- Historic Sites
Tough, nimble, and pound for pound the most heavily armed ships in the U.S. Navy, PT boats fought in the very front line of the greatest sea war in history. But even today hardly anyone understands what they did.
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
One night in August 1943 PT-105 was drifting on station in the Solomon Islands—specifically, two miles southeast of Vella Lavella, three miles north of Gizo, and fifteen miles west of Kolombangara, all of which were enemy-occupied. As a matter of fact, other than the PT boat lying close on my port quarter and a couple of coastwatchers hiding out in the hills, there was not a friendly of any sort within fifty miles. My legs ached from hours of standing on a hard, constantly moving, sometimes bouncing deck.
One night in August 1943 PT-105 was drifting on station in the Solomon Islands—specifically, two miles southeast of Vella Lavella, three miles north of Gizo, and fifteen miles west of Kolombangara, all of which were enemy-occupied. As a matter of fact, other than the PT boat lying close on my port quarter and a couple of coastwatchers hiding out in the hills, there was not a friendly of any sort within fifty miles. My legs ached from hours of standing on a hard, constantly moving, sometimes bouncing deck. My head and back ached from malaria that was only partly subdued by Atabrine. Only the coffee handed up to me by Zichella, the cook, kept me from dozing off on my feet. It came to me that PT-105 was farther within the Japanese empire than any other ship in the U.S. Navy. That thought led to another: How in God’s name did I end up here?
From a distance, skimming along at full speed, she had a graceful, even delicate profile; closer up, though, she looked squat and truculent.
What had I done to find myself a PT-boat captain and active player in the most ferocious sea war in history? Why was I not sitting at a desk in Washington like most people with three degrees—yes, three: Dartmouth College, L’Éibre des Sciences Politiques, and Columbia Law School. When I had gone to midshipman school, in September 1941, as the best alternative to the draft, I assumed the Navy would see to it that all these academic achievements were put to good use. When I got my commission, I was so sure I would be posted to intelligence that I bought four white uniforms, a sword, and calling cards, all required for duty in Washington or perhaps at a foreign embassy where my fluency in French would be useful. I never knew what glitch instead sent me from midshipman school to the Newport Naval Torpedo School, but after a week or two at that dreary institution I knew that I would never understand the torpedo. By miraculous coincidence the Navy established a torpedo-boat school down the road at Melville, Rhode Island, and an officer from the brand-new institution appeared one day at the Newport torpedo school and asked for volunteers. I jumped up and waved my arms. If the recruiter had been from bomb disposal, I would have jumped up and waved my arms.
I am not quite sure when I was converted from a misfit lawyer in Navy uniform to a dedicated PT officer, but I think it was the very day we arrived at the torpedo-boat school. Our new instructors took us down to the dock and showed us a PT boat. She lay there restlessly tugging at the docking lines, looking as if she wanted to go out and do some damage, and when her engines lit off with a whine, then a cough, then a low, menacing rumble, a sound that lingers today in memory’s ear, I fell in love. I never looked back. So my thoughts on that August night fifteen months later were more in wonder than chagrin.
The object of my affection was eighty feet long and weighed fifty tons with a full warload. Her three 1,250-horsepower Packard V-12 engines plus tanks for three thousand gallons of aviation gasoline took up nearly half of her below decks. From a distance, traveling at full speed, she had a graceful, almost delicate profile, skimming along like a Gar Wood speedboat of the twenties—and little wonder, since she was a speedboat quadrupled in size, designed to plane across the top of the water rather than knife through it like other craft her size. Closer up, though, she looked squat and truculent. She looked like what she was: pound for pound the most heavily armed vessel in the United States Navy.
She was a happy marriage of two engineering developments from speedboat racing: the first, engines that could drive a fifty-ton boat at more than forty knots and keep doing this under extreme conditions of heat, cold, humidity, salinity, slams, bangs, and occasional drownings and, second, a hull of mahogany planks (not plywood, as most people think) with an interior structure of spruce and oak so resiliently strong that I once saw a PT boat come clear out of the water, sail through the air, slam down into the sea, and keep on going with nothing broken except the crockery. My PT-105 once performed the opposite trick: She dived under a mountainous wave off the Galápagos Islands. For a dreadful ten seconds the bow disappeared like a submerging sub, blue-green water slid across the bow deck, around the chart house, into the cockpit, where I stood like a periscope, down the deck into the engine room in a solid stream, and across the stern. For an instant there was little above the surface but me, creating my own little bow wave as I held the wheel in a death grip. But nothing happened. She popped out the other side of the wave, the engines kept going in a foot of water until the bailers finished their job, and I resolved to pay more attention.