back to the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Base in Rhode Island.

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