'PT 109': Inside JFK’s heroic origin story

William Doyle, author of ‘PT 109,’ talks about John F. Kennedy’s stunning encounter with disaster as a young naval officer.

'PT 109' by William Doyle might ring some bells for American history buffs, but the story of JFK’s bravery, leadership, and stamina isn’t well-known.

Which presidents were war heroes? George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower might come to mind, along with Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses Grant. But many presidents also served in combat, all the way down through history to Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, although their experiences tend to be obscure.

One of these presidents is John F. Kennedy. His modern-day legend somehow neglects his wartime story, one of the most remarkable of any president. A scrawny young man from a background of privilege and adoration, he and fellow crew members found themselves abandoned in the Solomon Islands after a Japanese ship sunk their patrol torpedo boat in 1943.

“PT 109” might ring some bells for American history buffs, but the story of JFK’s bravery, leadership, and stamina isn’t well-known. It should be, and now a cinematic new book brings this remarkable saga back to life.

In PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy, historian William Doyle expertly recreates a crucial moment in shark-infested waters, the stunning aftermath, and the life of a future president.

This you-are-there history as crisp as a 1940s newsreel thanks to its reliance on much more than documents and diaries. Doyle, a former HBO top honcho and co-author of the bestselling “American Gun: A History of the U.S. In Ten Firearms,” managed to interview many of Kennedy’s fellow sailors and chronicle their moment-by-moment memories.

In an interview, Doyle talks about military ineptness, the surprising facts he uncovered on the Japanese side and Kennedy’s stunning but forgotten post-war mission.

In the big picture, he says, “the PT 109 tragedy directly shaped JFK's character, and it shaped American history by putting him in the Congress and the Oval Office.”

Q: Rich and powerful Americans have long tried to get their sons out of military service during wartime or at least into cushy positions. But Kennedy ended up in the middle of the action despite his father’s best efforts to keep him away from danger. What happened?

It speaks well of the young Kennedy that he sabotaged his father’s request that he be placed in a safe area.

It was such a different culture then, such a different war. Everybody knew that if they didn’t serve in uniform, and preferably be posted overseas, their postwar career and position in society would be affected. Kennedy and other men knew they had to put a uniform, and they had to get close to the action.

Q: One of the surprising revelations in your book is the fact that PT boats, designed to sink Japanese ships, were a failure in many ways. They rarely sunk ships at all. What’s the story with PT boats?

In one sense they were a disappointment. They really didn’t achieve their original objectives too well. But they did accomplish a lot in terms of harassing and slowing the Japanese war machine in the South Pacific.

Q: How did things go so terribly wrong to allow PT 109 to not only be torn apart by a Japanese ship but also get abandoned by a military that’s never supposed to leave anyone behind?

Maybe the ultimate and least-appreciated aspect of war history is that it’s not an inevitable series of events. The story of war is often one of people running away of danger, of cowardice. And above all, war is often a story of catastrophic failures, chaos, and mismanagement.

PT 109 was a perfect illustration of this, a total series of screw-ups. There were 15 boats out in one night, and the boats don’t know what the boats next to them are doing.

Q: What did you learn from the Japanese documents that you examined?

They give you an extraordinary picture of what’s happening on the other side. Of the men on the Japanese ship that ran into Kennedy, officers in the bridge shouted conflicting orders at each other, and a junior sailor was engulfed in flames and knocked out of a turret.

The Japanese documents are also incredible because they show how solid the American campaign in the Solomon Islands was and how it was largely was an air war that decided it, opening the gates on the long way to Tokyo.

You also realize what a pitiful condition Japanese soldiers were in. One of their own generals was starving to death. 

Q: You write about Kennedy’s attempts to reconcile with the Japanese military long before he was president. I think about our military engagements today and wonder whether American soldiers would ever want to meet with their counterparts in Afghanistan and Iraq. What did you learn about the capacity of men to reach out to those whose mission was to kill them?

I’ve found that veterans often at least have a thought dancing in the back of their minds, or a plan of action, about going back to the home country of their enemy and find out what they’re all about. That’s an intriguing and poignant impulse.

But if you told an American serviceman in the South Pacific like JFK or my father that the two countries would become allies, and Kennedy’s daughter would be ambassador to Japan, and I’d be marrying into a Japanese family, they’d find that impossible to believe.

The war was so bloody and so tragic, and the suffering was so spectacular.

But Kennedy really had this dream of going to Japan and finding the men who nearly killed them so he could befriend them, and he came close to doing that in 1951.

In a little-known story I tell in the book, Kennedy actually made it to Tokyo and almost found the man who nearly killed him in the war, but something happened to him in Tokyo that again almost killed him.

Q: You find many surviving veterans who confirm the story of PT 109. But was there ever an attempt by political enemies to debunk JFK’s tale, Swift Boat-style?

Without exception, all of the men who served under Kennedy's command in World War II had nothing but the highest praise for him as a combat leader and as a man. That may be the highest compliment for a warrior.

The heroic saga of PT 109 – which was immortalized in a classic 1944 New Yorker article by John Hersey that was relentlessly distributed by the Kennedy campaigns – perfectly insulated Kennedy from charges of being an undistinguished playboy politician by transfiguring him into a mythic action-war-hero. 

But actually, at a critical moment in the May 1960 Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia when it looked like Hubert Humphrey might force JFK out of the race, the Kennedy campaign "Swift Boated" Humphrey by falsely implying he was a draft dodger, using the PT 109 story as the coup de grace that forced Humphrey to quit the race in disgust and despair. That cleared the way for Kennedy to seize the Democratic nomination.

Q: Why don’t we know more about the remarkable story of PT 109 and JFK’s role?

TV reruns of the fairly mediocre 1963 movie “PT 109” petered out in the 1980s, and with it went most cultural memory of the incident.

Also, the event was never properly analyzed to reveal the startling truth that JFK's closest aide Dave Powers identified 50 years after the incident: "Without PT 109," he said, "there never would have been a President John F. Kennedy."

The PT 109 tragedy directly shaped JFK's character, and it shaped American history by putting him in the Congress and the Oval Office.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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