JFK's PT-109 Found, U.S. Navy Confirms

Ted Chamberlain
for National Geographic News
November 20, 2002

A National Geographic expedition led by explorer Robert Ballard has found what is believed to be the remains of John F. Kennedy's PT-109. Experts from the U.S. Navy recently confirmed the May 2002 find is most likely the World War II patrol boat.

PT-109 sank in the Solomon Islands when a Japanese destroyer sliced through it, setting into motion the survival odyssey that became a cornerstone of the Kennedy legend.

Read full story below. 

Photo Gallery 1: The Search for the Wreck >>
Photo Gallery 2: PT-109 in World War II >>
Video of Search Expedition (1:00) >>
Map >>
Audio: Rescuing JFK—A Veteran's Account (3:02) >>

Nearly 60 years ago a Japanese destroyer materialized out of a moonless night and smashed through PT-109, sending 26-year-old skipper John F. Kennedy into fiery waters to save his crew. Six weeks ago explorer Robert Ballard patrolled the same South Pacific beat, searching for the ruins of that seminal 1943 night.

What Ballard found some 1,200 feet (360 meters) down—a torpedo and torpedo-launching tube caked in coral and rust—may lack the majesty of his most famous find, Titanic. But, he said during the expedition, "I'm very pleased, because it was a real needle in a haystack, probably the toughest needle I've ever had to find."

At 5 by 7 miles (8 by 11 kilometers), the search grid is small by Ballard's standards. But it bristles with false targets such as rocks and other war wrecks, and much of the seafloor here is covered with dunes he likens to an undersea Sahara.

Due to the shifting dunes, "we were lucky just to see the tubes uncovered," said Dale Ridder, a weapons and explosives authority on the U.S. Marine Forensics Panel. "At another time we might not have even gotten that."

The scant remains, given their location and telling details, were enough to convince Ridder on the day after the May 22 find. "We have torpedo tubes off of one PT-109. No doubt!" he shouted while reviewing video captured via remotely operated vehicle (ROV). "This is it!"

The final word, however, had to come from the U.S. Navy.

The Evidence

Recently, U.S. Naval Historical Center curator Mark Wertheimer and underwater archaeologist Claire Peachy convened at National Geographic's Washington, D.C., headquarters. At a closed-door screening of wreck footage, they were joined by Welford West, who as a World War II torpedo man helped rescue the PT-109 crew. Ballard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence (see photo), sat in via telephone.

Continued on Next Page >>


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