At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy

At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy

by Robert J. Bulkley

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Small though they were, PT boats played a key role in World War II, carrying out an astonishing variety of missions where fast, versatile, and strongly armed vessels were needed. Called "weapons of opportunity," they met the enemy at closer quarters and with greater frequency than any other type of surface craft. Among the most famous PT commanders was John F. Kennedy


Small though they were, PT boats played a key role in World War II, carrying out an astonishing variety of missions where fast, versatile, and strongly armed vessels were needed. Called "weapons of opportunity," they met the enemy at closer quarters and with greater frequency than any other type of surface craft. Among the most famous PT commanders was John F. Kennedy, whose courageous actions in the Pacific are now well known to the American public. The author of the book, another distinguished PT boat commander in the Pacific, compiled this history of PT-boat operations in World War II for the U.S. Navy shortly after V-J Day, when memories were fresh and records easily assessable. The book was first made available to the public in 1962 after Kennedy's inauguration as president of the United States interest in PTs was at a peak.

Bulkley provides a wealth of facts about these motor torpedo boats, whose vast range of operation covered two oceans as well as the Mediterranean and the English Channel. Although their primary mission was to attack surface ships and craft close to shore, they were also used effectively to lay mines and smoke screens, to rescue downed aviators, and to carry out intelligence and raider operations. The author gives special attention to the crews, paying well-deserved tribute to their heroism, skill, and sacrifice that helped to win the war.

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PT Boats in the United States Navy

Naval Institute Press

ISBN: 1591140951

Chapter One

Into Action-Pearl Harbor and the

When Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941 there were three squadrons of PT's in the U.S. Navy. Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 1, commanded by Lt. Comdr. William C. Specht, had 12 boats based at Pearl Harbor, all of which opened fire on the attackers.

Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 2, under Lt. Comdr. Earl S. Caldwell, was in the New York Navy Yard, completing the fitting out of 11 boats which, loaded on the aircraft ferry ships Hammondsport and Kitty Hawk, were to leave New York 10 days later to augment the defenses of the Panama Canal. These boats were not to meet the enemy until nearly a year later, when, with desperate optimism, they were to stand out night after night in the path of the mighty Tokyo Express at Guadalcanal.

Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3, six boats commanded by Lt. John D. Bulkeley, had arrived in Manila Bay on September 28. During the 4 dark months of the hopeless defense of the Philippines, the officers and men of Squadron 3 carried the fight to the enemy with determination and shining courage until the boats could fight no more.

Until war came, PT's in the U.S. Navy were an untried type. They had never met the test of action, and no standard doctrine for their employment had been established. But by the end of January, 1942, Rear Adm. Francis W. Rockwell, Commandant of the 16th Naval District, was able to write from Corregidor, "These boats are proving their worth in operations here, having sunk two ships of three to five thousand tons and three landing boats."

These boats did prove their worth: the Navy built more of them. On December 7, 1941, there were 29 PT's; on December 7, 1943, there were more than 29 squadrons. PT's met the Tokyo Express at Guadalcanal. They cut enemy barge supply lines in the upper Solomons and along the New Guinea coast. They torpedoed German cargo lighters in the Mediterranean, and overcame E-boats in gunnery duels in the English Channel. They contributed to the rout of Japanese task forces in the Battle of Surigao Strait, and successfully countered vicious Kamikaze attacks at Mindoro. Under cover of darkness they freely landed agents, scouts, and reconnaissance parties throughout the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Philippines, and on the coasts of France and Italy. PT's were in more frequent contact with the enemy, and at closer range, than any other type of surface craft. They specialized in close-range, close-to-shore attack, and everywhere demonstrated that they could hurt the enemy with proportionately small damage to themselves.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, six PT's, the 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, and 25, were moored at the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base in three nests of two boats each, alongside and ahead of the YR-20, a covered barge which served, for lack of anything better, as tender for Squadron 1. Aboard the barge the boat crews were eating breakfast. The Squadron Duty Officer, Ens. N. E. Ball, USNR, was standing on the edge of the barge. Looking out across Kuahua Island, he saw planes in the sky, and watched them idly for a moment as they started to dive toward Battleship Row and Ford Island just beyond. Then four things happened, almost simultaneously. Ensign Ball recognized Japanese insignia on the wingtips; a chief petty officer at his elbow remarked, "They look like Japs"; the first bomb dropped, and Ensign Ball plunged into the messhall, shouting, "Man the Guns!"

PT's in those days were lightly gunned-two pairs of .50-caliber machineguns mounted in power-driven turrets, but in a matter of seconds all were firing. Joy Van Zyll de Jong, GMic, and George B. Huffman, TMic, who had been sitting on the deck of PT 23, got a slight head start on the men from the messhall. They vaulted into the 23 boat's turrets and claimed first blood with hits on a low-flying plane carrying one torpedo, which crashed in flames near Kuahua Island. They also hit a torpedo plane flying over Magazine Point. It burst into flames and fell near Halawa, behind the Submarine Base.

Across Southeast Loch from the Submarine Base, about halfway to Ford Island, the other six boats of the squadron were being loaded aboard the USS Ramapo, an oiler, for shipment to the Philippines. PT's 27, 29, 30, and 42 were in cradles resting on the Ramapo's deck. PT's 26 and 28 were in cradles on the dock beneath the huge hammerhead crane which had been about to hoist them aboard the oiler. To reduce fire hazard during shipment, the gasoline tanks of all six PT's had been blanketed with carbon dioxide. Consequently the crews could not start the gasoline engines to compress the air which in turn forced oil through cylinders to move the power turrets. The boat crews quickly cut the hydraulic lines, freeing the turrets from the brake of residual hydraulic pressure. Then each pair of .50-caliber machineguns went into action with a four-man crew: one man to fire the guns, two men to slew the turrets around by hand, and an officer to direct and coordinate the slewing and firing. The Ramapo's guns were firing, too. Though her starboard 3-inch guns were blanked off by the hammerhead crane on the dock, they managed to fire from time to time, to the acute discomfort of the crews of the PT's in cradles on the dock, whose decks were just high enough to catch the muzzle blast. One bomb struck near the port bow of the Ramapo, midway between the repair ship Rigel in the berth ahead and the heavy cruiser New Orleans opposite. The PT's, undamaged, poured out more than 4,000 rounds of .50 caliber. They appeared to be hitting Japanese planes, but so many ships were firing simultaneously that it would be futile to attempt to make specific claims.

The Ramapo was to have carried those six boats to Manila Bay, to be transferred to Squadron 3. But the Japanese descended so swiftly on the Philippines and with such concentrated force that shipping anything into Manila Bay was out of the question. The boats were put back into the water at Pearl Harbor, leaving Squadron 3 to do the best it could with its six boats, PT's 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, and 41.

The PT's of Squadron 3, based at the Cavite Navy Yard, went into action on December 10, when the Japanese made their first heavy air attack in the Manila Bay area. The air raid warning system was working well that day, giving the boats plenty of time to get underway into Manila Bay, where they could maneuver freely. The first planes started bombing Nichols Field at 1247. A few minutes later a wave of some 35 started to work over shipping in Manila Bay. It was high-level bombing, 20,000 feet, well beyond the range of the PT's .50-caliber machineguns and the pair of .30-caliber Lewis guns which the Squadron 3 boats had installed in single mounts on the forward deck. Then five bombers peeled off deliberately and started to dive on the PT's. Theoretically, it was possible for a PT to wait until a diving plane reached its release point, and then, by putting the wheel hard over, to avoid the bomb. The boats proved the theory-not a bomb came close. Besides, PT 31 claimed to have shot down two planes and PT 35 one.

The first bomb fell on the Navy Yard at 1314. For more than an hour thereafter, 3 waves of 27 bombers each swept over, out of antiaircraft range, dropping their explosives at will. Practically every bomb fell within the Navy Yard limits, with direct hits on the powerplant, dispensary, torpedo repair shop, supply office, warehouse, signal station, commissary store, barracks, officers' quarters, and several ships, tugs, and barges along the waterfront. The entire yard and one-third of the city of Cavite were ablaze.

PT's could outmaneuver the planes; their spares and equipment could not. The only spares saved were nine engines which John Bulkeley had had the foresight to store in private garages in Manila. Of these, three were lost on January 2 when Manila was invaded. Of the other six, subsequently lightered to Corregidor, two were lost on January 9 when the Corregidor North Dock was bombed. The last four had to be left on Corregidor when the squadron departed in March. Nearly as serious as the loss of spares was the loss of thousands of drums of 100-octane gasoline.

The destruction of the Navy Yard was so complete that all remaining facilities had to be set up in new locations, well dispersed in anticipation of future air raids. Squadron 3 moved to Sisiman Bay, a little cove just east of Mariveles Harbor on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula, but not until after the boats had done yeoman service on the afternoon of December 10 transporting wounded from the Navy Yard to the hospital at Cañacao.

The first few weeks at Sisiman Bay were discouraging. The squadron took over a small fishing dock and a few native nipa huts ashore. Each morning John Bulkeley visited headquarters to receive orders for the night's operations. The boats made routine, nonproductive patrols of the Bataan coast north of Manila Bay, and along the Batangas Peninsula to the south, as far as Verde Island. Doctrine demanded that PT's patrol in two- or three-boat sections, so that if one boat should find itself in trouble, there would be another at hand to give assistance. But because there were so few boats, so few spares, so little gasoline, prudence had to make concessions. Seldom could more than one PT be spared for a patrol. Often one PT was accompanied by a YP, a small patrol vessel, either the Maryanne, the Perry, or the Fisheries II, or, until they departed from the area, one of two four-stack destroyers, the Pillsbury and the Peary. As the Japanese closed their net, nerves became tense and there were false reports of sightings along the Bataan coast. Many fruitless PT searches resulted.

PT's required constant maintenance. The only repair facilities available were the old submarine tender Canopus, anchored at Mariveles, which turned out miracles of improvisation for the boats, and the drydock Dewey which lifted each boat in turn. PT 32 had an accidental explosion in the engine-room. She was out of action for weeks.

During December most of the Asiatic Fleet moved south. The Japanese had command of the air and bombed Manila at will. Rear Admiral Rockwell moved his headquarters to Corregidor on December 21. Three days later he had a final conference with Adm. Thomas C. Hart, Commander in Chief Asiatic Fleet, at Admiral Hart's headquarters in the Marsman Building in Manila. During the conference the Marsman Building was bombed three times. Admiral Rockwell learned that Admiral Hart was moving south to be with the operating fleet, leaving Admiral Rockwell in command of all naval forces in the Manila area. On his return to Corregidor that evening, Admiral Rockwell found that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President Manuel Quezon, and Francis B. Sayre, American High Commissioner to the Philippines, had also moved to the Rock.

On Christmas night Admiral Hart departed on the submarine Shark. Manila was about to be declared an open city, so Admiral Rockwell sent his aide, Lt. (jg.) M. M. Champlin, USNR, to arrange for destruction of gasoline and oil stores in the city. Lieutenant Champlin accomplished this with the help of oil company executives in Manila.

On December 26 Admiral Rockwell reported to General MacArthur for duty. During the day Japanese planes made determined efforts to sink gunboats, PT's, and especially the destroyers Pillsbury and Peary. Unwilling to risk the destroyers further, Admiral Rockwell ordered them south on the 27th. On December 28, the day Manila was declared an open city, Admiral Rockwell decided in conference with Capt. John Wilkes, Commander Submarines Asiatic Fleet, that "due to the increasing danger and difficulty of service in Mariveles, shortage and limitation of fuel and total lack of rest for personnel between patrols, as well as the likelihood of the Japanese blocking Manila Bay entrance," the basing of submarines in the area was no longer practicable. Captain Wilkes, his staff, and his submarines departed at the end of December, leaving behind the tender Canopus and the submarine rescue vessel Pigeon to serve as advance operating facilities for such submarines as might come into the Manila area.

Admiral Rockwell's forces, then, consisted of Canopus and Pigeon; three small, shallow-draft gunboats originally built to patrol Chinese rivers: Mindanao, Luzon, and Oahu; three old minesweepers: Quail, Finch, and Tanager; five tugs: Genesee, Vaga, Napa, Trabajador, and Ranger; three small patrol vessels: Maryanne, Perry, and Fisheries II; and the PT's of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3.

On December 22 a convoy with 76 Japanese transports began to unload in Lingayen Gulf, about a hundred miles away.

The U.S. Army completed its withdrawal into Bataan Peninsula on December 31. On January 2 the Japanese Army entered Manila.


On the night of December 17 there was a large explosion in Sisiman Cove. Looking out across the entrance to Manila Bay, the men of Squadron 3 could see many flashing lights on the water. Lieutenant Bulkeley immediately got PT's 32, 34, and 35 underway. At the edge of the minefield at the entrance of the bay they found the water thick with oil and dotted with survivors of the SS Corregidor, a Filipino ship carrying evacuees from Manila to Australia. Leaving the harbor on a faulty course, the Corregidor had struck a mine and gone down almost immediately.

The PT crews rigged ladders and lines over the side, and worked until they were exhausted hauling the wet and oily passengers aboard. Not until they put the survivors ashore at Corregidor and aboard the SS Si-Kiang at Mariveles were they able to count them. When they did, they could scarcely believe the total. The three boats had picked up 296 passengers, of whom all but 7 survived. PT 32, a 77-foot boat designed to carry 2 officers and 9 men, had taken aboard, in addition to its own crew, 196 passengers from the Corregidor.


PT 33, patrolling south of Manila Bay with the Pillsbury on the night of December 24, went hard aground on a coral reef 5 miles north of Cape Santiago. On Christmas Day, PT's 31 and 41 made three attempts to pull the 33 boat off the reef, but could not move her.


Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Robert J. Bulkley, a retired USNR captain now deceased, commanded PT boats in the southwest Pacific, mostly in New Guinea and the Philippines, from June 1942 to war's end.

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