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The Truth About Devil Boats

2/8/2011 • MHQ Online Extras

A national hero after rescuing MacArthur from Bataan, John Bulkeley toured the country recruiting for the PT boat fleet. His visit to midshipman's school inspired Kennedy to join (Naval History and Heritage Command).
A national hero after rescuing MacArthur from Bataan, John Bulkeley toured the country recruiting for the PT boat fleet. His visit to midshipman's school inspired Kennedy to join (Naval History and Heritage Command).

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During World War II, adroit navy public relations and obliging media coverage wrapped PT boats in glamour. Initially designed for dangerous nighttime attacks on much larger Japanese warships, the boats came to be seen as intrepid little heroes, America’s Davids taking on Japan’s Goliaths of the sea.

But the performance of the boats didn’t match the hype. The navy command viewed the PT as a stopgap vessel to give the United States badly needed firepower on the water as the country ramped up production of warships, according to Duane Hove’s afterword to the 40th anniversary edition of Robert Donovan’s 1961 PT-109: John F. Kennedy in World War II. To avoid tying up the steel ship construction yards, PTs were prefabricated from spruce, white oak, and mahogany covered with plywood. Initially, the boats were armed with Mark VIII torpedoes, leftovers from World War I that often proved defective. Only one in four boats was equipped with radar—a fact that explains some of the confusion on the night of PT-109’s collision.

PT crews were not typically experienced sailors and received little training specific to their boat.

PT crews were not typically experienced sailors and received little training specific to their boat. “The first time I ever fired a torpedo was at the enemy!” complained one graduate of the two-month PT school in Melville, Rhode Island.

Among Annapolis graduates, the PT squadrons were known as the Hooligan Navy, in part because of their record of mishaps. During the invasion of New Georgia in the Solomons in June 1943, six PT boats mistook the flagship of the commanding American admiral, Richmond Kelly Turner, for an enemy vessel and torpedoed it. (Fortunately there was only a skeleton crew aboard; the ship had been badly damaged by an earlier air assault.) On another occasion, a PT boat was attacked in daylight by a North American B-25, which mistook it for a Japanese barge. The torpedo boat fired back and shot down the bomber, killing three crewmen.

Though few PTs sank major Japanese ships, they enjoyed more success in other operations, including reconnaissance and search and rescue. The boats often harassed and broke up Japanese barge traffic, earning the nickname “devil boats” among the enemy. During the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf, PTs provided vital intelligence on the movement of Japanese warships into Surigao Strait. And PT-137 scored a crippling torpedo hit on the light cruiser Abukuma.

At the close of the war, the PT fleet was dismantled. All but a few boats were destroyed, sold, or given to other countries.

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14 Responses to The Truth About Devil Boats

  1. dennis largess says:

    One story of Pt boats that is often forgotten occurred when Admiral “Ching” Lee took the battleships Washington and South Dakota into Iron Bottom Sound.
    While waiting for the Japanese bombardment force to show up, the PT boats of the Guadalcanal command, spotted Lee’s ships.
    They were expecting the japanese to show up, but had been warned that american big ships might be in the area.
    Not expecting battleships to be sent into the constricted waters, the PT unit commanders figured they were the Tokyo Express and told his boats to prepare to attack.
    Lee and the Washington’s CO had been able to hear the boats’ discussion on their radio.
    Hearing the squadron leader’s decision to attack, Lee got on the talk between ships, his words became something of a legend in the Pacific.
    “Boys, this is Ching-Chong-China Lee. Do you know who I am?”
    The surprised PT boater answered, “Yessir. We know who you are.”
    Seeing the Kirishima’s force on his radar, Lee said, “Then get out of the way and watch the show. We’re coming through.”
    The PT boats obliged by heaving to in shallow water and watched the battle while munching on fruit turnovers.

  2. peter_ga says:

    I believe the PT boats were fairly important in the Papuan campaign because the waters north of Papua were not suitable for large naval vessels, and PT boats could disrupt Japanese barges resupplying their troops.

  3. RangerJ says:

    I have read a fair amount about PT boats, watched a number of documentaries, looked at various websites and come to following conclusion: Effective or not, well trained or hooligans, the officers and sailors who served on PT boats, along with their brothers and sisters in the other branches of the military did their part and more in keeping our country free. I will be eternally thankful for their service.

  4. Russell O. Pick says:

    Havinb served in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945 with seven major
    battles, I saw what those P.T. boats did in the area of “shot gun alley”
    They did one hell of a job.
    The only reason I didnt join the Navy was that the closest land was
    always straight down. Me and the Army kept to the ground, other than
    the times they took us ashore. My Thanks to all fellow vets. I lost a
    Brother in the battle of the Buldge Feb. 25, 1945

  5. Marvin R Morrison says:

    Can anyone confirm a PT sinking in WWII of an IJN warship other than landing barges?
    Seems to me that PT boats couldn’t engage Japanese warships manned by Japanese naval crews successfully.

    Any documented comments to te contary?

    M.R. Morrison
    Denver, Colorado

    • Spiggy says:

      To be fair, fast boats such as PT’s and British MTB’s were often up against it when attacking even armed merchant marine ships, let alone contemporary warships. They often needed either darkness or fog to be able to press home their attacks. Moreover, in the case of USN PT boats, their principal enemy was the Japanese Imperial Navy, which, by any bodies estimation, had to be recognised as skilled, committed and dedicated, allied to which they had been trained by Britains Royal Navy before the war, and coached by the German Kriegsmarine during the war……..and in terms of knowing how to fight a war at sea, it don’t get much better than that ! Do I know what I’m talking about ? Well, you can be the best judge of that, but insofar as my bona fides are concerned. My Old Man commanded both a torpedo boat flotilla in WW2 before being kicked upstairs to be a destroyer Captain.

    • Ed Delker says:

      See Wikipedia for PT-59. There is an entry that says it was confirmed that PT-59 sunk a surfaced submarine I-3 with a torpedo

  6. Spiggy says:

    The USN PT boats in WW2 were a waste of resources, other than, generally speaking, their crews were so undisciplined, untrained and unworthy of being employed in any professional navy. PT109 and it’s God awful commander ( no names no pack drill ! ) were entirely indicative of the quality of this branch of the Navy with that useless S.O.B. being bank rolled by his evil, conniving and utterly corrupt father. With a father like that, his money, and ability to buy whatever he wanted, even Adolf Hitler would have come out of WW2 with a Medal of Honour and a clear run at the Presidency. It you want to learn about seriously skilled and competent fast boat fighting, read any book about Kriegsmarine E. boats or Royal Navy M.T.B.s. – that’ll tell you how it was !

  7. Spiggy says:

    In 1948 my father , having retired from the Royal Navy , was employed by the Higgins Boat Company of New Orleans to design a series of ultra fast planing bottoms for USN torpedo boats. He was astonished at just how old fashioned their designs were, being virtually unable to lift a fast boat up onto the surface of the sea in order to permit fast, economical, smooth and high manoeuvrability cruising. A well designed bottom will lift the bow high and permit the introduction of much highly aereated, foaming water which will then achieve those objectives. This knowledge had long been known to Boeing, who used it on their “Clipper” flying boats, but never disclosed it to anybody else, even during wartime when it would have proved to be highly important.

  8. Spiggy says:

    Correction ( and apologies ). Having checked my fathers book on the subject, I am corrected. Boeing were prepared to provide drawings and blueprints on their planing bottom designs to other American and British fast boat constructors, but only upon receipt of huge licensing and royalty payments. The British didn’t want them ( both Saunders-Roe and Supermarine having had much better designs already since about 1931 ). The Americans lobbied through Congress to make Boeing release them free of charge, but were unsuccessful. I don’t know who the Congressman for Seattle was at that time, but I bet he had a seat on the board of Boeing !

  9. Wayne B says:

    PT boats certainly were not a waste of resources. The job they did as barge-busters would have more than made up for their investment in resources.

  10. Spiggy says:

    Recognition should also be given to the Italian and German torpedo boats. These delivered a lot of bang for the buck too and gave the Royal Navy a hard time both in the Mediterranean and the English Channel.

  11. Wayne B says:

    Absolutely Spiggy!

    It was actually German Schnellboots that fired the first rounds against the Normandy invasion fleet. I can only imagine making that sortie, and coming across the largest invasion fleet in history.

    • Spiggy says:

      The German schnellboots were impressive craft. Although not as fast as British gun and torpedo boats, they were certainly much larger and more heavily armed. Of course the British boats, being faster and smaller, were more nimble and harder to hit !

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