top of page

Famous Boats: John F. Kennedy's WWII Patrol Boat 'PT-59' Discovered in Harlem River

A boat forever linked to one of America's most famous presidents has been found after more than 40 years, according to the New York Times.

In a muddy section of the North Cove inlet on the Harlem River in New York a team of divers and a crane managed to dredge up what is believed to be PT-59, the second of two boats commanded by Lt. John F. Kennedy during World War II.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City was responsible for the recovery mission, which included a rudder, a mini generator, and a hatch door frame, according to the Daily Mail.

The discovery coincided with a $610 million construction project to build a sea wall along the riverfront adjacent to the 207th Street train yard, which flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The story of PT-59 often gets intertwined with Kennedy's other wartime boat, the PT-109, and for good reason. The PT-109 was sunk off the coast of the Solomon Islands in August of 1943 with Kennedy at the helm, the boat having been rammed by a Japanese destroyer and torn in two. Kennedy, then a 25-year-old lieutenant, saved multiple men from his crew and led them to safety, a story that was immortalized in several films.

In a detailed breakdown by Smithsonian Magazine in 2010, Kennedy's actions after the crash are described as truly remarkable- he personally towed an injured sailor 3.5 miles to a nearby island before repeating the same swim multiple times in search of a U.S. patrol boat he could signal for rescue. Led by Kennedy, the crew survived for 6 days on a series of remote islands before he was able to send a message etched in a coconut with local islanders who relayed his position to the Allies.

For his actions in the aftermath of the sinking of PT-109, Kennedy received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal in recognition of his heroism. Other media stories shortly thereafter cemented his credibility as a war hero and established his early reputation in politics.

After the loss of PT-109, Kennedy took command of PT-59, which underwent a series of drastic re-fittings before being led on a series of attacks upon Japanese barges in late 1943. Another notable rescue mission saw Kennedy volunteer to lead his crew in the rescue of ten Marines stranded under heavy fire on a nearby island. Kennedy was honorably discharged in 1945, in part due to injuries suffered during his service, and left the military having won an impressive list of medals including the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Purple Heart Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

According to artnet News, after the end of WWII the PT-59 was sold as surplus by the Navy sometime during the early 1950's. From there it was re-fitted as a charter fishing boat under the names Sun Tan and Sea Queen V. At some point, a fire damaged it, and it was then sold to Bronx schoolteacher Redmund Burke in 1970 for $1000. The boat came with no engines, so Burke had the boat towed to the 208th Street harbour where he re-fitted it a third time as a houseboat. “It was an adventure for me,” Burke told the New York Times. “It was me, the rats, and the few corpses that came floating by.” At some point Burke checked the boat's hull number, #274398, with the U.S Coast Guard, who confirmed it as the PT-59.

After discovering the boat's famous origins with the help of his students, Burke attempted to the sell the boat to a collector or Kennedy historical group without success. Sadly, sometime during the mid-70's Burke abandoned the boat, leaving it at the dock where it eventually sank into the mud of the Harlem river.

A biographer named William Doyle, who also authored a book on PT-109, has led an initiative to identify and preserve the PT-59, according to the New York Times. Doyle used wood samples to identify the wreckage—which were spotted with the help of aerial images overlooking Manhattan's Inwood neighbourhood—as PT-59 with “99.99 percent” certainty, according to the New York Post.

According to Metropolitan Transit Authority spokesperson Meredith Daniels, the boat may eventually end up in a museum. Potential new homes include Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and the Battleship Cove maritime museum in Fall River, Massachusetts.



bottom of page