Wreck of John F. Kennedy’s World War II Patrol Boat Recovered

The future president took over command of PT-59 after his first ship, PT-109, sank in 1943

PT-59 boat
View of the PT-59 boat in the Solomon Islands during World War II. Photo by Photoquest / Getty Images

An oft-overlooked vessel linked to one of the United States’ most famous presidents has resurfaced after more than 40 years, reports Corey Kilgannon for the New York Times. Last month, in a muddy spot near Harlem River’s North Cove inlet, a crane dredged up the remnants of what is believed to be PT-59, a patrol boat commanded by John F. Kennedy during World War II.

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) recovered the wreckage—including a hatch door frame, a rudder and a mini generator, according to the Daily Mail’s Ryan Fahey—as part of a $610 million construction project. The transit agency is building a large sea wall along the riverfront to prevent flooding in its 207th Street train yard, which most recently flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

PT-59’s legacy has long been overshadowed by the Kennedy’s first wartime boat, PT-109. Sunk off the coast of the Solomon Islands in August 1943, the ship endures in popular imagination thanks to the then-25-year-old lieutenant’s heroic efforts following the crash. As Owen Edwards wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2010, the future president went to great lengths to rescue his crew, personally towing an injured sailor three-and-a-half miles to a nearby island, in addition to swimming out in search of U.S. patrols despite “[b]attling injuries, exhaustion and strong currents.”

Kennedy and crew
Kennedy pictured (far right) with members of his crew at a South Pacific Naval Base during World War II Photo by National Archive / Newsmakers via Getty Images

In 1944, Kennedy received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal in recognition of his heroism. That same year, journalist John Hersey wrote about Kennedy’s saga for the New Yorker and Reader’s Digest, weaving accounts that helped establish the politician’s early reputation as a young war hero.

After PT-109 sank, Kennedy assumed command of PT-59, which he used to attack Japanese barges and, in one instance, rescue ten stranded Marines, according to the Times.

The Navy sold PT-59 for surplus in the 1950s, reports Sarah Cascone for artnet News. It was later renovated and used as a fishing charter boat.

A Bronx schoolteacher named Redmond Burke purchased the repurposed vessel, which he used as a houseboat, in 1970 for $1,000. After discovering the ship’s presidential origins, he attempted to sell it to a Kennedy historical group or collector but had little luck. Around the middle of the decade, he abandoned the boat, letting it sink to the bottom of the Harlem River.

JFK as a lieutenant
John F. Kennedy as a junior grade lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II Photo by © CORBIS via Getty Images

Biographer William Doyle, author of a book on PT-109, has led the charge to identify and preserve Kennedy’s lesser-known boat, according to the Times. Three years ago, Doyle used wood samples to identify the wreckage—spotted in its muddy resting place with the help of aerial images—as PT-59 with “99.99 percent” certainty, reported Michael Kaplan for the New York Post at the time.

MTA spokesperson Meredith Daniels tells the Times that the boat’s remains may eventually end up in a museum. Though no official decisions have been made, potential landing places include Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and the Battleship Cove maritime museum in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The transit authority will “continue to work with the experts to ensure appropriate preservation where possible,” says Daniels.

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