A Fast Attack Craft is a small, fast surface vessel with massive armament for its size and displacement. It is the perfect vessel for fighting in island chains and near coastlines. It is expendable, quick to build, easy to crew, and capable of causing massive damage. The US Navy, after the failures of Thomas Jefferson’s “Mosquito Fleet” coastal-defense gunboats in 1812, has remained skeptical of their utility, and has only procured fast attack craft on two occasions: during World War Two and in the 1980s.
Before the introduction of anti-ship guided missiles in the 1960s, the Fast Attack Craft came in two types, the Motor Torpedo Boat and Motor Gun Boat. The former was armed with torpedoes, the latter guns; both were driven by internal combustion engines. During World War Two, the US Navy procured 531 Patrol Torpedo Boats, or PT Boats. These craft were employed in all theaters of operation from the first seconds of the war until the last. Ninety-nine were lost. Of the 432 that survived the war, several hundred were beached, stripped of all fittings, and burned in November and December 1945. Twelve hulls remain; two are restored and seaworthy. (1) Of the approximately 64,000 officers and men who served on PT Boats, 331 died in action.
PT-130 at high speed
The PT Boat was instrumental in strangling the Japanese Army of supplies and reinforcements during the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific. They were instrumental at the Battle of Surigao Strait. They fought in the Mediterranean, in the English Channel, and, under the Soviet flag, in Lake Ladoga and the Black Sea. They proved the power of the Fast Attack Craft to control littoral areas and to prosecute an anti-access and area denial campaign.
The United States Navy’s first experiments with motor torpedo boats were conducted during and shortly after the First World War. A series of contracts for experimental boats filled by the Greenport Basin and Construction Company of Greenport, New York between 1914 and 1918 culminated in the 1918 construction of C-378, a highly successful 28-ton boat capable of over 37 knots in flat water and of holding 34.5 knots in 12-14 foot seas. (2) Interest waned between the wars, however, and it was not until twenty years later, in 1938, that the US Navy began to investigate motor torpedo boats once more.
After a series of seakeeping problems with the PT Boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Two (MTBRON 2) in the spring of 1941, the Bureau of Inspection and Survey decided to hold comparative trials. These culminated in two high-speed open-ocean races carrying combat loads of weapons and fuel, on July 24 and August 12, 1941. These races, dubbed the Plywood Derby, would shape the US Navy’s fast attack craft procurement for the duration of the Second World War. Ten boats (3) would begin at the mouth of New London Harbor, firewall their throttles, round Block Island and the Fire Island Lightship to starboard, and finish at the Montauk Point Whistling Buoy; 190 nautical miles of slop, chop, and rollers mixing together with strong tides and wind. The first four boats to finish the July 24 run were the Elco 77-footers, with PT-20 placing first, at 39.72 knots average speed. The second run experienced significantly worse weather conditions, including sixteen-foot seas. Despite this, the four Elco 77s managed an average of 27.5 knots without structural failures. The only boat to come close to that speed, the 76-foot Higgins design, had widespread significant structural failures.(4)
Elco 77′ Motor Torpedo Boats
The Elco 77s were far from perfect. The Bureau of Inspection and Survey noted that they were the hardest-pounding, the second most expensive(5), the deck had a tendency to crack, and they had a comparable turning radius to a Fletcher-class destroyer.(6) At the same time, they were the sturdiest vessels tested, were capable of sustained speeds six knots above any other boat tested, and had room for four 21” torpedo tubes. The trials report recommended that the Huckins 72-foot boat be put into production immediately, the Higgins 81-foot boat, if made smaller, be put into production immediately, and that the Elco 77-foot boat be modified with a stronger deck, and to pound less.(7)
The Elco 77-foot PT Boat was a 40-ton laminated mahogany vessel with a planing hull. Alongside the Huckins and Higgins 78-footers, the Elco 77 formed the nucleus of the American Fast Attack Craft force during Second World War, holding the line until the more larger, more advanced Elco 80-footer could be produced. It displaced 40 tons, and was 77 long, had a 19.92 foot beam, and drew 4.5 feet. The hull was made of a laminated mahogany composite, and the design was derived from British interwar racing speedboats, although it was enlarged, re-engineered, and modified.(8) Like all US Navy PT Boats, the Elco 77s were powered by three of the Packard 2500 family of supercharged V-12 gasoline engines; specifically the 3M-2500, producing 1,200 horsepower per engine for a total of 3,600 horsepower.
Despite the Navy’s determination that they were capable of handling 21” torpedo tubes, the Elco 77s were armed with four 18” Mk.IV or Mk.VIII torpedoes in four Mk.19 tubes. These gunpowder launched tubes occasionally caused a flash when fired at night, revealing the firing boat’s position. They were also armed with a pair of twin M2HB 0.50-caliber machine guns in enclosed turrets.
At the start of the Second World War, there was no doctrine for Fast Attack Craft in the US Navy. There were only eighteen PT Boats in service, all deployed outside the continental United States. Eleven more boats were fitting out in New York Harbor, to be deployed to the Panama Canal Zone. This lack of numbers did not stop the crews of the twelve boats of MTBRON 1 at Pearl Harbor and the six boats of MTBRON 3 in the Philippines from fighting the enemy tooth and nail until either their boats were sunk from underneath them or their ammunition exhausted.
At Pearl Harbor, PT-23 was the first to return fire on the Japanese, with GM1c Joy Van Zyll de Jong and TM1c George B. Huffman shooting down a Nakajima B5N Kate within seconds of the first bomb hit. Their fire was joined by that of the five other Elco 77s moored nearby; the other six boats of MTBRON 1, in the process of being loaded onto the oiler Ramapo to be taken to the Philippines, quickly disabled the turret hydraulics and managed to fire over 4,000 rounds, despite Ramapo taking a 550 pound bomb hit.
PT-25 (of MTBRON 1) in Pearl Harbor, HI. USS Hornet (CV-6) in background.
In Manila Bay, MTBRON 3’s six Elco 77s, hastily up-gunned with the addition of a pair of obsolete Army .30-caliber Lewis guns on the bow, developed the art of dodging the bombs dropped by Japanese planes. On December 10, their first action, they put their theory into practice. Not only did they not lose a single boat, but PT-31 shot down two planes, and PT-35 one. Despite this success, the entire Navy Yard at Cavite was on fire, along with a third of the adjacent city. MTBRON 3 had lost all of its spare parts save for nine engines, several thousand drums of 100-octane aviation fuel, and all facilities. After transporting wounded from the Navy Yard to the nearest hospital, MTBRON 3 left Manila for Sisiman Bay.
At Sisiman Bay, the normally maintenance-intensive PT Boat was demonstrated to be capable of operation from extremely austere conditions. Their only support was an old submarine tender and a small floating drydock. Their base was borrowed from local fishermen.
The actions of MTBRON 3 in the Philippines Campaign were extensive and laid the groundwork for subsequent American littoral combat doctrine: they fought their boats until they were sunk or had all been killed. They rescued wounded, acted as couriers, and sank substantial numbers of Japanese craft. They noticeably slowed the Japanese advance up the Bataan Peninsula, but in the end, they were only 83 officers and men and six boats. MTBRON 3 suffered eighteen killed and 38 captured during the Philippine Campaign. They were all wounded. Seven stayed behind to fight the Japanese as guerillas. The 27 officers and men of MTBRON 3 that made it back to friendly lines were worth their weight in gold, because they had something that no other PT Boat crew in the US Navy did. They had experience. Four of them, including Lt. Cdr. John Bulkeley, MTBRON 3’s commanding officer, were flown to the United States to help develop a doctrine, train new crews, and improve the PT Boats in production.(9)
PT-31, -34, 35, and -41 on the tanker Guadelupe, en route to the Phillipines
The result of their input, along with that of the officers and men of MTBRON 1 from their action at Midway, fought after making a 1,385 mile open-water run from Pearl Harbor to Midway, was the Elco 80-foot Patrol-Torpedo Boat. This was the most successful of the American fast attack craft of World War Two, combining a powerful and highly reliable powerplant, heavy armament, and the latest sensor technology into a sturdy, spacious, and easily repairable hull. At 56 tons, it was about half the displacement of its British and German rivals, but was faster, more heavily armed, and less expensive.
The hull design, modified from the Elco 77s that fought in Manila Bay, off Midway, and in the early stages of Guadalcanal, theoretically pounded less and was cheaper to produce. The Elco 80 foot hull and propeller design benefitted from the experiences of MTBRON 1 and MTBRON 2’s runs from Pearl Harbor to Midway and from Melville, Rhode Island to the Panama Canal, while the powerplant was refined by Packard to produce another six hundred and fifty horsepower. The laminated mahogany composite construction ensured rapid, inexpensive construction and repair, as well as exceptional resistance to battle damage. The stern of PT-109 floated for over twelve hours after it was cut in half by Fubuki-class destroyer IJN Amigiri. Another Elco 80-footer, PT-167, survived being holed by a Japanese Type 93 Long Lance torpedo that failed to detonate off Bougainville and was repaired the next day.(10)
PT-167 after being holed by a Type-93 Long Lance heavyweight antiship torpedo.
Another advantage the Elco 80-footer, and nearly every other American PT Boat, brought was the Raytheon SO surface search radar. A development of the larger SG (Sea Going) set designed for Destroyers and Cruisers, the SO gave every PT Boat superior navigation and attack capabilities at night and in poor weather to most Axis cruisers.(11) This feature alone would make the Elco 80-footer (along with its 78-foot Higgins and Huckins stablemates) the most technologically advanced fast attack craft of the Second World War, and would prove invaluable in the night actions that were the bread and butter of the Motor Torpedo Boat.
As a Motor Torpedo Boat, the Elco 80-foot PT Boat was armed with a quartet of Bliss-Leavitt Mk.IV or Mk.VII torpedoes. In mid-1943, these pre-war 18” torpedoes, launched via a gunpowder charge out of tubes, were replaced with spring-loaded roll-off racks and 22.4” aircraft torpedoes. This eliminated the possibility of detection at night via a telltale flash as the black powder launch charge ignited grease used to lubricate the torpedo’s launch, and freed over two tons of weight for more gun and rocket armament. The addition of between two and ten depth charges allowed some ASW capability, although the lack of a sonar system and the poor turning circle made the depth-charge more useful as a means of trying to blow up pursuing enemies. If set to explode at 100 feet, the 300-pound depth charge had a decent chance of causing significant damage to a pursuing vessel.
The audacity and adaptability of PT Boats and their crews was driven home at the Battle of Surigao Strait, the last engagement between battleships in history.(12) It cemented the reputation of the American Battleship as a fearsome dealer of death and destruction, in any weather, at any time. It was also the first time that American PT Boats engaged in a fleet action. Thirty-nine PT Boats, almost entirely Elco 80-footers, patrolled the Bohol Sea and at the southern end of Surigao Strait. Their radars were radiating, searching the night for Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s Southern Force and Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima’s Second Striking Force.
At 10:36 PM on October 24, 1944, Ensign Peter Gadd’s PT-131 detected the Southern Force; specifically which ship he detected is lost to history. The result, however, was clear enough. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf, commander of Task Group 77.2, was provided with constant updates of the position, course, speed, number, and approximate type of the Japanese formation, while Nishimura spent three and a half hours dodging radar-aimed torpedo attacks. Despite the PT Boats not scoring a single hit, the warning they provided gave Oldendorf time to position his 28 Fletcher-class destroyers to make three hammerhead torpedo attacks on the Japanese force as they fought their way up the strait. Those three attacks sank the battleship Fuso, damaged the battleship Yamashiro, sank half of his four destroyers, and disabled a third.
Gadd’s 131 Boat during an UNREP.
The Second Striking Force, after nearly running aground on Panaon Island, ran head first into a number of PT Boats. PT-137 torpedoed a light cruiser, and as Shima’s force met with the remaining two ships of the Southern Force, he turned and fled, his flagship Nachi ramming the heavy cruiser Mogami.
Perhaps the greatest success of the PT Boat was in the interdiction of troop and supply barges in the Pacific. While the highly lethal combination of fleet submarines, Navy Black Cat Consolidated PBY patrol aircraft, and Marine Corps North American PBJ-1H patrol bombers sank nearly the entirety of Japan’s merchant fleet, the aircraft and submarines could not interdict nighttime interisland transport by barges and landing craft. Despite the isolation of the individual garrisons in the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and New Guinea from the Japanese Home Islands, without the interdiction of interisland transportation any allied attempt at liberation was unlikely to succeed. Aircraft were of limited use because airborne surface-search radar systems of the time were incapable of reliably detecting barges and landing craft close to shore, while destroyers or other blue-water combattants were faced with a high probability of running aground or being heavily damaged by shore batteries.(13)
North American Aviation PBJ-1H, because sometimes your medium bomber needs a 75mm tank gun
(Source: Google Images/Pintrest)
PT Boats were an obvious candidate for interdicting supply barges. They were already equipped with the Raytheon SO radar system and trained to fight close to shore at night, and were expendable; their composite construction allowed for extremely rapid and inexpensive production, and their small crews could be quickly replaced. There were only two problems. First, the minimum depth setting on the Mk.8 and Mk.13 torpedoes they used was ten feet, while the barges drew only five, and second, the barges were more heavily armed than the PT Boats.(14)
Common typed of Imperial Japanese landing barges
(Source: US Navy/ONI 41-42I)
The solution to both problems was a drastic increase in gun armament. Initial experiments in additional armament varied greatly, with crews “finding” and mounting Army and Marine Corps 60mm mortars, 37mm and 40mm antiaircraft guns, and 37mm antitank cannon; Navy 20mm Oerlikion 20mm cannons; and relieving crashed fighter aircraft of their high-fire-rate AN/M2 machine guns and Oldsmobile M4 or M9 37mm autocannons.(15) Boats in the Pacific were more likely to have significant variation in armament between squadrons, while boats in the Atlantic were equipped with more standardized configurations, as they were operating primarily as torpedo boats rather than gunboats.
A typical PT Boat in the Atlantic or Mediterranean would likely be armed with, from bow to stern, one 37mm M4 or M9 autocannon, one 20mm Oerlikon autocannon, two pairs of AN/M2 machine guns in the superstructure, and a 40mm Bofors gun or Elco Thunderbolt quadruple 20mm mount on the stern. (16) (17) In the Pacific, however, squadrons seemed to be in constant competition to determine who could carry the most firepower per ton. Again travelling from bow to stern, a typical Pacific Elco 80-footer would have a 40mm Bofors or 37mm M4/M9 autocannon far forward, a 20mm Oerlikon single mount and an AN/M2 twin mount just aft, two 20mm Oerlikon single mounts and/or two Mk.50 eight-tube five-inch rocket launchers flanking the forward superstructure, two twin AN/M2 mounts and maybe a 60mm mortar on the superstructure, possibly another one or two twin AN/M2 mounts midships, and a 40mm Bofors gun on the stern; that is a total of two 40mm or one 37mm and one 40mm guns, three 20mm autocannon, enough five-inch rockets to provide a reasonable facsimile of a destroyer’s armament, and up to a dozen .50-caliber machine guns, the same amount as a heavy bomber. (18) (19) The Japanese were right to call them “the monster that roars, flaps its wings, and fires torpedoes in all directions.” (20)
PT-617 in Measure 31/20L Camouflage.
The PT Boat demonstrated itself as an extremely effective littoral combatant. They proved, from the first minutes of the Second World War, to be supremely affordable, endlessly adaptable, and murderously effective. They were as capable at night and in foul weather as enemy cruisers, thanks to Raytheon’s miniaturization of radars. They were inexpensive, thanks to advanced wood composite techniques. They were fast, thanks to aeroderivative powerplants. They were the product of a nation that lead the world in combat electronics, composite manufacturing, and engine technology. The United States still leads the world in those areas. The United States Navy still has strategic commitments that draw its surface combatants into the littoral zone, that require adaptable, inexpensive, supremely lethal, and frankly expendable vessels to protect United States interests and allies.
The great success of the PT Boats in the Second World War demonstrated that there is no craft better suited to fighting in the littoral environment than the Fast Attack Craft. There is no nation better suited to building such vessels, nor a nation that has employed them more successfully, than the United States. Now, more than ever, the United States Navy should invest in a force of inexpensive Fast Attack Craft to increase their presence abroad and protect United States interests in the face of growing opposition from regional adversaries in the Persian Gulf, South China Sea, and the Baltic. No other measure would be as cost-effective or, in the worst case, as lethal to an enemy.
PT-150 conducting target practice while turning.
(1) Richard Washichek, “PT Boats, Inc.- The Fate of PT Boats,” PT Boats, Inc.- The Fate of PT Boats, accessed April 05, 2017, http://www.ptboats.org/20-11-05-fate-001.html.
(2) Seidman, David. “Damned by Faint Praise: The Life and Hard Times of Albert Hickman.” WoodenBoat, June 1991, 46-57.
(3) Five 77-foot mahogany composite boats from the Electric Launch Company (Elco), one 81-foot mahogany composite boat from Andrew Higgins’ New Orleans yard, one 81-foot aluminum boat from the Philadelphia Navy Yard, one 72-foot Huckins boat, one 76-foot Higgins boat, an one 70-foot Motor Rescue Boat built to a Royal Navy specification by Higgins
(4) United States of America. Department of the Navy. Board of Inspection and Survey. Report of Comparative Services Tests of Motor Torpedo Boats Held July 21–24, 1941 and August 11–12, 1941 at New London, Connecticut. 1941.
(5) $300,000 (1941), compared to $2.85 million for a Gato-class submarine or $53,000 for an M4 Sherman tank
(6) “Fletcher-class destroyer specifications in World War II.” Fletcher Class. Accessed April 04, 2017. http://destroyerhistory.org/fletcherclass/index.asp?r=0&pid=200.
(7) United States of America. Department of the Navy. Board of Inspection and Survey. Report of Comparative Services Tests of Motor Torpedo Boats Held July 21–24, 1941 and August 11–12, 1941 at New London, Connecticut. 1941.
(8) Bulkley, Robert J. At close quarters: PT boats in the United States Navy. (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1962), 44.
(9) Ibid 26
(10) Richardson, Gerard, USNR-R. USS PT-167. 1966. US Navy History and Heritage Command. Accessed April 5, 2017.https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nhhc-series/nh-series/NH-64000/NH-64787-KN.html.
(11) Japanese heavy cruisers did not receive a surface search radar until 1943-1944, while the Hipper-class heavy cruisers of the Nazi Navy don’t appear to have been equipped with radar at all; the Deutschland and Leipzig-classes were equipped with the Seetakt surface search set in 1941, but the Seetakt was several orders of magnitude larger, had about two-thirds the range, and was extremely fragile compared to the SO.
(12) Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States naval operations in World War II, vol. XII (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956).
(13) Robert J. Bulkley, At close quarters: PT boats in the United States Navy (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1962), 117
(14) Ibid 117
(15) Ibid 132-133
(16) Robert Hurst, “PT-504 during an inspection by King George VI,” digital image, Navsource.org, accessed April 4, 2017, http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/120550402.jpg.
(17) Robert Hurst, 18 January 1944 PT-559 which was one of four PTRon 29 boats to carry the ‘Thunderbolt.’ This photo of her mount shows that the boat was still in Measure 31/5P camouflage Elco photo from “Allied Coastal Forces of World War II: Volume II” by John Lambert & Al Ross, digital image, Navsource.org, accessed April 4, 2017, http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/120555902.jpg.
(18) Robert Hurst, “PT-131 and crewmen preparing for the Battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944,” digital image, Navsource.org, accessed April 4, 2017, http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/120513103.jpg.
(19)”PT-490, PT-495, and PT-491,” digital image, Navsource.org, accessed April 4, 2017, http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/120549006.jpg.
(20) LCDR Russel Hamachek, USN-R, Hot Straight and True”, PT Boat Commanders Anecdotes of WW2 (New York, NY, 1995), 27-28.