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August 2, 1943: PT-171 and John F. Kennedy
The PT's had their final all-out encounter with the Tokyo Express on the night of August 1/2 1943 when four destroyers ran through Blackett Strait, on the west side of Kolombangara, to Vila, on the southern tip of the island It was apparent that the Japanese knew that PT's would be their only opposition. Just before dusk on the afternoon of the 1st, 18 bombers made a strike on the PT base at Lumbari Island. One bomb blasted PT's 117 and 164 at their dock and killed two men. Two torpedoes blown off PT 164 by the bombing ran erratically around the bay until they fetched up on the beach without detonating. Even with the loss of two boats, it was possible to send 15 PT's out in 4 sections to meet the destroyers:
PT 159 led PT 157 and PT 109 in the northernmost patrol in Blackett Strait, off Vanga Vanga. On the Kolombangara coast PT 171 led a patrol a few miles to the south of Brantingham's division, with PT 169, PT 172, and PT 163. To the southeast of this patrol, still in Blackett Strait, PT 174 led PT 105 and PT 103. South of Ferguson Passage, the southern entrance to Blackett Strait, were stationed, in PT 107, with PT 104, PT 106, and PT 108.
Brantingham made radar contact at midnight with ships approaching from the north, close to the Kolombangara coast. Soon afterward he saw four ships, which he believed to be large landing craft. The 159 and 157 started to close the range to make a strafing run. The enemy ships opened fire with heavy guns, revealing themselves as destroyers. PT 159 fired four torpedoes and PT 157 fired two at 18oo yards. As the boats retired to the northwest, a large explosion was seen at the target. PT 159 having fired all its torpedoes, returned to base. PT 157 attempted to rejoin PT's 162 and I09, but was unable to find them.
A few minutes later Berndtson's division sighted four destroyers, still heading down the Kolombangara coast. PT 171 closed to 1,5oo yards.The destroyers fired star-shells to illuminate the PT's and opened fire with their main batteries and automatic weapons. PT 171 fired four torpedoes at the second destroyer. Bright flashes from the tubes warned the destroyer, which turned toward the PT and avoided the torpedoes. The other three PT's in the division were not aware of the presence of the destroyers until they opened fire, and then could not fire torpedoes because another PT was crossing their bow. The 171 returned to base. The 159 proceeded north, joining PT's 162 and 109, PT's 170 and 172 straddled by gunfire from two destroyers, ran south through Ferguson Passage, where they were ineffectually attacked by four floatplanes, and eventually returned to their patrol station.
Lieutenant Cookman, whose PT 107 had the only radar in his section, had radar contact with two ships. He headed through Ferguson Passage at high speed to attack, leaving the other three boats of his section behind. Inside Ferguson Passage he fired four torpedoes by radar, and observed a dull red flash in the direction of the target. He reversed course and headed back for the base, passing his other three boats as they came north through the passage. These boats could find no targets, though they patrolled in Blackett Strait for more than an hour before returning to their original patrol station.
Lieutenant Rome's division saw the flashes of the destroyers firing on the boats to the north. At 0025 Rome saw a destroyer to the northeast, close to the Kolombangara shore, turn on its searchlight and start firing to the west. He fired four torpedoes at 1000 yards and observed two explosions hit the target. As he headed for Ferguson Passage, shells from the destroyer passed overhead and a plane strafed the boat. The 174 was not hit, but returned to base, as it had no more torpedoes. PT 103 fired four torpedoes at 2 miles, and also returned to base. PT 105 was in an unfavorable position and could not attack.
An hour later the 105 was patrolling just inside Ferguson Passage. A flame flared up to the northwest in the middle of Blackett Strait, and gunfire flashed along the Kolombangara coast, silhouetting a destroyer moving slowly north, 2000 yards away. PT 105 fired two torpedoes, but observed no hits. PT 109 (Lieutenant Kennedy) was leading PT's 162 and 169 on a slow southward sweep. A destroyer suddenly knifed out of the darkness off PT 109's bow. Before Kennedy could turn his boat the destroyer rammed it at full speed. Gasoline burst into flames immediately. This was the flash, which silhouetted a destroyer for the 105 Lowrey, in the 162, saw the destroyer as it bore down on Kennedy's boat. His torpedoes would not fire. He finally swerved off to the southwest to avoid collision with the destroyer, then only 100 yards away. Potter, in the 169 fired two torpedoes but by then the destroyer was only 150 yards away, and the torpedoes probably would not have armed themselves in that distance even if they had hit. The destroyer opened fire on the 169, which zigzagged to the south behind smoke puffs. A few minutes later Potter saw the wake of another destroyer heading toward him from the south. He swung left and fired his last two torpedoes. The destroyer also turned left, just in time, Potter thought, for the torpedo to hit its bow and explode. The 169 continued to zigzag south, laying smoke. PT I57, farther north than the other boats, fired two torpedoes at a ship close to the Kolombangara coast without observed results. This was perhaps the most confused and least effectively executed action the PT's had been in. Eight PT's fired 30 torpedoes. The only confirmed results are the loss of PT 109 and damage to the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. The Amagiri was not hit by a torpedo, but vibrated so badly after ramming the 109, that she was unable to proceed at high speed. The chief fault of the PT's was that they didn't pass the word. Each boat attacked independently, leaving the others to discover the enemy for themselves.