Into the Dark Water: The Story of Three Officers and PT-109. By John J. Domagalski. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2014. 261 pp.
The story of Lt. John F. Kennedy and his patrol torpedo boat, PT-109, during the Second World War is well known. The entire history of the boat, including its other two commanders, Bryant Larson and Rollin Westholm, has enjoyed far less attention. Occupying the intersection of World War II studies and Kennedy biography, John Domagalski's Into the Dark Water enhances the literature in both fields.
American PT boats were one of the many attempts in history to get more bang for the buck, while also, in this case, allowing access to waterways unreachable by larger vessels. Eighty feet in length, lightly armed, and unarmored--indeed, they were made of wood--these craft relied on speed to rush an enemy vessel, launch their torpedoes, and flee, perhaps aided by their smoke generators. The extreme vulnerability of these "floating gas tank[s]," as Larson called them (p. 195), may indeed have rendered them a flawed concept: they could only operate at night (and only later versions were equipped with radar), and they could not get in close enough to their targets to have much chance of scoring a hit. Even the cover of darkness was illusory; the boats often gave away their location with their flashing torpedo tubes or their telltale wakes. They were thus surprisingly easy prey for Japanese destroyers and floatplanes.
The PT crews and commanders alike deserve our sympathy and admiration. Larson, Westholm, and Kennedy all come off as competent, dedicated, conscientious leaders, playing well what was, in many ways, a poor hand. One does not envy them the dilemmas they faced. For example, while on a mission, should the boats use their radios to communicate with one another? If they did, Japanese floatplanes could locate them. If they did not, in the bad weather and murk they could not see each other, which meant uncoordinated attacks at best, or collision, mistaken identity, and self-inflicted fatalities at worst. What stands out above all, however, is the...