During World War 2, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy takes command of PT 109 to fight the Japanese in the Solomon Islands.
In August 1942, the American forces are fighting the Japanese across the Pacific. United States Navy Lieutenant, junior grade John F. Kennedy (Cliff Robertson) uses his family’s influence to get himself assigned to the fighting in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, much to the surprise of Commander C.R. Ritchie (James Gregory). Kennedy lobbies for command of a PT boat and is assigned to the “109”, a badly damaged boat in dire need of repair and overhaul. Initially, Ritchie seems to regard the young, inexperienced Kennedy as something of a lightweight, but his enthusiasm to build a crew and refurbish the “109” to operational status eventually earns Ritchie’s grudging respect. The crew includes Kennedy’s executive officer, Ensign Leonard J. Thom (Ty Hardin), and sailors “Bucky” Harris (Robert Blake) and Edmund Drewitch (Norman Fell).
On one mission, the PT 109 is sent to evacuate paramarines after their Raid on Choiseul. Kennedy successfully takes aboard the survivors, but barely gets out of range of Japanese mortars before running out of fuel. The tide starts to carry the boat back toward the island. Kennedy, his crew, and the rescued Marines face the prospect of a desperate fight for their lives, but in the nick of time, another PT boat arrives and tows the 109 to safety.
Another sortie is less successful. While on patrol one, dark, moonless night in August 1943, a Japanese destroyer appears suddenly out of the darkness, rams and slices the 109 in two, killing two of the thirteen crew (Marney and Kirksey). Kennedy survives the collision and searches for survivors, despite injuring his back. When Kennedy and his men are presumed dead by nearby allies, Kennedy leads the survivors in swimming to a deserted island, while himself towing a badly burned crewman. Morale drops and several of the men appear ready to give up/surrender but Kennedy remains determined and swims out into the channel the next night hoping another PT boat will come by. No PT boats come by that night or the next night, but after a few days, Kennedy encounters two natives and gives them a carved message on a coconut. Fortunately for the sailors, they take it to an Australian coastwatcher instead of the Japanese. The coastwatcher sends more natives to the island, they take Kennedy with them, and the coastwatcher arranges for a rescue. Afterward, Kennedy is eligible to transfer back to the U.S., but is assigned command of another PT boat that has been modified as a gunboat, PT 59, and elects to stay in the fight.
In the film, the PT 109 and all other PT boats are depicted as being painted in the same standard gray paint scheme used by larger warships of the US Navy. Although many 78′ Higgins and 80′ Elco PT boats were likely delivered from the manufacturer in such a paint scheme, all historical records indicate that the real PT 109 and the other boats in its squadron were painted in a dark green paint scheme in order to better blend into their daytime anchorages or moorings adjacent to island jungles at forward operating bases. The most common green color scheme of this period was designated as Design 5P and incorporated Navy Green over a base coat of Ocean Green.
PT 109 is reported missing and a search is started. According to National Geographic and the original book, the boat explosion was observed from other PT boats in the vicinity and it was given up as lost. A memorial service was held at the motor torpedo boat squadron’s forward operating base at Rendova while the crew was still marooned on the islands in the vicinity of Japanese-held Kolombagara Island.
Solomon Islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana were portrayed as random natives, when in fact they were dispatched by the coastwatcher Arthur Reginald Evans to find the sailors. The film shows Ensign Ross first suggesting the idea of using a coconut for a message, using a knife to carve it. Gasa was later interviewed as suggesting the idea and sending Kumana to pluck a fresh coconut. The actors playing Gasa and Kumana were not credited, though the senior native is mentioned by name when the large canoe arrives.
The scene showing the rescue of ambushed Marines is actually covered by the chapter in the book about PT 59, which Kennedy commanded after the PT 109. It was an older model 77 foot Elco PT boat that was converted to a gunboat with its torpedoes removed.
The inspiration for the film is the 1961 book ‘John F. Kennedy in World War II’ by Robert J. Donovan.
Production & Filming Details
- Directors: Leslie H. Martinson and Lewis Milestone.
- Writers: Richar L. Breen (screenplay); Vincent X. Flaherty and Howard Sheehan (adaptation).
- Producer: Bryan Foy.
- Cinematography: Robert Surtees.
- Editor: Folmar Blangsted.
- Distribution: Warner Bros.
- Release Date: 19 June 1963 (US).
- Running time: 140 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.