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The Saga of JFK & PT-59

July 10, 2017

President Kennedy’s WWII exploits while commanding PT-109 are well known to the American public and have been documented in a bestselling book, as well a successful Hollywood movie. However, it’s lesser known that he commanded two other PT-boats, first PT-101 for his initial training purposes, then PT-59 after the PT-109 adventure. And, on JFK’s 100th birthday, this past Memorial Day, his biographer William Doyle announced that he believes he has located the wreckage of PT-59 under the Harlem River in New York City.
Having just been promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) during WWII in 1943, JFK entered combat and was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Two based in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.  Subsequently, taking command of PT-109, he would go down in naval history when it collided with the Japanese destroyer Amagiri.
In the aftermath of months of recuperating from his injuries he remained adamant concerning still wanting to stay in the fight, and so LTJG “Jack” Kennedy requested command of another PT boat, and in October 1943, he took the helm of PT-59.  But, he hadn’t any confidence in the PT’s standard armament at the time, the Mark 8 and Mark 14 torpedoes because of their record of abysmal performance. The Mk-14 having exploder failure resulting in “duds” and the Mk-8s being too slow to chase down most targets, and having erratic gyroscopes making hitting a target a matter of pure chance. So, he decided to remove and discard the 59’s torpedo tubes completely and convert the vessel into purely a gunboat by having two 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns installed along with an additional array of heavy machine guns. Then, relying on his battle experiences, Kennedy had ballistics tests performed on heavy armor plating and then had it installed as shielding on the boat’s gun positions in order to further safeguard his crew’s survivability during combat operations.
Motor Torpedo Boat PT-59 was a PT-20-class motor torpedo boat of the United States Navy that was built by the Electric Launch Company of Bayonne, New Jersey. The boat was originally laid down as Motor Boat Submarine Chaser PTC-27, but then was reclassified as BPT-11 because it was assigned to transfer to Great Britain under the Lend-Lease policy where the U.S, furnished war equipment and material support to its allies. However, the allocation was later canceled, and so she was reclassified as PT-59 prior to launch on 8 October 1941, and was completed on 5 March 1942.
The incident on November 2, 1943 was portrayed as an action by PT-109 in the film, but it actually was PT-59 that assisted in the evacuation of 40 to 50 Marines, including several dozen wounded men, from the 2nd Parachute Battalion of the 1st Marine Parachute Regiment who had been surrounded during a raid on Choiseul Island on the Solomon Islands . Regrettably, one gravely wounded Marine expired that same night in Kennedy’s bunk aboard PT-59. Then, after the rescue and on the return trip, PT-59 ran out of gas necessitating it to be towed back to port by PT-236.
After Kennedy’s command ended, PT-59 remained in the Solomon’s until August 1944, when she and five other 77-ft Elco PT boats, including PT-36 and PT-47, were transported back to the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center at Melville, Rhode Island where repairs were performed on the boats by the MTB Base Repair Training Unit. Then, PT-59 was re-designated as a “Small Boat” and renumbered C102583 on 14 October 1944. It along with PT-47 were utilized briefly as crash rescue boats at Naval Air Station (NAS) Norfolk, before being transferred to the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 15 December 1944,  then stricken and sold in 1947.
For his WWII service, Jack Kennedy was decorated with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism by the United States Department of the Navy, As well as the Purple Heart,  American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three stars, and the WWII Victory Medal.
Apparently, PT-59 spent her remaining days into the 1970s, and possibly since 1947, as a charter fishing boat in and around Manhattan Island, NYC. Initially, the boat was thought to be the former PT-95, a 78-foot Hutchins which was of a dissimilar design than PT-59 and one without any noteworthy wartime history, and that had seen duty only as a training vessel. Therefore, no immediate efforts were made to save the vessel and it’s since been determined that PT-95 had been scrapped in Newport, Rhode Island after the war ended in September 1945. So, when the actual identity of the boat was exposed, James “Boat” Newberry attempted to obtain it. He is the founder of PT Boats Inc., a historical nonprofit organization established by veterans of WWII PT boats service that’s dedicated to preserving the history of Patrol Torpedo Boats and is headquartered near Memphis Tennessee. However, the boat’s ownership was entangled in NYC probate court. Subsequently, a fire occurred on board around 1976 resulting in it sinking at its mooring beside the 207th St. Bridge over the Harlem River.
Then in May 2017, Kennedy biographer William Doyle announced that his preliminary explorations in the Harlem River around 207th Street indicated a high likelihood that PT-59 is still there. So, he has been attempting to raise funds from Kennedy family focused organizations to fully explore the area and apparently has now been successful in his search, and believes with “99.99 percent accuracy” that that’s the location of PT-59 the World War II boat on which Kennedy performed heroic deeds that are relatively unknown of today.
With Monday, May 29th, 2017 having been JFK’s 100th birthday, the timing of Doyle’s Bronx discovery is apropos. For Doyle, who is 59 and lives in Manhattan, the quest to find and identify the PT-boat began in January 2016 when he became intrigued by online chatter among JFK buffs concerning the little-known PT 59 and its legacy in the Solomon Islands.
Kennedy had burnished his presidential campaign using his record of valor during the collision and aftermath of PT-109 with a Japanese destroyer in August 1943 and having played a key role in the survival of ten of his crewmen. But, he rarely talked publicly concerning his exploits while serving as skipper aboard the 59, Doyle said.
Recent internet conversations indicated that the PT-59 was now at the bottom of the Harlem River at 208th Street, near an MTA rail yard, and aerial photos disclosed a trace outline of what is believed to be the vessel. But, Doyle has questioned how it could possibly have ended up there.
Following a paper trail, Doyle discovered that in 1944 the 59 had been transferred from the Solomon Islands to the Motor Torpedo Squadrons Training Center in Rhode Island, then on to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Eventually it was declared as “Army surplus” and it was sold to Gus Marinak of the Bronx, NY who employed it as a party fishing boat catering to weekend fishermen in the 1940s and’’50s.
“Those New Yorkers probably had no idea that they were on a historic vessel,” said Doyle. “During the 1960s, the boat was sold to Mr. Donald Schmahl, who used it for commercial fishing trips and docked it at the 23rd Street Pier, near the FDR. Highway.”
Then, about 1969 the vessel was set afire by vandals, and afterwards it was presumed that it had been disposed of. “I wondered how it could have ended up on 208th Street,” Doyle recalled. “I started to lose confidence” that it was the 59.
However, this past March, he called Alyce Guthrie whose late father, James “Boats” Newberry, was a PT historian, and Doyle requested documentation related to Kennedy’s boat. So, she provided him with two names that offered clues; Redmond Burke and Aubrey Mayhew.
“I found a 1970 newspaper article about Redmond purchasing ‘the burned-out hull of a World War II PT boat” Doyle said. “He docked it at 208th Street, near where he lived in Inwood. He . . . wanted to make it into a houseboat.”
Ranking among one of the foremost collectors of JFK memorabilia, Mayhew had purchased the Texas School Book Depository where JFK was assassinated and he also attempted to buy the PT boat, however the deal eventually fell apart.  And so, Burke, said Doyle, allowed the PT to “sink so it would be less of a hazard.”
Next, satisfied he had found PT 59, Doyle recruited neighbor Fred Mamoun, an investigative news producer, to join him in further exploration. So, the two rented a 12-foot motorboat, waited for a low tide, then headed out on the Harlem River. And, while approaching the supposed site, they observed some wood protruding from the water in a form suggestive of the PT-59 hull. Following, the excited men checked the river bottom with an oar and agreed that it was shallow and safe. “Then I stepped out and started getting sucked under,” recalled Doyle. “I was up to my knees in quicksand and sinking fast.” And, as the vessel rocked unsteadily, Mamoun and the boat’s pilot struggled to pull Doyle back aboard the motorboat. At that moment, when Doyle assessed the PT 59’s final resting spot he realized, “It’s an ugly, Godforsaken, forgotten place. That is why nobody goes up there and why the boat has been left alone.”
Later, on a return trip to the site in April, Doyle used a power saw attached to an extended pole to cut wood and remove samples from the boat, as well as from the nearby dock and wooden dock bumper. Then, he sent the samples to two separate wood-products analysis labs that both confirmed that they were un-identical, demonstrating that what Doyle believed to be the boat was not a piece of wayward dock wreckage. Additionally, they identified the wood as being spruce which is comparable to the material used in the construction of PT boats, but Doyle retains .01 percent doubt. And, final confirmation can be made only with the complete excavation and assessment of the wreckage site. Meanwhile, Doyle’s hope is that a Kennedy-related organization, such as the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum will fund the raising of JFK’s PT-59.
Said Doyle, “I have no immediate plans beyond . . . making it a potential last chapter for future printings of ‘PT 109’ and drawing people’s attention to an extraordinary story.”
So, although it remains to be seen whether or not John F. Kennedy’s “other PT boat” has been discovered in the Harlem River it’s certainly a mysteriously tantalizing and generally unknown saga of the sea.

 

 

 

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