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PT 59: The PT Boat You Didn’t Know About

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division

PT 59 and her crew, photographed in an unspecified location near VellaLavella and Choiseul, played a key role in the diversionary mission at Choiseul Island in early November 1943.


It may have looked like a speedboat, but beware anything that might threaten its mission. Loaded with two twin .50 cal. M2 Browning machine guns, two 40 mm guns (fore and aft) and four single .30 and .50 cal. machine guns, the water craft had the power to destroy any obstacle that got in its way.

That was the power of PT-59. A former Motor Boat Submarine Chaser that was converted into a motor gunboat, PT-59 was about 77 feet long and able to get up to speeds of 45-47 bone jarring miles per hour. Although the craft and crew were capable, its rough ride was a challenge for PT-59’s commanding officer who silently felt every jar after suffering a serious injury on his previous assignment. Despite injuries that could have sent him home, he insisted on staying in the fight and was assigned command of PT-59 in the Solomon Islands.

The commanding officer and crew of PT-59 were put to the test  when they were ordered to help evacuate more than 40 Marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion, 1st Marine Parachute Regiment on Nov. 2, 1943, who had been surrounded by Japanese forces on Choiseul Island. Some of these Marines were wounded and one of them died in the skipper’s bunk aboard PT-59 that night.

On the night of Nov. 5-6, PT-59 led three PT boats to Moli Point and Choiseul Bay, where they attacked Japanese barges. During the next week and a half, PT-59 prowled off Choiseul Bay looking for barges. The final action of PT-59’s commanding officer was on the night of November 16–17, when he took PT-59 on what turned out to be an uneventful patrol.

It wasn’t until a doctor directed him to leave PT-59 in mid-November due to numerous health reasons that he gave up command, returned to the U.S. in January of 1944 and underwent a year of physical therapy to overcome his injuries which were likely exacerbated by his service on PT-59. Despite a strong desire to continue to serve, his injuries made that impossible. He resigned from the Navy in 1945 to begin a political career.

The skipper of PT-59 was in fact Lt. John F. Kennedy. We’ve all heard about Kennedy’s first command PT-109, the infamous patrol which was struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri on Aug. 2, 1943 near Kolombangara Island. The collision cut his craft in two, killing two crew members. Kennedy rescued another crew member who was badly injured, despite his own crippling back injury – the injury that finally ended his Naval career and plagued him for the rest of his life.

Kennedy and his surviving crew swam to an island a few miles away, and with the help of some local natives and a Coastwatcher, they returned to Rendova PT base in early August of 1943.
And from there, Kennedy, the future president of the United States, took command of PT 59.