At the height of despair a voice among the Marines shouted almost hysterically,
"Here's a PT boat!"
The terrified men looked through the night and saw
PT 59 coming toward them through the waves.
They could hear the welcome sound of
throbbing engines and splashing exhaust.

Most of the world knows about JFK's heroism as skipper of PT-109, but what is much less known is his heroism as skipper of PT-59, the boat he commanded after PT-109. I didn't know the story until I discovered it a few years ago in the 1961 book, "PT-109: JOHN F. KENNEDY IN WORLD WAR II" by Robert Donovan. Ever since then I've been wanting to share the PT-59 story with "Orwell Today" readers but have never actually gotten around to doing it. But then yesterday, inspired by an email from a reader doing research on a member of JFK's PT-59 CREW, I decided that this was the time, and have excerpted the passages below.

PT109bookCover PT59firstpage PT109bookCoverBack

John F Kennedy In World War II, by Robert Donovan
Chapter XI, PT-59, pages 215-240

...A few miles north of PT 59 the Japanese were closing in on the Marines, and Bigger's situation was desperate. He supposed that Duncan's squad was still on the east bank and sent an officer and two men across the river to make contact with them. Duncan and his men had left hours earlier for help. Indeed, having rounded up the LCPRs [landing craft, personnel, ramp] at Nukiki, they were now approaching the Warrior River a couple of miles ahead of Kennedy in PT-59. The three men crossing the river were fired on from the east bank. Two were killed, Bigger now knew that he was completely surrounded.

As darkness fell a fresh exchange of fire swept through the jungle. Corporal Edward James Schnell, of Wilmette, Illinois, fell critically wounded with a bullet through his right chest. Lt. Stevens, the medical officer, and a pharmacist's mate carried him to the shore.

"Doc, don't leave me," Schnell pleaded.

"I'm not going to leave you, Jimmy," Stevens said.

To the surpirse of the Japanese and the joy of the Marines two LCPRs appeared out of the darkness. The enemy gunners turned their fire on the boats as they approached the shore. The ensign who was the coxswain of the leading boat shouted that it was impossible to land against such fire and was turning back when Marine Sergeant Rahland Wilson drew his .45, pointed it at the ensign and said, "Go in".

Under the cover of fire from the Marines in the two boats Bigger's men waded out over the coral flat. Several of them carried Schnell through the water. When the first boat was loaded, she left for Voza. Schnell was lifted into the crowded second boat, and after Bigger, Stevens and the rest had scrambled in, the boat started out. The firing from the shore had ceased in the darkness. To the exhausted Marines, the rescue coming at the very moment of disaster seemed miraculous.

The sea had been rising during the early evening. As the second boat was leaving she sprang a leak from pounding on the coral. At first the accident seemed trivial. The boat pulled away from shore without difficulty, and the Marines relaxed with the sweet feeling of being alive. As the boat moved out through the opening in the reef, however, water began flooding the engine housing.

Only gradually did it dawn on those aboard that their feelings of relief and security were a complete illusion. Under the weight of the load and the hammering of the waves the leaking boat was sinking. Fear gripped the men. In the rising water the engine stalled. The frenzied efforts of the crew could not get even a cough out of it. The other LCPR had vanished in the night. The exultation of escape was snuffed out by the terrible realization that the waves were delivering the Marines back to the Japanese waiting on the shore.

At the height of despair a voice among the Marines shouted almost hysterically, "Here's a PT boat!"

The terrified men looked through the night and saw PT 59 coming toward them through the waves. They could hear the welcome sound of throbbing engines and splashing exhaust. By now they were so low in the water that the motor torpedo boat loomed unnaturally large and formidable. Her two 40-millimeter guns pointed to the dark sky, and the rows of machine guns along her sides where the torpedo tubes used to be were trained on the shore. Helmeted men scurried about the deck making ready to come alongside the sinking boat.

Idling his engines, Kennedy steered between the foundering LCPR and the shore. The Japanese might concentrate heavy fire on him at any moment. He dared not think what a perfect target PT 59 would be a few hundred yards off shore if but a single flare should burst above them now.

When he edged the boat against the LCPR, the PT crew began hauling aboard the soaked Marines who were almost incoherent with gratitude. Stevens asked for help to lift Schnell onto PT 59.

"Lieutenant," Stevens told Kennedy, "I've got a man in bad shape here."

"We'll find a place for him," Kennedy said.

Some forty to fifty Marines were spilling over into every foot of space on the boat. The deck swarmed with them. They were perched on the day-room canopy, crowded into the fantail, jammed into the crew's quarters. There was scarcely room for the PT sailors to move about in.

"Any left?" Kennedy called back from the cockpit. In addition to the threat of fire from the shore, he and Rhoads were worried that the Japanese might come out in barges to attack them.

"Major Bigger," a Marine called, "this here officer" - pointing to Kennedy - "wants to know if everybody is aboard."

"It's okay to go," Bigger said.*

Every man aboard was aching to get out of range of the Japanese guns. Kennedy pushed his throttles forward, and PT-59, severely overloaded, responded sluggishly. The problem of weight alarmed him. PT-59 was getting rather old and shaky, in any case. The armor taxed its hull. Now, with anywhere from fifty-five to sixty-five men aboard, he had visions of the boat's falling apart in the waves.

A path through the swarming passengers was cleared for Schnell, and the wounded corporal was carried down into the skipper's quarters below the cockpit and laid in Kennedy's bunk. On deck a Marine suddenly became hysterical, and Bigger strove patiently to calm him. Kennedy had seen many of these Marines before they embarked from Vella Lavella on October 27 and thought they were the fittest-looking troops he had ever encountered. Beholding them in their present condition, he was surprised to see how thoroughly men could be transformed in one week. Mauer gave the hungry Marines such food as he could scrape together in the galley. In the engine room Drawdy watched with resignation as the gasoline ran slowly out and the engines overheated from the load.

When they were underway to Voza, where PT-59 had been ordered to bring the rescued Marines, Kennedy dropped down to his quarters and asked Stevens if anything could be done to assist him in the treatment of Schnell. Stevens said that he would rig up a plasma bottle and sew Schnell's wounds as best he could with the few instruments he had.

"Am I all right, doc?" Schnell said. "You're going to be all right."

In a letter recommending young Schnell to the Marine Corps, the postmaster of Wilmette, where Schnell attended high school, wrote that he had seen Schnell "grow from a little boy into a young man" and predicted, "Edward will serve his country well and with honor."

At Voza the Marines were transferred into landing craft. Schnell's condition was so critical that he could not be moved and it was decided that Stevens should remain with him aboard PT-59 on the trip back to Vella Lavella. It was after midnight when Kennedy started across the Slot. From time to time he went down to his bare, dim quarters to see if Stevens needed help. The doctor had sewed the wounds in his patient's back and chest and was holding his hand. Looking into the fading light in the young Marine's eyes one knew there was no hope. At sea at 1 AM on November 3 Corporal Schnell died quietly in Kennedy's bunk.

Kennedy was not in the room at the time. Stevens climbed wearily up to the cockpit and told him. Kennedy shook his head, but did not say anything. At 3 A.M. the engines went dead as the last drop of gasoline was consumed. The other PT boat threw a line over and towed PT-59 back to Lambu Lambu Cove....

*When in the preparation of this book calls were made to Colonel Bigger and Dr. Stevens to solicit their recollection of those events, neither man had the slightest idea of the identity of the PT skipper who had rescued them in the dark off Choiseul. When they were told it was President Kennedy they were incredulous. "You're pulling my leg" Dr. Stevens reprimanded me.

~ end quoting PT109 Donovan ~

JohnnyBookCover LetterJFKmarineBigger

by Kenny O'Donnell and Dave Powers
page 438-439:

We remember the President one day in November showing us a letter from a retired Marine Corps colonel, W. T. Bigger of McLean, Virginia. Kennedy was obviously moved and pleased to receive the letter, although he tried to be casual about it. "This is a little incident in my Navy career that wasn't written up in the Reader's Digest," he said. After his survival from the PT-109 sinking Kennedy was ordered to return to the States for medical treatment but, to the astonishment of his fellow officers at the Rendova torpedo boat base, he asked to return to combat duty with another boat and a new crew. He was assigned to PT-59, which was converted from a torpedo boat to a makeshift and overloaded gun boat with extra 50-caliber machine guns and 40-millimeter Bofors automatics. The extra weight of the added weapons and the added men to operate them made the light motor boat slow and hard to manage, but Kennedy, according to his squadron commander, Al Cluster, took many wild chances using the PT-59 to attack Japanese supply barges and shore positions. Colonel Bigger's letter, dated November 2, 1963, reminded the President that twenty years earlier, on the same date in 1943, Kennedy had taken his boat under heavy enemy fire to a beach on the Choiseul River where Bigger's Marine riflemen were surrounded by the Japanese with their backs to the water. "When all seemed lost," the Marine officer wrote to the President, "you can well appreciate my relief to see the landing craft returning, escorted by PT boats, one commanded by you." The landing craft lost its power, but Kennedy rescued the Marines in his boat and brought them safely back to their base. "As I recall, we both had our hands full and there was little time for amenities. Please accept again my heartfelt thanks," the colonel wrote in his letter of twenty years later.

"Wasn't it nice of him to go to the trouble or writing that letter to me?" the President said to us.

~ end quoting Johnny Hardly Knew Ye ~

All the best,
Jackie Jura


PPS -- Here's an excellent article on JFK's missions with PT-59 that I just came across July 2022:

John F Kennedy and PT Boat 59
Pieces of History, National Archives

...When PT-59 arrived at Vella Lavella on October 18, it was sent out on patrol with two other PT boats across the New Georgia Sound to the northwestern tip of Choiseul Bay on Choiseul Island, an important Japanese barge base. The PT boats were ordered to block the western and southern approaches to Choiseul Bay and intercept barges. At this point the Japanese were frantically moving troops by barge in anticipation of American landings in the northern Solomons. Kennedy, now promoted to full lieutenant, took PT-59 on eight similar patrols during the next ten nights. On November 1, Kennedy participated in a rescue mission to Choiseul Island where Marines, part of Lt-Colonel Victor H Krulak's Second Marine Parachute Battalion (1st Marine Parachute Regiment, First Marine Amphibious Corps) had been surrounded by Japanese forces, and needed to be evacuated. This mission was a successful one, although one of the wounded Marines died in Kennedy's bunk aboard PT-59. Interestingly, this dramatic rescue mission was depicted in the PT-109 movie as having been accomplished by PT-109.

On the night of November 5, Kennedy led three PT boats to Moli Point and Choiseul Bay, where they attacked Japanese barges. During the next week and a half, PT-59 would prowl off Choiseul Bay looking for barges. Kennedy's final action was on the night of November 16, when he took PT-59 on an uneventful patrol. On November 18, a doctor directed Kennedy -- who was mentally and physically exhausted and had lost 25 pounds over the preceding three months -- to go the hospital at Tulagi. Kennedy gave up his command of PT-59 that day and left the Solomon Islands on December 21 for the United States. He left the Navy on physical disability in March of 1945. Soon, he would begin his career in Congress. As for PT-59, she remained in the Solomon Islands until August 1944, when she was transported back to the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Base in Rhode Island.

~ end quoting ~

Decorated PT boater left impression on JFK. Philadelphia Inquirer, Jun 9, 2008
Charles F. Ridewood Jr., 85, formerly of Swarthmore, a mechanical engineer and decorated World War II veteran who served in the Navy with John F. Kennedy, died of an esophagus-related illness May 30 at Avow Hospice in Naples, Fla. He had lived in Florida since 1985....During World War II, he served as a motor machinist's mate aboard PT boats in the Solomon Islands. He and Kennedy, a Navy lieutenant, operated PT boats out of the same jungle clearing. "He was skinny and so sickly looking I didn't think he'd ever survive the war years," Mr. Ridewood told the Naples Daily News in 2002. At night, he said, "we shot the hell" out of Japanese barges. In the daytime, he and Kennedy were among the regulars at card games set up under a canopy of trees over the river. "We tied our boats under the trees to hide them," Mr. Ridewood said. "Jack's crew teased him a lot about being the reason we never saw any women. The guys said the natives were hiding their women from him."

After a Japanese destroyer cut Kennedy's boat, PT-109, in two, the future president was thrown on the deck and aggravated an old back injury before his boat sank. When he recovered, Kennedy was given a new boat, PT-59. In November 1943, PT-59 and Mr. Ridewood's boat, PT-236, rescued Marines stranded at sea. PT-59 ran out of gas and was being towed by PT-236 when a sudden swell pushed the bow of Kennedy's boat toward Mr. Ridewood's. If the boats had collided, both could have been disabled and would have been easy targets for Japanese seaplanes. "I grabbed the bow to keep it from hitting and managed to soften the blow," Mr. Ridewood said in 2002, "but I didn't get my hand out in time. My hand was all bloody. I still have scars and a stiff thumb."....

Mr. Ridewood last saw Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign. Kennedy was in a motorcade in Philadelphia, and Mr. Ridewood held up a PT-236 sign in the crowd. "I heard Kennedy yell out, 'Who is that guy? Stop the car.' He recognized me right away and called me Chas like everybody did when I was in the Navy and asked me how my thumb was," Mr. Ridewood told a reporter. Mr. Ridewood attended high school and PT boaters' reunions and often spoke to students about his wartime experiences, said his son, Charles III...


Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

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