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Motor Torpedo Boats (PT)

Always associated with President John F. Kennedy, who had commanded PT 109 in the Solomon Islands in 1943, PT boats were designed to interdict enemy supply lines and attack enemy shipping, but rarely limited themselves to just these activities during World War II. Actions ranged from the pursuit and capture of the Italian Naval Staff in 1943 to a machine gun duel with a Nazi shore battery during the Normandy invasion.

PT boats, as they were known in World War II, were a British invention, adopted and used by the U.S. Navy. The idea of the PT boat was that of the small, fast--and ultimately, expendable--interdiction ship, armed with torpedoes and machine guns for cutting enemy supply lines, for harassing enemy forces, and for short-range oceanic scouting. American PT boats served during World War II in the Philippines and the Southwestern Pacific areas, in the English Channel, off Normandy, and in the Mediterranean Sea.

As historian William Breuer noted, curiously enough Prohibition and rum-running sparked initial American interest in the PT boat. "Rum runners...brought a few British versions of the PT boat into the United States and were using them to smuggle liquor from Canada.... In military fashion, the smugglers carried out experiments to improve...performance... including the addition of more powerful engines. They developed operational procedures such as stalking along the coast at nightthat would be put in practice years later at Guadalcanal, New Guinea, New Britain, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Pacific."

Following the repeal of Prohibition, American naval officers took a more serious view of the PT boat. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, former assistant secretary of the Navy, successfully lobbied Congress for a $15 million appropriation for PT boat development. The work began at a slow pace, and when war commenced in Europe in 1939, only eight boats being built to British plans were under construction. The first operational boat was not delivered to the Navy until June 17, 1940, and soon a small number of the new craft were shipped out to the Pacific.

Four PTs went to the Philippines while others were readied for shipment. Tests of various boats and designs included open sea "Plywood Derbies" that ran craft submitted by Fisher Boat Works, the Electric Boat Company (Elco), the Miami Shipbuilding Company, Higgins Industries, and the Philadelphia Navy Yard through rugged full speed tests. These tests narrowed the field to a modified Higgins design and an Elco design for American combat vessels.

PT boat parameters were set in the fall of 1941. The Navy insisted on wooden craft longer than 75 feet but no greater than 82 feet in length, powered by three Packard engines equipped with mufflers to mask their approach, capable of making 40 knots. Initial contracts for construction of the standard boats were awarded to two firms, Higgins and Huckins, but following the entry of the United States into the Second World War, Elco was awarded a contract for 36 boats and was the first company to put the new boats in service. Huckins built only 18 boats, none of which were placed in combat. For the remainder of the war, PT boats were built either by Higgins or Elco.

The Elco boats were preferred by the Navy, being the most economical, its range exceeding that of the Huckins by 75 nautical miles and the Higgins by 150. Both the Higgins and Huckins showed materially larger silhouettes. The Elco also had a much better internal arrangement; watertight doors in the bulkheads provided access throughout. The two types of PTs were also distinctly different in their deck arrangement, and to a certain extent, their hulls.

The need for a large number of PTs and the existing contracts from both companies, cinched the Navy's decision to continue with both types, though the numbers produced indicate the preference for the Elco. Of the 511 PTs built during the war for the U.S. Navy, 296 were Elcos as compared to 146 Higgins boats. The numbers of PTs actually assigned to combat also reflects this; 218 Elcos versus 135 Higgins.

There were 43 PT squadrons, with a normal complement of 12 boats. Some 300 PT boaters were killed in World War II, an extremely high loss rate for this comparatively small, elite service.

Originally conceived as antiship weapons, PTs were publicly, but erroneously, credited with sinking Japanese warships during the early months after Pearl Harbor. During the long Solomons campaign, they operated usefully at night and times of low visibility against Japanese barge traffic in the "Slot." Throughout World War II, PTs operated in the southern, western, and northern Pacific, as well as in the Mediterranean and the English Channel. Some served off Normandy during that invasion. Though their primary mission continued to be seen as attack of surface ships and craft, PTs were also used effectively to lay mines and smoke screens, to rescue downed aviators, and to carry out intelligence or raider operations.

PT boats were a significant American naval warship type in World War II. They were responsible for numerous enemy losses, in warships, materiel, and personnel. They spawned a number of offshoots - the Japanese "Shinyo" suicide boat; the fast, hydrofoil missile ships of today; and the numerous inshore patrol craft used by many navies of the 1980s.

PT boats gained fame when Gen. Douglas MacArthur escaped from Corregidor on PT 41, running through enemy-infested waters some 600 miles to Mindanao. The exploits of the PT boat squadron in the Philippines included forays into Manila harbor to attack Japanese shipping, MacArthur's escape, and desperate holding actions against the rapidly advancing Japanese. These exploits accomplished in spite of sabotage, lack of supplies and equipment to properly maintain or repair the boats, were made famous along with their commander, Lt. John D. Bulkeley, when the news was released to the American public. The wartime publication of They Were Expendable , and the film of the same name, starring John Wayne, which recounted the exploits, indelibly etched the PT boat in the American consciousness.

As the war spread through the islands of the South Pacific, farflung Japanese garrisons depended upon a lifeline of supplies, ammunition, and replacements brought thousands of miles by sea. Nicknamed the "Tokyo Express," Japanese shipping to the Solomons was attacked by American submarines and PT boats, which for the most part were effective interdiction until the United States fleet recovered from the war's opening blows. In the Pacific for the early part of the war the Pacific fleet's battleships lay on the bottom of Pearl Harbor and the four nonexpendable carriers were carefully husbanded. The PT boats, with increasing success, began to interdict Japanese supply lines, multiplying as more 12-boat squadrons were commissioned and sent into action.

More than 212 boats, most of them Elcos, were built and sent into combat during the Second World War. American PT boats were used in combat alongside British MTBs and MGBs in the English Channel, including action off Normandy on D-Day, and in the Mediterranean. In the Pacific, however, they gained their greatest fame. PTs were effectively used in the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Philippines. Armed with torpedoes to sink enemy ships, PTs were also equipped with machine guns, small arms, and rifles to attack smaller Japanese surface vessels, particularly troop transport barges running between the islands. The PTs made deadly gunboats, particularly when 40MM antiaircraft guns were turned on the lightly armored barges and shore installations. Because of their speed and small size, PTs also landed parties of scouts, supplies for partisans, and made rescues of downed fliers, even under the guns of Japanese ships and troops, and scouted for approaching enemy vessels. The most famous PT scouting expedition flushed out an attacking Japanese task force, scoring torpedo hits as the Japanese ran into the guns of the American fleet at the Battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944.

PT 109 was one of the hundreds of motor torpedo boats (PT) of the PT 103 class completed between 1942 and 1945 by Elco Naval Division of Electric Boat Company at Bayonne, New Jersey. The Elco boats were the largest in size of the three types of PT boats built for U.S. use during World War II. Wooden-hulled, 80 feet long with a 20-foot, 8-inch beam, the Elco PT boats had three 12-cylinder Packard gasoline engines generating a total of 4,500 horsepower for a designed speed of 41 knots. With accommodations for 3 officers and 14 men, the crew varied from 12 to 14. Its full-load displacement was 56 tons. Early Elco boats had two 20mm guns, four .50-caliber machine guns, and two or four 21-inch torpedo tubes. Some of them carried depth charges or mine racks. Later boats mounted one 40mm gun and four torpedo launching racks. Many boats received ad-hoc refits at advanced bases, mounting such light guns as Army Air Forces 37mm aircraft guns and even Japanese 23mm guns. Some PTs later received rocket launchers.

The PT-103 class, 80-foot Elco motor torpedo boat was constructed with two layers of mahogany planking laid diagonally over laminated spruce, white oak, and mahogany frames, and reinforced with longitudinal battens, secondary transverse frames, and clamps. A layer of airplane fabric, impregnated with marine glue, was ironed on between the two layers of planking. The result was a light, strong hull, resilient enough to stand up in heavy seas. Navy specifications called for a "hard chine stepless bottom... with lines formed with a view to minimizing stress on the hull .... The lines shall also be formed to insure easy manuevering of the boat and a small turning circle at full speed.... The sides shall flare outward from chine to gunwale." Constructed to the standard dimensions of the Elco-type PT boat is 80 feet long, with a 20-foot beam and a 5.6-foot draft. When fully loaded Elco PT displaced 55 tons.

Below decks, the Elco PT is divided into several compartments. Farthest aft is the lazjarette, used for stowing spare engine parts and 5 gallon cans of oil. Next is the engineroom, followed by the crew's day room, which holds two bunks. The boat's gas tanks are below the day room. Forward of the day room are two officers' cabins to port, separated by a head. In the same space, to starboard, are the wardroom, armory, and galley. Forward of these compartments are the crew's quarters, which also served as the crew's mess, with bunks, lockers, and table.

Forward of the crew's quarters is a small compartment that serves as a passage to the crew's head and the forepeak. This passage was used to stow lifejackets and other gear. A ladder from the wardroom leads to the charthouse, which houses the radio room and radarscope. The ladder continues to the cockpit on deck.

The Elco PT was powered by three Packard 4M-2500 Marine engines specially designed for PT boat use. The 4M-2500 is a liquid cooled, supercharged, 12 cylinder...engine operating on a 4 stroke cycle. It is normally furnished as a complete marine power plant with a direct connected reverse gear in which is embodied a double cone type clutch and positive forward drive. The engines each drove a single screw to develop a maximum horsepower of 4,050. The boat carried 3,000 gallons (9 tons) of high octane (100) aviation fuel in the tanks that gave it a maximum cruising radius of 500 miles. The maximum speed of the boat was rated at 40 knots, though most PTs, hampered by difficult maintenance and fouled hulls, often operated below 30 knots. The engines were equipped with mufflers that exhausted into the water to permit a quiet approach on enemy vessels or positions.

Almost all surviving Elco PTs were disposed of shortly after V-J Day. One Elco boat, PT 617, survives at Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts. The interior spaces on PT 617 were carefully restored and furnished. The original bulkheads, wardroom benches, crew's quarters lockers, and heads were retained. The vessel appears combat ready and is fully outfitted. The boat is painted in a camouflage scheme found in the Southwest Pacific and the Philippines during the war; the grey hull gives way to a mottled blue-green superstructure that blended with the jungle shores of the islands. Meticulously restored and well-maintained, PT 617 possesses remarkable integrity as befits the boat's rble as sole survivor of the predominant type of the PT class of warship.

Typical of late World War II Elcos, 617 was capable of mounting Mark XIII torpedoes, short range weapons that ran at 45 knots and carried a 600-lb. warhead. PT 617 also represents the late war development of the PT as a heavily armed gunboat, carrying a 37MM rapid-fire and two 20MM machine guns at the bow, two twin .50 caliber machine gun mounts on both sides of the cockpit, and a 40MM gun at the stern. The weapons were employed for antiaircraft defense and for shooting up Japanese barges, transports, and other small craft, as well as beach positions. The 40MM was the best antibarge gun the boats ever had, and eventually became standard on all boats. It was accurate, automatic, and sufficiently powerful to blast holes in the heaviest armored barge.

PT 617 also carried two depth charge racks at the stern, each carrying one charge of 300 Ibs. of TNT per can, should a PT "cross the path of a submerging submarine." The depth charges were also used against pursuing destroyers. Also aft was an Elco smoke generator, a steel bottle filled with titanium tetrachloride which formed fog when mixed with moisture in the air, used to mask the boat with a smoke screen. Two Mark 50 rocket launchers and a 60MM mortar were also installed on the Elco boats in 1945. Small arms were also carried* Each crewmember was issued a .45 caliber pistol, and the boat carried a BAR, U.S. Rifles, Cal. .30, Model 1903, Thompson submachine guns, 3-inch rockets, and grenades.

Although more 80-foot Elco boats were built than any other type of motor torpedo boat, other types were built by the US. The British-designed 70-foot Vosper boats which were built for Lend Lease fired 18-inch torpedoes. Since the U.S. produced the heavier and longer 21-inch torpedoes, the U.S. Navy wanted a larger PT boat. After experimentation, the first PT boat built in any quantity was the 77-foot type built by Elco. These boats were used early in World War II. In 1943 in the Solomons, three of these 77-foot PT boats, PT 59, PT 60 and PT 61, were even converted into gunboats by stripping the boat of all original armament except for the two twin .50 caliber gun mounts, and then adding two 40mm guns and four more twin .50 caliber machine guns. LTJG John F. Kennedy was the first commanding officer of PT 59 after the conversion.

Although the Huckins Yacht Company of Jacksonville, Florida, built a few 78 foot boats of the PT 95 class, the 80-foot Elco boats and the 78-foot Higgins boats became the standard motor torpedo boats of World War II. The Higgins boats which were built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, Louisiana, were 78-foot boats of the PT 71 class. The Higgins boats had the same beam, full load displacement, engine, generators, shaft horsepower, trial speed, armament, and crew accommodations as the 80-foot Elco boats.

Special Boat Units trace their history back to WWII. The Patrol Coastal and Patrol Boat Torpedo are the ancestors of today's PC and MKV. Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron THREE rescued General MacArthur (and later the Filipino President) from the Philippines after the Japanese invasion and then participated in guerrilla actions until American resistance ended with the fall of Corregidor. PT Boats subsequently participated in most of the campaigns in the Southwest Pacific by conducting and supporting joint/combined reconnaissance, blockade, sabotage, and raiding missions as well as attacking Japanese shore facilities, shipping, and combatants. PT Boats were used in the European Theater beginning in April 1944 to support the OSS in the insertions of espionage and French Resistance personnel and for amphibious landing deception. While there is no direct line between organizations, NSW embracement is predicated on the similarity in craft and mission.

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