Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Monday, August 7, 2017

PT 59: John F. Kennedy’s Other Command

PT 59
(National Park Service
United States Navy Archives)

By Adrian McGrath

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
John F. Kennedy from his inauguration speech, 1961

The dramatic story of survival that involved John F. Kennedy and the famous PT 109 is well known. The young man, who would one day become president of the United States, rescued his crew from almost certain death or capture by the Japanese during World War II after their boat was crushed and cut in two by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. The story of Kennedy’s daring and courage would aid him in his campaign for president in 1960. He became the first Irish Catholic president of the United States.

The Kennedy family’s connection to Ireland is well known. His paternal great grandfather was a refugee from Ireland, coming to America in the 1840s; and on his mother’s side, the Fitzgeralds, over time, became deeply involved in Irish Catholic politics in Boston, Massachusetts. In fact, all of John F. Kennedy's grandparents were the children of Irish immigrants.

The Fitzgeralds were originally from County Limerick in the west of Ireland; in the 1840s part of the family emigrated to America. On the Kennedy side, Patrick Kennedy left Wexford, also during the Potato Famine (Great Hunger) years, and came to the United States. Both families, the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, settled in Boston where they had to struggle to find work and fight against anti-Irish Catholic prejudice which existed at that time. They had to start out at the bottom of the social structure, but they worked their way up. The families worked as laborers, coopers, clerks, merchants, and operated pubs or taverns. Eventually, they went into politics. (For more on JFK and Ireland, see the website for the JFK Library at .

Lt JG Kennedy, aboard PT 109, 1943

During World War II John Kennedy had another boat and another command besides PT 109. He acquired it like this: After a skipper lost a boat, it was customary for him to be allowed to go back home to the USA. JFK, however, requested another combat assignment after losing the PT 109; and he got command of another Motor Torpedo Boat, the PT 59.

Interestingly enough, JFK had command of three PT boats in his naval career during World War II. His first boat was PT 101 (made by Higgins) which was just for his training as a new PT skipper when he was at Melville, Rhode Island with Motor Torpedo Squadron Four and later for training in Panama in weather conditions more like the Pacific. His second boat was, of course, the PT 109. And his final boat was the PT 59.

Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron
Training Center, Portsmouth, RI, 1942
Back row, 7th from right is JFK

This boat, the 59, was redesigned to be a gunboat, not a torpedo boat. Its torpedoes and racks were removed and more guns and artillery were added. It added two anti-aircraft guns and .30 caliber and .50 caliber machine guns for a total of two twin .50 caliber machine guns, two 40 mm cannons, and several individual .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. PT 59 had a technical name now called PTGB1 or Patrol Torpedo Gunboat 1. Its purpose was to provide firepower and to attack enemy barges which usually transported Japanese troops and military supplies in fairly shallow and narrow waters.

The Solomon Islands, where Kennedy was stationed, had a series of small and medium size islands strung out for many, many miles. The PT boats were very useful in navigating these waters, but they were only made of wood and thus highly vulnerable to enemy fire. Their main defense was speed, maneuverability, and maybe a good offense. (Get the enemy before he gets you.)

Lt. JG Kennedy, 1943
In the South Pacific

Although Lieutenant JG Kennedy would see action for a few months in PT 59, one incident stands out and may have had a profound impact upon him physically and psychologically. This was a rescue mission where Kennedy was sent to Choiseul Island to help US Marines who were stranded on the beach and about to be overrun by enemy Japanese. He and his crew saved about 40 US Marines of the 1st Marine Parachute Regiment from almost certain death or capture. (Capture might have been a worse fate than death at that time.)

In a diversionary action in November, 1943 known as Operation Blissful, US Marines went to Choiseul Island to trick the Japanese into thinking this was a full invasion. In fact it was a decoy for the real invasion which was on Bougainville, a large island which had a vital airfield. From this airfield, the US could use medium bombers and fighter planes to attack the major Japanese base at Rabaul in the Solomon Islands.

The Marines, who were on Choiseul for about a week, would be greatly outnumbered and low on supplies especially food, but would cause so much damage as to convince the enemy they had a larger force. Indeed, the Japanese were fooled and sent reinforcements to Choiseul. This significantly assisted the American invasion of Bougainville.

Higgins boat landing craft were sent to pick up the Marines, and Kennedy’s boat was to provide firepower and cover the evacuation. The Japanese soldiers were firing small arms, machine guns, and even mortar shells at the American landing craft and at PT 59. Some of the LCVP Higgins boats were damaged or hit by enemy fire, so the PT 59, while under enemy fire and while firing its own guns at the enemy positions, came in close to shore and picked up the stranded Marines. Some of the Marines were badly injured, and tragically one seriously wounded Marine actually died in Kennedy’s bunk where the Marine was placed.

Kennedy’s boat had set out on the mission in incredible haste and was without sufficient fuel. PT 59 itself then became stranded off the beach just out of the range of enemy fire. Fortunately, another PT boat (PT 236) sent as support towed the PT 59 back to safety.

The combat at Choiseul and Kennedy’s rescue mission were depicted in the popular film called “PT 109” in which Cliff Robertson played John Kennedy. With artistic license, possibly to make the film flow easier, the PT 109 was used instead of the PT 59 in the Choiseul rescue scene. At the end of the film, however, we do see that Kennedy is reassigned to PT 59. Some of his old crew members from the shipwrecked PT 109 joined Kennedy on the PT 59.

JFK at Tulagi (near Guadalcanal) with
other PT boat officers, 1943
(Wikimedia Commons)

After the Choiseul mission, Kennedy led PT 59 on missions searching for and attacking Japanese supply and troop barges. But the strain of the difficult missions of both PT 109 and PT 59 eventually took a toll on JFK who became physically and psychologically exhausted. (He had seriously injured his back earlier during the PT 109 mission.) He was sent to a doctor who sent him to a hospital on Tulagi, the American military base near Guadalcanal. In December of 1943 he was determined to be physically disabled and sent back to the USA.

John F. Kennedy's service to his country during the war was dramatic and dangerous. It is almost a miracle that he survived the war years. But his service to the United States of America was only just beginning.

Sources and further reading:
The film “PT 109,” Warner Brothers Pictures, 1963, based on the book PT 109 by Robert Donovan; Wikipedia article on PT 59 at; An article from the National Archives called “Operation Blissful” by Greg Bradsher at ; Wikipedia article on John F. Kennedy at; Article on Kennedy at the National Park Service at ; The photo of PT 59 is in pubic domain from the National Park Service article which states the photo is from the United States Navy Archives at ; Photo of JFK at Portsmouth, RI Training Center is in public domain at,_Oct._1942.jpg#mw-jump-to-license; Source on PT 59 at; Wikipedia article on Bougainville Campaign at; Photo of Kennedy in the South Pacific is from Wikipedia in public domain at,_circa_1943.jpg; JFK photo at Tulagi is in public domain from wikimedia at; The photo of Kennedy on the PT 109 is in public domain from Wikipedia at; The article called John F. Kennedy and PT Boat 59 by Dr. Greg Bradsher at ; The website for the JFK Library in Boston at .

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article. Thank you for remembering this often overlooked time in this great man’s life.