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Has Ballard Found JFK's PT-109?

Ben Harder
National Geographic News
May 29, 2002
 
A National Geographic expedition to the South Pacific to look for John
F. Kennedy's World War II patrol boat has yielded "promising" results,
according to the search team's leader. But a definitive word on whether
the vessel has been found will have to await further analysis once
deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard and his team have returned to the
United States.

The boat, skippered by the 26-year-old Lieutenant Kennedy, sank after a collision with a Japanese ship in the early hours of August 2, 1943. The future president managed to save both his own life and the lives of most of his crew. The boat, called PT-109, has remained lost for nearly 60 years.


Ballard recently began to search the Blackett Strait in the western Solomon Islands, where the ship went down. The expedition has concluded, and Ballard is on his way home.

"While promising, the expedition findings are inconclusive at this time," Ballard said. "We will review the results with naval experts over the next several weeks."

Ballard's search began with a sonar scan from a vessel on the surface of the strait, and then proceeded with a close-range visual investigation of promising wreckage using a submersible equipped with a camera. He and his team will now need to analyze images from the submersible and data from the sonar and cross-reference their findings with historical data to determine whether they have a match.

Ballard has had many past successes with the technique, including the discovery of the Titanic in 1985. However, there have also been promising leads in the past that didn't pan out on closer scrutiny. That could be the case with PT-109.

"I am pleased to hear of the promising results of the National Geographic expedition to the site of PT-109," Senator Ted Kennedy said when he got word that Ballard was headed home. John F. Kennedy was Senator Kennedy's older brother, and previously held the same Senate seat from Massachusetts.

"I will look forward to hearing the final judgment on confirmation after the review by appropriate experts," Kennedy added.

"The members of our family want to express our appreciation to Dr. Robert Ballard and the National Geographic for the manner in which the gravesite of two PT-109 crew members was treated with respect."

The wreckage Ballard has found lies on the seafloor in the Blackett Strait between Kolombangara and Gizo islands, close to where PT-109 was reported to have gone down. However, the sea in that area is littered with war wreckage. The region was the setting of some of the most intense naval warfare in history.

National Geographic will announce the results when the analysis is complete. A National Geographic film crew that accompanied Ballard is preparing a documentary about the search. Nationalgeographic.com will also publish the story.

PT-109 belonged to a class of U.S. Navy vessels that were 80 feet (25 meters) long and made of wood. These patrol boats were heavily armed and extremely fast, and were used to intercept enemy ships ferrying supplies to Japanese garrisons in the Solomon Islands.

This is the mission Lieutenant Kennedy and his crew of 12 men were on that fateful night in August 1943. A Japanese destroyer suddenly lumbered out of the predawn darkness and bore down on the American boat.

Kennedy tried to pivot PT-109 and fire his torpedoes, but the Japanese ship was too close and traveling too quickly.

The larger Japanese warship rammed PT-109, slicing it in half and killing two men. Part of the burning American vessel sank rapidly. But another section remained afloat for several hours, with Kennedy and the other survivors clinging to it until dawn. When day came, they swam to a nearby island, with Kennedy towing one injured man himself.

The sailors subsisted on coconuts for nearly a week before being rescued by the U.S. Navy.

Kennedy would have turned 85 today.

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