Christmas in the Pacific Theater of WWII: Jack Kennedy's PT 109
The First Wave of PT Boat Harassment of Japan
There are many stories of wartime Christmases in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and everywhere else where US troops have been stationed. Little has been written about Christmas in the South Pacific, and this is the story of the First Christmas in the Solomon Islands during the first year of engagement with the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of WWII.
While lives were lost to disease and injury during the first four months of deployment of United States Patrol Torpedo boats from October 11 through mid-February 1942, many lives were saved as well. A mistake on Christmas Eve night nearly took the lives of the full crews of two of the first PT Boats to hit the Pacific, but all men saved. The PT crews used their vessels as a wave of armed harassment to the Japanese forces, never stopping any of the enemy missions, but slowing them down considerably. The PT crews harassed the enemy and the US Marines sink the remaining ships until the end of the war in the South Pacific.
The best Christmas Present those crews of the US PT Boats received was reported to be the respect that the young officers quickly learned and showed for the experience and know-how of their crews, along with the friendships they all took with them when they went home.
Eight Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats (made of wood) were loaded into their slings 20 feet above the deck aboard a carrier ship via tall cranes and transported to the Solomon Islands, namely Tulagi, in the autumn of 1942. Once there, the crews had the devil of a time getting them off the ship, since there was only a single floating crane available. Finally, they managed.
The eight boats were separated into two team divisions of four boats each. The crews of one of the teams were fully interviewed by embedded war correspondent John Hersey, especially about their dedicated team work, first Christmas, and the lifelong friendships they formed despite the fact that they disgusted left their PT boats in the Solomons when they returned stateside.
The highlight of the interviews was the admiration and respect shown by the naval officers for the skills and experience of their crews. Their expertise was the best Christmas present to the officers in the Solomons in 1942.
The Four-Boat Team
PT 38 was under the command of Lt. Robert Searles, and his brother Lt. Jack (John) Searles rode with him on that boat when he was not commanding his own - PT 60, which had had machine guns mounted on the sides.
Jack Searles had commanded PT 109 before Kennedy as well.
PT 48 was commanded by Lt. Henry Stills (Stilly) Taylor, and PT 46 was run by Lt. Robert (Robbie) C. Wark.
Lt. Leonard A. Nikoloric in PT 37 and others worked closely with this 4-boat team, as did Lt. Lester H. Gamble in PT35 and other boats.
Interestingly, PT 59 was assigned to Lt. John F. Kennedy after he lost PT 109 on August 2, 1943. However, major sources state he was unable to take command because of the severity of his injuries. He could have actually been court-martialed for the loss of PT 109, but John Hersey, friend of the Kennedy clan, presented the story brilliantly and saved Jack's commission and political career. Anecdotal sources state that Kennedy did command the 59.
Cooking for Christmas
PT 46 under Lt. Taylor was home to a brave Ship's Cook that refused to go ashore with the other PT cooks when the nightly patrols became very dangerous. He stayed aboard and not only cooked meals, but baked pies and cakes every day for the crew of PT 46 in an small oven the size of a modern microwave oven. During the nightly patrols, the cook stood watch while the crew and officers ate.
The men of PT 46 said that Henry Bracy could see through a keyhole at 20 miles. He did indeed sight several enemy ships that no one else could see.
According to ship's logs in the US National Archives on the patrol of Christmas Eve night, 1943, Ensign Jim Mountcastle was in command. An enemy vessel was sighted (perhaps by cook Bracy, although the chronicle does not say), the crew fired four torpedoes, reversed course, and saw the explosion flash on the target. The other three boats of the team were docked. From December 25 - 26, there were no enemy sightings and Christmas could be observed.
Friendly Fire on Christmas Eve
The Japanese had captured Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and lost it to the US. After several attempts to re-take it, the Japanese lost in a major naval battle at Guadalcanal in early November, 1942 and were defeated.
On December 11, they slowed their efforts and in the last 10 days of December, 1942 the US Marines' 132d infantry battered the key Japanese stronghold, Gifu, as well.
After receiving reinforcements in January 1943, US Marine and Navy troops forced Japan to evacuate entirely by early February.
During all of this, a small island existed near Guadalcanal that looked like a destroyer ship from the air. Docked PT crews under Gamble, Nikoloric, and Searles on Christmas Eve heard across the radio receiver a PT commander asking for US Marine air assistance. The listeners figured out that the commander was ready to attack an island instead of a ship and broadcast this over the radio in attempt to prevent disaster.
However, the Marine plane was already off and soon strafed the island and two American PT boats departing from it, which fired back and fled. There were no casualties, but one of the attacked PT crew radioed out, "That was some Christmas present we got!"
Previous to this incident by a few days, US forces had mistakenly fired on a well-known Allied, New Zealand troop vessel, to which the NZ skipper radioed over to the US and jokingly cut them off from his boat's alcoholic beverage supply after calling them "nitwits." No casualties were reported.
In speaking with the embedded correspondent in the Solomon Islands and with several authors after the war, the officers gave thanks to the expertise of their crews that had saved their lives. One one boat, both officers were knocked unconscious in the fray, but their crews piloted the boats away from harm and inflicted damage to enemy vessels by the time the officers had regained consciousness.
Finally, on Christmas Day, a short reprieve from fighting was had and the PT crews all enjoyed a full traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, lots of pies (thanks to Bracy and other cooks), cranberry sauce, and other delights. Then they mixed medical alcohol with powdered pineapple juice for Torpedo Juice Cocktails. After the war, the officers and crews all went out for more traditional drinks.
After the War
- Lt. Gamble - also, the Distinguished Service Cross
- Lt. Nikoloric
- Lt. R. Searles
- Lt. Taylor
Six months later, on August 26, 1943, Lt. Robert Searles, who had led one of the first PT boats in the Pacific Theater, took commend of the Hellcat: PT 564, an experimental PT Boat designed by Andre Jackson Higgins at a length of 70 feet. It proved to manage far more knots per gallon than the older 78-foot models, and thus required fewer refueling stops. it also broke speed records at 54 knots per hour.
- US Navy Lt. John R. Searles (Jack) Jr., died in October 2008, 66 years after his Solomon Islands experience, at the age of 93. He was a successful urban planner that cleared many of the slums of SW Washington in the 1950s with modern architecture, highways, and parks. He served as Executive Director of the Redevelopment Land Agency of DC 1951 - 1961, redeveloping SW Washington DC and Foggy Bottom. [Reference: John R. Searles Jr. Dies; Oversaw Renewal in SW. Sep 01, 2008 John R. Searles Jr., 93, an urban planner who led the effort to clear the slums of Southwest Washington in the 1950s and to put modern architecture, highways and parks in their place, died Oct. 21 at a retirement home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where he lived since 1979. http://www.weblo.com/ property/real_estate/asset_news/6314045/D_B_Searles/ John_R.Searles_Jr.Dies;_Oversaw_Renewal_in_SW/]
- US Navy Lt. Robert Searles also died in the autumn of 2008. a Life article in 1943 had described his and his crews' battle for Guadalcanal Island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II in 1942. Fighting under cover of night, Searles' boat and three others managed to scatter 12 warships that were headed toward U.S. Marine positions on Guadalcanal Island. They scattered a dozen Japanese warships by stealthily maneuvering and firing all their torpedoes through the night. According to a book about their squadron, "Long Were the Nights." [Reference: Robert Searles dies; was PT boat skipper in WWII.(NEWS)(Obituary) Sep 01, 2008 Byline Ben Cohen; Staff Writer. http://www.weblo.com/property/real_estate/asset_news/ 6314046/D_B_Searles/Robert_Searles_dies;_was_PT_boat_skipper_in_WWII.NEWS_Obituary/ ]
- US Navy Lt. Leonard Nikoloric became an attorney and was interviewed in 1976 about PT boats in general and JFK's record in the South Pacific, allowing that PT boats were not really very sound ("no good").
The PT-20 Class of Patrol Torpedo boats ranged from PT 20 - PT 68, built by Elco in Bayonne NJ. They were PT-10 Class boats with hulls lengthened to 77 feet from the previous 70. They were completed from June of 1941 to January 1942 and separated into two sub-series, PT 20-44 and PT 45-68. Not all were used by the USN, but some were modified and given to the British Royal Navy.
Better Reading for Children
Embedded correspondent John Hersey later wrote an article about elementary school books being too boring, thus inspiring Dr. Seuss to write the Cat In the Hat. Hersey not only saved JFK's career, but the minds of first grade readers as well! I received a copy of this book for Christmas when I myself was in the first grade. I still like it.
Thanks to John Hersey for chronicling the South Pacific theater and influencing children's literature!
- Mark C. Carnes. Past Imperfect. 1996.
- John Hersey. "Front Seats at Sea War" in Of Men and War. London Scholastic Book Services, 1966. US Scholastic, 1963.
- John Hersey. Men on Bataan. 1942. <and> A Skirmish of the Marines. 1943.
- John Hersey. "SURVIVAL: The Original Story of PT 109" in Of Men and War. London Scholastic Book Services, 1966. US Scholastic, 1963.
- Thomas J. Larson. Hells Kitchen: Tulagi 1942 - 1943. iUniverse. 2003
- Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. 1949.
- Curtis L. Nelson. Hunters in the Shallows: A History of the PT Boat. Brassye's 1998.
- Jerry E. Stahan. Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II. 1994.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2008 Patty Inglish MS