Small, speedy, and versatile, PT (patrol torpedo) boats did yeoman’s work for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Four 21-inch torpedoes, two twin .50-caliber machine guns, and makeshift armament add-ons allowed this all-purpose vessel to attack warships, barges, and transport ships; chase submarines; escort Allied landing craft; lay mines; and generally harass the enemy in all theaters—though it is most often associated with the Pacific War. The navy’s call for designs in 1938 ended with contracts for two main suppliers, Elco and Higgins, which between them produced over 500 PT boats.
On August 2, 1943, a Japanese destroyer in the Solomons rammed the boat depicted here, PT-109, commanded by Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy, killing two crewmen and sinking the vessel. An injured Kennedy swam for miles for help, towing a badly burned sailor behind him. Kennedy’s actions helped his remaining crew survive and earned the future president the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart. Just a few of these wooden boats survive today.