PT-class Motor Torpedo Boat
|Builder||Electric Launch Corporation, Bayonne, New Jersey, United States|
|Displacement||56 tons standard|
|Machinery||Three 12-cylinder liquid-cooled Packard gasoline engines rated at 1,200bhp each|
|Bunkerage||3,000 gal aviation fuel|
|Armament||1x20mm Oerlikon cannon at stern, 2x12.7mm twin M2 or 2x7.6mm Lewis machine guns on rotating turrets, 2x or 4x21in torpedo tubes, Mark 8 torpedoes|
|Note||Specifications reflect dimensions of the most popular model built by Elco, other models of other makes were also available|
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
This article refers to the entire PT-class; it is not about an individual vessel.
Patrol torpedo boats, popularly known as "PT boats", were small, light, and fast motor torpedo boats used by the United States Navy. They were first developed in the early 1900s as a way to deliver torpedoes against larger surface vessels without risking losing ships of heavier displacement. The WW2-era torpedo boat design originated in the late 1930s to the early 1940s when the US Navy requested a competitive bid for several different concepts of torpedo boats. Out of the companies that built prototypes for review, the Electric Launch Corporation ("Elco", a division of the Electric Boat Company), Higgins Industries, and Huckins Yacht Company won contracts, with Elco receiving the largest share of the overall contract.
The Elco boats were the largest in size of the three types of PT boats built immediately before and during WW2, totaling 385 boats. Made of two-inch thick planks of mahogany, these boats were 80 feet long, 20 feet 8 inches wide, and displaced 56 tons of water. They were powered by three fuel-guzzling 12-cylinder liquid-cooled gasoline engines built by Packard, rated at 1,200 brake horsepower each. They accommodated 3 officers and 14 sailors, though a typical complement was between 12 and 14. The typical Elco PT boats carried one 20-mm Oerlikon cannon at the stern and two twin M2 12.7-mm or 7.6-mm Lewis machine guns mounted on rotating turrets, but the main armament was two or four 21-inch torpedo tubes launching Mark 8 torpedoes that weighed about 1-ton each. One of the most famous Elco boats was Lieutenant (jg) John F. Kennedy's PT-109, which was of an unique configuration; the PT boat the future President of the United States commanded carried a 37-mm single shot anti-tank gun on the fore deck, making his PT boat more so a gunboat than a torpedo boat. Custom armament configurations, though, was not altogether strange nor unexpected for PT boats of all makes. Some of them carried atypical weapons and equipment such as aircraft automatic cannon, radar, or rocket launchers.
Higgins built 199 PT boats for the US Navy immediately before and during WW2. They were 78 feet long and had entirely different layouts than the Elco boats, including larger forepeak which offered larger storage spaces; their width, displacement, accommodation space, and typical armament were similar to the Elco boats, however. Higgins PT boats were sent to Russia and Britain at the start of WW2 before the United States became directly involved. Huckins was but a small manufacturer, and built only 18 examples for use in rear areas only, such as the Panama Canal Zone.
Before the war, at the Philippine Islands, General Douglas MacArthur was an advocate of PT boats. He said:
However, his counterparts at Washington, DC, United States did not agree. With no support from Washington, MacArthur attempted to purchase British-built torpedo boats to suit his needs, but the start of the European War made that purchase impossible. Thus, his theory of using PT boats for the defense of the Philippine Islands was never tested. Nevertheless, the first PT boats used in the Pacific War were directly related to MacArthur as they evacuated personnel out of the Philippine Islands, including MacArthur and his family. Elco boat PT-41, commanded by Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, took them off of the island bastion of Corregidor. The waters were rough that night (a member of the PT-41 crew remembered the night's sail was "a combination of bucking bronco and wallowing tub"), which significantly slowed the boats. Through the Mindoro Strait, with a brief stop at Cuyo Islands west of Panay, and a near run-in with a Japanese cruiser west of Negros, PT-41 and accompanying PT boats delivered MacArthur and his family to Cagayan, Mindanao, Philippine Islands. Upon landfall, MacArthur promised to recommend every man of the Torpedo Squadron Three Silver Star awards; Bulkeley eventually had a greater award, a Medal of Honor, for successfully completing the mission through Japanese waters. After the fall of the Philippine Islands, they continued to play important roles in the Pacific War, and were the centerpieces of a propaganda campaign. They were publicly hailed as the destroyers of several Japanese warships, though the credits were erroneously given.
During the Solomon Islands Campaign, "Green Dragons" and "Devil Boats", as nicknamed by the Japanese, were deployed against larger warships, but performance was not impressive largely due to faulty American torpedoes and modern destroyers' capability to fight small incoming craft. The Japanese were initially cautious when operating in waters with known PT boat presence, which disrupted Japanese supply runs to key contested battlefields such as Guadalcanal, but as soon as they realized that American torpedoes were often defective, PT boats lost their effectiveness as a weapon, but they acted as effective deterrents nevertheless.
In Bulkeley's words, the PT boats were made "to roar in, let fly a Sunday punch, and then get the hell out, zigging to dodge the shells." This description was much in line with the typical image of the PT boat in combat, but it was largely over romanticized. The popular belief was that a small number of boats would blaze in with high speed, launch their torpedoes to destroy enemy capital ship with all guns pumping, and make their escape against the backdrop of the enemy cruiser in an fiery inferno. In reality that type of attacks might had been deployed, but those types of attacks would be rare as high speed attacks would attract too much attention, and even a single near-miss from a destroyer shell would often seriously threaten the integrity of hulls. Direct hit would often disintegrate entire boats. Instead, these unarmored boats typically approached enemy ships in relative quietness to conceal their approaches, launch torpedoes while hoping the torpedo wakes would not be detected, and escape in high speed only if the targets were hit and the resulting flames illuminated their position. If the first round of torpedoes missed and the boat was not detected, the commanding officer of the boat might order his crew to maneuver stealthily and make a second attempt.
With that said, however, PT boats in WW2 were more often deployed against barges rather than warships, which explained why most boats were retrofitted with machine guns and cannons. With the Allies gaining air superiority during the daylight hours in various theaters, Japanese supply missions in the Pacific and German and Italian supply missions in the Mediterranean gradually shifted to ones that made use of barges in shallow waters. PT boats were the perfect weapons to act in the role of barge busters. One captured Japanese soldier's diary described their fear of PT boats by describing them as "the monster that roars, flaps it wings, and shoots torpedoes in all directions".
PT boat crews were significantly different than crews of steel warships of the US Navy. Their officers and men mixing more frequently than those of the "steel navy", and they were known as excellent scavengers and thieves who were capable of taking whatever they could find to bolster their supplies and armament. PT boats crews were also known to be rather informal or even at times "undisciplined", but their ferocity in the face of danger was much respected despite their frequent lack of seriousness.
Though PT boats' primary missions continued to be seen as to attack surface vessels, they were also used to lay mines and smoke screens, to rescue downed aviators, and to carry out intelligence or raider operations.
At the end of WW2, of the 531 patrol torpedo boats built, only 69 were lost, including losses to enemy fire, storms, accidents, friendly fire, or simply being worn out. Percentage-wise, this made a high loss ratio, but with the US Navy's attitude that PT boats were expendable, the loss ratio could said to be low. After the war, most of them were decommissioned and destroyed. Much of this destruction took place at PT Base 17 at Samar, Philippine Islands, near Bobon Point. Only nine PT boat hulls survive today, some on display in museums such as the PT Boat Museum at Battle Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts, United States.
Sources: American Caesar, United States Navy Naval Historical Center, US Patrol Torpedo Boats, Wikipedia.
PT-class Motor Torpedo Boat Interactive Map
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Chiang Kaishek, 31 Jul 1937