The young, skinny Navy officer walked along the dock at a South Pacific base and met his new crewmen for the first time, as they stood on the sun-drenched deck of a nondescript, navy green torpedo boat.
Some of the men on board were crusty old sailors and war veterans, others just young and cocky “swabbies” new to the U.S. Navy’s war against the vaunted and feared Japanese Imperial Navy.
Some of the guys aboard heard the scuttlebutt—the rampant rumor—that this new captain of the 80-foot torpedo boat, Lt. (junior grade) John Kennedy, was the son of ultra-wealthy Joe Kennedy of Boston.
When Lt. Kennedy walked on deck, the men dropped their mops and paint brushes and saluted the new skipper, said Gerard Zinser in his last interview a few years ago, prior to his death.
That story was printed in the Boston Globe and Navy Times.
Zinser was the last survivor from the final 13-member crew of the boat, and he was a few years older than the rest. He was called “Pops” by the young bucks.
Gerard Zinser, 83, when I interviewed him for this story, was on board that fateful, starless night of August 2, 1943, when the PT 109 was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri – meaning in Japanese Heavenly Mist. Though it was a lot more like a storm from Hell.
“I was a motormac. That’s what they called the guys who kept the engines going,” Zinser said.
At 25, and already a first class petty officer, he was the 109’s only “lifer.” That was the term for a career Navy man.
Zinser grew up in Belleville, Illinois, and joined the Navy in 1937 after deciding that high school was not the adventure he was looking for, so he found himself a new life as a crewman replacing second class motormac Leon Drawdy, who was wounded by enemy aircraft machine gun fire just a couple of weeks prior, when the 109 was on patrol in its duty area throughout the Solomon Islands seeking to harass Japanese ships passing through, especially at night.
Zinser retired from the U.S. Postal Service years before his death in August 2001, and I found him through Melody Miller in 1998, when she was still working as press secretary for U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy.
She had worked as a writer for U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy years before, so she was part of an inner sanctum–at least politically.
When I interviewed him, he resided in St. Petersburg, Fla. The walls of a room were adorned with relics from that long-ago tour in the South Pacific islands.
Those items were reminders of the wild and reckless days when he was a young sailor definitely drifting into harm’s way.
PT (Patrol Torpedo) 109 was an 80-foot boat with hulls constructed primarily of plywood to keep weight down to facilitate speed and evasive maneuvers.
Kennedy, also known as a scrounger–a man who could somehow get very unauthorized items and had the skills of a horse trader–obtained an artillery piece (37 mm) to mount on the deck, forward of the bridge.
This, the skipper felt, would give the boat an edge in close combat. It also was outfitted with torpedoes, and 50-caliber machine guns.
Its three 12 cylinder Packard gasoline engines generated great speed and it was highly maneuverable–capable of attacking enemy vessels and quickly retreating, dodging enemy fire.
The 109 was one of 15 PT boats sent out from the Navy base at Rendova Harbor in the Islands.
Their mission that night was primarily to locate a fleet of enemy ships loaded with soldiers, expected to pass through the islands.
But the Amagiri found 109 quite by accident. The collision at 02:30 hours happened so suddenly that no one had a chance to fire a single shot–from either vessel. Lt. Commander Kohei Hanami was the 34 year-old captain of the Japanese warship.
According to an official Navy report: “Lt. Kennedy started his patrol (leading three other PT boats heading south) and unknown to them, the Amagiri was returning north after completing a supply mission to the island of Kolombangara, and spotted the boats about 1,000 yards away.
Rather than open fire, and give away their position, the destroyer captain turned to intercept and closed in the darkness at 30-knots.
“Kennedy spotted the ship about 200 yards away and ordered the boat to starboard, preparing to launch torpedoes. But the turn was too slow, and the destroyer rammed, neither slowing of firing her guns as she split the boat apart. “
The crew of 109 were violently jerked into the water, and fire erupted from ruptured gasoline tanks at least 20 yards around the doomed boat, forcing the crew to swim outward in all directions.
When the flames began to dissipate, Kennedy saw the forward part of the boat was still floating.
So Kennedy, Ensign Lennie Thom, Ensign George Ross, Quartermaster Edman Mauer, Radioman John Maguire, and Seaman Ray Albert, all crawled back on board.
Soon Kennedy and Thom heard shouting from three sailors about 100 yards away, then two others–Gunner’s Mate Charlie Harris, Motormac Bill Johnston, and Motormac Patrick McMahon, Torpedoman Ray Starkey, and Motormac Gerard Zinser.
“Lt. Kennedy swam to the group of three men where he found one helpless due to serious burns and another struggling to stay afloat latched to a water-logged life jacket.
“Kennedy gave his life belt to the sinking sailor, and towed the burned man back to the 109 wreckage.
“He swam back out and helped tow the near-drowned sailor back. Ensigns Thom and Ross towed the other survivors back, but two sailors, Torpedoman Andrew Kirksey and Motormac Harold Marney, were killed in the collision–never seen again.”
“The skipper had injured his back severely in the collision,” Zinser said.
“Though we didn’t know what was happening to anyone at the time, or what condition we were in. The ship damned near cut him (Kennedy) in half, because it hit right behind where he was on watch at the captain’s chair on the bridge.”
Hours later, about 1400 hours (2 p.m.), Kennedy told the men they’d all have to try and make it to an island located a few miles away.
About this time, the forward portion of the boat began to punctuate Kennedy’s words with an ominous finality—it was beginning to roll over, upside down, and would soon be headed for the bottom.
And where the men were located, near some floating wreckage items, they were also vulnerable to enemy aircraft sightings, Zinser said.
Kennedy determined that Pappy McMahon, older and severely burned, probably with dehydration problems, would have to be towed.
Just about everyone else had their hands full just surviving, so Kennedy took McMahon and towed him along by the strap of his life preserver.
Sometimes, when his arms got tired, Kennedy would place the strap between his teeth and tow Pappy that way for a while.
“He had Mac’s life jacket clenched in his teeth and it wore him out,” said Zinser.
“He might rest a minute, but he kept going. Then Mac started moaning and saying: `Skip, I’m all done. I can’t make it. Leave me here.’
“And the skipper said one time, `whether you like it or not, you’re coming Pappy. Don’t you know only the good die young?’” Zinser chuckled remembering that.
Kennedy would get angry and curse sometimes, trying to get Pappy angry, as well. So he would fight.
It took the men several hours to swim to the island they later called Plum Pudding, because it looked like a bowl of pudding from water level miles away.
They collapsed when reaching the sandy shores of the small island that was thick with palm trees, but no fresh water. At least they could eat coconuts and drink the coconut juice for a few days.
And it was easy for them to hear approaching Japanese planes, patrol boats and ships, as they remained well hidden in the trees of the formerly deserted island.
Kennedy knew they had to act fast in order to effect rescue as soon as possible. He was worried that some of the men would die soon if he didn’t get in contact with the Navy PT base at Rendova, 40 miles away.
But there were no radios, or any other form of communication. So Kennedy rested up for several hours and that first evening he equipped himself with a battle lantern from the PT 109, placed a rope around his neck that was tied to a Colt .38-caliber revolver, put on a life jacket, and after shaking hands with Ensign Thom, he waded slowly and shakily back into the ocean waves in hopes of swimming far enough out into the wide passage between the main ship channel of Solomon Islands, to signal a U.S. vessel—maybe even a passing PT boat sent to search for survivors of PT 109.
But nothing would come—just the constant waves, the low clouds, the wind and maddening silence.
What Kennedy couldn’t have known was that his boat’s wreckage and the fire was sighted by an allied coast watcher, and was reported to the distant Rendova Navy Base with the final words: “no survivors.” The Navy later officially listed Kennedy and his crew as killed in action.
Meanwhile, as Kennedy tired of treading water in total darkness with sharks undoubtedly nearby, he soon found himself in sight of their little island and waved the lantern to the men, some of whom were asleep.
But the strong currents pulled him away from that island and took him helplessly out toward the open sea.
Kennedy recounted that night’s strange events in an interview with author John Hersey, who wrote a story about the PT 109 ordeal and Kennedy’s great heroism in a June 17, 1944 issue of “The New Yorker” magazine.
“(Kennedy) thought he had never known such deep trouble,” Hersey wrote, “but something he did shows that he unconsciously had not given up hope.
“He dropped his shoes, but he held onto the heavy lantern, his symbolic contact with his fellows. He stopped trying to swim. He seemed to stop caring. His body drifted through the wet hours, and he was very cold. His mind was a jumble,” Hersey wrote.
“His mind seemed to float away from his body. Darkness and time took the place of a mind in his skull. For a long time he slept, or was crazy, or floated in a chill trance.”*
Kennedy later realized a strange current captured him for a time, moving him many miles in a clockwise circle—west, past an island called Gizo, then north and east past another island called Kolombangara, then back to Ferguson Passage to the area where he’d been trying to signal a boat before.
Even after all that exhaustive ordeal, he slowly swam wearily back several miles to their new home island, and that time the tide and currents were on his side—helping him get back.
Zinser said Kennedy would crawl back up from shore and vomit for a few minutes from the ingestion of salt water and from fatigue and lack of water or food. He may have even contracted malaria at that time—a condition later diagnosed by a Navy doctor.
Zinser said: “We didn’t eat anything, and the only time we’d get anything to drink was when it would rain and we’d try and catch a few drops on our tongue.”
Kennedy later passed orders to other men and was able to get a couple of them to swim out as he had done and try to signal allied ships. But it was a futile effort. The hot, humid days and night passed slowly.
Luck finally turned the 109 crew’s way later, when Kennedy and Ross were spotted by local native islanders as they scouted yet another nearby island to possibly find food, water, and shelter. The two men found a large cache of Japanese crackers and candy and nearby on the beach, a lean-to with a small canoe and barrel full of rainwater. The natives paddled quickly away. At the time it could have gone either way–the natives may have turned them in to the Japanese patrols in the area.
Instead, the natives reported, to an Australian coast watcher, that they’d seen two stranded Americans.
On the night of Aug. 5, “Kennedy took the canoe into Ferguson Passage but found no PT boats,” according to an official report.
Kennedy passed by the small island he and Ross scouted and found Ensign Thom and the crew already there, trying to communicate with the natives.
Finally the natives agreed to help the Americans–despite considerable risk to themselves and their families. Thom wrote a message requesting rescue with pencil and paper, and Kennedy carved a message on a green coconut husk. The natives left with the messages, and the next day several more natives arrived by canoes with instructions from the coast watcher for the senior naval officer to go with them. The natives dropped off food and medical supplies, and a stove, then hid Kennedy under ferns in a large canoe and paddled him to the coast watcher.
The night of August 6, Kennedy was taken to meet up with PT 157, commanded by Lt. W.F. Liebenow, and the natives guided his boat and one other, PT-171, to the survivors. By morning the marooned sailors were all high and dry at the Rendova PT base.
For his part, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal: “for extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Area on August 1-2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then lieutenant, jr. grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Kennedy commanded 109 from April 24, 1943 to August 2, 1943. The boat earned a battle star for the New Georgia Group Operation.
Zinser said he was invited to many events by President Kennedy and his staff during the thousand days of his administration, beginning with the inauguration—where a replica of PT 109 was made for the parade. All the crewmen who made it through that terrible week in the South Pacific were riding on the replica boat that frigid day in Washington, D.C.
Once again these older Navy war veterans seemed to be young men again, shouting and jeering at one another just as they had years before, and they grinned and saluted the man who had kept them alive, through his sustained courage and coolness under the harshest and most hopeless of conditions.
As the replica of PT 109 passed President Kennedy, the men acted as if they were at their battle stations, Zinser recalled, half-expecting that their once young and skinny skipper would halt the parade, and take command again. Zinser grinned at the thought.
He remembered JFK’s incandescent smile, the proud crewmen, and that frozen fragment of time when the new chief executive raised his hand to return their salutes.
With that, the day seemed warm again, from the brightness and joy of the young president’s face.
“I never was much for crying, but I found myself wiping tears from my eyes all evening on Nov. 22, 1963,” Zinser said, looking up on his wall of a picture when JFK was president.
“He was very special to all of us. I felt that day, when he died, it felt like I’d lost the best friend of my life. And I hadn’t seen him since 1963. That’s what John Kennedy meant to me,” he said.
“I think we all felt that way.”
• Quotes included from “The New Yorker” with permission from the publisher.
• Admiral John W. Flores is a writer in Albuquerque, NM. Born in Dallas, he is a former investigative reporter for The Dallas Morning News. He has written three biographies, and is a veteran search-and-rescue crewman of the U.S. Coast Guard. He was awarded the U.S. Navy Meritorious Public Service Award for his contributions to the Navy and Marine Corps.
JOHN W. FLORES*