PT-109: The 40th Anniversary Edition, Robert J. Donovan, McGraw Hill, 2001, 204pp., hardcover, map, photo insert
He was an ambassador’s son anxious to get into the war and a yachting fan which made him attractive to recruiters for the Motor Patrol Torpedo Boat service of the US Navy. After a couple desk jobs, Jack Kennedy finally got his assignment, skipper at the fairly low rank of lieutenant, junior grade, of his own craft….PT 109.
PT boats were as good a way as any to commit suicide. A mere 80-foot long, made of plywood, with ten crewmembers, a couple guns, four torpedoes. In the early days of the war during the Solomon Islands campaign (best known island: Guadalcanal), the PT boats were thrown in to provide muscle for the fleet against the Japanese. It was not coincidental that PT boats were made of plywood, which did not put them in conflict with the needs for steel for the larger ships shipyards were turning out. Only later in the war as the fleet was built up did the mission of the PT boat broaden out to include a wider variety of missions.
Early in the war, though, their job was to station themselves along sea approaches to likely resupply and landing sites, and attack the ships trying to run their gauntlet, often using torpedoes that didn’t want to fire.
One of the most noteworthy failures was when PT boats attacked a four destroyer convoy taking troops to Kolombangara. Word was not passed to PT 109 about the action although they were on the alert in the dark overcast. Suddenly, the destroyer Amagiri ran right through the ship, killing two men, leaving the others to founder. After sunrise, Kennedy, despite a back injury, towed one badly burned crewman while the rest clung to a wooden slat and kicked, heading toward an island where they could hole up.
Kennedy held the group together and went out the night they arrived to swim near where the PT boats were expected to pass. After a couple days of this, a couple natives dispatched by an Australian coastwatcher encountered the group and got word back to start the rescue.
This is a carefully researched story by Robert J. Donovan who talked to the survivors, other ex-Navy veterans, Kennedy himself, and flew to the South Pacific where he was able to find and interview the natives Solomon Islanders who helped in the rescue. He describes not just the fear, but the boredom, the sweltering heat, the bugs, the disease, and the other obstacles faced by these dedicated warriors.
In his 40th anniversary forward, Donovan talks about the experience of writing the book and Kennedy’s hand-picking of his portrayer for the movie based on it (Jackie’s choice, Warren Beatty, was unavailable). In his own foreword, journalist Daniel Schorr provides some interesting insights on service in World War II and in later wars.