A once-neglected inlet is enjoying a new lease of life in a stretch of the Harlem River close to a New York train yard. Workers are dredging the water in preparation for an ambitious construction project, but then they stumble upon a fascinating relic from the past. Amazingly, historians suspect it is the PT-59 – the torpedo boat that helped make John F. Kennedy a hero during World War II.
For decades, the boat had languished at the bottom of the river – forgotten by all but a scattered few. But it resurfaced for the first time in more than 40 years after New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) began work on a sea wall to protect the subway yard. And with it came the details of a fascinating history connecting the wreck to the 35th President of the United States.
Of course, most Americans are familiar with Kennedy’s wartime exploits and the heroic acts that he carried out on board another vessel. As commander of PT-109, the future president averted disaster in a story so epic that it was made into a Hollywood movie. But today, few are familiar with what happened next.
PT-109 sank to the bottom of the ocean after being attacked, and Kennedy subsequently took charge of a second torpedo boat called PT-59. He then continued his heroics in the Pacific Theater of World War II over the next two months. Now, this forgotten latter vessel has been salvaged from an unlikely location – uncovering a fascinating story along the way.
Today, Kennedy is remembered as one of the most popular presidents to ever sit inside the White House. He was born into a wealthy, influential family in May 1917 and signed up to fight in World War II at the age of 24. At the time, he’d aimed to pursue a career in journalism or academia, while his brother Joe carried the family’s political hopes.
But Joe was killed in action during the conflict – causing Kennedy to step into his brother’s shoes. And in 1960 he was elected president of the United States. Though his term was no easy ride – Kennedy’s skills as a leader were tested by a number of crises that played out around the world.
Kennedy served during the worst days of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis, though his term was generally regarded as a success. And by the summer of 1963 he was campaigning to get elected for a second time. But sadly, fate had something different in store for the 35th President of the United States.
On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was shot and killed as he rode in a motorcade with his wife Jackie in Dallas, Texas. Later, a report would conclude the assassination was the work of Lee Harvey Oswald – a lone gunman. But even today, rumors persist that the president was murdered as part of a sinister conspiracy.
Nevertheless, Kennedy has had a lasting effect on U.S. politics – particularly through his work on civil rights. And this is perhaps even more impressive when his personal history is taken into account. Ever since he was a child, the future president suffered from bouts of ill health that nearly scuppered his career before it could begin.
Kennedy had measles and whooping cough as a child, and he was diagnosed with scarlet fever at the tender age of three. Kennedy would eventually recover from this, though his health would later continue to be an issue. Years later, it would emerge that he’d had Addison’s disease – an endocrine condition that can lead to fatal complications.
But health issues didn’t stop Kennedy from embarking on a career in the military. So, in 1941 he followed in the footsteps of many young men and volunteered to serve his country as part of the U.S. Naval Reserve. Kennedy successfully completed his training a year later and was then assigned commander of his first torpedo boat: PT-101.
Kennedy’s military career would ultimately take him to a remote archipelago in the South Pacific called the Solomon Islands. There, he took command of his second vessel – PT-109 – in April 1943. And for four months he helped the Allied forces wrestle for control of this strategic location.
The future president and his team worked to fight off the supply ships supporting Japanese troops on the island. Meanwhile, PT-109 also played a role in combat between the two factions back on shore. But it wasn’t until August 1943 that Kennedy’s nerve was really tested in a dramatic turn of events.
In the early hours of August 1 a 25-year-old Kennedy was leading his crew on a mission to sink Japanese destroyers in the region. But they struggled to find their way through the dark, starless night without radar to guide them. To make matters worse, they were running just one engine – afraid that excessive noise would render them more noticeable to enemy ships.
By the time that the crew of PT-109 had spotted the Japanese destroyer Amagiri looming off to the side it was too late. Unable to escape in time, they watched in horror as the vessel slammed into their torpedo boat – rending it in two. The men were subsequently thrown into the water in the ensuing chaos.
Kennedy had initially thought that his number was up, reports claim. Unfortunately, this proved to be the case for two of his crew members who died in the collision. Another man called Patrick McMahon was below deck when the vessel’s fuel reserves caught fire. The seaman was subsequently left with serious burns to his arms and face, though he survived the attack.
It was in this bleak scenario, however, that Kennedy really came into his own. Rallying his men together, he led them back to the boat’s remains, where they spent the rest of the night. And he subsequently encouraged the 11 survivors to vote on what to do next the following morning when it was clear that no rescue was imminent.
Kennedy’s authority was confirmed by a democratic vote and he then instructed the survivors to make for an island in the distance. In a remarkable feat of heroism, he towed the injured McMahon himself – swimming for some five hours with a strap clenched between his teeth. The men then eventually reached land, though they found it bare of any food or water to sustain them.
Never one to give up, Kennedy headed out alone that night and swam into the ocean in an attempt to signal any passing ships. He then got lost and spent the night drifting before miraculously making it back to shore the following morning. But his efforts had been in vain, and with no sign of rescue, the future president persuaded his men to make for another island.
Once again, Kennedy pulled McMahon for miles across the ocean before eventually arriving on Bird Island. Luckily, the men found coconuts there and were able to sustain themselves. Then four days after the sinking of PT-109, two locals sympathetic to the Allied cause spotted the stricken crew.
However, the men faced another challenge after being discovered. They were unable to communicate properly with the natives, so Kennedy sent them away with an SOS message scrawled onto a coconut shell. Somehow, the makeshift note apparently reached the Allies in New Zealand and a rescue mission was soon despatched.
Years later, this story of Kennedy’s heroism became familiar to many Americans. In fact, his father Joseph reportedly used to tell it to boost his son’s reputation during his election campaign. But the ex-commander himself remained humble about his achievements – still carrying guilt over the two men who had died in the collision.
Meanwhile, this episode in the Solomon Islands is undoubtedly the most famous of Kennedy’s war-time exploits, but it is far from the only one. The future president took command of another vessel called PT-59 just one month after the sinking and his subsequent ordeal. It had been constructed as a torpedo boat originally, but it was converted into a gun boat under Kennedy’s supervision.
In October 1943 Kennedy and his crew left their base on Tulagi Island and traveled to nearby Vella Lavella Island. And for weeks they played their part in a diversionary campaign designed to lure Japanese troops away from an Allied target elsewhere on the archipelago. Reportedly, the men spent 13 patrols escaping enemy bombs and brushing closely with death.
Then, on November 1 a base commander asked Kennedy for help in rescuing a group of Marines who were trapped on Choiseul Island. In challenging conditions, PT-59 rushed to their aid – assisting in the recovery of some 50 men. Ten of them came on board the gun boat itself, although one died soon after in the future president’s own bunk.
Two days later PT-59 played another important role in the Choiseul campaign: protecting landing craft as they rescued more stranded Marines. Ultimately, the strategy was a success – distracting the Japanese long enough for the Allies to launch an attack elsewhere. And only a handful of American lives were lost thanks to men such as Kennedy.
Kennedy and his crew then assaulted Japanese shore batteries and barges later that month. However, the conflict took a toll on the future president’s health, and on November 18 he was relieved of duty. According to records, he had performed perfectly as a leader throughout his time on PT-59.
Eventually, Kennedy returned to the United States and embarked on a political career. But as his star continued to rise, the boat that had helped make him into a war hero disappeared into obscurity. And in 1944 the vessel was shipped more than 8,000 miles from the Solomon Islands to Rhode Island in the eastern U.S.
Eventually, PT-59 made its way south to Philadelphia, where it languished in a Navy yard. There, it was categorized as Army surplus and sold off to a man named Gus Marinak. After removing the weapons, he subsequently painted the vessel white and gave it a new lease of life as a charter fishing boat in New York.
Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s weekend anglers would pile onto PT-59 to fish – completely unaware of the boat’s illustrious past. Kennedy biographer William Doyle explained in a 2017 interview with the New York Post, “Those New Yorkers probably had no idea they were on a historic vessel.”
PT-59 changed hands again the 1960s, and was then sold to a teacher named Redmond Burke at the turn of the following decade. Apparently, he paid $1,000 for the vessel and planned to use it as a houseboat. Burke later towed it to an abandoned pier on the Harlem River close to an MTA yard on 208th Street.
By that time, PT-59 had been damaged by fire and stripped of its engines – a shadow of the vessel that Kennedy had once commanded. Nevertheless, it served as Burke’s home for a number of years. He recalled in a June 2020 interview with The New York Times, “It was an adventure for me. It was me, the rats and the few corpses that came floating by.”
After a while, Burke began to wonder about the identity of the vessel and took its hull number to the U.S. Coast Guard. Reportedly, they informed him that his boat was PT-59, although he still remained ignorant of the Kennedy connection. In fact, it wasn’t until one of his students pointed it out that he realized he was living on a piece of naval history.
After that, Burke attempted to sell the vessel to a Kennedy enthusiast, but he had little luck. At one point, reports claim, there was interest from the collector Aubrey Mayhew, who had also bought Oswald’s hideout at the Texas School Book Depository. That sale fell through, however, and the boat was eventually abandoned to sink to the bottom of the Harlem River.
For years, the vessel sat in the murky depths and its existence remained little more than a rumor. But in 2016 Doyle – who wrote a book about Kennedy’s wartime exploits – began searching for PT-59. He apparently followed online gossip and traced the trail back to the Harlem River, where aerial photographs hinted at the secret lying beneath the surface.
Through Doyle’s research, the story of PT-59 and its ultimate fate slowly came to light. Then, in April 2017 he sailed out to the spot on the Harlem River where the forgotten vessel was located. By taking samples of the wreckage, he was able to conclude that it was built from spruce – a material known to have been used in the construction of Kennedy’s boat.
Doyle was almost certain that he had located PT-59, though it would be another three years before the wreck would see the light of day. In May 2020 divers preparing the area for construction of a sea wall stumbled upon the sunken remains. And Burke joined other onlookers as they watched a crane bring pieces of the relic to the surface.
According to The New York Times, the salvage operation retrieved what could be pieces of PT-59’s hull, as well as a mysterious oblong-shaped object. But one observer was quickly corrected after claiming that the latter could be the boat’s engine. Indeed, Doyle explained to the newspaper, “There weren’t any engines in it when it sunk.”
After conducting their own research, the MTA agreed with Burke and Doyle that the wreck was likely that of PT-59. A spokeswoman told The New York Times, “Given the presence of a former PT boat once commanded by Lt. John F. Kennedy in the river at this site, [the agency will] continue to work with the experts to ensure appropriate preservation wherever possible.”
A local man called James Cataldi has worked to regenerate this part of the Harlem River, and he reportedly hopes to put some of the wreck on display. Meanwhile, destinations such as Massachusetts’ maritime museum Battleship Cove and Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum have been touted as possible locations for the remains. At the time of writing, however, the future of PT-59 remains uncertain.