July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
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.
One night in August 1943 PT-105 was drifting on station in the Solomon Islands—specifically, two miles southeast of Vella Lavella, three miles north of Gizo, and fifteen miles west of Kolombangara, all of which were enemy-occupied. As a matter of fact, other than the PT boat lying close on my port quarter and a couple of coastwatchers hiding out in the hills, there was not a friendly of any sort within fifty miles. My legs ached from hours of standing on a hard, constantly moving, sometimes bouncing deck.
One night in August 1943 PT-105 was drifting on station in the Solomon Islands—specifically, two miles southeast of Vella Lavella, three miles north of Gizo, and fifteen miles west of Kolombangara, all of which were enemy-occupied. As a matter of fact, other than the PT boat lying close on my port quarter and a couple of coastwatchers hiding out in the hills, there was not a friendly of any sort within fifty miles. My legs ached from hours of standing on a hard, constantly moving, sometimes bouncing deck. My head and back ached from malaria that was only partly subdued by Atabrine. Only the coffee handed up to me by Zichella, the cook, kept me from dozing off on my feet. It came to me that PT-105 was farther within the Japanese empire than any other ship in the U.S. Navy. That thought led to another: How in God’s name did I end up here?
What had I done to find myself a PT-boat captain and active player in the most ferocious sea war in history? Why was I not sitting at a desk in Washington like most people with three degrees—yes, three: Dartmouth College, L’Éibre des Sciences Politiques, and Columbia Law School. When I had gone to midshipman school, in September 1941, as the best alternative to the draft, I assumed the Navy would see to it that all these academic achievements were put to good use. When I got my commission, I was so sure I would be posted to intelligence that I bought four white uniforms, a sword, and calling cards, all required for duty in Washington or perhaps at a foreign embassy where my fluency in French would be useful. I never knew what glitch instead sent me from midshipman school to the Newport Naval Torpedo School, but after a week or two at that dreary institution I knew that I would never understand the torpedo. By miraculous coincidence the Navy established a torpedo-boat school down the road at Melville, Rhode Island, and an officer from the brand-new institution appeared one day at the Newport torpedo school and asked for volunteers. I jumped up and waved my arms. If the recruiter had been from bomb disposal, I would have jumped up and waved my arms.
I am not quite sure when I was converted from a misfit lawyer in Navy uniform to a dedicated PT officer, but I think it was the very day we arrived at the torpedo-boat school. Our new instructors took us down to the dock and showed us a PT boat. She lay there restlessly tugging at the docking lines, looking as if she wanted to go out and do some damage, and when her engines lit off with a whine, then a cough, then a low, menacing rumble, a sound that lingers today in memory’s ear, I fell in love. I never looked back. So my thoughts on that August night fifteen months later were more in wonder than chagrin.
The object of my affection was eighty feet long and weighed fifty tons with a full warload. Her three 1,250-horsepower Packard V-12 engines plus tanks for three thousand gallons of aviation gasoline took up nearly half of her below decks. From a distance, traveling at full speed, she had a graceful, almost delicate profile, skimming along like a Gar Wood speedboat of the twenties—and little wonder, since she was a speedboat quadrupled in size, designed to plane across the top of the water rather than knife through it like other craft her size. Closer up, though, she looked squat and truculent. She looked like what she was: pound for pound the most heavily armed vessel in the United States Navy.
She was a happy marriage of two engineering developments from speedboat racing: the first, engines that could drive a fifty-ton boat at more than forty knots and keep doing this under extreme conditions of heat, cold, humidity, salinity, slams, bangs, and occasional drownings and, second, a hull of mahogany planks (not plywood, as most people think) with an interior structure of spruce and oak so resiliently strong that I once saw a PT boat come clear out of the water, sail through the air, slam down into the sea, and keep on going with nothing broken except the crockery. My PT-105 once performed the opposite trick: She dived under a mountainous wave off the Galápagos Islands. For a dreadful ten seconds the bow disappeared like a submerging sub, blue-green water slid across the bow deck, around the chart house, into the cockpit, where I stood like a periscope, down the deck into the engine room in a solid stream, and across the stern. For an instant there was little above the surface but me, creating my own little bow wave as I held the wheel in a death grip. But nothing happened. She popped out the other side of the wave, the engines kept going in a foot of water until the bailers finished their job, and I resolved to pay more attention.
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.
Life aboard a PT boat was surprisingly comfortable. I had better qualify that. I never saw a fat man on a PT crew. If you were in your early twenties and not bothered by heat and humidity, were agile and flexible so that bending, twisting, and climbing when you went from one place to another did not tire you, and could thrive on food so monotonous it would depress a cow, then you would find this life quite tolerable.
The crew lived in the bow section of the boat, the fo’c’s’le, as in the old sailing vessels, with eight double-decker racks and a table in the middle; two or three more crewmen bunked in a little cabin over the gas tanks. Aft of the crew quarters was a compartment that housed the exec’s room and the galley, which had an oven, electric stove, sink, and refrigerator. Of these, the refrigerator was the most important, because it provided ice cream. Our menu featured canned stew, canned string beans, and powdered eggs. A commonplace item like ice cream therefore became king, queen, the whole royal family of our cuisine, so much so that some boats installed armor plate behind their refrigerators, making it the only protected equipment on the boat.
Aft of the galley were the fresh-water tank, the ladder to the chart house and cockpit, and, on the starboard side, a tiny officers’ wardroom with a table and a bench for two that I used for meals, letter writing, reading, censoring crew’s mail, and nattering with senior crew members and sometimes visiting boat captains. How about my executive officer? To be honest, after my first exec was transferred to another squadron and was soon thereafter killed in action, and then his replacement was killed in action on the 105, I never got close to a succession of replacements who wished they were someplace else—except for Phinn Percy and John Iles. The latter were entertaining fellows who laughed at my jokes and did not mind that the 105 seemed to find trouble more often than other boats.
Aft of the wardroom were the ammo storage and my cabin, which for a junior officer was sumptuous. I had a big bunk on which I could stretch out my six-foot-three frame, a small desk that I never used because there wasn’t enough knee room, a small bureau, and a closet. Behind the after bulkhead were three tanks holding the three thousand gallons of aviation gasoline, and aft of the tanks resided the great Packard engines.
The humid heat of the Solomon Islands was so relentless that most nights in harbor we could not sleep below. Nights on patrol, usually every other night, the watches were two on and two off. On my off watch I slept sitting up against the day-room bulkhead behind the cockpit, but I seldom got the full two hours, either because something happened or because Mechin, my quartermaster, who stood the other watch, thought something was going to happen and nudged me awake to have a look. On nights off patrol I looked forward to a good long sack time. I slept under the stars on a roll-up pallet next to the port forward torpedo tube, a life jacket for my pillow, and when the rain came, as it usually did, I slid down the forward hatch and into my bunk without really waking. Most of the time we were stationed so far forward that there were no shower facilities. I stopped in the Russell Islands one day on the way to a rear base after a month at our most advanced and primitive base in Rendova. I was standing upwind of the duty officer, so he quickly invited me to use the shower attached to the abandoned plantation house. The water supply came from a wooden tank that collected rainwater from the roof. I stood under a shower head as big as a pie plate and pulled a string, and cool, fresh water cascaded down on me, and it was glorious. That after more than half a century a shower remains a memorable event may give you some feeling for the conditions in which we lived.
The islands had an abundance of unpleasant diseases like malaria, dengue, dysentery, and elephantiasis. We also contended with cockroaches and rats. For a short while just before I was succeeded as boat captain by John Iles, I dealt with the cockroach problem by trying to adopt one as a pet. I was succeeding quite well. The little fellow would come out when I had dinner in the wardroom and wiggle its antennae at me. However, when I tried to explain to John lies that I had made an incipient friend, he misunderstood and thought I had gone Asiatic—around the bend. This was very embarrassing because I had indeed gone somewhat around the bend.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The biggest mistake, in that night of mistakes—worse than the recalling of all boats that had expended their torpedoes, which included all four boats with radar, so that the rest of us wandered around blind; worse than ordering radio silence (once firing started, anybody interested knew that a bunch of Japanese destroyers and American PT boats were having a go at each other in Blackett Strait); worse than tactical commands issuing forth from a dugout on the base fifty miles away—worst of all these was the decision not to send PTs back to search for survivors of PT-109.
An amphibious plane was sent up to Blackett Strait, but it never saw the bow of the 109 with its crew still clinging to it, hoping that we would come back for them. After some hours drifting there in daylight, concerned now that the only search party that would find them would belong to the enemy, Jack gave the order to swim the three long miles to little islets to the west. Seven days later they returned from the dead, having been rescued by natives sent seeking them by an Australian coastwatcher.
Why didn’t we boat captains volunteer to go back? For one thing, we all heard the flat statement at the debriefing by a boat captain not more than a hundred yards away that the boat had exploded when rammed by the enemy destroyer and there could not have been survivors. It made sense. It did not occur to us that the huge ball of flame that the two nearby boats saw barely touched a few of the crew before it was whisked away by the vacuum at the stern of the speeding destroyer. That was not a good excuse. Try this then: None of us were thinking straight. My case was no different from the others’.
I had been without sleep for twenty-four hours, and here is what would have appeared in my appointment book. At twelve noon the day of the Blackett Strait battle, twelve Japanese dive bombers caught twenty PTs moored in pods of two in Rendova Harbor and destroyed two moored so close to the 105 that sawdust sifted over us. Half an hour later the 105 got involved in a close-to-the-water duel between a Zero and a TBF, which our guy was losing. Seven hours later on the way to Blackett Strait, a bomb exploded in the exact center of our three-boat Vee formation, doing the usual trick of first lifting me on my toes and then pushing me into the deck. Three hours after that I made a fruitless torpedo attack, and several hours later I made another fruitless torpedo attack, all accompanied by shell and bomb bursts and stupid, useless, and frightening radio transmissions. All this adds up to a fatigue so severe that thought processes start shutting down. That morning I did not think about the consequence for me, for all boat captains, of failing to look for survivors of the 109. The gain in going back is in the message it sends. Even if you are seen to disappear in a ball of flame, your friends will come looking for you. We should have gone back.
I might have forgotten that fiasco in Blackett Strait but for the incredible coincidence that a future President was the victim. I think it needs retelling, not only because it misrepresents the effectiveness of PT boats but also because it has been used to demean Jack Kennedy, PT-boat captain, and this is wrong. John F. Kennedy, President, is a subject about which I have no worthwhile opinion. The President is a man I met only once, for ten minutes in the Oval Office, where we talked happily about the boats. But as a captain, Jack Kennedy was a man of courage, a good PT-boat man, and he was good company. Ranking the virtue of good company on a level with the other two may have been peculiar to those on PT boats. We were almost always in the front lines. We knew it was time to pack when the base got showers; when the movies showed up, we were long gone. So we were highly dependent on conversation to divert ourselves, and Kennedy was a good listener and an amusing talker. Our conversation was seldom deep and never about future plans, for this brought bad luck. Mostly it was rough banter about one another’s habits and humiliations—and, to us, was very entertaining. I do not think there has ever been a time in my life when I have laughed as much. Kennedy was one of a score of PT friends who made this possible. He was one of the “happy few,” a phrase from Shakespeare’s Henry V where the king speaks to his men before the Battle of Agincourt:
Kennedy belonged to our happy few, our band of brothers, with George Cookman, our squadron exec, who died leading us in our first gunboat attack; Sid Hix, captain of the 108, killed in a raid on an enemy harbor when the smoke screen laid by the 105 came too late for him; Willie Monk, torpedoman first class in the starboard turret of the 105, who kept his fifties firing while flames from the red-hot guns flickered around him; Attilio Zichella, cook first class, who frantically poured buckets of water on Monk and me; Dave Payne, on whom I bestowed the rat; and a score of other young men smiling still so vividly in my memory. I have never seen the like of them.