The Speedboat Goes to War

Each family is unique, and my family is no exception. Where other families might be sports aficionados or agricultural gurus, my family deals in military history. As an example: when I was about eight years old, I saw a tie-pin in the shape a plane that I wanted to get my dad for his birthday. I collaborated with mom, and later snuck off to buy it. When I pointed to the tie-pin and accurately identified it as a B-17, the old-timer behind the counter looked at me in surprise, and asked me how I knew what it was. I don’t remember how I answered, but I remember being confused. To me, it was obvious, why wouldn’t I know what it was?

Nowadays I know better, so for your reading pleasure, I present to you a small piece of history: the PT boat of World War Two. These Patrol Torpedo boats were instrumental in both the early days of our involvement in the Pacific, and later in both the Pacific and European Theaters. High-hulled, streamlined, and small, the PT boat looks exactly like an enlarged speedboat mounted with 50 caliber machine guns. They were motored by aviation engines that required aviation grade fuel, and their main armament consisted of four torpedoes. And I have to say, seeing footage of these little boats racing across the water is a pretty stirring sight.

uss_pt-105Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=399302

They were small and fast, and, now might also be a good time to mention, made of plywood.

Yes. Plywood.

In an age where the wooden ship was all but history in terms of warfare, these little wooden boats were one of the last defenders of the American forces in the early days of the Pacific. Aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, submarines, even supply barges were made of metal. But not the indomitable PT boat. Needless to say, just one hit from a bomb or torpedo, and it was pretty much over for a boat and her crew. And the razor-sharp coral reefs of the South Seas could tear out the hull of such a vessel with frightening ease.

Knowing this makes the men who served aboard them even more impressive in my mind. I can’t even imagine the courage necessary to take one of these wooden boats to war, but the crews of the PT boats distinguished themselves time and again – iron men in wooden ships.

pt-109_crewBy Collections of the U.S. National Archives, downloaded from the Naval Historical Center [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16522717

See anyone familiar? No? Read on…

The Japanese called them the “devil boats”. A PT boat carried General MacArthur out of the Philippines right before the surrender of Bataan, and one carried him back into Manila Harbor in 1945. John F. Kennedy served aboard one (crew photo above – he’s on the far right), and an account of his service can be viewed in the film PT-109. Another excellent film featuring PT boats is They Were Expendable, starring John Wayne and Robert Montgomery, which I highly recommend. And, on the lighter side of things, the comedy tv series McHale’s Navy revolves around the various shenanigans of a mischievous PT crew.

But alas, as an ignominious end to this otherwise inspiring story, at the end of the war the remaining PT Boats were dragged onto a beach, and burned.

*Insert Indiana Jones screaming: “That thing belongs in a museum!”*

Now, I won’t pretend to be all-knowing about the motives of the military. But that one just doesn’t sit well with me. What a waste, right? Similar things happened to all sorts of planes, ships, and vehicles after the war, but we won’t get into that right now (I can feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about it…)

Fortunately, all is not lost, for a few PT Boats survived. PT-658 can be viewed in Portland, Oregon, and about twelve others still remain, cared for by restoration groups in various parts of the country.

So, that’s my small piece of history for the day. Know of any good movies or books on the subject that I missed? Let me know in the comments!