The Complete Movie Story Of PT 109
CAST OF CHARACTERS
LT. (j.g.) JOHN F. KENNEDY . . . CLIFF ROBERTSON
ENSIGN LEONARD J. THOM . . . . . . . . . . TY HARDIN
COMMANDER RITCHIE . . . . . . . . JAMES GREGORY
ENSIGN “BARNEY” ROSS . . . . . . . . . ROBERT CULP
LT. ALVIN CLUSTER . . . . . . . . . . GRANT WILLIAMS
There were those Navy men in the South Pacific area that weather-hot and war-hot month of July, 1942, who’d have told you at the drop of a sea bag that the nice-looking junior lieutenant, the one with the schoolboy grin and the Ha-vad accent—John F. Kennedy—was a guy who should have had his head examined. Here was a guy, they’d have said, who could have sat out World War II in some comfortable and safe Stateside berth—maybe running a nice Wave barracks, even. After all, here was a guy whose father was nearly as rich as the Rockefellers, a guy with pull in Washington—who’d actually met and lunched with Mr. Roosevelt, the President of the United States!
And yet—the goof—here he was, stationed in Tulagi Harbor, in the dead center of this watery Jap-infested hell-hole of a South Pacific . . . and at his own request . . . and in the PT boat service!
And when they asked young Lt. Kennedy why he’d negotiated this kind of a deal, he’d answer:
“If I were a poor, illiterate, barefoot dirt farmer without health, family or friends . . . I wouldn’t need a reason for being out here. However, I’m not all of those things. So for damned sure I don’t have to think up a reason for being here. Simple?”
And many a head would be shaken, many a shrug shrugged as the strange-thinking and dauntless young lieutenant would goon determinedly with whatever task he’d been given to do. . . .
It is a well documented fact that Jack Kennedy didn’t even gulp—much—the morning he and his subordinate officer, Ensign Leonard Thom, caught their first sight of the tiny and fragile PT boat they’d just been assigned to take over—the 109.
Kennedy looked the 109 over. He examined the score of nicks and splinters in her hull, caused by friend and foe alike. He examined her decks—littered with abandoned gear, torn mattresses, old comic books, a couple of very lively and at-home-looking land crabs. He made note of the fact that the boat needed a new coat of paint—not to mention new guns and a new set of engines.
And where another man might have sighed woefully and run to the sick bay announcing that he’d just come down with a bad case of double pneumonia and needed at least three months in the sack—Jack Kennedy, instead, patted the deck railing of the 109, affectionately, as if she were a neglected waif. ‘‘We’ll get you fixed up! Don’t you worry!”
His confidence, however, was not immediately shared by several of the men who were assigned to his crew. Not shared at all, in fact.
Take, for instance, two of the sailors—motor machinists Leon Drawdy and Ed Drewitch—who took one look at the 109, frowned and had themselves a pow-wow. It went like this:
“What’s the name of the joker in charge of this wreck?” Drawdy wanted to know.
“A j.g. named Kennedy,” said Drewitch. “Looks like all he ever did was to go to school. No sea duty. Not that one. But they say he wrote a book.”
“Then why didn’t they put him in charge of a library,” Drawdy wondered. “Just serving under a guy like this, we rate the Purple Heart.”
The men’s confidence was further shaken when it came time for Kennedy to choose one of the lot for galley-duty.
“Ever do any cooking?” they heard him ask seaman Edgar Mauer, later that day.
“Yes, sir,” they heard Mauer answer. “I used to fix up things for my kid brother. Peanut butter sandwiches mostly.”
“Nothing else?” they heard Kennedy ask.
“Well—” they heard Mauer answer, “sometimes I fixed peanut butter and jelly.”
And then—and you wouldn’t have believed it if you hadn’t been there—they heard Kennedy say, “Good. You’re the new cook!”
The men worried about that one all night.
But the crew’s fears about their new skipper were actually very short-lived. Because if there’s anything enlisted men respect—and don’t get to see much of—is an officer who rolls up his sleeves and does the dirty work along with them. And this young Lt. Kennedy did. So much so that sometimes he’d be so covered with grease and grime and paint and sweat it was hard to tell him apart from any ordinary swabby. And by the time the 109 had been completely refurbished and was ready for top-brass inspection, the men of the crew—all ten of them—had grown as fond of their skipper as he had grown fond and proud of them. . . .
For the next few weeks the 109 engaged in what, judging by future events, could well be called un-eventful assignments. There were speed runs. There were briefings aboard; lots of talk, little action. In fact the only real action the men of the 109 saw during those weeks was a rescue mission, involving a Marine parachute battalion trapped by the Japs on a small island to the north. Along with other PTs and a fleet of LOPR’s, the 109 succeeded in rescuing most of the Marines. But not before a Jap mortar shell exploded a few yards from the small boat wounding three of the crew—Drawdy, Drewitch and gunner’s mate Maurice Kowal.
They were soon replaced by four sailors named Gerard Zinser, Bill Johnston, Ray Starkey and Patrick “Pappy” McMahon. On their arrival aboard, the four new men were stunned to see Seaman Mauer standing at the stern tossing grenades into the water with one hand, holding a long scoop in the other.
“What’s he doing?” asked one of the new men.
“Oh,” he was told, casually by the old hands of the boat, “that’s just the cook—fishing.”
So the four new arrivals looked at one another and shrugged. And if you’d have told them at that moment that this particular boat they’d just been assigned to would go down in history one day—that there would even be a movie made about it one day—the men would probably have responded with something very salty . . . and censorable!
The final addition to the 109’s crew came aboard in early August of ’42, soon after the boat was transferred from Tulagi Harbor to the nearby island of Rendova. He was an ensign, named George “Barney” Ross. He was a former classmate of Lt. Kennedy’s. His own PT boat—the 166—had just been shot out from under him. He was now minus—and desperately in want of—another assignment.
At a briefing one day, Ross approached a commanding officer and asked if he might be assigned to the 109.
The officer looked over at Lt. Kennedy, standing alongside Ross. “Well,” said Jack Kennedy, “I have a .37 millimeter I’m putting on. He can have a go at that.”
“All right, Ross,” said the officer, “—you’re with the 109.”
As the officer walked away. Kennedy turned to his old buddy.
“You do know how to fire a .37, don’t you, Barney?” he asked on the confidential, yet hopeful, side.
“I can learn,” Ross answered. “You can show me, in fact.”
There was a short moment of silence.
And then Jack Kennedy said, “I have a small confession, Barney. We’ll have to learn together!”
And, unable to help it, the two men began to laugh. But not for long.
Because within minutes the briefing had started. And judging by the expression on the face of the officer who was now talking—by the grim tone of his voice—by the quick and definite way he pointed his stick at the large map behind him—it was easy to see that this was serious business now.
“We have,” said the officer, “a message from CTF-31. I’ll try to summarize. There’s a strong chance the Empress may run tonight. That means a group of destroyers . . . probably Amagiri Class. And heavy barge traffic. Their mission is to land troops and supplies at Vila. My instructions are to use every available PT. Similar orders have been issued to Kelly. His group will operate in Kula Gulf. We’ll patrol Area Baker. Our position off Vanga Vanga promises to be a busy one. If the destroyers try to cross Blackett Strait, be sure your fish are ready to fire. If they go north around Kolombangara, we have Burke and Kelly’s PTs. . . . That’s it.”
And with that the stick came down.
The men in the room rose . . . and they turned and headed for their boats.
Torpedoman Andrew Kirksey of the 109 shivered a little when he saw Lt. Kennedy and Ensign Ross start to board the craft.
“What’s the matter?” someone asked him, noticing his reaction and the shiver.
“I’m not too crazy about having this new ensign aboard,” Kirksey said. “It’s bad luck having a stranger aboard.”
The other man laughed. “Don’t be silly, Andy,” he said. “That’s for ships like Moby Dick. Not this one.”
But Kirksey was not reassured.
A little while later, the 109 underway now. Radioman John Maguire was sitting in the galley, drinking a cup of coffee. Kirksey entered. He seemed to be unusually tired. Maguire, noticing this, poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Kirksey.
“John, will you take care of my things?” Kirksey asked suddenly.
“What things?” Maguire asked back. “What’re you talking about?” And then, noticing the cup shake in Kirksey’s hand, realizing the genuineness of the man’s fear, he added, “Listen, when we get back—you better sack-in for a while and—”
But Kirksey interrupted him. “I’m not coming back. I’m gonna be killed.”
Maguire nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “the last four boats I was on there was always a guy who said he was going to get his.”
“They knew too, huh?” Kirksey asked.
“They knew nothing,” said Maguire, firmly. “No one died on any of those boats!”
He looked at the frightened man for a long moment. And then, not knowing what else to say, he left the galley and walked into the companionway, where he ran into Lt. Kennedy.
“Skipper—can you give me a minute?” Maguire whispered.
“Sure, Mac, what is it?” Kennedy asked.
“Skipper—maybe you’d better talk to Kirksey. He’s afraid they’re gonna mail him home.”
Kennedy understood. He walked towards the galley, opened the door—saw Kirksey seated alone at the table and joined him.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me, Mr. Kennedy,” said Kirksey, apologetically, but firmly. “I just got this awful rotten feeling I’m not coming back.”
“A cold hand on my heart”
“And do you know, Andy—” Jack Kennedy said, softly, “—but I don’t think there’s a man on this boat who hasn’t had that thought one time or another.”
“But you don’t understand, Mr. Kennedy,” Kirksey persisted. “I don’t think about it. I know it. Didn’t you ever have a feeling ahead of time something’s going to happen—right before it does happen?”
Kennedy nodded. “Yes,” he said.
“It’s like someone put a cold hand on my heart,” Kirksey said. “I got a chill and can’t shake it off.”
“It can happen, Andy,” Kennedy said, nodding again. “You can die. That’s war. When I think about it I try to remember the odds are on our side.”
“Yes, sir,” said Kirksey, “—but the Japs aren’t.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked over at the lieutenant. “Are you trying to tell me I shouldn’t worry, sir?” he asked.
“You’d be a fool if you didn’t,” said Jack Kennedy, smiling a little.
“Then what can a man do—except pray?” Kirksey asked, and there was a note of heavy pleading in his voice.
Kennedy sighed. “All you can do is your job, Andy,” he said, “—like the rest of us.”
And there seemed to be nothing more to say now, as Jack Kennedy rose from the table, gave the torpedoman a gentle pat on the shoulder, and left.
As Kirksey continued to sit there, alone again now—still not completely reassured—in fact more convinced than ever now, as he turned and stared through the galley’s single porthole and out at the black night beyond, that this black night would be his last night.
And, perhaps, it would be the last night for all the gallant men of the 109. . . .
All hell broke loose
No one will ever know exactly what thoughts passed through Andrew Kirksey’s mind that moment a few hours later when someone yelled: “Ship at two o’clock!”
Several heads aboard the 109 turned. For a moment, and only for a moment, they saw it—the bow of the Jap destroyer headed towards them, a huge cleaver coming from out of the dark and bearing down on them.
Lt. Kennedy, standing there in the cockpit of the 109, was one of those who saw it. Instantly, he grabbed for the throttle, then pushed it forward. Then, desperately, he threw the wheel to port and at the same time pressed the button for General Quarters alarm. But it was useless.
Because four seconds had barely passed when the speeding destroyer smashed thunderously into the fragile hull of the 109, when all hell suddenly broke loose aboard the boat, as fire broke out in the engine room, as men were hurled about and sent flying into space like leaves in a high wind, as some of the men were hurled over the side, as others were trapped in the burning innards of the boat.
There was no hope, of course, for the trapped men.
But those in the water—a choppy sea aflame with burning gasoline now—had to be rescued. . . . And were.
There were more than a handful of heroes among the crew of the 109 those next few minutes—the able aiding the disabled back to the boat, the wounded doing everything they could to save the worse-wounded. Though all have attested that it was their skipper himself—John F. Kennedy, Lt. (j.g.)—who was the most heroic of them all.
First, Kennedy rescued “Pappy” McMahon, badly burned, badly crippled.
Then he went back into the water to look for “Bucky” Harris, a young sailor whom he’d passed while towing McMahon and whom he’d seen was suffering from exhaustion.
“Let’s go, Bucky,” Kennedy called out, when he finally reached the frantic young sailor, “—it’s not far.”
“I can’t,” Harris called back. “My leg!”
Kennedy tried to help him.
“Let go,” Harris snarled. “Leave me alone. Take care of your damned boat.”
But the young lieutenant could be just as ornery. “I said come on,” Kennedy growled. And he grabbed Harris, held him from behind and started swimming back towards the 109.
When they reached the boat, Kennedy pushed Harris up towards the foredeck, where the flames had begun to ebb by now.
Then, he, too, climbed aboard.
He looked around at the others now; mentally, the lieutenant counted heads.
“Kirksey and Marney,” Kennedy then asked, “—did anyone see them?”
“No, sir,” he was told. “Not since we were hit.”
Kennedy turned to Ensign Thom. “We’ll have another look,” he said, as he slipped back into the water, Thom right behind him.
Harold Marney was gone.
And as for Andy Kirksey, whom Jack Kennedy had tried to reassure only a few hours earlier that night—someone had indeed put a cold hand on his heart. . . .
The long night passed.
And from Headquarters at Rendova. miles away, this message was issued:
“Believe PT 109 lost in night action 2 Aug. two miles southwest of Merusu Island. Repeat Merusu Island. Crew of thirteen. Request air search early as possible. . . .”
Dawn came, finally. The hulk of the 109 sat unsteadily on the water’s surface. And aboard the hulk sat and lay the men of the 109—all except Lt. Kennedy, who stood, staring out towards the small flecks of islands not too far away.
The men, in general, were hopeful: “It’s a clear day,” said one. “Our boys won’t have any trouble picking us up.”
Some even made attempts at humor: said one to Kennedy, “You sure run a very wet boat, Lieutenant.”
But Jack Kennedy had someone else on his mind now, as he stared at the islands on the horizon—as he asked suddenly for Ensign Thom to bring him a chart of the area.
“What’s up?” asked Thom, as he opened the chart.
“Even if our boat doesn’t go under,” Kennedy said, “we’ll float right down into the Japanese’ laps.” He studied the chart. “The question is . . . which island.”
Apprehensively, Thom asked: “You’re not thinking of swimming there.”
“It’s one way, Lennie,” said Kennedy—his reply a flat, impatient challenge. “But I’m open-minded.”
“Some of those islands, Lieutenant,” said Thom, “are enemy held. Most of them!”
Kennedy pointed to the chart now as he spoke. “We know Kolombangara is. We know Gizo is. And maybe this one. It’s big enough for a garrison. . . . But here. Look. Plum Pudding Island. It’s about three-and-a-half miles.” He looked up at Thom. “I think we can make it.”
“Skipper,” Bucky Harris called out now, as he sat listening with the other men. “How far did you say that island is?”
Jack Kennedy managed a smile. “Don’t worry, Buck,” he said. “It’s only three inches on the chart.”
Then, the smile going, he gave order for the men to abandon the 109, to get into the water and hold tight to a long wooden plank on which they’d lashed some gear. “You can propel yourselves on that,” he called out, “using the planking as a buoy.”
That said, he turned towards Thom and Zinser and asked them to lower “Pappy” McMahon—the most seriously wounded crewman of all—into the water.
“I don’t think Pappy can make it,” Thom said.
“I’ll take him,” said Jack Kennedy. And with that, he, too, slipped into the water now, turned McMahon on his back, took the loose end of a strap from the kapok McMahon was wearing, placed the strap between his teeth—and he began to swim, carrying the wounded man. . . .
Not one of the eleven men remembers exactly how long it took them to get to Plum Pudding Island. They remember little more than that they all made it—somehow; that despite their fatigue, their hunger, their thirst, their wounds—they made it.
Soon after they stumbled onto the beach, in fact, they thought they had it made.
From out of nowhere, suddenly, one of the men heard an airplane motor.
The others, alerted, looked up and they saw it, a Navy PBY—American—come to rescue them.
They began to wave at the plane, almost directly overhead now. They shouted up: “We’re here. Here. Down here!”
But, incredible as it seemed, the plane did not dip its wings. Nor did its pilot give any indication that he had seen the stranded men on the beach below.
And, after less than a minute, the plane began to head out towards the open sea.
And confused, heartbroken, in silent desperation, the men of the 109 turned once more, as if by habit now, to young Lt. Kennedy, waiting to hear his next words to them.
Kennedy spoke, as usual, very matter-of-factly.
“There’s Ferguson Passage—the channel,” he said. “Our boats are bound to come through there on night patrol. . . . Now, if I could get out there with our lantern, I might be able to flag them.”
“But,” said one of the men, “you can’t tread water all night.”
Kennedy consulted his chart. “There’s a coral strip that runs out there,” he said. “I can walk part of the way.”
“You think it might work?” he was asked.
“We can’t send for room service,” said Kennedy. “I’ll give it a try.”
At dusk that night, he set off on his lone mission.
As he began to wade into the water, he turned to Ensigns Thom and Ross, and to Seaman Starkey and Radioman Maguire, who were preparing to stand watch on the beach.
“If I find a boat,” Kennedy called back to them, “I’ll flash the lantern.”
Then he turned and continued making his way into the water.
“Ain’t that the biggest damned fool you ever saw?” Maguire asked, in admiration, half to himself, as he watched his skipper disappear into the dusk.
And then, realizing his choice of language and remembering there were officers alongside him, he added: “Sirs?”
The channel waters were cold, and choppy. The night, a very dark one.
Close to cracking
Jack Kennedy swam, and treaded water, for hours, hoping for a glimpse of a patroling PT boat. At one point, he did hear a motor—a boat, not far. He began to swim towards the boat. And then he heard the voices, coming from its deck—speaking Japanese. And then, suddenly, a bright searchlight began to scan the water. Kennedy ducked. He made it underwater just in time, just as the search-light hit the area where he’d been swimming. The light didn’t move. It bounced on that one patch of water, steadily now. Kennedy stayed under—struggling to hold his breath. Finally, when he could hold it no longer, he started towards the water’s surface. And the light, luckily, very luckily, moved away just as his head came out above the water. . . .
He told Ross and Thom about this early the next morning, when he came stumbling back up the beach on Plum Pudding Island. Exhausted, haggard, his feet bleeding—he told them about how the Jap boat had come, how the American boats hadn’t.
And then, like a sleepwalker, he began to move up the beach. Until he slumped down against a palm trunk. And buried his head in his arms.
For the first time, young Lt. Kennedy seemed to be near the cracking point.
As he asked now: “Where are they? They must know we’re somewhere!
“Barney,” he said then, not even looking up at Ross, “—you try it tonight.”
“All right,” Ross said. And then the ensign added: “We’ll stay with it as long as we can. But if something doesn’t happen soon. . . . I’m afraid we’re going to tap out. There’s a Japanese island over there, not far. Some of the boys feel that’s better than nothing.”
Kennedy didn’t say anything for a moment. But then he raised his head. And said, “That means giving up, Barney.”
“To the boys,” said Ross, “it means giving up alive.”
“No,” said Kennedy—his voice weak, but his eyes stubborn. “We’re getting out of here, Barney. I don’t know how—but we’re getting out of here.”
There was another pause. And then, once again, Jack Kennedy buried his face in his arms.
“If we go back, we go back without Marney and Kirksey,” he whispered. “That’s what beats me . . . that’s what beats the hell out of me.”
Ross and Thom watched their lieutenant for a moment.
Then Thom made a signal to Ross.
And the two men walked away—leaving their lieutenant, mercifully, alone. . . .
“Flaw in my character”
As planned, Ross made the long swim out into the channel later that day.
Like Kennedy’s swim the night before, this was equally futile.
The men of the 109 were depressed now.
“Mr. Kennedy,” one of them asked, “do you think that we’ll ever get out of this?”
“Yep,” said Kennedy, his strength obvi- ously returning, “—we’re moving to Olasana.”
“I’m telling you, lieutenant,” another said, “I can’t walk on any more reef. My feet are already cut to the bone. I won t be able to make Olasana.”
Kennedy was firm: “You’re going to have to make it!”
“Why move at all?” asked a third man. “At least we know there aren’t any Japs here.”
“We also know,” said Kennedy, “that there isn’t any food. . . . Listen.” he went on, “Olasana is closer to Ferguson Passage. Those boats are coming through tonight. They’ve got to. The odds are on our side.”
“Honestly, you stiff me,” came a voice now. It was Ross speaking, looking at Kennedy and shaking his head. “Here we are . . . beat and burned and given up for dead! Living on green coconuts with no water in the middle of 15.000 Japanese soldiers! And you decide the odds are on our side.”
Kennedy shrugged. “All right,” he said, “—it’s a flaw in my character.”
And then he turned and, as he moved off to start the work party, he called out: “Come on! In the water by noon!”
Nine men holding onto the plank and paddling—Jack Kennedy carrying “Pappy” McMahon on his back—they eventually made Olasana. There they found no food, no water. But, instead, two natives who stood pointing Japanese rifles at them.
The majority of the men made it clear to Kennedy that they didn’t trust these two; them or their rifles.
But Kennedy was hopeful; he knew damn well that hope was the only thing he had going for them all now.
“Will you deliver a message for us?” he asked the two, “in your boat. . . . Can you take a message to Rendova?”
The natives didn’t answer.
Kennedy moved over to a nearby tree trunk, looked around, picked up a coconut and, with a hunting knife, he began to carve a message.
“This could backfire, you know,” said Ross, joining bis lieutenant now.
“It could,” Kennedy said.
“If it falls into the wrong hands, it’s like taking out an ad . . . telling them exactly where we are,” said Ross.
Kennedy looked at the ensign. “Time is running out, Barney,” he said, summing up the situation. Then he handed the coconut to Ross. “That cover it?”
Ross read the message:
“Native knows posit. He can pilot. Eleven alive need small boat. Kennedy ”
“Guess it’ll do,” said Ross.
Kennedy handed the coconut to the natives who, silently, took it and made for their canoe.
Quickly, they slid the canoe into the water and began to paddle away.
Quickly, the men on shore noticed that the canoe seemed to be headed straight for Kolombangara, the Jap-held island across the channel.
It might have been the current that shifted them that way; it might have been that the natives were purposely going in that direction.
The men on shore didn’t know for sure.
They only knew that they must wait.
And, tensely, very tensely, they waited.
There was anger during the long wait.
At one point when one of the men began to complain and hollered, “It’s getting so I really don’t care what happens to us, lieutenant!” Kennedy hollered back—
“Well, start caring! All of you. Start caring right now. There’s a way out of this. Suppose those natives don’t come through for us. Something else is going to happen. If it doesn’t, we’ll make it happen. Because we’re not going to die out here. We’re going home instead. If we have to get in the water and drag this whole island back, we’re going home!”
Now is soon enough
And there was soft humor:
“I know one thing, Mr. Kennedy,” said the wounded “Pappy” McMahon to his skipper at one point. “If I ever do get out of here—there’s only two things in the world I want. My wife, and some dryland motors to work on. . . . What about you?”
“Well,” Jack Kennedy answered, “I’m not much on dryland motors, Pappy. But—I’ll dig up something to do.”
And so there were many emotions felt, thoughts thought, during the long wait.
Until, finally, exactly twenty-four hours after the two natives had taken off in their canoe, the wait was suddenly ended. With the appearance on the beach of another canoe—a larger one this time—manned by six men. And with the appearance of the leader of these men—a missionary-trained, English-speaking, fedora-sporting native named Benjamin Kevu.
Kevu handed Kennedy a letter, as the rest of the men gathered around excitedly.
“It’s from a coastwatcher named Evans,” said Kennedy, as he read the letter. “He’s advising Rendova. I’m to meet him and arrange a rendezvous. Kevu is to take me.”
“In that canoe?” asked Ensign Thom. “But you’ll be spotted.”
“Gentlemen,” said Kennedy, “—book my bets.” Then, turning to Kevu, he asked, “Ready?”
“We should leave as soon as possible,” said Kevu. “The Jap patrols are active.”
“Is now soon enough?” Kennedy asked.
And without pausing for an answer, he began to run towards the waiting canoe.
Okay in Ha-vad
The little boat made it to the coast- watcher’s station—safely.
There, Kennedy was picked up by the PT 157.
There were lots of handshakes, there was lots of backslapping.
And then, within minutes, the PT headed out towards Plum Pudding Island—where, a little while later, ten bedraggled survivors of the 109 waved and cheered and laughed and wept when they saw their young lieutenant standing at the bow of the oncoming boat, letting them know with that schoolboy grin of bis, calling out to them with that Ha-vad accent of his, that everything was all right now. That everything was just fine now.
—ADAPTED FROM THE WARNERS’ SCRIPT.
BY DOUG BREWER
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE AUGUST 1963