Under the cover of darkness the small, heavily armed boat slips between the Japanese barge and the dark shore. Traveling silently with only the gurgle of its underwater mufflers to give it away, it was waiting, waiting to get close enough in order to fire its load of torpedoes into the barge. As soon as the torpedoes are fired the skipper is ready to push the three throttles all the way forward. The boat will leap ahead to its top speed of 40 knots. That night was over in a matter of minutes, but there were many more barges and many more nights before their job would be through.
What was this strange, silent craft? It was a PT boat, 80' long, 50 tons in weight, and armed with four torpedoes and various deck guns. With a top speed of about 40 knots, heavily armed, and costing only a half-million apiece it was the perfect weapon to use in quick short actions against enemy barges and small capital ships.
These boats were credited with shooting down the first plane at Pearl Harbor, the last to leave the Phillipines in 1942, and the first to return. The crew that manned them was a various and assorted lot. One of them, a young man named John F. Kennedy was to become President of the United States. All were volunteers.
This then is the story of the boats and the men on them. The story of the fleet that the Japanese in disgust called the Mosquito fleet for their seeming ability to appear out of nowhere, sting, and disappear just as quickly.
One of the first torpedo boats was a small 15' boat built by an English boat builder by the name of Yarrow. It was powered by a single Italian Napier engine capable of 25 knots. It carried two small torpedoes.
The same year another British boat builder named Thornycraft, built a boat 40' long. Its top speed was 18 knots and it weighed in at 4 and 1/2 tons. This was the boat that set the style for all future torpedo boats.
During WWI the Italian Navy developed the torpedo boat into a vaible weapon. On December 8, 1917 an Italian MAS boat sank the cruiser "Wien" and six months later another flock of MAS boats sank the battleship "Svent Istran." The British were also having success with torpedo boats in the North Sea.1
During the 1930's the torpedo boat was once again developed, this time by a man named Scott-Paine. He built 18 boats based on the successful 64' Air/Sea Rescue boat currently in production. The boats were 60' 3" long, displaced 22 tons, and were armed with 8 .30 cal. machine guns mounted in quad mounts. This was an interim design, soon to be followed by the father of WWII torpedo boats, the Scott-Paine PV70.
During this time the U.S. Navy was not involved in torpedo boat development for a number of reasons. The main reason though was that the U.S. did not have the need for a torpedo boat. Their Navy was a ocean power, not a coastal patrol. In 1937 though, General MacArthur requested one hundred small, fast boats in order to patrol the Phillipines.
To meet this need the Navy spent five million on a design competition. Eight boats were picked forming Ron 1. 2 They were numbered one to eight.3
At this time over in England, Scott-Paine was perfecting PV70, his latest boat, the father of the American PT boat. Henry Sutphen of the Elco Boat Company was not content with the current American crop of PT's and thought he could do better. He therefore went to England and bought PV70 and brought it back for testing by the Navy. This boat far surpassed anything that existed at the time. The Navy promptly ordered ten more boats based on the same design. PV70 became PT9 and the other boats became PT's 10-19. Currently with the PT's the Navy ordered 12 submarine chasers based on the same design. These were PTC's 1-12. Instead of mounting torpedoes the PTC's carried about 24 depth charges. Additionally they carried sonar. This was not effective since when the boat was underway the engines produced to much sound and when the boat was stopped a rocking motion would begin that would also foil the sound gear. These boats, while well armed against the enemy could not find them. They were later modified and transferred to Britian where they were greatly needed. A major problem with the 70' ELCO was that it was too short to carry four standard issue 21" torpedoes and instead carried four 18" torpedoes. Since this could cause problems in a war the Navy asked for a longer boat capable of carrying the larger torpedo. This was met with the 77' ELCO.
As stated these boats were built in response to the need for a longer boat. Since ELCO was already set up for mass production they were awarded the contract for the first twenty-four boats. These were delivered in 1941. These boats were the first American PT's to see action. They were numbered 20-44 and placed in Ron service in Rons 1 (boats 20-30,42), 2 (boats 36-40,43-44), and 3 (boats 31-35,41). With their success in Pearl Harbor and the Phillipines the Navy ordered PT's 45-68, based on the same design with modifications dictated by the action in Pearl Harbor and the Phillipines. Later PT's 49-58 were transferred to Britian as BPT's 1-10. The next boat to come along was the 80' ELCO.
The 80' ELCO's were the backbone of the American fleet with 326 being produced, including those for export. The first 80'ELCO squadron was commissioned in June of 1942 with PT's 103-114 as Ron 5.4 These boats saw more action in the war than any other PT. Where there were PT's there were 80' ELCO's. They were the fastest of the PT's.
ELCO did not have a monopoly on PT boats though. Three other companies in the U.S. produced them also. The only other boat to see action was the 78' boat built by the Higgins Boat Company. Though slightly slower than the ELCO they were more manuaverable than the ELCO. Close to two hundred were produced with about fifty exported.
Eighteen of these boats were produced. They never saw action but were used for training purposes and stationed at Hawaii and the Panama Canal.
This boat was never officially adopted by the U.S. Navy but deserves mention because of the number built for export to Russia and England. A total of 184 were built.
The frame of the PT boat was constructed on a 6" square keel. There were about 77 main braces with extra stiffeners where needed. On top of this was placed felt glued on it order to make it water proof. On top of this was glued marine plywood. All WWII PT boats were built with wood except one, PT 8. This was the only aluminum PT boat in the war. 5 The two reasons for wood were the availablity of wood and the ease of repair that it gave. An interesting side note on the construction of the boat is that as it moved through the water it would build up a static charge. As a result every metal object on board had to be grounded in order to prevent the ammunition or gas exploding. This was don by grounding everything through the keel.6 The boats carried three engines. Each powered a single propeller. The two outside engines were direct drive and the middle one delivered its power through a V-drive transmission. By the end of the war the engines used produced 1500 horsepower and would use 300 gallons an hour at top speed. At normal patrol speeds it was possible to get 24 hours of use out of them. The boats carried 3000 gallons of high-octane fuel.
The original purpose of PT's was, as its name implies, Patrol Torpedo, to deliver torpedoes against capital ships. This was not always the case. In the beginning, when torpedoes were most needed, there was a 63% failure rate. In addition to the torpedoes PT had twin Browning .50 cal. machine gun turrets built into the cabin. Many also sported twin .30 cal. Lewis gun mounts on the deck, port and starboard, slightly ahead of the cabin.7 For additional anti-aircraft protection a 20mm Oerlikon cannon was installed aft on the 77' and early 80' ELCO's. This was later moved to the front of boats. In the last years of the war a 37mm airforce gun became standard and was mounted on the bow of the boat also. After 1943 the targets changed from capital ships to supply barges. Since the barges had too shallow a draft for torpedoes to be effective against a 40mm Bofors cannon was mounted aft.8 Though a heavy gun and requiring four men to operate it, it was an accurate and powerful anti-barge weapon. As a matter of fact it was once used to sink a 500 ton barge. The boats also carried, in order to discourage pursuit, two to four depth charges. Late in the war ELCO developed its own weapon called "Thunderbolt." This replaced the 40mm Bofors on some boats. It was essentially an armored quad mount of 20mm guns with a seat for the operator. Used only rarely it had an impressive fire rate.9 Also late in the war a mortar and two rocket launchers became standard. The rockets possessed the punch of the 5-inch shells of a destroyer. Additional .50 cal. and 20mm guns were often carried.
Also a number of small arms were carried for use by the crew members. These included a .45 cal. Thompson submachine gun, .30 cal. rifles, .45 cal. Colt pistols, and grenades. Together, all these weapons, ammunition, and the large amounts of gasoline carried made the boats floating bombs and yet only seventeen were destroyed by enemy gunfire. The PT's were the most heavily armed craft of its weight and size. One-quarter of its total weight was made up of weapons and ammunitions.
In addition to the weapons carried PT boats were equipped with smokescreens and starting in 1943, radar. The smokescreens could be used for up to half an hour at a time and were used to avoid enemy fire and escape undetected. The radar greatly aided in detecting enemy ships.
On the morning of December 7, 1941 war was the last thing on the minds of the men at Pearl Harbor and yet within a few hours that would be at the forefront of the minds of everyone. When the attack occured only eighteen PT boats were deployed in the Pacific. Ron 3 with six boats was at Manilla Bay in the Phillipines. Ron 1 was stationed at Pearl Harbor with twelve boats. Six of these boats were being readied to be transferred to the Phillipines and were therefore out of the water with there gas tanks purged.10 This was to prove almost disasterous since the .50 cal. guns operated on a hydraulic system that depended on the engines for power. The lines were cut and the guns operated manually. This and the fogging of the turret domes due to the gun heat were the only things that stopped the PT's that day. As a matter of fact PT 23 is credited with the downing of the first Japanese plane.11
Three days later this scene was repeated. This time in the Phillipines at Manilla Bay. There Ron 3 was stationed under the command of Lt. John D. Bulkley. That day the PT's shot down at least three dive bombers. Later the chief of staff sent Lt. Bulkley a message saying, "The latest report is that three dive bombers were seen being chased over Marivales Mountian by an MTB. Don't you think this is carrying the war a bit to far?"12
For the next three months the boats singlehandedly defended the Phillipines untill March 1942 when, with only two boats left, they were ordered to evacuate General MacArthur, his family, and his aides, from Corregider. These two last boats would be destroyed in the next month. The fighting of the boats in Ron 3 was an inspiration for the future PT boats to follow on their three-and-half year road back to the Phillipines.
The next place the PT's were to see action was off Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Here, six months later, the boats attempted to derail the Tokyo Express in an area called The Slot.
After more than half a year of unstoppable Japanese expansion the Americans were ready to go on the offensive at Guadalcanal. Here the First Marine Division landed on the island. A battle ensued over control of Henderson airfield. At one point the Navy was almost forced to withdraw support because of the fighting. The calvary was to arrive on October 11, the newly rebuilt Ron 3. On the very night they arrived the Japanese decided to go for their biggest attack yet hoping to destroy the Americans. Instead it was the American forces that came out on top. The same occurred two nights later when the PT's where sent out to turn back the Japanese reinforcements.
Thus had begun the Tokyo Express. Named for the regularity of which the Japanese attempted to reinforce their bases on Guadalcanal. Night after night for six months the PT's attempted to derail this Express. One of the instances in which the PT's were successful occurred on November 7. Three PT's were sent out to intercept five Japanese cruisers. Eight minutes and five torpedoes later the battle was over. Only two PT's returned but the Japanese had been stopped.13
The fighting was far from over. On November12, the battle of Coral Sea was fought. Five American cruisers and eight destroyers took on seventeen Japanese ships, including two battleships and fourteen destroyers. The Americans were decimated, but the succeeded in slowing the enemy fleet. The next night however the Japanese moved ahead and there were only two boats to meet them, PT's. These boats with a total of five torpedoes fired managed to turn back the entire Japanese fleet.14 The reason for this was probably the fact that the Japanese did not know that the American fleet consisted of only two PT boats. Yet this shows the luck that the PT's had. Soon after the Japanese gave up trying to reinforce Guadalcanal. The Express was derailed.
Here once again the Japanese were attempting to reinforce their bases and the PT's were ready to meet them. The tactics here were different than they had been in the Solomons. The PT's had to fight against armored barges, which precluded the use of torpedoes, and defend against machine guns on the barges and shore batteries.15 Here the PT's proved themselves just as adapt as they had been using torpedoes in the Solomons. Almost perfectly quiet while going slowly and employing underwater mufflers, the PT's could patrol close to shore undetected and sink the barges. This was dangerous because in order to see the barge the PT would have to slip in between the barge and the shore. This would cause the barge to be silhouetted against the sky and the PT to blend in with the jungle. This, though, worked both ways. The PT could now be seen against the sky by the gunners on the shore but could not see the gunners. Therefore the PT would go in quietly and when the shooting started would try to get out of there as quickly as possible. In a few cases they would reverse this and would go in and instead of shooting the barges would use the .50's and .30's against the shore batteries until they were silenced and then would proceed to dispose of the barge in a leisurely manner.16
This plan of stopping the enemy barges worked well as later records showed. The Japanese were, in many cases starving to death. As hard as this was though, the big step of the Pacific war was yet to be taken, the return of the Americans to the Phillipines.
The greatest naval battle of all history was yet to be fought and the PT's were to lead the way. The Battle of Leyte Gulf broke down as follows. The Japanese had three fleets, one of which was used to draw off the American Third Fleet, and the Americans had four fleets. In the number of ships the Americans had 216, including 39 PT's, and the Japanese had 64 ships. The power did not lie in the number of ships alone. Thousands of aircraft were involved and the Japanese had saved the best for last, the world's two largest battleships, the "Yamato" and the "Musashi", each displacing 68,000 tons.
The battle was set for October 24, X-Day. As the PT's were the last to leave so would they be the first to arrive. They would exact there revenge. The Japanese had succeeded in decoying the Third Fleet which they considered their greatest threat. Their plan now involved two task forces, one thirty miles behind the second, that would give the Americans a double blow. On the night of October 24, the PT's were sent ahead to greet the fleet and give the Americans the warning. They were stationed on either side of Surigao Strait. Two hours before midnight the first contact was made and in the next few hours the tide of the war in the Pacific was about to change. Out of the tens of Japanese ships floating, only one would remain afloat by the end of the night. Within the next few hours the PT's were having a run for their money. Using torpedoes for the first time in a while they had almost unlimited targets to choose from. Of all the torpedoes fired that night, one deserves comment upon. PT 137, came upon the force suddenly. By then so many torpedoes were being fired that hits could not not be accounted for, except for the one fired by PT 137. The torpedo fired by this boat went under the bow of the boat it was fired at and luckily hit the light cruiser "Abakuma"17 The ship immediately fellout out of position, slowing up the rest fleet. By now the Japanes first wave of ships had been slowed up so much that the second wave came steaming up on the first in the dark. With a tremendous crash the flagship of the second fleet ,the "Nachi", met with flagship the "Morgani" of the first. The Admiral of the second fleet, for whatever reason, withdrew his fleet. The Americans could now exact their revenge on the disoganized Japanese fleet, and that is exactly what they did leaving only one boat afloat by the end of the night.
After this most of the battles were routine, for a PT that is. They suffered increased air attacks, for which they showed their ability to defend against. They also went back to destroying barges and such. In some cases they even attacked shore based structures such as bridges and enemy warehouses. The use of PT's was still needed and by mid-1945 there were 212 PT's, more than one thousand officers, and ten thousand men based in the Phillipines. Base 17, on the island of Samar was the largest and best equipped in the world. The swan song was being song though for the the PT's as the war was drawing to a close and their use was diminishing. The use of over two hundred PT's was projected in Operation Olympia, the invasion of Japan, but this was never carried out because of the dropping of the atomic bombs.
The end of the war resulted in an interesting problem: what to do with 212 boats, many of which were in wartorn condition? It was not viable to fix them and ship then to the U.S. because of the cost involved and the fact that they would probably never be used again. It was decided to sell the servicable ones. The damaged ones, 118 in all, were stripped and burned on the beaches of Samar.
The fighting in the Phillipines was not the only place where PT's were involved. In April 1943, American PT boats returned to the land of there forefathers, Europe. The first Ron of boats was brought to the English base in Gibraltar. Where the war in the Pacific was a tight affairs and involved guns the war in the Mediterranean was more spaced out and involved mostly torpedoes. In the Mediterranean also the PT's had new adversaries. Among these were German E-boats, a slighty larger and more heavily armed version of the PT boat, and the Italian MAS boats, a slightly smaller version of the PT. Two other types of craft the PT went up against were human torpedoes and explosive boats. The human torpedoes were torpedoes in two halves with the upper half reserved for the pilot. The pilot would jump off at the last moment. They moved at about 4 knots. Another strange craft were explosive boats. They were crewless boats filled with explosives. They were either remotely controlled or set on a straight line for the target. Luckily none of these had any effect against PT's.18 In the Mediterranean the major targets for PT's were F(lak)-lighters. These were twice the size of the PT and more heavily armed. They were compartmented and therefore practically impossible to sink by gunfire. Therefore torpedoes were used. Another adversery of the PT's were German corvettes.
The biggest use of PT's in Eruope was in the greatest invasion in history, D-Day. Once again the PT's were there to lead the way. In fact they almost led the attack two days early. On June 4, the skippers of Ron 34, believing the invasion was taking place, began crossing the Channel. They were half way to France before they were told that the invasion had been postponed for two days.19 The job of the PT's was to defend a six-mile limit outside the beaches. This was known as the Mason line. There they had to contend with German E-boats and German mines. The PT's continued to patrol and sink enemy craft till the end of the war. After the war was over the boats were transferred to the Pacific or sold to Russia.
The two Rons stationed here were here in order to prevent a Japanese take over of the islands and Alaska. This was because most of our Navy was fighting in the far south. This attack never materialized. Still the two Rons did not have any easy job because of the weather. With little more than a pot-belly stove and the heat of the engines to keep them warm the frost built up in inches. The 100 mile an hour wind could batter a ship to pieces and the cold could freeze fingers to any bare metal objects, cause frostbite, and cause the ice to build up so bad that the boat was hardly manuverable. This weather, combined with the not knowing of when the enemy might appear made this one of the hardest duties in the war.
Thus ended the lustrous roles of the PT boats and the crews that served on them. The boats had become homes for over ten thousand men. Now it was time to say good-bye to one home and family and say hello to another home and family. As the smoke cleared over the beaches of Samar the era of the PT boat was at an end.
Bendall, Katie, et al. Knights of the Sea. Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Co, 1982
Ferrell, Bob, Ross, Al. Early Elco PT Boats. Memphis, Tn: PT Boat Museum, 1980
Heatter, Basil. The Black Coast, the Story of the PT Boat. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1967
All rights resevered 1992-2002 (C) Greg d. Moore
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