World War II: PT-109

Crew of PT-109 in 1943
Crew of PT-109 in 1943. John F. Kennedy at right.

US Naval History and Heritage Command

PT-109 was a PT-103 class motor torpedo boat built for the US Navy in 1942. Entering service later that year, it served in the Pacific Theater of World War II. PT-109 earned famed under the command of Lieutenant (junior grade) John F. Kennedy when it was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri on August 2, 1943. In the wake of the sinking, Kennedy worked tirelessly to get the survivors ashore and endeavored to get them rescued. Successful in his efforts, he received the the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

Design & Construction

PT-109 was laid down on March 4, 1942, in Bayonne, NJ. Built by the Electric Launch Company (Elco), the boat was the seventh vessel in the 80-ft. PT-103-class. Launched on June 20, it was delivered to the US Navy the following month and fitted out at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Possessing a wooden hull constructed of two layers of mahogany planking, PT-109 could achieve speeds of 41 knots and was powered by three 1,500 hp Packard engines.

Driven by three propellers, PT-109 mounted a series of mufflers on the transom to reduce engine noise and allow the crew to detect enemy aircraft. Typically manned by a crew of 12 to 14, PT-109's main armament consisted of four 21-inch torpedo tubes which utilized Mark VIII torpedoes. Fitted two to a side, these were swung outboard before firing.

Stern of PT-109 aboard a cargo ship with six mufflers visible and timber bracing for the voyage to the Pacific.
PT-109 stowed on board the Liberty Ship Joseph Stanton, at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, 20 August 1942. Note heavy bracing at the PT boat's stern and on her deck, to prevent movement as she is transported to the Pacific. Also note her torpedo tubes, engine mufflers and 20mm gun mount, with 109 painted on it. US Naval History and Heritage Command

In addition, PT boats of this class possessed a 20 mm Oerlikon cannon aft for use against enemy aircraft as well as two swivel mounts with twin .50-cal. machine guns near the cockpit. Completing the vessel's armament were two Mark VI depth charges which were placed forward of the torpedo tubes. After work was complete in Brooklyn, PT-109 was dispatched to Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) Squadron 5 in Panama.


  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Patrol Torpedo Boat
  • Shipyard: Elco - Bayonne, NJ
  • Laid Down: March 4, 1942
  • Launched: June 20, 1942
  • Fate: Sunk August 2, 1943


  • Displacement: 56 tons
  • Length: 80 ft.
  • Beam: 20 ft. 8 in.
  • Draft: 3 ft. 6 in.
  • Speed: 41 knots
  • Complement: 12-14 men


  • 4 x 21" torpedo tubes ( 4 x Mark VIII torpedoes)
  • 4 x .50 cal. machines guns
  • 1 x 20 mm cannon
  • 1 x 37 mm cannon

Operational History

Arriving in September 1942, PT-109's service in Panama proved brief as it was ordered to join MTB 2 in the Solomon Islands a month later. Embarked aboard a cargo ship, it arrived at Tulagi Harbor in late November. Joining Commander Allen P. Calvert's MTB Flotilla 1, PT-109 began operating from the base at Sesapi and conducted missions intended to intercept the ships of the "Tokyo Express," which were delivering Japanese reinforcements during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Commanded by Lieutenant Rollins E. Westholm, PT-109 first saw combat on the night of December 7-8.

PT-109 resting on the deck of a cargo ship.
PT-109 stowed on board the Liberty Ship Joseph Stanton for transportation to the Pacific. Photographed at the Norfolk Navy Yard, VA, August 20, 1942. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Attacking a group of eight Japanese destroyers, PT-109 and seven other PT boats succeeded in forcing the enemy to withdraw. Over the next several weeks, PT-109 took part in similar operations in the region as well as conducted attacks against Japanese shore targets. During such an attack on January 15, the boat came under fire from enemy shore batteries and was holed three times. On the night of February 1-2, PT-109 took part in a large engagement involving 20 Japanese destroyers as the enemy worked to evacuate forces from Guadalcanal.

With the victory on Guadalcanal, Allied forces began the invasion of the Russell Islands in late February. During these operations, PT-109 aided in escorting transports and provided security offshore. Amid the fighting in early 1943, Westholm became the flotilla operations officer and left Ensign Bryant L. Larson in command of PT-109. Larson's tenure was brief and he departed the boat on April 20. Four days later, Lieutenant (junior grade) John F. Kennedy was assigned to command PT-109. The son of prominent politician and businessman Joseph P. Kennedy, he arrived from MTB 14 in Panama.

Under Kennedy

Through the next two months, PT-109 conducted operations in the Russell Islands in support of the men ashore. On June 16, the boat, along with several others, moved to an advanced base on Rendova Island. This new base became a target of enemy aircraft and on August 1, 18 bombers struck. The raid sunk two PT boats and disrupted operations. Despite the attack, a force of fifteen PT boats was assembled in response to intelligence that five Japanese destroyers would be conducting a run from Bougainville to Vila, Kolombangara Island that night (Map).

Prior to departing, Kennedy ordered a 37 mm gun field mounted on the boat. Deploying in four sections, PT-159 was the first to make contact with the enemy and attacked in concert with PT-157. Expending their torpedoes, the two boats withdrew. Elsewhere, Kennedy patrolled without incident until spotting firing along the south shore of Kolombangara.

John F. Kennedy, shirtless and wearing sunglasses while at the helm of PT-109.
Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy aboard PT-109. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Rendezvousing with PT-162 and PT-169, he soon received orders to maintain their normal patrol. Due east of Ghizo Island, PT-109 turned south and led the three-boat formation. Moving through the Blackett Straits, the three PT boats were spotted by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. Turning to intercept, Lieutenant Commander Kohei Hanami bore down on the American boats at high speed.

Spotting the Japanese destroyer at about 200-300 yards, Kennedy attempted to turn to starboard preparatory to firing torpedoes. Too slow, PT-109 was rammed and cut in half by Amagiri. Though the destroyer suffered minor damage, it safely returned to Rabaul, New Britain the following morning while the surviving PT boats fled the scene. Thrown into the water, two of PT-109's crew were killed in the collision. As the forward half of the boat remained afloat, the survivors clung to it until daylight.


Aware that the forward section would soon sink, Kennedy had a float fashioned using a timber from the 37 mm gun mount. Placing badly burned Machinists Mate 1/c Patrick MacMahon and two non-swimmers aboard the float, the survivors succeeded in evading Japanese patrols and landed on uninhabited Plum Pudding Island. Over the next two nights, Kennedy and Ensign George Ross unsuccessfully attempted to signal patrolling PT boats with a salvaged battle lantern.

With their provisions exhausted, Kennedy moved the survivors to nearby Olasana Island which possessed coconuts and water. Seeking additional food, Kennedy and Ross swam to Cross Island where they found some food and a small canoe. Using the canoe, Kennedy came into contact with two local islanders but was unable to get their attention.

These proved to be Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, who had been dispatched by Sub Lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans, an Australian coastwatcher on Kolombangara, who had seen PT-109 explode after the collision with Amagiri. On the night of August 5, Kennedy took the canoe into the Ferguson Passage to try to contact a passing PT boat. Unsuccessful, he returned to find Gasa and Kumana meeting with the survivors.

After convincing the two men that they were friendly, Kennedy gave them two messages, one written on a coconut husk, to take to the coastwatchers at Wana Wana. The next day, eight islanders returned with instructions to take Kennedy to Wana Wana. After leaving supplies for the survivors, they transported Kennedy to Wana Wana where he made contact with PT-157 in the Ferguson Passage. Returning to Olasana that evening, Kennedy's crew was ferried to the PT boat and transported to Rendova.

Aftermath of the Sinking

For his efforts to rescue his men, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. With Kennedy's political ascent after the war, the story of PT-109 became well known and was the subject of a feature film in 1963. When asked how he became a war hero, Kennedy replied, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat." The wreck of PT-109 was discovered in May 2002 by noted underwater archaeologist and oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: PT-109." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). World War II: PT-109. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: PT-109." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).