I saw the movie PT-109 from the back of of a Ford Falcon station wagon parked on a berm filled with other cars, with other kids, at a drive-in movie theater somewhere outside of Houston, Texas in early 1963. I was five and my brother Tom was watching it beside me. We were totally militarized from watching too many war movies, and a few months later we’d watch JFK’s funeral somberly unfold over a few days on the black and white TV we watched Saturday cartoons and Mercury launches. We were of a divided mind about what was the better career option — astronaut or bazooka-man — but we both agreed if we had been at the helm of the PT 109 that dark night on the phosphorent waters of Blackett Strait, we would have not only sunk the evil Amagiri, but scored direct hits with the three remaining torpedos and then gunned multiple out-of-the-sun attacks by the Japanese Zeroes harassing us for drowning Admiral Yamato.
In the summer on Cape Cod, behind the boat shed, was a cedar rowing skiff without a name. Left out right side up on the grass, we climbed aboard and turned that 12-foot yellow and grey rowboat our grandfather built in 1948 in between a fleet of a dozen Cotuit Skiffs, a tender he could tow around behind his catboat if he was visiting Nantucket or Edgartown, a heavy beast of a boat with three thwarts and two rowing stations.
Broomsticks became Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons and Browning .50-cal machine guns. We both provided sound effects and threw driveway stones at the corrugated tin sides of the lean-to to make big sheet metal booms. My father and grandfather were, like many old Cape Codders, Lincoln Republicans and no fans of the Kennedy clan and their sketchy bootlegger fortune and Papal allegiances. I’d eavesdrop on them laughing about how young Kennedy made it to the White House on a sunken motorboat thanks to father Joe’s Hollywood influence, thousands of copies of John Hersey’s account of the sinking of the PT-109, and Kennedy drifting in neutral with a throttle system that wasn’t connected to the boat’s three 12-cylinder Packard engines, but to an indicator in the engine room that told the engineer what to do — just like the Titantic.
Tom and I didn’t care. The thought of being given command of an awesome 80-foot long war ship with torpedos and cannons and underwater exhaust diverters made us anxious, so we began to fight for command of the PT-109 parked on the lawn. I began to suspect my grandfather and father suggested that name just to wind us up and get us scrounging for old foot-powered foghorns and massive oak fids left in the eaves of the sail loft.
Here my brother Tom and I re-enact the secret mutiny on the PT-109 while our cousins all watch and think to themselves together: what lame losers….
I never gave the PT-109 much thought after the skiff rotted out and was thrown on a burn pile or hauled away to the dump. When I did think about the PT-109 I thought about that sweet rowing skiff with the heavy ash oars and the leather collars and galvanized folding oarlocks that were permanently attached to thje boat. I toured the PT boat on display in Fall River in Battleship Cove with my son and marveled at the huge planing hull and vast amount of wood that went into it. A couple of years ago I read a recent biography of John Hersey, in which I learned how Hersey and JFK had wooed the same woman, how Kennedy told Hersey about the wreck and rescue of his crew at a New York night club, which Hersey wrote for the June 17, 1944 edition of the New Yorker in a story titled Survival.
“Our men in the South Pacific fight nature, when they are pitted against her, with a greater fierceness than they could ever expend on a human enemy.Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, the ex-Ambassador’s son and lately a PT skipper in the Solomons, came through town the other day and told me the story of his survival in the South Pacific. I asked Kennedy if I might write the story down. He asked me if I wouldn’t talk first with some of his crew, so I went up to the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Centre at Melville, Rhode Island, and there, under the curving iron of a Quonset hut, three enlisted men named Johnston, McMahon, and McGuire filled in the gaps.”John Hersey, Survival, The New Yorker, 1944/6/17
JFK’s father, then grieving the loss of his eldest son and namesake Joe Jr. after his plane exploded during a test flight, ordered thousands of reprints of Hersey’s story, sent the Kennedy political fixers out to find the crew of the boat, and had little PT-109 lapel pins made as campaign tschotkes when JKF ran for Congress, the US Senate, and the presidency. The story of the PT-109 became the most famous naval story to come out of World War II. Which of course added to my father and his father’s scorn for Democrats, and they would scoff and joke about the myth that turned a raw college boy fresh from the tiller of a Wianno Senior beating into the afternoon southwester off of Hyannis Port who manages a few months later to get rammed while bobbing out of gear under the bow of a charging Japanese destroyer.
In the late 90s my brother, retired from over a decade in the Special Forces and enjoying the fruits of his entreprenurial labors, built a summer house here in Cotuit and built in the basement an astonishing workshop devoted to radio controlled airplanes, cars, and boats. Bandsaws, drill presses, long clean and level workbenches encased in epoxy, racks of tiny screwdrivers and batteries, transmitter and receivers, servo motors, clutches, fuel…….
And on the top shelf, in a long narrow box, was a kit to build a 1/20th scale model of the PT-109. The hull was made from Fiberglass, a heavy four-foot long shell that looked beautiful and powerful. The instructions offered two options for powering the boat — either a small 4-stroke engine driving a single propellor, or a bank of electric motors driving three propellors. I looked at that model every time I visited, always teasing him to build it, feeling sorry that instead of slowing down he was spending more time on the road, checking out deals in Asia and the Middle East and rarely home long enough to adjust back to the time zone, nevermind start building a massive ship model.
Last fall I told him I would build the kit for him. I pulled the box down from the shelf, pulled out the instructions and the parts list and inventoried everything to see what was missing. I already had the right gas-powered engine from an old Piper Cub model, radios, batteries — all I need to do was buy some glue, set up a workbench, and build it over the winter.
Here’s what I accomplished in about six months of very occasional work, usually turning to the boat project when the cabin fever started to get from me, or when I needed a break from working on my book about Bethuel Handy and his Siberian adventures. I’ve worked on ship models since I was six and given a ship-in-a-bottle kit. I helped my grandmother build a scale model of a Grand Banks fishing schooner, and a few years back I built a planked model of a New Bedford whaleboat. The focus that is required and the concentration to get clumsy fingers to behave is very therapeutic to my wandering mind and a few minutes working at a cast metal fitting with a file or soldering together little linkages and pieces of rigging under a magnifying glass gave me a great deal of space to think through bigger issues I was struggling with in the planning and writing of the book.
Here’s a slideshow of the construction progression. The kit was made by the Dumas Company and evidently was only produced in a limited run due to OSHA ventilation requirements for Fiberglas work. I couldn’t build the gas engine configuration because the plans specified a marine-adapted variation of the engine I had for a model airplane — and I’m not clever enough of a machinist to make a water jacket to surround the cylinder and keep it from overheating.
The owner of M.A.C.K. Products and Model Marine in Long Branch, New Jersey was very generous with his time and advice and quickly talked me out of the gas-engine option, reminding me that I was dealing with a kit that had been out of stock for the past twenty years and that advances in brushless motors and digital electronic speed controls, radios, etc. made it a far better (and quieter) idea to put very powerful, high torque electric motors and LiPo batteries rather than wire up a shrieking gas banshee and annoy the neighbors. I’m a sucker for an expert voice of reason, so I told him to set me up and he did: selling me two electric motors and ESCs and wiring harnesses and little navigation lights.
I haven’t launched it yet. My brother Tom only got his first showing yesterday after coming north from Florida and self-quarantining for two weeks. When we do put it in a pond I will video the maiden voyage and update this post.
I am fairly happy with the final result. Some model shipwrights are incredibly talented at scale details and realistic paint schemes, using online forums to discuss every variation and detail of these boats. Some have digitized the original naval architect’s plans used by the Elco Co. of Bayonne New Jersey to mass produce the PT boats, and converted them into CAD files for 3-D printing. I spent $100 for about 80 3-D printed plastic pieces and the detail on the parts is incredible, but somehow not nearly as rewarding as improvising machine guns out of little lengths of brass tubing, some basswood, and a lot of glue.
I’m already thinking of next winter’s project but haven’t decided yet. I have yet to do a fully rigged ship, so something with sails and most likely for display on a mantel, not running on ponds or harbors like the PT-109.
Here is the finished model: