John Domagalski, Into the Dark Water: The Story of Three Officers and PT-109. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2014. 280 pp.
Review by CPT Andrew Ziebell, USA
Into the Dark Water is purportedly about PT-109 and the three officers, including John F. Kennedy, who commanded her during her roughly thirteen months in service. The book explores some of the technical and logistical considerations, as well as the administrative actions, which saw PT-109 eventually arrive in the Pacific Theater with Lieutenant Rollin Westholm at the helm. Once in theater, it is evident that the 109 and her crew are just one very small part of a much larger effort and that, in singling out one boat, the author sets himself a difficult task. The subtitle of the book may have more rightly been: “PT boat actions off Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, 1942-43.”
It is in the descriptions of these actions, even ones in which the 109 does not participate, where the author truly excels. Drawing upon a wealth of research, Domagalski brings to life the daring, primarily night-time missions of the PT boats. One gains an appreciation for just how dangerous these actions were by hearing directly from those involved. It is particularly interesting to discover how the after action reports submitted by the US officers differed significantly from those in the Japanese records. The fog of war often led to wildly inaccurate battle damage assessments, but this in no way diminishes the importance of the PT boats, nor takes away from the heroism of their crews.
Domagalski leaves no doubt that these were, indeed, brave men led by exceptional officers. One of the more moving accounts in the book is when one officer describes abandoning his boat and diving into the dark water, not only because staying aboard meant certain death but because he knew that his comrades would eventually come to find him. That speaks to not only the incredible courage of these men, but also to the trust that must have existed between them. The three successive commanding officers of the 109, along with captains of sister boats, instilled this sense of trust by continuously adapting in the face of the enemy, constantly looking to the welfare of their men and always placing themselves at the most dangerous point.
The author’s efforts to place PT-109 properly within the context of the Pacific war does detract, at times, from the narrative without adding anything of particular value. The reader would have been better served with more personalized accounts of day to day life at war. Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming is in the chapter that seeks to trace the use of small, torpedo-armed boats against larger, destroyer-type ships. While mentioning the first submarine, Bushnell’s Turtle, to be used in action against a British ship before giving ample space to the development of steam and ironclad ships by both the United States and the Confederacy during the Civil War, it is curious that the author makes no mention of the jeune ecole which emerged in France during the 1870s and 1880s. Certainly the innovative theories advocated by Vice Admiral Aube and others in searching for ways to combat a superior naval force are eminently more relevant to the situation that the PT boats faced at the end of 1942.
PT-109 made her final contribution to the war in August, 1943. With Lieutenant junior grade Kennedy at the helm, she was sliced in half by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. By the author’s own admission, the final mission of PT-109 would likely have been just one more incident in a long bloody war, if not for the post-war fame of her final skipper. Even this, despite Domagalski’s assertion that it is an event still taught in high schools around the country, is fading from memory. But maybe that is the point here. Countless stories remain that must continue to be told and re-told before they are lost to time.