When it comes to U.S. Navy boats, you often think of aircraft carriers and destroyers. Here in Groton we automatically bring up the large list of Submarines. But throughout the Navy’s long and proud history, there have been an array of different types of vessels used to help support war efforts. One such type of boat are the PT boats of WWII. Nicknamed “Devil Boats” by the Japanese, these small torpedo boats helped the U.S. Navy in its war in the Pacific.
In 1938, the U.S. Navy realized its need for a mobile attack boat. PT’s or Patrol Torpedo Boats were small, fast vessels that could be used for scouting. They were armed with torpedoes and machine guns to cut off enemy tankers and transports. Their effectiveness at targeting Japanese armored barges that were used for inter-island transport gave them the “Devil Boat” nickname. During the war, there were forty-three squadrons with 12 boats each. The work was dangerous, and the squadrons suffered a high loss rate during the war. On board each boat were four Mark 8 torpedoes. Two M2 .50cal machine guns were mounted for anti-aircraft defense. Throughout the war, Elco (Elco Moto Yachts) in Bayonne, New Jersey and Higgins Industries in New Orleans, Louisiana would become the dominant builders of the PT boat.
The Elco boat was 80 feet long and the Higgins came in slightly smaller at 78 feet long. Elco’s design was based off a purchase of a Scott-Paine motor torpedo boat. They shipped the boat to Electric Boat in Groton and began working with the prototype that would be dubbed PT-9. Over two years the PT-9 would go through numerous sea trials in order to improve the design, eventually meeting Navy standards. To keep up with the production demand, Elco would employ more than 3,000 men and women during the height of the war. The Elco company would build 399 PT boats and Higgins Industries would end up producing 199 PT boats by war’s end. Andrew Jackson Higgins is said to be the man who built the boat that won the war. The famous Higgins Boats were used during the storming of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The use of his LCVP’s (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel) are what allowed the allied troops direct access to the beach on D-Day. But before this, Higgins’ PT boats were used against the Japanese in the Battle of Aleutian Islands and in the Mediterranean against the Nazis. For most of the war, PT boats would provide fire support for landing troops and carry out rescue missions.
Today very few PT boats survive. Most were destroyed shortly after the war’s end. Stories about their missions and crews can be hard to find. One of the best-known PT boats was the PT-109, skippered by the late President John F. Kennedy. According to NPS.org,”PT-109 was operating in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific and joined 14 other PT boats for a nighttime ambush of 4 enemy destroyers and supply ships of Japan’s “Tokyo express”. Most of the PT boat attack force fired their compliment of torpedoes and headed for home, but three boats stayed behind including the 109. In the confusion and darkness at sea, Lieutenant Kennedy noted a vague shape approaching him. He assumed it was a sister PT boat, but soon discovered it was a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy attempted to swing his boat into position to fire a torpedo, but was not fast enough. The much larger destroyer hit the 109 broadside at full speed nearly splitting the much smaller wooden boat in half. Kennedy and the survivors swam nearly 3 miles to a small island. After a week of surviving on small islands with the help of natives, Kennedy and the 109’s surviving crew were rescued by PT-157.”
While stories about PT boats are less common than larger vessels, the number of physical PT boats around today are even fewer. The PT-658 which was built but never saw action is housed in Portland, Oregon at the P-658 Heritage Museum. She was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
She is fully functional and up until recently was the only restored and operational US Navy PT boat. At the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, you can take a ride on the PT-305, a Higgins PT boat that has been fully restored after being in dry dock in Texas for a number of years.
The PT-305 served in European waters from 1944 to 1945. According to the National WWII Museum website the “PT-305, along with PT-302 through PT-313, was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 22 (Ron 22). Ron 22 was commissioned on November 10, 1943 under the command of LCDR Richard J. Dressling and was assigned to the Mediterranean. MTB RON 22 operated in the Mediterranean along the coast of Southern France and Northern Italy. Boats from Ron 22 participated in the Invasion of Elba on June 18, 1944, where PT-305 sank a German Flak lighter. The squadron acted as a diversionary force in Gulf Juan, and as an anti-E-boat screen in the Nice-Cannes area. Ron 22 was part of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France on August 15, 1944. They landed French Commandos on the coast of France in preparation for the invasion. The squadron was also involved in action around Leghorn, Italy. To harass the enemy Ron 22 fired torpedoes into harbors between Genoa, Italy and the French-Italian border. On the night of April 24, 1945, PT-305 sank an Italian MAS boat. In late April 1945, the squadron was returned to the United States to be overhauled in preparation for deployment to the Pacific. The war however ended while the squadron was still in New York Harbor. The Squadron was decommissioned November 15, 1945 still under the command of LCDR Richard J. Dressling. On June 18, 1948, PT-305 was sold along with the rest of the squadron.” After the war, PT-305 was used as an oyster boat until 2001. Transferred to the museum in 2007, she is now fully restored.