- 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
Our original armament of two twin-fifties in port and starboard turrets and a twenty millimeter on the stern deck was initially intended as protection against aircraft, not for surface combat. When it developed that we would have to use these guns against the barges, which had their own machine guns, I was dubious. We had no armor (even the thin cockpit armor plate on the 105 had been removed to save weight), and we assumed our gasoline would explode if a tracer pierced our tanks. However, the 105 surprised me again with her versatility. She and her sisters were formidable in night gun battles, particularly in close. It took a while, but we finally figured out that we did best in quick shootouts at close range, like twenty yards, where our concentrated machine-gun fire could take out a barge’s one or two light machine guns in a few seconds. The destructive power of our guns at this distance was awesome.
If you were a busy author writing about JFK, you would conclude that PT boats were ineffective, and you would be wrong.
One night I watched transfixed as the 105’s gunners blew away the deckhouse of a small freighter; it just flew off in all directions. That particular firefight lasted longer than most, so long that the twin-fifties in the starboard turret manned by Torpedoman First Class Willie Monk glowed red and the oil on the ammo belts caught fire. Our versatile cook, Zichella, arrived from somewhere and sloshed buckets of water over Willie, and over me for good measure; then he beat on Willie with a towel. My great gunner never stopped firing or strayed off the target while he hollered at Zichella and me and, I suppose, the enemy. I did not understand a word. In that same action the lead boat just ahead of me caught so much return fire that gasoline leaking from its punctured tanks sloshed around in the bilges and the fumes were such that no one could go below for more than a few seconds. Still it got home under its own power.
Joe Burk did it better with his PT boat over in New Guinea. He studied charts and air-reconnaissance photos to determine likely barge routes and places where he could lie in wait for them close inshore. Joe had a high risk tolerance, although to hear this quiet, modest man talk about his methods, you might think what he did was comfy safe. Thus “close inshore” meant a few feet, meant lying in among jagged coral reefs, and it also meant an enemy-infested shore. He ran aground several times, once within an enemy harbor in daylight and under heavy fire. Jack Coolidge, captain of the other boat lying outside the harbor, carried out one of our greatest rescues. He raced in and dueled the shore guns while pulling Joe off the reef and towing him out.
When Joe kept off reefs, his basic tactic worked. The barges that came down the coastline stayed as close to shore as they thought possible and looked seaward for the dreaded PT boats, never dreaming that one would be even farther inshore. At night, when you lie against a shore with an elevation of more than twenty feet (these coasts were mountainous), you become invisible to eyes more than a few yards to seaward. So when the barges came abeam of Joe in his lair, all their lookouts peering in the wrong direction, Joe would quietly ease out with muffled engines, draw alongside the barges, and terminate them. When it worked, Joe never got return fire, and he seldom drew enemy bombers because he showed no wake and the gunfire was quickly over. Joe alone accounted for more than thirty barges. When you consider that fifty other boats, at least, somewhere in the world were attacking most nights with equal ferocity, if perhaps not the same degree of skill and luck, statistics are unnecessary. PT boats were doing substantial damage to the enemy, particularly painful front-line losses.
The 105 surprised me again with her versatility; she turned out to be formidable in night gun battles, particularly in close.
It was our bad luck that John F. Kennedy, future President of the United States, nearly lost his life in the most fouled-up PT operation in history—and I mean all history since the invention of the first torpedo boat—and that this is about all that most people know about PT boats. On the night of August 2, 1943, fifteen PT boats ventured out into Blackett Strait to attack four Japanese destroyers, the best odds PT boats ever had. We fired thirty-two torpedoes, including four from my 105. We hit nothing! The destroyers kept right on going straight down Blackett Strait and then straight back a couple of hours later, after they had delivered whatever to their troops on New Georgia, and when the 109 got in the way, they ran over it.