PT-109 (1963) 

 

 

 

Director:     Leslie H. Martinson. 

Starring:     Cliff Robertson (Lt. John F. Kennedy), Ty Hardin (Ens. Leonard J. Thom), James Gregory (Cmdr. C.R. Ritchie), Robert Culp (Ens. George 'Barney' Ross), Grant Williams (Lt., Alvin Cluster), Lew Gallo (Yeoman Rogers), Errol John (Benjamin Kevu), Michael Pate (Lt. Reginald Evans), Robert Blake (Charles 'Bucky' Harris), William Douglas (Gerald Zinser), Biff Elliot (Edgar E. Mauer), Norman Fell (Edmund Drewitch), Sam Gilman (Raymond Starkey), Clyde Howdy (Leon Drawdy), Buzz Martin (Maurice Kowal).

Jack Kennedy commands a PT boat in the Pacific

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"On August 7th, 1942 elements of the First Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal. The American Navy was assigned the job of sea support in the Solomon Islands. There were few capital ships available, and they were ill-suited for narrow channel water. The PT boats were fast, shallow draft (?)carrying maximum torpedo power. Their assignment, harass the enemy and buy time for a Navy that was still on the drawing boards. This narrative concerns one of those boats and its crew, commanded by Lt. J. G. John F. Kennedy. PT-109."

On board ship the captain tells Yeoman Rogers to notify this list of three officers that he will be disembarking in about an hour. Rogers tells the three officers. He asks Lt. Kennedy if he could talk to him about something? Sure. Rogers says he's transferring to Pearl Harbor. Now he wants Kennedy to get himself transferred back to the States and then send for him (Rogers). Kennedy is skeptical. Rogers says Kennedy doesn't want to be on a PT boat: "Nothing but a plywood coffin."

Kennedy says he just got here and, by the way, he had to negotiate his way to get the assignment on the PT boat. Rogers is shocked. He says: "Mr. Kennedy they're fighting out here." Kennedy asks him where is his spirit for what he believes in? The conversation is ended when there is an announcement: "General quarters! All hands man your battle stations!"

Everyone rushes to their battle stations. Above them there are four Japanese planes heading down to attack the ship. Two bombs hit the water, but the third one hits in the center of the ship. Another bomb also hits the ship.

The planes leave. The men now tend to the wounded sailors. Rogers shouts down: "Mr. Kennedy, welcome to the South Pacific."

Kennedy and two other officers are dropped off on land. He goes over to another officer to find out where is the squadron commander. The other officer is yelling at one of his men and is in a rather nasty mood. As a PT boat draws near, the officer says: "Look at 'em! Skippers they call themselves. They're not naval officers. They're nothing but a bunch of civilians dressed up in costume."

Kennedy says he's looking for PT squadron 2. The officer says the squadron commander is Lt. Alvin Cluster.

MTB Flotilla One, Tulagi, Solomon Islands. Operations. [Tulagi is a small island (5.5 km by 1 km) in the Solomon Islands, just off the south coast of Florida Island. Primarily the 1st Marine Raiders, landed on August 7, 1942 and captured Tulagi from the Japanese as part of Operation Watchtower after a day of hard fighting. The island hosted a fleet of PT boats for a year.]

Kennedy finds Lt. Cluster sleeping. Cluster asks him what's his specialty and Kennedy says PT boat skipper. Cluster moans that he needs an engineering officer. He asks if Kennedy might take the job for awhile. Their PT-boats are all spoken for. Kennedy says he's been counting on commanding a PT-boat. So Cluster says there is the PT-109, if one can call that a boat. Kennedy says he'll take it.

The boat looks a mess. It looks old and a bit decrepit. It also looks ill-maintained. And the engine is in worse shape than the boat.

An air raid siren sounds. Cluster and Kennedy jump into a shallow fox hole. The Japanese drop a few bombs on Tulagi.

Commander C.R. Ritchie, the guy who said the PT-boat skippers are a bunch of civilians dressed up in costume, is in charge of the base at Tulagi. Ritchie asks Kennedy if he thinks that PT-109 will ever be able to pass inspection? Kennedy says yes. Ritchie refers to him as another "hotrod". Ritchie also says he will give him one week to get the boat into shape.

Kennedy takes a look at the interior of the ship and it's worse than the outside. While he's down below, executive officer Ensign Leonard J. Thom reports for duty. Three enlisted men now arrive at PT-109. Their names are Edmund "George" Drewitch (motor machinist second), Charles 'Bucky' Harris (gunner's mate second) and Leon Drawdy (motor machinist second). George asks if this is all the men they have because it's going to be hard for such a small crew to fix up the boat. That's all for right now.

Ensign Thom shows ups with six new crew members: Andrew Kirksey (torpedo man second), John McQuire (radioman second), Barney (quarter man second), Maurice Kowal (gunners mate third), Albert (seaman second class) and Edgar E. Mauer (seaman first class).

Kennedy throws some old oil over the railing and it lands on the chief petty officer, who sits in a boat painting the side of the ship. The NCO is extremely mad. He says Kennedy is a bum and he's coming up there to tell him off.

Kennedy greets the NCO and says he's sorry about what happened. The NCO says it's not him he's after, but a knuckle-headed enlisted man. Kennedy says he didn't know anyone was below him when he threw the oil out. The NCO is still mad, but is going to have to let it slide. Kennedy says he is going to replace the man's oil-soaked shirt.

Commander Ritchie comes aboard ship to inspect it. He makes not one word of criticism of the boat. He leaves. The boat now goes on a test run. They buzz by a naval ship, which irritates the ship's officers. PT-109 performs well.

A briefing is held by Lt. Cluster. He tells the officers that Task Force 31 has made landings at Rendova Island [an island, part of the New Georgia Islands of Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, east of Papua New Guinea. It lies northwest of Gudalcanal]. When the island is secured, the PT-boats will move there.

At the briefing Kennedy is surprised and pleased to see Yeoman Rogers. After the briefing the men speak briefly. Rogers says that he had it all socked in, manning a recruiting station in Ohio. He figures someone must have ratted him out. Kennedy tells Thom that if Rogers isn't careful, he'll talk his way right onto the Japanese Imperial staff.

News arrives of an emergency. Marine paratroop battalion. One of their patrols is trapped at the northern end of Bougainville island. The job of PT-109 is to rendezvous with the patrol and provide cover. The PT 109 has little fuel left. Lt. Cluster says he will send a tow for them.

The PT boat is now down to 300 gallons. The boat arrives at its destination at night. The marines are pinned down on the beach. The PT boat starts firing on the enemy while two troop carriers land on the beach and the marines start getting on board.

A mortar hits one of the landing boats and the men start jumping out into the sea. The PT-boat gets closer and puts their nets out so the marines can climb up them and onto the boat. The marines get on board and the boat takes off. Then the boat runs out of gas. The boat starts drifting back to the Japanese.

Kennedy calls for help and another PT-boat reaches them quickly. Soon PT-109 is being pulled to safety. The Japanese are disappointed to miss out on destroying PT-109.

Commander Ritchie goes to see the captain. He says he has never even got close enough to the enemy to shake his fist at them. And it looks like he's being kept out of the action again. He wants a chance to see if he's a hero or just a coward. He wants to move with the others into the combat zone and not be left behind.

So Ritchie is put in charge of PT-109 heading for Rendova Island. PT-109 moves out. And here comes a Japanese plane. Ritchie takes over the gun and starts firing away at the plane. He actually hits it. It takes awhile, but the plane finally crashes into the sea.

Kennedy forgets that the old engines don't work well when thrown into reverse suddenly. He is going so fast that his momentum carries him into a shack at the end of the dock. Ritchie complains to him about wrecking the shack.

Cluster comes down to the dock and tells Kennedy and Thom that they are both wanted up at headquarters. At operations, Kennedy and the other officers learn that the express may be coming tonight. This is a group of Japanese destroyers plus heavy barge traffic. They are going to land troops and supplies at Vella Lavella Island.

The Cookman group of PT-boats will patrol the South Ferguson Passage [southwest of Kolombangara Island]. Scott's group will patrol east of Makuti Island [near South Ferguson Passage]. The third group will patrol near Utari Village. The fourth group will be up by the village of Banga-banga.

The men are under condition red and have to scramble to get to their boats without being machine gunned or hit by shrapnel from bombs dropped from the enemy planes. Kennedy and Thom finally reach PT-109.

Ensign George 'Barney' Ross joins the PT-109 crew. The boats start moving out to their assigned positions.

Kennedy has to talk to Andrew Kirksey who says he knows absolutely that he is going to be killed.

It's a completely dark night. A Japanese destroyer is in the area. All of a sudden the destroyer comes very close to PT-109. The destroyer goes right through the center of PT-109 breaking it into two halves.

Kennedy has hurt his back again. Some of the men were thrown into the now burning sea during the initial crash. The front half of the boat is still afloat. Men start jumping off the boat to help others get back aboard the boat. When all the immediate survivors are back aboard the boat, other sailors still swim around the boat yelling out the names of the missing men.  Seamen Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold W. Marney were killed, and two other members of the crew were badly injured.

Kennedy tells Thom that he wants to head for Plum Island about four miles away. They are going to swim for the island. Kennedy tows one of the men and other sailors pull other wounded and weak men out of the water.

A mountain spotter reports the remains of what he thinks is a barge. He says that the Japanese are still in the area. Kennedy and his man make it to Plum Island. Kennedy hears the noise of a boat and sees it'is a Japanese troop carrier. Kennedy rushes back to the beach, swims out and helps the others get onto the beach and the island.

Kennedy thinks about swimming out to a reef far away. He figures if he could shine their lantern out there, they might catch the attention of the American boats. The men spot an American plane flying overhead. The pilots spot the wreck but no survivors are seen. The plane leaves without looking around at the surrounding islands.

At twilight Kennedy starts swimming to the reef over by Ferguson Passage.

The next morning Kennedy returns to the survivors' island. He reports that all he saw was a Jap barge. The guys are talking about how they might have to swim over to one of the Japanese-held islands in order to be saved. Kennedy won't hear of it. He tells Barney that he is going swimming tonight. At night Barney does go out. He returns the next morning. He did not find any American boats. Kennedy says they are moving to a different, larger island.

Two natives arrive armed with Japanese rifles. The survivors cannot communicate with them. Kennedy tries to find something he can write a message on. They find a smooth coconut shell and inscribe a message on it. Kennedy gives the coconut to one of the natives and says: Rendova. He repeats the name of the island.

The islanders take off in their canoe. A large group of islanders land on survivors' island. A man asks in English for Kennedy. He has a letter for Kennedy. The letter is from coast watcher Sub Lt. Arthur Reginald Evans, an Australian. He received the coconut. He asks Kennedy to get in the boat with the natives and have them bring him over to him (Evans) and they will be able to finalize the plans to get the rest of his party.

Kennedy goes back with the natives. They are buzzed by a Japanese plane. The natives start waving to the pilot to make themselves appear as friends of the Japanese.

The natives stop at the island where Evans can speak with Kennedy about the arrangement to pick up the other survivors. The PT-boat will meet him. The signal for pick up will be four shots.  The PT-boat arrives, four shots are fired and Kennedy responds with four shots fired.

Kennedy guides the PT-boat to survivors' island. Kennedy calls out to the men and swims to the men heading toward him.

The men are on the PT-boat now having something to eat.

Kennedy gets command of PT-59. Some of the same men who were with him on PT-109 are with him again on PT-59. Kennedy takes off for new adventures.

 

Spoiler Warning.  Good film.  The film shows how PT boats were used in WWII.  It also shows the bravery of future President Kennedy.  Kennedy's actions to save his surviving crew after the sinking of the PT-109 made him a war hero, which later proved helpful in his political career.  Cliff Robertson (as Lt. John F. Kennedy) did a good job of portraying young John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

 

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