- 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
Only four of the fifteen boats were equipped with radar, which was just appearing on PTs. Each radar-equipped boat was made a division lead boat, a sensible decision that should have given the boats following the comfort that they would have some guidance, for it was a very dark night. Instead each division lead boat, as the destroyers appeared on its radar screen, took aim, fired, and left hurriedly, while the boats with no radar tried to see what the hell was going on. Kennedy’s 109 was in the westernmost of the four PT divisions, which were strung out on an east-west line about six miles long. His division was the first to make contact. When the blips appeared on the division leader’s radar, he took them to be barges and accelerated to high speed for a machine-gun attack, without bothering to warn the boats following him. If you want to turn a four-boat division into a one-boat division, that is the way to do it.
I was in a three-boat division, the easternmost, five to six miles from 109. I could see the commotion of shells firing as the Japanese destroyers approached, so I thought I was ready for anything my leader had in mind, but he surprised me too. We were too far away from the course of the enemy destroyers to fire torpedoes effectively, so I was prepared for him to accelerate for a high-speed attack. Instead he suddenly fired all four torpedoes, turned around, and sped away. The other boat fired in the same direction as our leader and followed him out. I didn’t see anything to fire at, so I broke radio silence, which had already been violated by my leader broadcasting what it was like to be under shellfire. (He was not being shelled. He was being bombed by enemy planes attracted by his high-speed wake.) I asked him where the target was. His reply was to tell me to get out, that I was “in a trap.” So I asked him a second time, and now the base command came on from fifty miles away and ordered me to “get out of there.” After some dithering I decided to keep going toward where I thought the enemy destroyers were, because I had come all the way out to the Solomons to torpedo somebody and in two previous events I had not even gotten in position for a shot. (In one case the targets turned out to be our own destroyers, but that was beside the point.) I kept going, finally spotted a target when it started shooting at me, and fired two torpedoes, holding up on the other two when I realized my firing angle was bad.
The radar-equipped boats of the division leaders must have had the blips of their lost boats on their screens and could have regrouped except for the dumbest order in the entire dumb-ass operation. The base command instructed all boats that had fired torpedoes to return to base. That meant that all four radar boats dutifully departed the scene, like Seeing Eye dogs slipping their leashes and heading for home. That also meant that the only members of the U.S. Navy left in Blackett Strait were the 109 and two other boats in the west and the 105 alone five miles to the east. My reaction when I heard the order for all boats with no torpedoes to go home, I must confess, was regret that I had fired only two of my four torpedoes and now had to wander around for the rest of the night while most of my shipmates were snoozing.
About 0200 hours my starboard gunner, standing on the turret ring as a lookout, spotted the bow wave of a Japanese destroyer moving slowly west across the course of the 105, range five hundred to seven hundred yards. He could not see the ship itself because it was inshore of us. I couldn’t even see the bow wave, but it didn’t matter because the destroyer saw me and let loose a couple of shells, nicely illuminating his forward superstructure for the millisecond I needed to fire my two remaining torpedoes. When I fired, I saw his stern wake boil up as he went to full speed. There was no explosion, so I assume they missed astern. I wasn’t looking; I was concentrating on finding the nearest exit.
About ten minutes later and five miles away, that destroyer or one of his buddies raced out of the night and rammed the 109. The 109 could not have seen the onrushing destroyer farther away than we had seen him (five hundred to seven hundred yards) because the destroyer had the same inshore advantage it had had on us, while the 109 and 105 both stood out against the horizon like ducks in a shooting gallery. I think that the destroyer I fired at had probably seen me for quite a while, but the captain figured he could go right by with no one the wiser, and his job was to get back home, not destroy a lone PT boat—unless of course that PT lay directly in his way. I think he stopped shooting so abruptly because he didn’t know whether there were other less visible PTs around that would get clear shots if he took me under sustained fire.