Letters to the editor with pictures since 2002. Published on Big Pine Key’s garbage days, Tuesdays and Fridays.
PT-109 Movie Filmed at Munson Island
1961-1962 on Munson Island (Now Little Palm Island Resort)
Click on a picture below to enlarge.
The t-shirted man pictured in the photos is the late Mel Marshall (Marshall Building on Big Pine Key). All photographs are from the Mel Marshall Collection.
The Filming of PT 109 by Warner Brothers
In the summer of 1962 Warner Brothers were filming PT 109, the saga of Jack Kennedy as a PT skipper in WWII, starring Oscar-winner Cliff Robertson.
Much of the action took place at Little Palm Island – then called Sheriff’s or Munson Island and owned by John Spottswood, who was County Sheriff at that time. To create a village look, Warner Brothers built many shacks and planted palm trees.
Other action was filmed around Newfound Harbor and the smaller islands like Picnic and Bird. The old dredged harbor on the west side of Ramrod Key, near US 1, was the logistics base for the film crew. This harbor and Little Palm were owned by the Spottswood family, who facilitated the filming in many ways. Local boatmen piloted PT 109 during all the action except when there were close-ups of Cliff Robertson at the helm. John Spottswood, dressed in Navy garb, piloted one of the other PT boats.
Little Palm Island, now among the ten top resorts in the world, was described in a PT 109 filming report in Newsweek in 1962 as “a palm covered, gnat ridden, mosquito infested, eight-acre sand dab, broiling under the sun amidst the tepid, shark infested waters of the Florida coast .” But for the film crew, Newsweek reported : “The discomfort of the location is nothing compared to the deadly dullness of the yellow-backed 134 page script marked ‘3d Rev. Final. PT 109. June 15, 1962’.”
Because PT 109 was filmed during Kennedy’s administration, cooperation from the Navy in furnishing ships for the movie was easy – a destroyer from Key West participated along with three air-sea rescue boats converted to PTs. But Warner Brothers found it necessary to publicize locally that the destroyer and other ships were here for the movie, not for another Bay of Pigs type invasion. The movie was released in 1963, five months before Kennedy was assassinated. BBECA owns a video tape of PT 109 which is available to members.
Cliff Sawyer was 15 in 1962 when Warner Brothers rounded up members of his “Graveyard Boys” in Key West to work for $11 a day from June until September. Cliff was selected for several roles, which meant he had to take a Greyhound bus at 5:30am every day to get from Key West to the crew base on Ramrod, and then catch the special boat to Little Palm.
Cliff was the first paddle in the canoe scenes when “natives” rescued Kennedy and his crew from an imaginary South Pacific island (Little Palm). When asked to take a role as a Japanese sailor because they were short on ethnic Japanese, he said, “But I’m a black.” The director said, “It doesn’t matter, in uniform at that distance no one will know.” Cliff Robertson didn’t call Sawyer “Cliff,” he called him “Namesake” and told him that even movie stars “put their pants on one leg at a time.”
According to Cliff, a major scene where PT 109 crashes into a dock house was accidental, not planned, but the cameraman was alert and got it on film. The Japanese “Zeroes” that bombed Little Palm were actually surplus AT-6 navy trainers fixed up for the job, including painting the Japanese rising sun emblem on their wings. One old twin-engine Cessna, dubbed the “Bamboo Bomber” was also used in the film. All of the planes were parked at the Marathon Airport. The aerial bombing effects were actually created not from bombs dropped from the sky, but from explosives planted on Little Palm Island and in surrounding waters, where they killed thousands of fish in the process.
Cliff is now a commercial fisherman and a professional vocalist. His specialty is singing traditional ballads. He tells of soothing the PT 109 movie stars at Little Palm Island forty years ago with his ballads, the same ones he now sings to resort guests on Saturday nights. A disabled Vietnam vet, Cliff also provides spiritual guidance to prisoners at the Big Pine Key Road Prison.
Thanks for the memories, my dad was an extra in the movie and I skipped school several times to go out to the Munson Island with him. The ride out on the Marathon Lady was cool. The best film was made by Ralph Guthrie who operated the crane on site that was owned by the A C Corthan. Ed Halveka who developed Tropical Bay Estates on Big Pine was one of the Jap Zero “pilots” ~John Scharch Sr July, 2011