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Hunters in the Shallows

by Curtis L. Nelson, Batsford Brassey, Washington, D.C., 1998, $28.95.

It was March 11, 1942, and American fortunes were at a low ebb in the beleaguered Philippine Islands. A pall of death shrouded the battered fortress of Corregidor. The stench of destruction was in the air, and defeat at the hands of the Japanese seemed close and inevitable. At the island’s north dock, a small group of passengers clambered aboard a U.S. Navy PT-boat. Its engines were idling, and 50-gallon drums of extra gasoline were lashed to its deck.

One passenger still remained on the darkened jetty, a tall, handsome officer in a gold-braided cap. Although he looked gaunt and dejected, General Douglas MacArthur raised his cap with a characteristic flourish in a farewell salute to his doomed island command. Then he stepped aboard the PT-boat and said to its skipper, Lt. j.g. John D. “Buck” Bulkeley, “You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready.” The boat slipped its moorings and joined the three remaining craft of MTB (motor torpedo boat) Squadron 3 in the blackness of Manila Bay. They had just one chance to run the Japanese gantlet.

What happened during the next 36 hours became a U.S. Navy legend. Bulkeley’s little flotilla managed to breach the enemy blockade and covered the 560 miles southward to the island of Mindanao, delivering MacArthur, his family and his aides. They were subsequently flown to Australia. Acting on orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, MacArthur went on to set up the Southwest Pacific Area Command. Bulkeley’s bold feat made him a national hero and thrust the Navy’s PT-boats into the headlines.

Although they measured only 77 feet in length and were constructed of little more than mahogany, plywood and a lot of glue, the PT-boats harassed Japanese ships in the Philippines with a David-versus-Goliath determination that caught the American imagination. Their doctrine consisted simply of “sneakin’ in, hittin’ hard, and runnin’ like hell.” The popularity of MacArthur, who in the mid-1930s had called for a fleet of PT-boats to help defend the Philippines, added to the boats’ luster. His rescue was the first good news to come out of the Pacific theater since the Pearl Harbor attack.

Newspaper stories were quickly followed by a runaway best-selling book about the gallant little boats, They Were Expendable, by war correspondent W.L. White. Based on interviews with Bulkeley and three of his officers, the book overdramatized MTB Squadron 3’s feats of derring-do in the futile defense of the Philippines. The rousing, action-packed 1945 film version, directed by John Ford and starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne and Donna Reed, would further invest the PT-boats with a romantic, heroic aura that endures even today.

PT-boats flourished during World War II, writes Curtis Nelson in this lively, informative history, but their limited role hardly justified the myths. They were generally not an integral part of the war-winning blue-water fleet, he says, and in their ancillary role they did not contribute decisively toward victory. The first operational boat, PT-9, joined the Pacific Fleet in June 1940. By December 7, 1941, 18 of the brand-new craft found themselves in the combat zone. A dozen of them were at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day, six of which were awaiting shipment to join Bulkeley’s six boats in the Philippines. There, poor maintenance facilities, bad gasoline and lack of air support hampered the boats’ effectiveness. Nevertheless, their crews fought back against the Japanese steamroller as best they could before all were destroyed.

The PT-boat, which has been memorably described as a “barnacle-encrusted plywood motorboat hardly bigger than a stockbroker’s cabin cruiser,” was unarmored and equipped with little more than light infantry weapons, mainly .50-caliber machine guns. A single luckily placed rifle bullet could shut down a PT-boat’s formidable engine array, says Nelson, rendering the craft all but defenseless, while a well-placed bomb or shell could reduce it to matchwood in an instant. Because they were vulnerable to air attack, the boats rarely ventured out in daytime. They were, in effect, nocturnal hunters, prowling the coasts of the Philippines, the Solomons and New Guinea to confront Japanese destroyers and troop transports. But, as is pointed out in Hunters in the Shallows, one false move or sheer bad luck could turn them into the hunted instead. There was little room for error on a PT-boat.

Nelson quotes naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison as saying that the PT-boats proved themselves “useless” as torpedo boats because of their dismal “box score” of ships confirmed sunk or damaged. More than 500 boats were built in American yards during the entire conflict. The overwhelming majority of PT-boats in World War II fired less than two torpedoes. For the PT-boat to be successful, it had to have exploitable attack opportunities, reliable equipment–especially its torpedoes–and experienced crews. Rarely did all three components coincide.

PT-boats in the Pacific had few torpedo targets, and their crews were largely composed of reservists. While not lacking in intelligence and courage, few of their officers were hardcore Navy men like Bulkeley, Lt. Cmdr. Stanley M. Barnes or Lieutenant William Barker Cushing, the able skipper of the Union Navy’s 45-foot Picket Boat No. 1 during the American Civil War.

This book examines frankly and objectively the single most famous PT-boat and skipper in naval history, PT-109 and Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Nelson describes the ramming of the boat by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri in the Blackett Strait on the moonless night of August 1, 1943, as the most shameful chapter in the history of PT boats. “In some ways it is even worse,” says the author, “since this time the damage was self-inflicted, a result of incompetence on several levels within the PT command structure.” He postulates that a poor working relationship between Lt. Cmdr. Thomas G. Warfield, commander of the PT-boats at Rendova, and his officers seems to be at the root of the Blackett Strait debacle. Warfield believed that Kennedy “wasn’t a particularly good boat commander.”

Nelson comes to the conclusion that Kennedy was following orders in maintaining radio silence and running slow to avoid Japanese floatplanes and that he received no warning of the approaching destroyer. Lieutenant junior grade Philip A. Potter Jr., skipper of PT-169, which was accompanying PT-109, saw the enemy ship only 10 or 15 seconds before it collided with the other PT-boat. The ramming was a matter of simple bad luck, according to Lieutenant Dick Keresey, commander of PT-105.

From Cushing’s daring assault on the Confederate ironclad Albemarle to the end of World War II, Nelson expertly traces the development and service of the PT-boats–their gallant feats and their shortcomings–in a crisp and detailed narrative that will enthrall every naval and World War II buff.

Michael D. Hull