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A Veterans Day tribute aboard the ‘PT 109’

WYANET — Bureau County has had its share of veterans, men and women who heard the call from their country and answered it, some even giving their lives in the cause.

But of all of Bureau County’s heroes, there’s probably only one who was immortalized in a Hollywood movie and in a pop song by singer Jimmy Dean.

Of course, there was also probably one veteran whose life was saved by the future president of the United States.

Woody Partain heard the story of Wyanet veteran Patrick McMahon many years ago.

But he’s never seen McMahon’s story publicized, and he’s found few Wyanet residents who know about one of their town’s most famous residents.

“I thought it was funny that nobody knew,” Partain said. “I just thought it was neat that somebody from Wyanet came that close to the president.”

Patrick Henry (Pappy) McMahon, a native of Wyanet, was assigned to PT 109 as a machinist’s mate 1st Class during World War II. He served under a 26-year-old lieutenant junior grade by the name of John F. Kennedy.

McMahon — who was the oldest member of the crew at 37 — Kennedy and 11 other sailors were serving on PT 109 in the Pacific Ocean’s Solomon Islands in the summer of 1943.

At about 2 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1943, the boat was run down by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. The boat was cut in two, and two of the sailors were killed. Two others, including McMahon, were badly injured.

The survivors decided to head for a nearby island. Kennedy, who had been on the Harvard University swim team, clenched a life jacket strap between his teeth to tow McMahon to safety.

After six days, the men were discovered by Solomon Islander native scouts, who were able to deliver a message and have the crew rescued.

After Kennedy became president in 1962, the PT-109 incident became a cultural phenomenon.

A song titled, “PT-109” by Jimmy Dean reached No. 8 on the pop music, and No. 3 on the country music charts, making it one of Dean’s most successful recordings. McMahon drew a small measure of fame from the song, as he’s the only member of the crew besides Kennedy mentioned by name.

According to the song, “McMahon the Irishman was burned so badly he couldn’t swim.

‘Leave me here, go on,’ he said, ‘cause if you don’t we’ll all be dead.’

The PT skipper couldn’t leave him a man to die alone at sea,
And with a strap between his teeth he towed the Irishman through the sea.”

The next year the movie “PT 109,” starring Cliff Robertson was released about the incident. In the movie, McMahon was portrayed by actor James McCallion.

After the war, McMahon worked for the U.S. Post Office, and eventually became postmaster in Cathedral City, Calif. He died there Feb. 22, 1990, at the age of 84.

According to his stepson, William H. Kelly, McMahon had good memories of the lieutenant turned president.

“He thought the world of President Kennedy — he called him skipper,” Kelly said in McMahon’s obituary.

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