There is no doubt that President John F. Kennedy’s command of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 during World War II defined his naval career.
However, not many people know that after PT-109 sunk, Navy Lt. Kennedy commanded another boat—PT-59.
On Nov. 2, 1943, this motor torpedo boat, commanded by Kennedy, took part in a rescue mission on Choiseul Island. Between 40 and 50 Marines from Lt. Col. Victor H. Krulak’s Second Marine Parachute Battalion had been surrounded by Japanese soldiers and needed an immediate evacuation.
Navy Lt. Kennedy’s risky decision to pull close to shore made this mission successful, although a wounded Marine later died in Kennedy’s bunk.
The war affected Kennedy’s health; by mid-November, he had lost 25 pounds and was both mentally and physically exhausted. He was sent to a hospital at Tulagi, and on Dec. 21 he left the Solomon Islands and returned to the United States. In the spring of 1945, Kennedy left the Navy on physical disability and began his political career.
But what happened to the motor torpedo boat PT-59? How did it get to a strait between the Hudson River and the East River, separating the island of Manhattan from the Bronx?
Over the years that followed the war, boat changed owners frequently until it was reportedly declared destroyed by the U.S. Coast Guard.
However, William Doyle, author of the John F. Kennedy biography PT 109, disagrees with this claim. He told the New York Post that he believes with “99.99 percent accuracy” that the location of PT-59 is the bottom of the Harlem River in New York.
PT-59 had remained in the Solomons for nearly nine months after Kennedy left and in August 1944 it was transferred to Rhode Island. In October it was reclassified as a small boat and renumbered C102583. A few months later, it was moved to the Philadelphia Naval Station.
The boat was declared Army surplus and on March 21, 1947, it was sold to Gus Marinak, who renamed it “Sun Tan” and (according to Doyle) used it as a party boat for weekend fishermen. Little did he know that the future president of the United States had commanded the vessel during World War II.
Marinak sold the boat to Donald Schmahl, who renamed it “Sea Queen V” and used it for commercial fishing trips. In the late 1960s, the vessel caught fire and was declared destroyed.
With the help of Alyce Guthrie, whose late father was a Patrol Torpedo boat historian, Doyle found two names connected with PT-59: Redmond Burke and Aubrey Mayhew.
Burke bought it in 1969 for $1,000, brought it to the Harlem River, and docked it at 208th Street. He started renovating the vessel, as he wanted to transform it into a houseboat. After researching the boat’s number, he learned that its original name was PT-59.
Burke contacted the Kennedy Library and other groups in an attempt to sell the boat, but they weren’t interested in buying it. Aubrey Mayhew, a collector of JFK memorabilia, offered $5,000 to buy the vessel, but due to a misunderstanding, the sale fell apart. Doyle suggests that Burke let the boat sink “so it would be less of a hazard.”
Doyle was now convinced that it was PT-59, so he and his neighbor Fred Mamoun set out to investigate the presumed site on the Harlem River. They spotted some wood poking out of the water and came to the conclusion that it was part of PT-59’s hull.
Doyle obtained wood samples from the boat. Analysis showed that the wood matches the materials used in constructing PT boats during that time.
As Doyle told the New York Post, he is “99.99 percent” sure that it is JFK’s PT-59, and he hopes that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum will salvage it.