In the early morning hours of August 2, 1943, three small American torpedo boats are moving just west of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. In command of PT-109 is a young Irish American destined to one day be the first Catholic president of the United States, Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
On a moonless night, Kennedy’s boat is idling on one engine to avoid detection of her wake by Japanese aircraft when the crew realizes they are in the path of the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, which is returning to Rabaul from Vila, Kolombangara, after offloading supplies and 900 soldiers. Amagiri is traveling at a relatively high speed of between 23 and 40 knots in order to reach harbor by dawn, when Allied air patrols are likely to appear.
The crew of PT-109 has less than ten seconds to get the engines up to speed. The commander of the Amagiri, Kohai Hanami, spots the tiny ship but it is too close to fire upon. Instead, Hanami decides to ram it. PT-109 is cut in half and bursts into flames. Seamen Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold W. Marney are killed, and two other members of the crew are badly injured. PT-109 is gravely damaged, with watertight compartments keeping only the forward hull afloat in a sea of flames.
PT-169 launches two torpedoes that miss the destroyer and PT-162‘s torpedoes fail to fire at all. Both boats then turn away from the scene of the action and return to base without checking for survivors.
The eleven survivors cling to PT-109’s bow section as it drifts slowly south. By about 2:00 PM, it is apparent that the hull is taking on water and will soon sink, so the men decide to abandon it and swim for land. Since there are Japanese camps on all the nearby large islands, they choose the tiny deserted Plum Pudding Island, southwest of Kolombangara. They place their lantern, shoes, and non-swimmers on one of the timbers used as a gun mount and begin kicking together to propel it. Kennedy, who had been on the Harvard University swim team, uses a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth to tow his badly-burned senior enlisted machinist mate, MM1 Patrick McMahon. It takes four hours to cover the 3.5 miles to their destination, which they reach without confrontation by sharks or crocodiles.
The island is only 100 yards in diameter and has no food or water. The crew has to hide from passing Japanese barges. Kennedy swims to Naru and Olasana islands, a round trip of about 2.5 miles, in search of help and food. He then leads his men to Olasana Island, which has coconut trees and drinkable water.
The explosion of PT-109 is spotted by an Australian coastwatcher, Sub-lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans, who mans a secret observation post at the top of the Mount Veve volcano on Kolombangara, where more than 10,000 Japanese troops are garrisoned below on the southeast portion. Evans dispatches islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana in a dugout canoe to look for possible survivors after decoding news that the explosion he had witnessed was likely from the lost PT-109.
Kennedy and his men survive for six days on coconuts before they are found by the scouts. The small canoe is not big enough for passengers. Kennedy quickly carves a note on a coconut for Gasa and Kumana to deliver to Evans. Evans gets word back to the U.S. Navy and, on the night of August 8, all eleven survivors of PT-109 are rescued by PT-157.