Farthest Forward

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There was nothing endearing about rats. Once, on a rare night when below deck was cool enough for me to sleep in my cabin, as I was drifting off to sleep a rat ran across my face. I hated rats. They terrified me. I jackknifed upright, and my yell brought the entire crew into my cabin, where they pulled up the floorboards and slashed away at the rat dodging through the bilges. It got out through a ventilator, and the man on watch alertly diverted it to the 106 boat moored alongside, captained by my closest friend, David Payne. A few weeks later I was to put the 105 in mortal danger laying a smoke screen for Dave when his boat came under murderous shore fire. But this night I had a different choice, and I made it with the same alacrity: I changed moorings and left him with the rat.

My enthusiasm for PT boats was such that only a chance conversation made me aware that there were other views. I was in the officers’ club at Tulagi. Combat operations had moved up to Bougainville, so Tulagi had acquired a laundry, movies, and an officers’ club (but let us not get carried away; it was still a dump). The club was a small shack on stilts, no lights, of course a bar, and a half-dozen tables, and the only drink was Three Feathers, which I nevertheless found quite tasty compared with the raisin jack served up the line.

My drinking companion was a Regular Navy lieutenant. Staring morosely into the bottom of his fourth or fifth, he revealed that he hated his assignment to PT boats. He lamented that it was definitely off the career path. I was not very swift at the moment, so he repeated, enunciating slowly but in a confidential whisper that a Regular Navy officer had to have certain assignments, like destroyers, cruisers, or battleships in order to advance “after the war.” I may have nodded my head knowingly, but I was astounded. The PT service was only for volunteers, but in the early days, in order to have a nucleus of Regular Navy officers, some of that group were simply assigned to it. Even so, here he was in the front row of the greatest war of all time, and he worried about his career after the war? Like most boat captains, I never thought about “after the war.” I never thought about the next day or even the next patrol. My horizon extended to the next ham sandwich.

For a while after this conversation, I looked suspiciously at Regulars in PT boats. I hated to go out on patrol with another boat captain or patrol leader who did not know his trade, but even worse was the man I judged would leave me if I got in trouble. So I did not like to be around anyone who worried about his career “after the war.” Eventually I got a different perspective. Almost all of our Regular Navy nucleus of officers were good at their jobs and as happy to be in PT boats as the rest of us. Even at my junior rank I witnessed the Navy command, without any fuss, quietly sort out the incompetents, the timids, and the unhappy ones, whether Regulars or reservists, and transfer them from operations into staff jobs or out of the PT service altogether.

If you were a busy author writing about JFK and you focused on the Battle of Blackett Strait, in which his 109 was run down by a Japanese destroyer, your reasonable conclusion would be that PT boats were ineffective, and you would be wrong. In hundreds of other battles in the Mediterranean, the English Channel, New Guinea, the Philippines, and the Solomons, PTs were doing damage to the enemy. They were like trench raiders in the First World War or the search and destroy missions of Vietnam, going out in the night, night after night. They attacked anything that moved. Sometimes they’d sneak into enemy harbors to strike at ships and shore installations, or they’d gun the occasional truck moving on a shore road and even once, in Italy, a train. As torpedo launchers they were as inaccurate as one might predict against the fast-moving enemy destroyers and cruisers they went up against. But those ships had other things to do than chase off torpedo boats, like dropping off supplies for their troops or shelling Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. That required them to slow down or stop, and this they could not do when there were torpedo boats prowling around.

 

By the start of the New Georgia campaign, in June 1943, our big-ship Navy had begun to dominate the enemy big ships, and the chances that PTs would find torpedo targets diminished. Enemy ships were still out there but now were engaged by our own destroyers and cruisers. However, a new job appeared for us. When the Japanese could no longer send down the “Tokyo Express” of destroyers and cruisers to supply and reinforce their troops, they used thousands of small amphibious craft to do the same job. We called them barges, although they were self-propelled. The “Tokyo Express” had come down at intervals of a week or so, and when our forces were alerted to their coming, they would race up from the rear area to engage them. The barges operated differently. They ran down nightly in small groups, and our big ships could not come up every night or stay in the area during the day, because that would leave them exposed to air attack. Torpedoes were useless against the shallow-draft barges, so that meant PTs had to become gunboats.