Farthest Forward

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Why would PT-109 and PT-105, built for speed and dependent on speed for their survival, be waddling about so slowly in the presence of enemy warships? I, too, assumed, when first introduced to the trade, that PT boats would attack at high speed, and I’ll bet the Navy did too. But that’s not the way it worked. In the first place we found out very quickly that in daylight we were easy targets for both ships and planes. So we hid out as best we could during the day and sneaked out at night, which brings me to the second place: At night in the tropics, our wake, which was large for such a small boat, glowed madly from bioluminescence. Millions of microscopic organisms disturbed by the thrashing of propellers turned on their lights to see what was going on. Looking down over the stern, I was fascinated by the way those tiny lights swirled up and down, then not amused at all when I saw that at any speed above idling that wake was a long, shining arrow pointing right up our ass.

 

Kennedy is criticized in several books for having only his center engine in gear when the destroyer was sighted, and one officer is quoted as claiming this was against “standard procedure.” I do not know who this fellow is or what standard procedure he’s referring to, but I also followed the practice of running only on the center engine, both on the 105 and later as a division leader on boats from every squadron out there when we were just puttering around on station. One propeller produced less wake than three, of course, but the center propeller was a bit deeper in the water than the wing propellers and therefore produced even less wake while providing a little more power than either of the other two. If we needed speed in a hurry, we lost a few seconds getting the three engines in gear, but I and every boat captain I rode with gladly gave up that time to cut down even a little bit on the giveaway wake.

Our high-speed wake was visible to enemy planes many miles away, and then it was tally ho! We were their prime prey, and their bombs were more accurate than the shellfire from surface ships. We took every conceivable measure not to be visible at night from above—to the point of paranoia. For instance, we taped the radium dial of the compass so that I saw my course through a little slit. That compass could have been detected only by a bomber pilot flying over us upside down at ten feet. Running only on the center engine, however, was not paranoia.

We were even more afraid of the plane we could not see until it was too late than of the one we had spotted soon enough to open fire. In the latter kind of duel, our gunners had a chance to blow him out of the air before he could get a bomb on us. Several boats did just that. So when I had to show a wake, my strategy had to do with ways to spot night-flying planes. I was alert for any change in the sound of the 105's engines. On one of our first patrols, I lost my executive officer, Phil Hornbrook, to a bomb from a plane that flew up our wake. Maybe five seconds before that fatal bomb hit I had heard what I took to be a change in the pitch of our engines. What I was hearing was the bomber. After that, whenever I noticed any change in engine sound, I didn’t waste the seconds it took to decide what caused it, like somebody blocking the engine-room hatch; I started cranking hard over.

Whenever the 105 was showing a wake, the stern twenty millimeter and port fifty caliber were trained up and astern, the gunners intent on the stern quadrant of sky. If a blob appeared, they opened fire without orders from me. A single second’s delay could be too much. The starboard fifty gunner watched the rest of the sky, where he might detect a flicker of exhaust flame from a plane orbiting down. One crewman watched the brightest quadrant of the sky between about thirty to sixty degrees altitude. There was always one part of the sky brighter than the rest, and only in that sector might there appear, for a second or two, the blurred outline of a plane still high up, cruising along looking for someone like us. Once we saw him we could always see him, and if he came in at us, he was dead—we hoped.

Whizzer White (the star football player, later Supreme Court Justice Byron White) was our base intelligence officer. He rode on several patrols with me. Passengers were considered bad luck, but I was glad to have Whizzer along. He was good company. I was puzzled, however, when he picked my boat not once but twice, so I asked him why. He said he noticed that I seemed to attract fewer bombs than the others, and he was trying to figure out what I did that was different. I told him that I was a good student of subjects that interested me, and staying alive was at the top of the list, so after each untoward event (our shorthand for nearly getting killed) I went over what had happened and tried to figure out what to do or not do the next time. Together we wrote up a tactical doctrine on how to lessen the risk of getting bombed out of your socks. Maybe that little paper is stuck away in the National Archives. If it is, I guarantee it will contain the center-engine trick to minimize wake that Jack Kennedy was using the night he was run down.