During World War II, the Navy established many motor torpedo boat (MTB) bases throughout the South Pacific as the course of the war moved through the Solomon Islands chain. Some were small, temporary advanced bases out of which the patrol torpedo (PT) boats operated; larger facilities were set up as maintenance bases. Officially, most of these bases were known by the name of the island where they were located, and the larger ones were assigned official numbers. Unofficially, some were given names in honor of a fallen comrade or commanding officer.
The names and locations of these bases were virtually forgotten after the war, remembered only by the men who were there or historians researching the war. But one base gained a bit of lasting fame among PT boat historians and enthusiasts. This was the first PT base at Rendova, which was actually on Lumbari Island (present-day Lumbaria), one of the many small islands that define the harbor on the north side of Rendova.
The reason for its fame is that it was from this base that Lieutenant (junior grade) John F. Kennedy departed on his fateful voyage on 1 August 1943 on board PT-109. According to Robert J. Donovan’s 1961 book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II, the PT base on Lumbari was called Todd City and had a prominent sign that was visible from the water. Donovan wrote: “The sign was made of eight white painted oil drum heads with black letters on a high rope suspended between two palm trees. It was a memorial to Leon Edgar Todd Jr., of Commander [Robert] Kelly’s Squadron 9, who was the first PT man killed at Rendova.” This statement about Ensign Todd was repeated in the 1963 movie adaptation of PT 109, and the sign was re-created for the film.
However, Donovan’s claim regarding the naming of the base is only half right: Either it was named after the first PT man killed at Rendova—or it was named after Leon E. Todd Jr.
Why? Because Ensign Leon E. Todd Jr. was not a PT boater. But a PT boater named Merwin Kenneth Todd was killed at Rendova at about the same time as Ensign Todd. Who were these two men with the same last name who died within two days of each other?
Who was the base really named after?
Outpost at Lumbari
Rendova is part of the New Georgia island group near the center of the Solomon Islands chain. New Georgia was the next major island group to be taken after U.S. forces secured Guadalcanal in February 1943. At its closest point, Rendova is about seven miles to the south of New Georgia.
Lumbari Island (sometimes spelled Lombari or Lumberi) is one of several small islands and reefs on the northeast corner of Rendova that form Rendova Harbor. Measuring approximately 1,300 by 500 feet, this uninhabited island covered in palm trees rises only about 2 feet above mean high-water level.
Lumbari was chosen as an advanced base for PT boat operations. Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Nine (RON 9) established the base, and it was followed by RON 5, RON 10, and RON 11 through July and August. Along with RON 9’s base force, the 24th Naval Construction Battalion erected some huts and tents and a temporary pier to provide administrative, supply, and minimal repair facilities. The boats anchored around the island. The Lumbari PT base served as an operational center for daily patrols and the headquarters of PT Boats, Rendova, but for any major repairs or even torpedo reloading, the boats had to go back to the PT base near Guadalcanal at Tulagi, a 400-mile round trip.
A Tale of Two Todds
Merwin Kenneth Todd, known as Ken, was born in Iola, Kansas, on 31 May 1910. The family later moved to Fort Collins, Colorado. He married in 1939 and was working as a florist in Ventura, California, when the war broke out. Ken Todd enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 14 January 1942 and went to recruit training in San Diego. He trained as a gunner’s mate and attended the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center (MTBSTC) in Melville, Rhode Island, from 3 October through 1 December 1942. After graduation, Ken was assigned to RON 9 in December 1942 as a gunner’s mate third class on board PT-162.
Leon Edgar Todd Jr., who went by Ed, was born in Ocean City, New Jersey, on 30 June 1920. He graduated from Gettysburg College in May 1942, having enlisted in the Naval Reserve the previous February in preparation for attendance at one the Navy’s midshipman schools after graduation. He was appointed a midshipman on 22 July 1942, attended the U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School in New York, and received his commission as an ensign on 21 October.
Ensign Todd proceeded to the Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet, in Norfolk, Virginia, for training. Detached on 10 November for assignment in the Pacific as a landing boat officer, he served on board the transport ship USS President Hayes (APA-20). In June 1943, as part of the preparations for the assault on New Georgia (Operation Toenails), Todd was assigned to Amphibious Forces Boat Pool 8 and listed as one of the boat division commanders.
The Amphibious Boat Pool was a temporary organization put together to support amphibious landings. Boat pools were directly involved in the assault landings, moving personnel and supplies from transport and supply ships, and providing harbor boat control. Boats and crews were assigned to the pools from the various transports involved in the operation.
Four boat pools were part of the operation to seize New Georgia: 8, 8a, 8b, and 8c. Each pool had a specific mission in support of the various landings at Rendova (8), Wickham Anchorage (8a), Viru Harbor (8b), and Segi Point (8c). Boat Pool 8 was the largest, with 145 landing craft, 32 officers, and 450 enlisted men.
One Todd Casualty
Operation Toenails began on 30 June with landings at Rendova and Wickham Anchorage. On the night of 30 June, PTs 118, 153, 158, 159, 160, and 162 were patrolling their area outside Rendova Harbor. At 0205 on 1 July, a bomb from a Japanese plane exploded off the port quarter of PT-162. The explosion knocked all the engines off line and wounded four crew members—including Ken Todd. According to the deck log of PT-162, Todd was fatally wounded, although he had not yet died.
After the bomb explosion, the wounded were treated with what limited resources were available on board. The crew was able to get one engine back on line, and they limped back to Rendova. The four wounded men were loaded aboard the destroyer USS Jenkins (DD-447), patrolling off Rendova in Blanche Channel. Three of the casualties were transferred back to the PT boat, but Todd remained on board for transport to the hospital at Tulagi. The Jenkins’ records show that Todd was received on 1 July and transferred to the Naval Advanced Base 152, Tulagi, on 3 July.
The unit hospital on Tulagi recorded that Todd was received on 3 July and died the next day. He had suffered a shrapnel wound to the left lower quadrant of the abdomen. Ken Todd was buried in the U.S. Navy and Marine Cemetery on Tulagi, Row 6, Grave 142.
Another Todd Casualty
On 2 July, the Japanese staged a large air attack on the landing area on Rendova. The raid consisted of about two dozen aircraft, and because of the weather and low ceiling, they achieved surprise. It was a serious bombing attack, killing 64 men and wounding 89 others, in addition to destroying a large portion of the 24th Seabees’ equipment, the dispensary, and fuel stocks.
During the raid Ensign Ed Todd was seriously wounded, reportedly while bathing next to his boat just off Rendova.
At the time of the bombing, LST-353 and -342 were at the Rendova shoreline unloading supplies and equipment. Casualties were being brought aboard both LSTs for treatment. Ensign Todd was taken to LST-353. The 353 transferred all the casualties she received to the 342, as she was finished unloading and would transport the casualties to the hospital at Tulagi. Ensign Todd died from his wounds and reportedly was taken out to sea and buried.
Initially, Ensign Todd was listed as missing in action. His parents received official notification of his status on 18 August. They received another notification in late August that the Navy believed their son had been killed and buried at sea, and it was trying to confirm this information. It was not until November that the Todds officially were notified that their son had died on 2 July.
Some of the delay may have been the result of LST-342 not leaving right away, because she damaged her propeller backing away from the beach. Reports that 342 buried three casualties at sea cannot be verified, because two weeks later on 18 July, she was sunk, with the loss of almost the entire crew and all documentation.
Ken City or Ed City?
So who is Todd City named after? How did these two Todds get mixed up almost 20 years later?
The U.S. Navy lists 13 Todds killed in action in World War II. The casualty listings normally show the date of death, the unit or ship the deceased was attached to, and the location. This was the case for all the Todd listings—except Ken’s. His listing identifies only his next of kin; no date, no unit, and no location.
The incomplete information may stem from the fact that Ken Todd died of his wounds in a hospital rather than being listed as killed in action. Or maybe because his service records seem to have gotten lost before he attended MTBSTC (his original and duplicate service records both are together at the National Personnel Records Center). In addition, he is listed on the casualty list for the state of New Mexico, where he never lived, but where his wife was living at the time of his death. His headstone in the “Punchbowl”—the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where he was reinterred after Tulagi—correctly identifies him as being from California.
Only one Todd on the Navy list of casualties is listed as being killed at Rendova—Ed Todd. But in Captain Robert J. Bulkley Jr.’s definitive book on PT boat operations, At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, only one Todd is identified in the PT boat casualty list—Ken Todd.
Since RON 9 established the base on Lumbari, the question is: Why would they name a PT boat base after someone who was not a PT boater, who was not in RON 9, was someone they had never met, and who had no connection to PT boats? There are other areas on this and subsequent bases that were named after other RON 9 casualties: McLaughlin Grove, Marney Pier, Loury Dock, and Francesca Park. It would stand to reason that Todd City would be named after one of their own.
Further confirmation that Ken Todd is the Todd of Todd City, is an interview with Samuel F. Reynolds, the executive officer of PT-162 at the time of Ken Todd’s wounding, by Vicki Daitch for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in 2005. During the interview, Reynolds talked about the action the night Ken was wounded and the naming of Todd City (although he referred to it as Todd Island) for the first PT man killed at Rendova, his gunner’s mate.
In addition, Larry Ogilvie, also a gunner’s mate on board the 162 at the time and a friend of Ken’s since their training days at MTBSTC, wrote to PT boat historian, author, and collector Frank Andruss in 1996 about his encounters with PT-109. In the letter, he recounted the night Todd was wounded and how Ken had just relieved him at the helm when the bomb hit. Ogilvie states that Todd City was named after Ken Todd.
A review of contemporary correspondence files at the headquarters of PT Boats Inc. (the national PT boat veterans’ organization) in Germantown, Tennessee, shows additional statements regarding Ken Todd. In 1999–2000, Robert Wegher, a relative of Ken Todd’s wife, began conducting research and contacted PT Boats Inc. and former crew members to answer the question about Todd City.
Letters from James Gonyo from RON 10 and Harry “Hank” R. Covington, one of the men also wounded on board PT-162 that night, state that Todd City was named after Ken Todd. In a wartime letter from Motor Machinist’s Mate First Class Frederick W. Spaethe of RON 9 to his wife, he asks her to tell Ken Todd’s wife that Todd City was named after him. (Spaethe’s wife and Todd’s wife corresponded during the war.)
Ever since the 1961 publication of the book and the 1963 release of the movie PT 109, Leon Todd Jr. has been said to be the first PT man killed at Rendova; it is an error that has persisted for nearly 60 years.
Based on the circumstances, the evidence, and the statements by the crew members, there is no question that Todd City was named after the first PT man killed at Rendova—Gunner’s Mate Second Class Merwin Kenneth Todd. He is buried at the National Memorial of the Pacific in Hawaii, Section C, Plot 846.
Administrative Log, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 9, July 1943. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 24, College Park, MD.
CAPT Robert J. Bulkley Jr., USNR (Ret.), At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1962).
CTF 31 Operation plan A8-43 via Fold3.com, www.fold3.com/image/270732447.
Deck logs of PT 151–162, 118, USS Jenkins, NARA, Record Group 24, College Park, MD.
Robert J. Donovan, PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1961).
VADM George Carroll Dyer, USN (Ret.), The Amphibians Came to Conquer: The Story of Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1972).
The Gettysburg Times, 24 October 1942 and 16 and 24 October 1943, www.newspapers.com/image/45740563/.
Gettysburg College Alumni Magazine, October 1943, https://gettysburg.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/GBNP01/id/27439/rec/20.
Letter from Larry Ogilvie to Frank Andruss, 1996, Frank Andruss Mosquito Fleet Exhibit Collection, Feeding Hills MA.
Muster Rolls and Report of Changes: MTB RON 9, USS Jenkins, NARA, Record Group 24, College Park, MD.
Samuel F. Reynolds, recorded interview by Vicki Daitch, 5 April 2005, 12–13, John F. Kennedy Library Oral History Program, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA, www.jfklibrary.org/sites/default/files/archives/JFKOH/Reynolds%2C%20Samuel%20F/JFKOH-SFR-01/JFKOH-SFR-01-TR.pdf.
Service Record: Leon Edgar Todd Jr., National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, MO.
Service Record: Merwin Kenneth Todd, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, MO.
The Shield, Phi Kappa Psi, November 1943, January 1944, www.phikappapsiarchive.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/1943-44_vol64_no1-4.pdf.
World War II U.S. Navy casualty lists, www.naval-history.net/WW2UScasaaDB-USNBPbyDate1943.htm.
War Diary, USS LST-353, July 1943, NARA, Record Group 38, College Park, MD.
Master Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Theron N. MacKay, USN (Ret.), The Tragic Loss of LST 342, N.D., US Navy Library, Navy Yard, Washington, DC.
National Census, 1920, 1930, 1940 for Kansas, Colorado, and California, US Census Collection, Ancestry.com.
Commander Motor Torpedo Boats, Pacific Fleet, first draft of history via Fold3.com, NARA, Record Group 38, College Park, MD.
Correspondence: Harry R. Covington, 1994, 2000, 2003; James Gonyo, 1990; Frederick W. Spaethe, 1943; Robert Wegher, 2000; PT Boats Inc., Germantown, TN.