PT-109 tells the story of President John F Kennedy‘s wartime experience as a PT boat skipper in the South Pacific, with Cliff Robertson portraying the young Kennedy.
Ty Hardin plays Ensign Leonard Thom, Kennedy’s executive officer and right-hand man while James Gregory adds conviction to the film as Commander C W Ritchie, Kennedy’s commanding officer.
The movie is mostly concerned with Kennedy’s saving of 11 men including himself, when their battle-scarred torpedo boat, the PT-109, is cut in half by a Japanese destroyer shortly after 1:00 am on 2 August 1943.
Towing a wounded shipmate for three miles by swimming with the man’s life belt clamped between his teeth, JFK landed on an uninhabited Pacific island and was rescued some days later.
This was the first time in film history that an actor had played a living president in a story based on his experiences. Based on the book approved by JFK, the President’s share of profits from both the book and the movie went to survivors or relatives of his PT boat crew.
But as a piece of hero worship and political propaganda, released just after the Cuban missile crisis, the movie is a fascinating relic from a less cynical age.
Kennedy Island, as Tulagi is now called, is in the Solomons, though the film’s location was Little Palm Island in Florida, now the site of a luxury hotel.
Director Lewis Milestone was fired halfway through making the movie. He was replaced by Les Martinson.
Lt John F Kennedy
Ensign Leonard J Thom
Commander C W Ritchie
Ensign Barney Ross
Lieutenant Alvin Cluster
Lieutenant Reginald Evans
Gerard E Zinser
Edgar E Mauer
Leslie H Martinson