Then, all hell suddenly broke loose as waves of Japanese planes swept in from a cloudless sky to attack the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers moored around Ford Island and in the Southeast Loch. Pearl Harbor was soon an inferno of bomb explosions, flames, and billowing smoke, and an unready America was thrust into World War II.
A short distance from Battleship Row, six craft of Lieutenant Commander William C. Specht’s Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (MTB Ron) 1 were moored at the Pearl Harbor submarine base. Ensign N. E. Ball, the duty officer, was gazing idly at the circling planes when he spotted the red rising-sun “meatball” insignia on their wings. “They look like Japs!” exclaimed a petty officer. Ball dashed into the nearby mess hall, where some crewmen were eating a leisurely breakfast. “We’re under attack!” he shouted. “Man the guns!”
The sailors sat in stunned silence for a few seconds, and then raced to their machine guns. Two of Specht’s men were already in action. Gunner’s Mate Joy van Zyll de Jong and Torpedoman’s Mate George B. Huffman, who had been lounging on the deck of PT-23, scrambled into their .50-caliber machine-gun turrets and blasted away. They scored hits on a low-flying torpedo plane, which crashed in flames, and on another “Kate,” which went down behind the submarine base. Van Zyll de Jong and Huffman may have been the first American gunners to draw blood in World War II.
Across the Southeast Loch, the other six PT boats of MTB Ron 1 were being loaded aboard the USS Ramapo (AO-12) for shipment to the Philippines. Their crews also sped into action and threw more than 4,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition at Japanese planes. All of the Squadron 1 gunners fired on the attackers, claiming the two torpedo-plane kills and possible damage to others.
The war came early for the men of the U.S. Navy’s patrol torpedo-boat squadrons, who would gain distinction for their dash and intrepidity, often against great odds, in several theaters—from Subic Bay to Guadalcanal, from Bougainville to the Aleutians, from Bizerte to Anzio, and from Cannes to Normandy. PT-boat officers and enlisted men garnered a Medal of Honor, 22 Navy Crosses, 3 Distinguished Service Crosses, a Distinguished Service Medal, and numerous Silver Stars. President John F. Kennedy, who in 1943 had commanded the ill-fated PT-109 in the Solomon Islands as a scrawny 25-year-old lieutenant, said: “PT boats were an embodiment of John Paul Jones’ words: ‘I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.’ . . . PT boats filled an important need in World War II in shallow waters, complementing the achievements of greater ships in greater seas.”
The forerunner of the U.S. Navy’s World War II “sentries” was a flimsy torpedo boat commanded by 21-year-old Union Lieutenant William B. Cushing, who sank the Confederate ironclad Albemarle with a spar torpedo in the Roanoke River near Plymouth, North Carolina, on 27 October 1864 (see “Firebrand of the Union Navy,” October 2013, pp. 30–38). But the Navy later came to regard such craft as irrelevant, and the PT boats of World War II owed their origin to British and Italian designers.
British shipbuilder Alfred Yarrow launched an experimental 15-foot torpedo boat powered by an Italian Napier steam engine in 1905. Another British builder, John I. Thornycroft, then produced a 40-foot boat, and their lead was soon followed in other countries. The Italians developed a motor torpedo boat in 1906, and the French built a steel-hulled, eight-ton boat the following year.
The United States entered the field in 1908 when Lewis Nixon built and sold to Russia 10 MTBs. The Navy proposed that such craft be used for coastal defense, but no action was taken. The service showed little interest in the boats during World War I, and Britain and Italy led the field in MTB development. The Italians made several successful raids against Austrian shipping in the Adriatic, including the sinking of the light cruiser Wien in December 1917, and Thornycroft built 40- and 55-foot coastal motor boats for the Admiralty. By November 1918, the Royal Navy had commissioned 66 CMBs.
During the 1920s, the U.S. Navy acquired and experimented with Thornycroft CMBs, while rumrunners used other such craft, powered by Liberty engines, along the East Coast during Prohibition. Eventually, in 1934, British builder Hubert Scott-Paine made a lasting imprint on American PT-boat design by completing plans for a 60-foot MTB. The Admiralty purchased six, which were delivered in 1936. Scott-Paine and the British Vosper company built bigger boats. The Vosper 70-footer would become the standard craft for Royal Navy coastal units during World War II, being used extensively to repel German E-boats, sink ships, ferry Commandos and Allied agents across the English Channel, and conduct air-sea rescue operations. MTBs also saw action in the Mediterranean, Pacific, and East Indies.
The Navy’s First PTs
Moves toward developing a serviceable American motor torpedo boat received a needed boost in 1937 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the appropriation of a modest $15 million for development. The Navy invited designers to submit plans for 70- and 54-foot craft in July 1938, and contracts were let to Higgins Industries, Fogal Boatyard (Miami Shipbuilding), and Fisher Boat Works to build two PT boats each. The Philadelphia Boat Yard also was authorized to begin work on two 81-foot craft.
Meanwhile Henry R. Sutphen, executive vice president of Electric Boat, conferred with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison about purchasing a 70-foot British MTB designed by Scott-Paine. After Rear Admiral Thomas C. Hart, chairman of the Navy’s General Board, endorsed the plan, Sutphen and Irwin Chase, chief designer at Electric Boat’s Elco Naval Division, sailed for England. There they inspected Thornycroft and Vosper boats, but were impressed with the speed and maneuverability of Scott-Paine’s craft. The Navy signed a purchase contract on 1 June 1939, and the boat—designated PT-9—was unloaded from the freighter SS President Roosevelt in New York on 5 September, two days after the start of World War II.
On 7 December 1939, Elco was contracted by the Navy to produce 11 boats based on the Scott-Paine craft (PT-10 through -20) as well as 12 sonar-equipped subchaser versions of the craft (PTC-1 through -12). But progress was slow and methodical, and it was not until June 1940 that the first operational PT boat was delivered to the Navy. During the following year, design modifications were made, and the Navy eventually settled on two standard types—a 35-ton, 78-foot Higgins boat and a 38-ton, 80-foot Elco craft.
Constructed of mahogany, plywood, and much glue, and lacking armor, each boat had a 12-to-17–man crew and three 12-cylinder, 1,350-horsepower Packard engines. Maximum speed was 40 knots. Highly maneuverable, a standard PT boat had a cruising range of about 500 miles and was armed with four .50-caliber machine guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes. The craft was designed for hit-and-run tactics in shallow waters—racing in close to an enemy ship, loosing her torpedoes, and then withdrawing at full throttle while zigzagging to dodge return fire.
Squadrons were formed, crews trained, and shakedown cruises made up and down the East Coast and in the Gulf of Panama. Apart from a small hard core of Navy regulars, the skippers—all volunteers—were bright young college graduates chosen for their courage, resourcefulness, and endurance.
Early Action in the Philippines
In the summer of 1941, New York–born Lieutenant John D. “Buck” Bulkeley, who would emerge as the most celebrated PT-boat skipper of World War II, was given command of the newly commissioned MTB Ron 3. Promising action in “an exciting, secret place,” the 1933 Annapolis graduate mustered volunteers from his old motorboat submarine chasers and set off for the Philippines with six brand-new PT-boats lashed to the deck of the fleet oiler Guadalupe (AO-32). On the way, Bulkeley briefed his crews on makeshift tactics.
The squadron reached Manila on 28 September and settled into its new home at the Cavite Navy Yard, eight miles southeast of Manila. Just over two months later, as it did for MTB Ron 1 at Pearl Harbor, war came from the sky for Squadron 3. Bulkeley had to do the best he could with only six boats; the other six destined for him were left at Pearl Harbor.
Early on the afternoon of 10 December, three waves of Japanese dive bombers blasted Cavite, destroying the Navy yard and burning a third of the city. But air-raid sirens had alerted Bulkeley, giving his boats time to head out and maneuver freely in Manila Bay. The craft weaved and dodged as Japanese dive bombers pounced, and no bombs came close. Hammering away with .30-caliber Lewis guns and .50-caliber machine guns, the crews of PT-31 and PT-35 claimed three planes downed. Later that same afternoon, MTB Ron 3 ferried wounded from the Navy Yard to Canacao.
With Cavite reduced to rubble, the squadron moved to secluded Sisiman Cove on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula, where Bulkeley set up a makeshift base. His boats had little respite and soon were plagued by shortages of gasoline, engines, spare parts, torpedoes, and food, but they nevertheless made routine nightly patrols of the Bataan shore and the sea approaches to Manila Bay, and carried passengers and dispatches between Manila and Corregidor, and Bataan and Corregidor. On the night of 17 December, three MTB Ron 3 boats sped out on a rescue mission when the SS Corregidor, a Filipino ship carrying evacuees to Australia, was sunk by a mine in Manila Bay. Incredibly, the crews of PT-32, -34, and -35 picked up 296 survivors.
Fighting a delaying action in Philippine waters for four grueling months, Bulkeley’s boyish but stout crews continued their night patrols and launched attacks—sometimes with no result—on Japanese gun positions and shipping, including transports, destroyers, a light cruiser, a tanker, and a minelayer. Bulkeley kept his squadron operating with determination and ingenuity while conditions worsened. It was a losing battle, as American and Filipino troops retreated and the Japanese tightened their grip on the islands, but Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, the area naval chief, reported to the commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, “These boats are proving their worth in operations here, having sunk two ships of 3,000 to 5,000 tons and three landing boats.”
Dash to Mindanao
Squadron 3 was down to four battered boats by the time John Bulkeley was given the most challenging assignment of his career. On 10 March 1942, Rockwell gave him orders to ferry General Douglas MacArthur from doomed Corregidor to Mindanao, along with his wife, Jean; four-year-old son, Arthur; Major General Richard K. Sutherland, his chief of staff; and key personnel—a total of 16 passengers. MacArthur had been ordered by President Roosevelt to head for Australia and plan an Allied offensive in the Southwest Pacific.
Just before 1900 on the evening of 11 March at Corregidor’s shell-torn North Dock, an ashen MacArthur raised his gold-braided cap in farewell to a knot of officers and men on the pier, climbed aboard Bulkeley’s PT-41, and said, “You may cast off when ready, Johnny.” The boat linked up with PT-32, -34, and -35 outside the Corregidor minefield, and the craft headed out in single file on their long, perilous voyage. With PT-41 in the lead, the boats steered southeastward for 560 miles through enemy-controlled waters and storms through the Mindoro Strait, west of Panay and Negros islands, and eastward into the Mindanao Sea. They eluded enemy ships, planes, coastal watchers, reefs, and other navigational obstacles.
During the tense 35-hour voyage, the boats labored with engine troubles and fell behind schedule. PT-32 broke down, and PT-35 went missing for a time, but PT-41 and PT-34 struggled on, skirting around a Japanese cruiser. Shortly after dawn on 13 March, Bulkeley made landfall at Cagayan on the northern coast of Mindanao. Stepping off PT-41, MacArthur told the weary, unshaven Bulkeley, “You’ve taken me out of the jaws of death, and I won’t forget it.” He promised to recommend him and his men for the Silver Star. Three days later, the general took off in a B-17 bomber from the nearby Del Monte pineapple factory airfield.
MTB Ron 3 operated in Philippine waters until April, when Bulkeley and other skippers were ordered back to the United States to form new PT-boat squadrons for service in the South Pacific. During the stern early months of 1942, when American fortunes were at a low ebb, the PT crews’ gallant service gripped the public imagination. Although many of their David-and-Goliath missions against Japanese cruisers and invasion fleets had proved futile, the PT sailors provided a much-needed boost to American morale after the Pearl Harbor disaster. Bulkeley became a national hero overnight and acquired the nickname “Sea Wolf.” He was featured on newspaper front pages and in newsreels, was cheered by thousands at three New York–area parades, and received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt in the Oval Office on 4 August 1942.
War correspondent William L. White rushed into print a book, They Were Expendable, which dramatized the PT boats’ role in the forlorn defense of the Philippines. Published in 1943, it became a runaway best seller. Hollywood’s John Ford was enamored of Bulkeley and “that wonderful group of boys,” and eventually directed a rousing, poetic film based on White’s book. Starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed, They Were Expendable was released in 1945.
Promoted to lieutenant commander, Bulkeley took part in the invasion of the Trobriand Islands in the Solomon Sea in July 1943. He later saw action in the English Channel and Mediterranean Sea and became one of the war’s most highly decorated naval combat leaders. Besides the Medal of Honor, he received the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with oak-leaf cluster, a Purple Heart, and the Croix de Guerre.
Later Pacific Service
More PT squadrons were formed, meanwhile, and increasing numbers of boat variants were pressed into service. The “Mosquito Fleet” in the Pacific theater soon proved its worth. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, there were 29 operational PT boats; by 7 December 1943, there were more than 29 PT squadrons. They saw plenty of action in the South Pacific. Nicknamed “Devil Boats” or “Green Dragons” by the Japanese, they prowled the lower Solomon Islands during the 1942–43 Guadalcanal campaign, sinking two enemy destroyers and damaging two others. They hunted and destroyed a number of supply and troop barges there and at Rendova and Vella Lavella, and helped to derail the “Tokyo Express,” the enemy’s nocturnal resupply and reinforcement missions.
The PTs cut enemy barge supply lines in the upper Solomons and off New Guinea and under cover of darkness landed agents, scouts, and reconnaissance squads on Solomon, New Guinea, and Philippine shores. They supported the American landings at New Georgia, the Treasury Islands, Bougainville, New Britain, and New Ireland, and two squadrons strafed enemy-held beaches to support U.S. and Canadian forces in the bleak Aleutian Islands.
Specializing in close-range offshore attacks, the boats were in more frequent contact with the enemy than any other type of surface craft during the war. The PTs saw service in all subsequent coastal actions in the Pacific including the massive Allied invasion of Leyte on 20 October 1944, in which more of them—five squadrons—took part than in any other operation. When General MacArthur returned triumphantly to liberate the Philippines that month, he rode ashore in PT-525.
Besides hunting enemy vessels, performing escort duties, strafing shore installations, and providing antiaircraft cover for landing craft, the boats performed numerous humanitarian acts. They rescued survivors of sinkings and downed fliers, ferried American and Australian troops, and in September 1945 evacuated hundreds of refugees and Allied prisoners from liberated Borneo. By mid-August 1945, on the eve of the Japanese surrender, 30 PT squadrons were in commission. Nineteen were in the 7th Fleet, six in the Pacific Fleet, and three were being reconditioned in the United States.
The gallant PT crews never shrank from going in harm’s way, but some of their claims of success against enemy vessels were found to be exaggerated. Their vintage 21-inch Mark 8 torpedoes were too slow, had too small a warhead, and ran erratically. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison later labeled the PT “useless” as a torpedo boat, and called its attacks “futile” and “suicidal.” But he praised the craft highly as a gunboat.
Nevertheless, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King lauded the PT boats’ “admirable service” in harassing enemy reinforcements in New Guinea, while Admiral William D. Leahy, a former CNO, called the sleek, deadly craft “excellent substitutes for destroyers.” Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, believed that the boats and their crews “turned in a highly creditable performance” during the war. Of the 39 PTs that participated in the 24–25 October 1944 Battle of Surigao Strait, he said:
The skill, determination, and courage displayed by the personnel of these small boats is worthy of the highest praise. Their contact reports, as well as the firing and illumination they drew from the enemy, gave ample warning to our own main body; and while the issue of the later main engagement was never in doubt, the PTs’ action very probably threw the Japanese command off-balance and contributed to the completeness of their subsequent defeat.
Off Europe’s Shores
Between the completion of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and the July 1943 landings in Sicily, MTB Ron 15 was the sole U.S. naval unit engaged in hostilities in the Mediterranean. The big squadron’s 18 boats (PT-201 through -218) patrolled with Royal Navy MTBs, torpedoed German cargo lighters, and strafed and burned E-boats. Along with the MTBs, the PTs supported British and Free French landings in Sardinia, Corsica, and Elba, and were in action off Oran and Bizerte and at the invasions of Sicily, Palermo, Pantelleria, and Anzio.
They patrolled the coastlines of Italy, and during the costly British-American invasion of Salerno in early September 1943, PT boats laid smoke screens to shield ships and landing craft, fired on enemy shore batteries, and downed German planes. From November 1943 to late April 1944, despite stormy weather, joint British-American patrols engaged enemy convoys 14 times in the Mediterranean. They sank 15 lighters, two E-boats, a tug, and an oil barge, and damaged a destroyer, three lighters, a trawler, and an E-boat.
Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons 22 and 29 joined MTB Ron 15 in the spring of 1944. By war’s end, the American units’ boats had fired 354 torpedoes and claimed to have sunk 38 vessels totaling 23,700 tons. Four PTs were lost, and five officers and 19 men were killed in action.
As the time neared for Operation Neptune, the naval phase of the Allied invasion of Normandy, planners voiced fears about the heavily armed E-boats that prowled the English Channel almost nightly. British MTBs and motor gunboats claimed to have sunk or probably sunk 269 enemy vessels since the summer of 1940, but in the early hours of 28 April 1944, six weeks before D-Day, nine E-boats sped in and wreaked havoc on a U.S. Army landing exercise off Slapton Sands, Devon, resulting in a death toll of 749. So, Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk, commander of the invasion’s Western Naval Task Force, pressed for PT boats to help counter the E-boat threat and to escort minesweepers. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, asked for Lieutenant Commander Bulkeley’s services.
MTB Ron 2, with Bulkeley in command, had arrived in England in late April, and its three boats were quickly put to use landing Office of Strategic Services agents in, and picking them up from, France. The 12 boats of Squadron 34 arrived in May, and on the 21st, Bulkeley took command of the invasion’s PT-boat operations. Late that month, the lieutenant commander was a guest at a London dinner, where he met King George VI and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and invited them to tour his flag boat, PT-504. The two dignitaries took him up on the offer, stepping aboard the craft while touring Neptune ships at Portland Harbor days before the invasion. During the brief visit, Churchill badgered Bulkeley for details of his Mindanao dash. The prime minister and king later took a PT-boat tour of the harbor, during which the monarch complimented the boat’s cook on his “most excellent coffee.”
When the Allied armada set off across the English Channel for Normandy, the PT boats were leading the way, screening the minesweepers. “For 30 hours, we spearheaded the invasion,” recalled Bulkeley. Allied troops began splashing ashore early on the gray morning of Tuesday, 6 June. While MTB Ron 2’s three PTs served as dispatch boats for flagships, MTB Ron 34 screened the western-most landing beach, Utah, from possible attack by E-boats sortieing from Cherbourg, as well as helped rescue survivors from the destroyer Corry (DD-463), which struck a mine and sank. PT Squadrons 35 and 30 joined the picket line on 7 and 8 June.
During the subsequent days and weeks, Bulkeley’s boats won gunnery duels with E-boats, detonated floating mines, rescued more survivors of mined ships, extinguished German float flares, and dashed into Cherbourg Harbor to determine if any enemy guns were still active. The PTs continued patrols along the French coast, disrupted enemy shipping between the Channel Islands, and took a beating on 19–22 June during the worst English Channel storm in 40 years.
Several of the boats were also used to transport high-ranking Allied officers and officials for inspection tours of the five landing beaches. Naval Reserve Lieutenant William M. Snelling, the skipper of PT-71, claimed the record for carrying the most gold braid. His passengers on 12 June were Admirals King, Kirk, Harold R. Stark, Don P. Moon, and John Wilkes and Generals Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Omar N. Bradley, and Courtney H. Hodges.
More than 500 PT boats were built in American yards during the war. With the exception of 36 that were loaned to Britain and the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program, all served for varying lengths of time under U.S. colors. About 350 PTs served in the Pacific theater, 42 in the Mediterranean, and 33 in the English Channel.
The Navy conceived and built the PT as a torpedo boat, yet this function was never fully achieved as the war progressed. The Royal Navy’s experience with its MTBs was similar. Despite their other valuable functions, the 464 PT boats serving with the U.S. Navy in 1942–45 fired only about 700 torpedoes. The majority of PTs, in fact, each fired less than two torpedoes.
Yet, as her torpedo function waned during the war, the PT boat was called upon to fulfill a host of vital roles in the three major theaters. Her sleek hull and engine power provided the Allies with a ready shallow-draft gun platform—fast, seaworthy, and highly maneuverable—for harassing enemy coastal traffic, shore installations, and small craft, rather than attempting virtually suicidal forays against capital ships. The PT boat became strictly a gunboat, and, as such, distinguished herself as a highly versatile combat vessel.
William B. Breuer, Devil Boats: The PT War Against Japan (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1987).
William B. Breuer, Sea Wolf: The Daring Exploits of Navy Legend John D. Bulkeley (Novato, CA: Presidio; 1989).
Robert J. Bulkley Jr., At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 2003).
Norman Friedman, U.S. Small Combatants: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987).
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963).
“Narrative by Lieutenant Commander John D. Bulkeley,” interview by Charles Collingwood, CBS, 3 July 1944, www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/logs/PT/pt517-Bulkeley.html.
Curtis L. Nelson, Hunters in the Shallows: A History of the PT Boat (Herndon, VA: Brassey’s, 1998).
John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945 (New York: Random House, 1970).