“PT 109” by William Doyle highlights the combat incident that influenced John F. Kennedy for the rest of his life. This book written about fifty years after the best-selling book by Robert Donavan charted the event, Kennedy’s leadership skills, and how it shaped Kennedy’s attitude.
The book recounts how the mission assigned to Kennedy and other PT boat commanders was doomed from the start. On August 2, 1943, while patrolling the Solomon Islands the Japanese destroyer Amagiri barreled through thick fog and struck the U.S. Navy’s motor torpedo boat PT 109, splitting the craft nearly in half and killing two American sailors instantly. The other eleven survivors swam through flame and shark-infested waters to reach an island that was surrounded by the Japanese. Kennedy was set up for failure because the black darkened waters made it difficult to stay in the convoy, there was no radar on board the boat so communication among the convoy was inhibited, the torpedoes fired inaccurately, and the overall commander, Warfield, refused to take questions or input from his subordinates.
“I believe Kennedy had proven to himself and to others that he was capable of leadership and command, and possessed of considerable courage under fire,” Doyle said. “Kennedy could have avoided harms way by using the influence of his father, instead he demanded to be on the front lines of combat.”
Readers will also learn that during this time period Kennedy became a respected leader. Interestingly not one of his crewmembers ever faulted him and in fact many admitted to admiring him. It is said that circumstances create heroes, and the case can be made that in the aftermath of the sinking he was courageous and daring. Kennedy became a hero that night by choosing to risk his life for his men. He swam in shark-infested waters all night trying to get help. Doyle points out that after being rescued Kennedy did not return home, “showing how important was his sense of duty, bravery, and patriotism,” but took command of another PT boat, and that remarkably two of his former crewmembers chose to once again serve under him.”
The book also conveys how Kennedy was furious because his superior, Commander Warfield, believing that all crew members had been killed during the sinking, decided not to send out a search mission that might jeopardize the lives of other PT rescuers. The PT 109 crew survived those six days despite broken bones, burns, no medical supplies, radio, water, food, and arms. Doyle recalls in the book Kennedy’s bitterness since his feelings were that his comrades should have looked “for us and would fight to save us beyond reasonable expectation… The tragedy was that the comrades of the 109 did not go back to look for survivors.”
Yet, JFK also did not whitewash his responsibility in the PT 109 disaster. One quality of a good leader is being able to admit mistakes. He candidly blamed the collision on his decision to patrol with one engine, and have too many of his exhausted men asleep. Doyle remarked that Kennedy’s honesty seems to be something of the past considering “most politicians today think we are idiots and that we will believe whatever they say, never admitting to their mistakes. Yet, JFK was perfectly comfortable admitting mistakes and trying to learn from them.”
A powerful quote in the book summarized Kennedy’s feelings about his experience during WWII, “The war made us. It was and is our single greatest moment. The memory of the war is key to our characters… No school or parent could have shaped us the way that fight shaped us. No other experience could have brought forth in us the same fortitude and resilience.” Today’s candidates should read this account of PT 109 to learn from Kennedy’s leadership skills, honesty, and a desire to protect those willing to fight for America’s values.