SOLOMON ISLANDS CAMPAIGN IN WORLD WAR II, KENNEDY AND PT 109

ISLAND HOPPING IN THE PACIFIC


The American strategy of "island hopping" was simple: to attack and capture Japanese-held islands in the Pacific between Hawaii and Japan and hop scotch from island to island until Allied forces were close enough to make an attack on Japan. Once an island was captured, it was used a staging area for the attack on the next one. The strategy was devised by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of American naval forces in the Pacific.

With the exception of a few major sea battles such as Coral Sea and Midway and the Solomon Island campaign, there was relatively little action in the two years that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor. During that time Japan dug itself in and the U.S. poured its resources into arming itself and preparing for a major offensive against the Japanese. Islands that weren’t necessary were skipped. MacArthur said “let them wither on the vine.”

Fighting in the islands followed a similar patter. American landed on the beaches with landing crafts similar to those used during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The Japanese defenses at the landing points were relatively weak. Instead they hid in caves and bunkers on the islands and made the advancing American soldiers pay for every yard they gained.

The Americans took relatively few Japanese prisoners because the majority of Japanese soldiers chose to fight to the death or committed suicide rather than surrender. Many Japanese civilians on some islands were also killed. The goal of the Japanese was not to win but prolong the defeat.

Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal


Solomon Islands

Forces led by Adm. Chester Nimitz captured the Solomon Islands (a scattered archipelago west of New Guinea) in fierce fighting characterized by island-hopping amphibious landings. The campaign kept New Guinea and the Solomon Islands out of Japanese hands. This denied the Japanese of a staging area for a land invasion of Australia and gave the Americans a foothold in the southern Pacific to advance their island hopping strategy.

The first serious American counterattack of World War II, using ground forces, took place on Guadalcanal, an island at the southernmost end of the Solomon Islands, where the Japanese Navy was building an air base and trying to establish a frontline for operations to divide U.S. and Australian forces.

American Marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. After fighting for six months, and enduring leeches, crocodiles, rain, poor food and disease, they prevailed and took the island and seized its all important airfield. About 31,000 Japanese soldiers were sent to the island to recapture the airport, but their supply lines were cut because of U.S. aerial superiority. About 21,000 troops died before Japan pulled out of the island, mainly due to hunger and malaria. The last Japanese units were wiped out on February 8, 1943.

Admirals Nimitz and Halsey are credited with ending the deadlock at Guadalcanal. Admiral Richmond Kelly “Terrible” Turner supplied the Marines at Guadalcanal. The Japanese wrongly predicted when the U.S., attack would be launched and failed to have enough forces and supplies on hand and ultimately gave up on their drive to oust the U.S. Marines from the Solomon Islands. The victory gave the Americans their first stepping stone on their long drive towards Japan. It was followed up the taking of New Georgia on August 6, 1943, and the invasion of Bougainville on November 1, 1943.

Guadalcanal was a turning point because it showed the Americans could capture a heavily-fortified enemy island. The battles gave U.S. Marines a chance to perfect landing tactics that would serve them well later in the war. The assaults consisted of landing elite troops supported by ground-attack aircraft and naval gunfire. They were followed by the Seabees, construction battalions that built docks, roads and airstrips, sometimes while being fired at.

Film: Thin Red Line (1998).

Naval Battles in Solomon Island Campaign


Moving the wounded between ships

In a series of five naval engagements between August 9th and November 15, 1942, the U.S. Navy prevented a Japanese invasion of the Solomon islands and destroyed a large portion of the Japanese fleet at a heavy cost in American ships.

At the Battle of Savo Island on August 9 a Japanese night attack was thwarted at a cost of three American cruisers. At the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 23-25 the Japanese fleet was forced to withdraw but the U.S. lost an aircraft carrier and five destroyers. At the Battle of Cape Esperence on October 11-12, an American night attack drove away the Japanese.

At the Battle of Santa Cruz Island on November 13-15, American and Japanese aircraft carriers faced off. The Japanese lost two carries and had about 100 planes shot down. The Americans lost one carrier and 74 planes. At the Battle of Guadalcanal, a Japanese attack was repulsed with heavy losses to both sides.

Describing the Battle of Kolombangara in July 1943 Harvard historian Eliot Morrison wrote: “A gallant sight at that hour, the cruisers so proud and handsome with their curling bow waves and frothy wakes, the destroyers thrusting and turning, now golden with the sun, now dark shadows against the sea; and this is a gorgeous afternoon, with bright cumulus clouds under a thin layer of cirrus and Ironbottom Sound blue as the Gulf of Maine.”

Fighting in the Solomons

Ben Bradlee, the future editor of the Washington Post, was on a destroyer engaged in leapfrogging missions---bypassing enemy-held islands to land troops on more lightly held islands---in a 300-mile-long stretch of ocean between Guadalcanal and Bougainville. Describing an attack on his ship by 40 Japanese Zeros, he wrote in The New Yorker, “Just as Zeros spotted us, we emerged from the blackness of the smoke screen. Suddenly another destroyer, the Waller, turned toward us; as it unmasked its anti-aircraft guns, it masked us on our port side, just forward of midships. The collision scraped a couple of our 20-mm machine guns and a depth charge or two into the sea but no men were lost. At almost the same moment---as both ships opened fire on the Zeros---the skipper of the Waller...apologized.”



On the island of Vella Lavella in the Solomons a friend of Bradley’s told him, “Suddenly...there was a horrendous explosion in the bushes. Felt like the whole island shook....We heard someone yelling...We ran out there. A squad of marines was passing by and one of them had a backpack filled with tetryl, a solid explosive supposedly perfectly safe. He leaned over and as he touched the ground---wham!. As I ran up on the scene, there was a butt sticking out of the bushes, about waist high, just a bent butt, a human butt, and it had marine underwear,. That was all I could see. And whoever it was calling, “Help me! Help me!--- We then gave him some morphine to quiet him down.

Two of the corpsmen took him down a little trail towards the tent. I started to walk behind them, and I looked down on the trail behind him and I saw a foot lying on the trail. I reached out and picked it up and it was warm and it still had a Marine sock on it. I held this in my hand, and I followed them to the aid tent and went over and checked him but he had both his feet. I got a couple of corpesmen and we went back and found another kid in the bushes blown to bits, and this, of course, was his foot.

During a dog fight at the battle of Guadalcanal the Japanese ace Saburo Sakai was hit and blinded permanently in his left eye and temporarily in his right eye. He had paralyzing wounds in his left leg and arm and fragments from machine gun bullets and shrapnel fragments in his back, chest and skull. Even so he managed to fly way back to New Guinea. Sakai is regarded as the greatest Japanese fighter who survived the war. He was involved in more than 200 dog fights and shot down at least 64 enemy aircraft. In one fight he managed to outmaneuver 15 Hellcats that were chasing him and landed safely back at the base. You can read his story in Samurai! by Saburo Sakai (ibooks, 2000).

Adm. Yamamoto was killed on April 18, 1943 when an intercepted and decoded message enabled American fighter planes to intercept the aircraft carrying Yamamoto and shoot it down over Bougainville. It was later revealed that the message of Yamamoto’s travel plans was mistakenly transmitted using an old cipher that the Americans were able to decode rather than a new one they couldn’t.

John F. Kennedy and the PT 109 Story


PT Boat

Lieutenant John F. Kennedy's encounter with a Japanese destroyer on the night of August 1, 1943, may be the most famous small-craft engagement in naval history, and it was an unmitigated disaster. At a later date, when asked to explain how he had come to be a hero, Kennedy replied laconically, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat." [Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; John Hersey, The New Yorker and Reader's Digest]

In Blackett Strait, south of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands, the starless, moonless night of August 1, 1943, was profoundly dark. Inky blackness like this could have a disorienting effect, even on experienced sailors. PT-109 stood at her station, one of fifteen PT boats ("Patrol Torpedo" boats) that had set out to engage, damage, and maybe even turn back the well-known "Tokyo Express." U.S. forces gave that name to the Japanese navy's more or less regular supply convoy to soldiers fighting the advance of U.S. forces in the islands farther south.

When the patrol actually did come in contact with the Tokyo Express---three Japanese destroyers acting as transports with a fourth serving as escort---the encounter did not go well. Thirty torpedoes were fired without damaging the Japanese ships. No U.S. vessels suffered hits or casualties. Boats that had used up their complement of torpedoes were ordered home. The few that still had torpedoes remained in the strait for another try.

PT 109 Collision!


PT-109 was one of the boats left behind. Lieutenant Kennedy rendezvoused his boat with two others, PT-162 and PT-169. The three boats spread out to make a picket line across the strait. At about 2:30 in the morning, a shape loomed out of the darkness three hundred yards off PT-109's starboard bow. The young lieutenant and his crew first believed it to be another PT boat. When it became apparent that it was one of the Japanese destroyers, Kennedy attempted to turn to starboard to bring his torpedoes to bear. But there was not enough time. [Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; John Hersey, The New Yorker and Reader's Digest]

The destroyer, later identified as the Amagiri, struck PT-109 just forward of the forward starboard torpedo tube, ripping away the starboard aft side of the boat. The impact tossed Kennedy around the cockpit. Most of the crew were knocked into the water. The one man below decks, engineer Patrick McMahon, miraculously escaped, although he was badly burned by exploding fuel.

Fear that PT-109 would go up in flames drove Kennedy to order the men who still remained on the wreck to abandon ship. But the destroyer's wake dispersed the burning fuel, and when the fire began to subside, Kennedy sent his men back to what was left of the boat. From the wreckage, Kennedy ordered the men with him, Edgar Mauer and John E. Maguire, to identify the locations of their crewmates still in the water. Leonard Thom, Gerard Zinser, George Ross, and Raymond Albert were able to swim back on their own.

Kennedy swam out to McMahon and Charles Harris. Kennedy towed the injured McMahon by a life-vest strap, and alternately cajoled and berated the exhausted Harris to get him through the difficult swim. Meanwhile, Thom pulled in William Johnston, who was debilitated by the gasoline he had accidentally swallowed and the heavy fumes that lay on the water. Finally Raymond Starkey swam in from where he had been flung by the shock. Floating on and around the hulk, the crew took stock.

Harold Marney and Andrew Jackson Kirksey had disappeared in the collision, very likely killed at impact. All the men were exhausted, and a few were hurt, and several had been sickened by the fuel fumes. There was no sign of other boats or ships in the area; the men were afraid to fire their flare gun for fear of attracting the attention of the Japanese who were on islands on all sides. Although the wreckage was still afloat, it was taking on water, and it capsized on the morning of August 2.


John F. Kennedy and his men


Swimming from PT 109 to a Small Island

After a discussion of options, the men abandoned the remains of PT-109 and struck out for an islet three and a half miles away. Kennedy had been on the swim team at Harvard; even towing McMahon by a belt clamped in his teeth, he was undaunted by the distance. Some of the other men were also good swimmers, but several were not; two, Johnston and Mauer, could not swim at all. These last two were lashed to a plank that the other seven men pulled and pushed as they could. [Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; John Hersey, The New Yorker and Reader's Digest]

Kennedy arrived first at the island. It was named Plum Pudding, but the men called it "Bird" Island because of the guano that coated the bushes. Exhausted, Kennedy had to be helped up the beach by the man he had towed. He collapsed and waited for the rest of the crew. But Kennedy's swimming was not over. Alarmed by a Japanese barge that passed close by, Kennedy decided to swim down into Ferguson Passage, through which the American PT boats passed when they were operating in Blackett Strait. Island-hopping and clinging to reefs, Kennedy made his way out into the passage, where he treaded water for an hour before deciding that the PT boats were in action elsewhere that night.

The return voyage nearly killed him as strong currents spun him out into Blackett Strait and then back into Ferguson Passage. Making the weary trip again, Kennedy stopped on Leorava Island, southeast of Bird Island, where he slept long enough to recoup himself for the final leg of the trip. Returning to Bird Island, Kennedy slept through the day but also made Ross promise to go out on the same trip that night. But Ross, unfortunately, did not see any sign of the PT boats either.

PT 109 Crew Looking for a Way Home

On August 4, Kennedy led the men back into the ocean, striking out for Olasana Island in hopes of finding food and fresh water but also trying to get closer to Ferguson Passage. Kennedy again hauled McMahon by the strap of his life vest while the rest of the crew clustered around the plank and thrashed their way along. Olasana Island proved to be something of a disappointment. The coconuts were more plentiful but had a sickening effect on some of the men. The men found no fresh water, and they were too nervous about Japanese patrols to explore more than a small corner of this larger island.


John F. Kennedy, in the middle


When the night of August 4 turned wet and cold, Kennedy determined to try the next island over the following day. Naru Island is the last in the chain, and its eastern shores look out over Ferguson Passage. Kennedy and Ross climbed up onto its beach a little past noon on August 5. Fearing enemy patrols, the two men stepped carefully through the brush but only saw the wreck of a small Japanese vessel out on the reef. On the beach they spotted a small box with Japanese labels. When they broke it open, they were delighted to discover it contained Japanese candy. Even better, a little further up the island they discovered a tin of water and a one-man canoe hidden in the bushes.

After a drink, Kennedy and Ross were walking back onto the beach when they saw two men out at the Japanese wreck. The men, clearly islanders, took fright and paddled away from the wreck in a canoe, despite Kennedy's hails. That night Kennedy took the canoe into Ferguson Passage once more, again without spotting any U.S. vessels.

Kennedy decided to take the canoe back to Olasana; he stopped long enough to gather the candy and the water to bring to the other men, leaving Ross to rest until the next morning. Arriving at Olasana, Kennedy discovered that the two men he and Ross had seen at Naru had made contact with the rest of the crew. The two men, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, were islander scouts for the Allies. Their hasty departure from Naru had left them tired and thirsty, and they had stopped for coconuts at Olasana, where Thom had been able to convince them that the crew was American.

The next morning, August 6, Kennedy returned with Gasa and Kumana to Naru, intercepting Ross along the way as he was swimming back. The islanders showed the two Americans where a boat had been hidden on Naru. Kennedy was at a loss for a way to send a message, but Gasa showed him how to scratch a few words into the husk of a green coconut. Gasa and Kumana left with the message---NAURO ISL COMMANDER . . . NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT . . . HE CAN PILOT . . . 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT . . . KENNEDY

PT 109 Crew Rescued

As they waited for a rescue, Kennedy insisted on going out with Ross into Ferguson Passage in the two-man canoe. Heavy seas swamped the canoe and so battered the men that they barely made it back to Naru. But the next morning, August 7, eight islanders appeared at Naru shortly after Kennedy and Ross awoke. They brought food and instructions from the local Allied coastwatcher, Lt. A. Reginald Evans, who instructed Kennedy to come to Evans's post. [Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; John Hersey, The New Yorker and Reader's Digest]

Stopping long enough at Olasana to feed the crew, the islanders hid Kennedy under a pile of palm fronds and paddled him to Gomu Island in Blackett Strait. Early in the evening of August 7, a little more than six days after PT-109's sinking, Kennedy stepped on to Gomu. There was still a rescue to be planned with Evans, no small thing in enemy-held waters, but the worst of the ordeal of PT-109 was over.

Evans already notified his commander of the discovery of PT-109's survivors, and the base commander proposed sending a rescue mission directly to Olasana. Kennedy insisted on being picked up first so that he could guide the rescue boats, PT-157 and PT-171, among the reefs and shallows of the island chain.


Late on the night of August 7, the boats met Kennedy at the rendezvous point, exchanging a prearranged signal of four shots. Kennedy's revolver was down to only three rounds, so he borrowed a rifle from Evans for the fourth. Standing up in the canoe to give the signal, Kennedy did not anticipate the rifle's recoil, which threw him off balance and dumped him in the water. A soaking wet and thoroughly exasperated Navy lieutenant climbed aboard PT-157.

The PT boats crossed Blackett Strait under Kennedy's direction and eased up to Olasana Island early in the morning of August 8. The exhausted men of PT-109 were all asleep. Kennedy began yelling for them, much to the chagrin of his rescuers, who were nervous about the proximity of the Japanese. But the rescue went forward without incident, and the men of PT-109 reached the U.S. base at Rendova at 5:30 a.m. on August 8.

For his courage and leadership, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and injuries suffered during the incident also qualified him for a Purple Heart. Ensign Leonard Thom also received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. But for John F. Kennedy, the consequences of the event were more far-reaching than simple decorations.

Image Sources: YouTube, John F. Kennedy Library, National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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