PT 109

Sure you have all heard the name of this WWII naval boat but what’s the real skinny? First, PT stands for Patrol Torpedo boat and these 80-foot plywood vessels were designed to deliver torpedoes into the hulls of Japanese warships. The boats loom large in our imaginations but they were badly designed worthless key-rap!

The main problem was that the torpedoes were impossible to aim, the detonators generally didn’t work and on many occasions they would malfunction inside the PT boat and ignite in the firing chamber. Their ineffectiveness was downplayed even as more were being built. They did work out the design kinks by the end of the War and were even deployed on D Day though they mostly did rescue work.

The story of 109 is the one that comes down to us as having elevated a talented junior lieutenant to the presidency. Initially John F. Kennedy was deemed unfit for military service according to the draft board because of multiple ailments. His father had to pull strings to get him into the navy. By 1942 he found himself as the skipper of PT 109 in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Theater.

With about a dozen other men he was on patrol looking for a target when a Japanese ship suddenly emerged from the fog. The skipper swung his tiny craft to aim at the ship. The gunner also attempted to fire the deck gun which was an entirely useless shore cannon the crew had strapped to timbers on the deck. These guys really did give it the old college try.

The ten survivors clung to the timbers that had secured the shore gun and with a few life preservers started swimming to a tiny island some 3.5 miles away. Kennedy towed an injured sailor with the sailor’s life vest strap clamped in his teeth.

They staggered ashore but there was no food or water on the island and there were a lot of Japanese buzzing about the area. So here is something provocative: The Japanese were always called Japs during the War. This word was used in headlines, on the radio and by every kid. It was considered patriotic to do so. I was a kid in the early 50s and that’s what we said when we played war. If I was in academia or business today, I could be canceled for writing this paragraph.

So let’s just forget that we interred these J–s in camps, took their homes and businesses and sweep the whole thing into the dustbin of history, yes? No. It is possible, even necessary to make reference to a past situation like this without being a bigot. If we bury past practices because some people find archaic words to be weapons it gives them power and that power can be misused. So yes, we called them Japs. They called us ‘foreign devils’ not so harsh to our ears but to them, calling someone a foreigner was a real curse. They also called us ‘dogfaces’ because our soldiers slept in pup tents and wore dog tags. I’m cool with that.

In any case we are now at peace with the Japanese and the Germans and now our enemies are the Chinese and the Rooskies.

Where was I? Oh yes, PT109. Over the next few days Kennedy with a badly injured back swam from island to island, relocating his crew and trying to get within hailing range of an American patrol. They finally ended up on small island and found a Japanese canoe with crackers and water. Then Kennedy engraved a note on a coconut (next, I’ll make the unlikely claim that Columbus thought he was in India) and gave it some passing islanders to take to the Americans saying essentially, “Help! Stranded on a desert island.” The coconut was delivered and the men were rescued. This coconut is in the Kennedy Library today.

Kennedy and his crew had been given up for dead but they became heroes in an era with many heroes. Kennedy came home, ran for Senate and then became president.

One of his close friends from that time was a friend of mine in the 90s who lived in Woodside. He was a frequent customer of Buck’s and we became pals. Paul ‘Red’ Fay was in the PT squadron, though not on 109 with Kennedy and later was his campaign chair for Senate. He was appointed to Undersecretary of the Navy and was in the room during the Cuban Missile crisis.

Kennedy used to stay on Winding Way in Woodside with Red in the 30s. Once Kennedy had a dustup with the father of a girl back east so Papa Joe Kennedy sent the lad west to lay low at the Fay’s home giving time for things to cool down. Imagine when you could go to another coast to get out of the line of fire. Kennedy took some classes at Stanford and he and Red ran wild including getting drunk and getting thrown out of a Carmel country club. I heard this from Red himself.

Red wrote a touching book about his friendship with Kennedy called The Pleasure of His Company but just before publication the massacre in Dallas happened so Red didn’t publish the book for many years. But his did eventually and he gave me a copy. In the book Red said that because his wife was in Europe he escorted the movie star Angie Dickenson to the inaugural ball in Washington DC. When Red and his wife were in one night I brought this fact up and she glared at me and said, “We don’t ever mention this!”

Later I asked Red what the stink was about and he said “Well, she wasn’t my girlfriend…Ahhh right. It turns out she was one of Kennedy’s close friends. She was also tight with Frank Sinatra and Sam Giancana whose girlfriend was Judith Exner, who was also a special friend of Kennedy’s, and some say Sam rubbed out Kennedy and then hired Jack Ruby to dust Lee Harvey Oswald to shut him up. 

I had heard all this years before but I turned to Red for the inside scoop. We were having dinner once and I asked him who he thought shot his friend. I knew this would be a touchy subject but I thought I knew him well enough to ask his opinion. We sat in a booth at Buck’s table 11 and he looked down at the table as his eyes welled up and he said, “I ask myself this question nearly every day but I just-don’t-know.”

Many of us don’t believe it was a lone gunman. Will we ever know for sure? Who knows.

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