- 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
Describing a PT boat is like describing a racehorse. They all looked alike, but each had its own personality. The 105, for instance, always lagged in formation on the way to the patrol area. It was not my doing. When I was a division leader on another boat and 105 was in my division, I had to come up more than once with “One-zero-five, close up, close up!” On the other hand, going home, she raced ahead. I am convinced that her enthusiasm to depart saved me on one dreadful morning when a dawn raid on an enemy harbor turned catastrophic and she was fleeing for her life, and mine, under heavy shore-gun fire, so close that one shell kissed my helmet and another left a burn welt across my starboard turret gunner Willie Monk’s bare chest. I looked astern for a moment just as Miles, my chief motor mac, popped halfway out the engine-room hatch. Frankly, I thought he had decided to go over the side. Instead he waved at me and pointed his index finger down, meaning “look at the tachometers,” then pounded his chest like Tarzan and dropped back into his engine room. I looked at my tachs; they were wiggling between 2,900 and 3,000 rpm. Rated maximum was 2,400, which equaled 42 knots. She was doing 50 knots! For a moment I ignored the shell bursts and the answering chatter of our machine guns. I saw and heard only my 105 racing flat out, her engines screaming like demented tomcats, and she was beautiful.
I go on like this to the point of testing credibility because so much has been written by worthy authors that belittles PT boats. For instance, James Michener, in Tales of the South Pacific, called them “rotten, tricky little craft. . . improvised, often unseaworthy desperate little boats.” A good backdrop to illuminate the heroics of his PT characters, but bullshit that later authors in a hurry to write about Jack Kennedy have tended to repeat and embellish.
PT-105, like all her sisters, was built in Bayonne, New Jersey, by the Elco yacht division of the Electric Boat Company. She was based on a British design by Hubert Scott-Paine. Both the British and the Germans in the 1930s saw the value of torpedo boats in the restricted water of the Channel. The U.S. Navy, with its vision of big battles between big ships on the high seas, was not interested until, persuaded late in the thirties that torpedo boats could be useful in island waters like the Philippines, it began a development program and invited American boat-builders to design and construct prototypes. The head of Elco bought one of Scott-Paine’s boats in the belief that it would be accepted regardless of the Navy’s strong bias in favor of homegrown products. There were nine competing boats, all by American builders except the Elco, and the critical test was a race around Long Island in very rough water. (Some wag in the Bureau of Ships dubbed it the “plywood derby,” hence the durable misconception that they were actually made of that material.) The Elco finished so far ahead of the others and with so much less damage that she was immediately selected.
Andrew Higgins, the great builder of amphibious craft, produced a lesser number of Higgins PTs. They were several knots slower than the Elco, much wetter in rough seas, and more uncomfortable to live on. Higgins PT boats were nevertheless used very effectively in the Mediterranean, where I estimate they sank more enemy tonnage than the more predominant Elcos did in the Pacific, but they seldom got any mention in the press.
As tough as they were, though, PT boats needed careful nursing, so a good base force was indispensable. We had an extraordinary carpenter named Pop Dieteman who had somehow convinced the recruiters that he was much younger than his actual age of sixty-four. I once watched Pop repair a five-foot hole in a PT boat teetering from a dinghy moored alongside while a crewman lying on the deck above held him by the back of his shirt. It was fascinating. Sometimes the dinghy would drift out from under him and Pop hung suspended still hammering or whatever.
Our bases in the South Pacific were miserable little collections of huts, tents, dugouts, and foxholes where the indispensable base force kept us armed, fueled, and repaired while they lived in conditions worse than the boat crews—and just about as dangerous. Enemy bombers worked our bases over, knowing that a direct hit on our engineering shack or fuel dump would shut us down. One of my crewmen was transferred to the base force because he got too scared on patrols; one week under the air attacks on the base and he was shipped out in a catatonic trance. So we did not live ashore. We lived on the boats and were glad of it.
Each boat had a complement of two officers and ten enlisted men: a quartermaster, gunner’s mate, motor machinist, torpedoman, radioman, cook, two firemen, and two seamen. Everyone was trained to double in any other job, but after a few months most of us forgot everything but our own specialties, except the guns. All of us could always work the guns.