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‘The Search for Kennedy’s PT-109’

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On Nov. 16, Sunday, at 9 p.m. ET, MSNBC and National Geographic EXPLORER present “The Search for Kennedy’s PT 109,” the exclusive behind-the-scenes story of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Robert Ballard’s quest to find John F. Kennedy’s PT 109 in the South Pacific and the amazing tale of Kennedy’s leadership and courage as he struggled to save his shipwrecked crew caught in enemy territory during World War II.

Included in “The Search for Kennedy’s PT 109” are rare, in-depth interviews with the two Solomon islanders who rescued Kennedy, sharing their personal stories about their discovery of the PT 109 survivors. Also, Kennedy’s nephew, Maxwell Kennedy, conveys a special emotional message from his family to the two rescuers.

“What happened to PT 109 was one of the pivotal moments in Kennedy’s life,” Ballard said. “It was a rite of passage for him — this clearly was a moment of growing up. PT 109 provides an opportunity to tell JFK’s personal story of entering the war as little more than a boy and then emerging as a future president.”

Best known for his discoveries of the RMS Titanic, Bismarck and USS Yorktown, Ballard and his team spent several days searching a 5-by-7-mile grid in the Solomon Islands’ Blackett Strait, using side-scan sonar technology to locate underwater targets that could be PT 109. At the most promising site, unmanned vehicles equipped with high-definition video cameras, including a small remotely operated vehicle called Little Hercules, were deployed. Images sent back to the expedition ship revealed what experts identified as a Mark 18 torpedo tube — the type used on U.S. Navy patrol torpedo (PT) boats — and a World War II-vintage Mark 8 torpedo, buried amongst giant underwater sand dunes some 1,300 feet below the surface. Also partially visible was the hand-operated “training gear” used to manually aim the torpedo.

“Everything is in the right place,” said Dale Ridder, a marine weapons and explosives expert who took part in the expedition. “There’s only one PT boat sunk in this area… and this matches a PT boat all the way down the line. The torpedo matches. The tube matches. The size matches.”

“The Search for Kennedy’s PT 109” recounts the predawn hours of Aug. 2, 1943, when the Japanese destroyer Amagiri rammed Kennedy’s PT 109 in the waters of the Solomon Islands, killing two sailors and slicing the boat in two. Kennedy and the 10 surviving members of his crew floated on the badly damaged hulk until daybreak and then swam some four miles to Plum Pudding Island. Deep in Japanese territory, the American sailors subsisted mainly on coconuts for nearly a week before being rescued. Kennedy spent one night swimming in the ocean, hoping to flag a passing U.S. patrol boat while dodging the Japanese. Kennedy also swam to two other nearby islands looking for help before being discovered by local scouts working with the Allies. The ordeal earned Kennedy the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for bravery in action and contributed to the charismatic aura that envelops him even today.

Nearly 60 years later, National Geographic sponsored the expedition led by Ballard to locate the remains of PT 109. The results of the expedition were announced last July, and EXPLORER was given exclusive access to the mission. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine will feature Ballard’s first-person account of the expedition in the upcoming December 2002 issue. Ballard, with Michael Hamilton Morgan, has also written a new book, Collision with History: The Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT 109, about the discovery and the history of PT Boats.

An exhibition on the expedition will be held at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn., starting in November 2002.

“The members of our family want to express our appreciation to Dr. Ballard and National Geographic for the manner in which the gravesite of two PT 109 crew members was treated with respect,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy. For Kennedy, the discovery of his older brother’s PT boat is welcome news, but carries a wider significance. “Finding PT 109 is especially meaningful to the members of my family,” Kennedy said, “but we also believe it represents the story of all the brave young men who fought with such courage in the South Pacific to ensure victory during World War II.”