By Mark Tempest
1101. The motor torpedo boat is a relatively small craft with great speed and striking power essentially offensive in character. Weapons consist of torpedoes, machine guns and usually depth charges. Its main defensive power lies in its small size, speed, maneuverability, ability to lay smoke and cruise silently at slow speeds.
1102. The primary mission of motor torpedo boats is to attack enemy surface ships. Their high speed, and torpedo armaments make them most suitable for surprise attacks against enemy vessels on the surface, at night or during low visibility. –From Motor Torpedo Boats, Tactical Orders and Doctrine, July 1942
December 9, 1942: Off the coast of Guadalcanal the Japanese submarine I-3 slinks toward the shore, attempting to land supplies for the Japanese troops trying to wrest control of the island and its important air field from American Marines and soldiers. A couple of U.S. Navy torpedo boats are patrolling the littorals and are on watch for just such a resupply effort. They spot a Japanese cargo barge and then – the submarine itself. Speeding in on the attack, PT-59 fires two torpedoes, one of which hits the surfaced submarine and detonates, setting off secondary explosions and sinking this part of Japanese logistics effort.
Since the Allies went on the offensive in the Pacific by landing on Guadalcanal, on other nights, larger ships of the Allied fleet have slugged it out with the Japanese fleet that was trying to obliterate the fragile American toehold at Henderson Field. The battles take place at night because with Henderson and other fields, the Allies have daylight air supremacy. Daytime belongs to the Allies. At night, the Japanese rule the seas, being more practiced at night operations and having a vastly superior torpedo. For months sea battles are fought, cruiser and destroyers come to litter the bottom the waters off Savo Island – waters that come to be known as “Iron Bottom Sound” for the number of disemboweled ships resting on the sea floor.
Fighting through the Allied response, the Japanese land thousands of troops to push the Americans off Guadalcanal. Still, the Americans hold, enduring rigors of war possibly not seen since the American Civil War -disease, malnutrition, a fierce enemy and the “Tokyo Express” roaring down Bougainville Strait bringing supplies for troops and heavy guns to blast Henderson Airfield.
It’s all about the airfields, all about having fixed bases to fly aircraft to attack the next island, to oppose enemy airplanes, to cover the “hop” to the next island and another airfield.
The U.S. Navy is fighting on a shoe string, paying the price for not being prepared for war. The Japanese fleet has proved superior at night fighting and has better torpedoes. Running out of big ships in late 1942, the U.S. Navy tries an experiment – it brings into battle a small group of wooden- hulled, high speed torpedo boats. These Torpedo Patrol Boats (PT) boats offer a high level of firepower for their weight. They also have serious disadvantages. Unlike larger ships, the PT boats cannot operate for weeks at sea – they need support bases and shore based shops for engine maintenance and hull repair. As Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr. set out in At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy wrote:
“They were not designed to patrol hundreds of miles to sea, but to deliver sudden punches close to shore and relatively near their bases.”
The experiment went forward.
Four PT boats were shipped and towed near the Solomons. They then headed for the island of Tulagi (taken from the Japanese at the same time as Guadalcanal) where they will be based arriving October 12, 1942. Another four boats arrive on October 25.
There are now eight American PT boats in the Solomons. None of them and not many of their crews has ever been in combat. For the next four months they all will see plenty of it.
A Very Little History
It was the Russians who first used “torpedo launches” when fighting the Ottoman Empire in 1877 in waters near the coast – the littorals. They used fast boats firing self-propelled torpedoes to sink a ship. Soon small, fast, cheap torpedo boats became all the naval rage – especially for “lesser” powers who sought to counteract massive battleships without having to cash in the royal jewels to pay for them.
The idea was simple: Release a swarm of torpedo boats which in turn release a swarm of torpedoes and you might just sink that cruiser or battleship – with minimal risk of losing your entire fleet. High speed and maneuverability would protect the torpedo boats from the big slow battleships and cruisers of the day.
Not that these new weapons weren’t met by counter-weapons. You may recall that the modern “destroyer” began life as the “torpedo boat destroyer,” designed to protect major ships from gnat sized boats with a big bite.
The U.S. Navy toyed with torpedo boats during World War I, but, safely protected by vast oceans, let the torpedo boat concept lie fallow until shortly before World War II. After an exceptionally short period of testing, boats were ordered. The first modern American PT boats were built by Elco, Higgins and Huckins.
The Elco boats were 77 feet long, powered by three V-12 Packard aircraft engines. In theory these boats could hit 50 knots and yet had a draft of only 5 feet, making them ideal for inshore operations. They carried up to four torpedoes and an assortment of automatic weapons.
It was the torpedoes and the speed that mattered most. The torpedoes could, if working properly, sink or severely damage large ships. The speed could allow the boats to escape harm by racing in for attack and back out.
Speed had a disadvantage. The boats did have a rather large wake. As the book Motor Torpedo Boats, Tactical Orders and Doctrine notes:
1202. The wakes of motor torpedo boats at high speeds are visible considerable distances, both from the air and surface. The wake of center engine is less visible than that of wing engines. These factors should always be considered when planning operations unless satisfactory wake camouflaging apparatus is installed.
In the Solomons
1204. Employed in tactical units of relatively large numerical strength, the motor torpedo boat squadron becomes a powerful offensive weapon.
Remember the concept of PT boats – swarm attacks at high speed:
These early PT boats have no radar. They must see their target before they can engage it. And they must hope that they see their target before their target sees them.
Moonless nights or nights in which visibility is hampered by rain, like those favored by the “Tokyo Express” are tough on PT boat crews. To try to get ahead of the Japanese, the PT boats post pickets on either side of Savo Island, hoping that a boat will spot the Express as it rumbles by and that a radio signal will tell the other boats which direction to head.
The boat crews know when to go out because coast watchers on islands up the Solomon chain report in. “Ten destroyers inbound” “Two cruisers and 4 destroyers coming through Bougainville Straits.”
The coast watchers are far enough away that the Japanese run by them in daylight. Daylight also means that Allied aircraft can go ship hunting – and the follow up to coast watcher reporting is often attacks by B-17s, B-24s and dozens of fighters. The Japanese pay a price in their efforts to reinforce and resupply Guadalcanal.
At the end of that chain of forces attacking the Japanese navy in October 1942 are eight PT boats. The boats are skippered and operated by young men. Men who understand that speed means life. Night after night they go out, ragged, sick. Boats are cobbled together to keep them running. The main fleet has taken a pounding – Iron Bottom Bay speaks of it. Now, often the night belongs to the gnats.Rarely are all eight ready. They go out in pairs. They lurk in the shadows waiting.
The PT skippers dodge shell fire, coral reefs and work their way into firing positions. Throttles on full, the boats begin their runs – closing to inside 500 yards, torpedoes unleashed. Explosions, but -too often it seems – there is something wrong with the American torpedoes. What appear to the boat crews as certain hits turn out to be premature explosions . . . but the crews fight on. Night after night.
Every now and then, a definite success, as with the submarine I-3 or, a couple of days later the destroyer Terutsuki hit by a PT torpedo and sunk. Terutsuki was part of a twenty destroyer force. At least part of that group sprang a trap on the PT boats. December 11 marked another PT boat sunk by enemy action.
The point is not that the PT boats did or didn’t take out battleships or cruisers. They were not operated as attack squadrons with the ability to swarm a target from several directions. They operated in pairs, maintaining as stealthy posture as possible until they could attack. They were not guided or directed by radar during this time – finding the enemy was based on “feel” and luck. What cannot be doubted is the bravery of the crews and that they applied every ounce of skill they had to try to stop the enemy.
This tiny force saved lives among the Marines and soldiers on Guadalcanal as they unhesitatingly threw themselves against bigger ships with bigger guns.
In time, the combination of air superiority and improved Allied naval tactics caused the Japanese to alter their plans of resupply. At first they attempted to float supplies ashore in drums pulled by barges. The PT boats helped break up that effort. When the Japanese began just tossing drums full of supplies into the waters near Guadalcanal in hopes that they might drift ashore, the PT boats cruised the inshore areas, blasting all the drums they came across.
As the American war effort picked up, things got better for the PT boats:
About the first of December the PT’s received welcome assistance from half a dozen SOC’s–Navy scout observation planes. The SOC’s had been carried aboard cruisers damaged in the many actions around Guadalcanal, and were left behind with orders to work with the PT’s when their cruisers left the area for repairs. Every night the PT’s expected action; one or two SOC’s flew up the Slot to spot enemy ships and report their position. It was a hazardous assignment for the SOC’s, because the Japanese ships usually made their runs under cover of bad weather, and several were lost.
Further assistance was received about the first of January, with the arrival of a squadron of PBY’s, Navy patrol bombers known as “Catalinas” or “Black Cats.” The PBY’s not only reported positions but heckled enemy ships by dropping flares and bombs, sometimes forcing the ships to reveal their positions by drawing fire from them. Once, toward the end of January, when a group of PT’s was waiting near Savo to engage an approaching force of 12 enemy destroyers, the Black Cats bombed the destroyers so effectively that they turned and fled before they had come within 30 miles of Guadalcanal. (Bulkley, p 93)
Finally, surprisingly quickly, the Japanese withdrew their forces from Guadalcanal. The Americans and their allies had won a major offensive. But the battle of the Solomons continued as the Japanese built new air bases on other islands. And the PT boats went after them there, too.
In the summer of 1943, the PT boats were back in the interdiction business – attempting to stop the flow of men and supplies by Japanese barges to the new airfields. As the war moved up the Solomons, the PT boats moved too. PT boats moved to two bases near Rendova and with their new primary mission:
The situation had changed since the first days at Tulagi. Now we had the preponderance of sea power. Our cruisers and destroyers shelled enemy positions on New Georgia and Kolombangara at will, and in the Battle of Kula Gulf on July 5/6, the Battle of Kolombangara on 12/13 July, and the Battle of Vella Gulf, on August 6, in which they sank a total of three destroyers and a light cruiser, convinced the enemy that he would have to place his main reliance on coastal barges rather than the Tokyo Express to transport troops and supplies to his bases on New Georgia, Kolombangara, Arundel, Gizo, and the small neighboring islands. The barges were relatively expendable, and could operate close to shore in waters inaccessible to ships of deeper draft. Vulnerable to aircraft attack by day, they usually passed the daylight hours nestling against the shore, well camouflaged by freshly cut leaves and palm fronds, and made their runs at night, preferably in the dark of the moon. Barges became the Japanese lifeline. For the rest of the Solomons campaign, barge hunting was to be the principal mission of the PT’s. (Bulkley,p116)
Barge hunting became the principal occupation of the PT’s, both at Rendova and at Lever Harbor. From their first contact on July 21 until the end of August, the Rendova boats encountered 56 barges and 5 small auxiliary ships. They claimed 8 barges and 1 auxiliary sunk, 3 barges and 1 auxiliary probably sunk, and 6 barges and 1 auxiliary damaged. The Lever Harbor boats, which had their first barge action on August 3, engaged 43 or 44 barges from then until the end of the month, of which 2 were sunk, 1 was forced to be beached, and 8 to 16 were hit with possible damage.(Bulkley, p.127)
It was from a Rendova base that the future president, John Kennedy, started his ill-fated first combat experience with PT-109.
Don’t discount barges in terms of fighting capability. Too shallow in draft to be attacked with torpedoes, each barge required a PT boat to close to the range of its guns and that also put the PT boats in the range of guns on the barges. Some the barges were armored and posed quite a challenge to the PT “barge busters.”
The Japanese had learned few tricks along the way – that distinctive wake of the PT boats brought nightly attacks by Japanese planes homing in on the wakes. Further,
Japanese countermeasures against PT’s included the mounting of heavier guns–up to 40mm.–on their barges, and installation of shore batteries along the barge routes. Lieutenant Commander Kelly reported late in August, “Heavily armored large barges with 40mm. and machine-guns escort the medium barges which carry only machine-guns and/or 20 mm. In order to sink a barge, the range must be closed well within 100 yards and more than 1,000 rounds of .50 caliber and 500 rounds of 20mm. are required . . . This requires laying to at point blank range of shore batteries and barges for approximately 10 minutes which is tantamount to sacrificing the PT boat.” (Bulkley, p.130)
The U.S. Navy invited Army soldiers to go to sea to fight barges, as set out by Richard H. Wagner, in Barge-Busting With The PT Boats, describing the exploits of his father, George Wagner:
It is not clear who came up with the idea but after fighting in the jungles and swamps of New Georgia … Soldiers were ordered to rendezvous with some PT boats along the coast and to bring their automatic weapons.
The mission was to assist the Navy in fighting the barges that were shuttling troops between New Georgia and the Japanese stronghold on the neighboring island of Kolombangara.
The primary barge used by the Japanese in the Solomons was the Type A Daihatsu. This metal-hulled craft was nearly 50 feet long and weighed about eight tons. It was capable of carrying up to 120 men or 15 tons of cargo. It was no greyhound as it could only do about one knot. However, they traveled by night and hid along the jungle shore during the daytime, making it difficult for them to be spotted by airplanes.
The coxswain and the engine room were armor-protected. In addition, each Daihatsu came equipped with two machine guns. This armament was frequently supplemented in the field by 40mm guns as well as by the firepower of the troops that the barge was carrying. Thus, the barges were formidable opponents for the wooden PT boats…
Some of the PT boats had radar but they also relied upon lookouts for the difficult task of spotting the barges against the dark shorelines. Black Cat night aircraft would also occasionally guide the boats to their targets.
The soldiers took up positions on the PT boats as they proceeded along the coast in the darkness. George set up the BAR on the bow of the boat.
Bullets from the PT boats’ machine guns and lighter caliber weapons could not penetrate the armored sides of the Daihatsus. However, their continuous fire kept the heads of the Japanese gunners and troops down. This enabled the PT boats to maneuver behind the barges where they were more vulnerable.
When a barge was discovered, the night would erupt in a blaze of tracer fire. The Soldiers and the PT boat’s guns firing and the fire returning from the barge. The opponents were at point blank range, separated by some 20 yards – - the Japanese relying on the barge’s protective armor while the PT boat maneuvered for advantage in the shallow water. In a few moments of intense fire it was all over with the barge disabled or sinking.
The war continued to move north toward Japan, with the PT boats also continuing to harass enemy logistics flow, quite successfully, it seems. Captured Japanese reports refer to the challenges presented to barge operations by the PT boats.
Eventually, the war moved out of the Solomons and so did the fighting PT boats.
In retrospect, the PT boats suffered early from a lack of numbers, lack of radar and faulty torpedoes. Whether they could have sunk more ships will never be known. What is known is that their crews were brave men who undertook a challenging task and did it as well as their equipment allowed them to. Whatever failures one can find in the PT operations in the Solomons, it was never because of the crews.
Breuer, William, Devil Boats: The PT War Against Japan, Presidio Press, Novato 1995
Bulkley, Robert J, At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, Naval History Division, Washington: 1962 (available online here)
Morison, Samuel E., The Two Ocean War, Little Brown, Boston 1963
Potter, E.B.(editor), Sea Power, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 1981
Wagner, Richard H. Barge-Busting With The PT Boats (Originally published by the Navy League of the United States, New York Council in The Log, Fall 2007) (Available on line here)
UPDATE: See also PT Boats, Inc..
HNSA “Know your PT Boat”.
- Assessing the Fleet: The 2014 Navy Retention Study
- Another Look: Michael Murphy and 9/11 ‘SEAL of Honor’
- Sea Control 49: General Robert Scales on Firepower
- Backlash Against Police Militarization: Implications for the U.S. Coast Guard?
- On Midrats 24 Aug 2014- Episode 242: “Lost Opportunities: WWI and the Birth of the Modern World”