The Story of JFK and PT 109 You Haven’t Heard

Very few men can say they have run a race with a U.S. President—and won. Father Vincent Healy Arimond, a resident at Ecumen Lakeshore in Duluth, has that fond memory.

The President was John F. Kennedy Jr.  The race was a PT boat scramble in the South Pacific during World War II.

JKF was then a young Navy lieutenant, commanding the now famous PT 109, which as PT boats go, was something of a heap.  Fr. Vincent, before he became a priest, was the quartermaster on the much more seaworthy PT 60.  The two boats were paired for night patrol near the Russell Islands.

In his memoirs, Father Vincent, recalled that night this way:

“After the night’s patrol duties, Jack (Kennedy) challenged our skipper to a race back to our Russell Islands base.  We readily agreed, knowing he couldn’t possibly win.  The flatter hull of our 70-foot PT 60 boat was lighter and faster than the PT 109, an 80-foot boat.  An incentive was that our required refueling was first-come-first-served, in order of arrival, after which the crew would be free to take a swim in the bay to cool off. 

“As we expected, we won the race easily.  Jack did not like being beaten in a race.  When we got into the harbor, he gunned the engine and plunged past us, a forbidden harbor practice in the Navy.  As he headed for the docks he asked his motor-mac to put the motors in reverse.  The intensity of the speed killed the motors, and he headed straight towards the dock with no way to check his speed.  We watched as the boat plowed into the dock with a crash.  The dock broke into pieces, the PT boat stopping when it hit the pilings that supported the dock.  We heard Jack was in real trouble.  The authorities assigned Jack to duty on the beach for a spell.  This couldn’t last long, however, as we were all needed for the patrols.”

And, of course, the rest of the story has been widely publicized and made into a movie. Sometime later, operating from a different base, Lt. Kennedy went on patrol in PT 109 and the boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer.  In a narrow escape from the crash, JFK led his 10 surviving men in an exhausting and heroic swim to a nearby island.

Father Vincent, who recalls frequently riding to Mass with Lt. Kennedy, is now 92 and living at Ecumen Lakeshore, where he has written his memoirs that recall the Kennedy story. After the war, Father Vincent returned to the States to become a priest. He did pastoral service in Duluth, Brainerd, Sandstone, Proctor and Morgan Park.

After 25 years in the priesthood, Father Vincent changed course.  “Ultimately, I realized that I had promised God that I would serve in the Missions,” he wrote.  He spent the rest of his career in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador before returning to Duluth, where he retired.

Lt. Kennedy returned from his ordeal to become a Congressman and the 35th President of the United States.  He was assassinated 50 years ago today.