When the Imperial Japanese Navy swept into Surigao Strait, PT boats were the first to strike.
AT ITS WIDEST, THE 50-MILE-LONG SURIGAO Strait separates the Philippine islands of Leyte and Dinagat by a mere 14 miles. To sailors aboard three U.S. Navy patrol torpedo boats bobbing there in the hours after midnight on October 25, 1944, that narrow passage seemed to be the middle of nowhere.
Time was dragging. On PT 491, executive officer Lieutenant Junior Grade Terry Chambers was eavesdropping on friendly circuits, hearing mostly ships’ gossip. After midnight, storm clouds blotted out the moon. Saint Elmo’s fire buzzed at the tips of gun barrels and antennae, then it poured rain. Right behind the squall came a column of Japanese ships, silhouetted by lightning as they headed northeast. Flipping on searchlights intended to blind targets, enemy crews opened fire, pulling PT 491 into the early skirmishes of the epic Battle of Surigao Strait.
Historians would remember this clash for the way U.S. Navy battleships, abetted by cruisers and torpedo-wielding destroyers, used a tactic from the age of sail—“crossing the T”—to great advantage when both fleets’ maneuvers allowed a line of American ships to fire broadside at the Japanese, whose ships could only fire their bow-facing batteries. It was perhaps the most spectacular and one-sided battle in a series of U.S. Navy sea and air clashes spread over several days and collectively called the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea—an action that ravaged a once vaunted Japanese surface fleet while shielding American troops and logistics for the invasion of Leyte.
What is often forgotten, though, is how feisty PT crews, positioned along Surigao Strait and its southern approaches, relentlessly flung their flimsy craft against the Japanese flanks. Not only did these small boys harass the enemy behemoths, they radioed vital information on the foe’s speed, direction, and composition to the big boys up ahead. And, in the end, they gave as good as they got.
TWELVE DAYS EARLIER, Lieutenant Commander Robert Leeson had led five PT squadrons to the Philippines from northwest New Guinea. The 1,200-mile ocean journey tested the limits of the 80-foot, 45-ton shallow-draft vessels. Constructed of mahogany planking and plywood, PTs were propelled by three high-octane gas-guzzling Packard engines. They were built for green-water speed, not blue-water endurance. The torpedo boat squadrons’ arrival marked a return both literal and symbolic. In early 1942, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 had fought gallantly to defend the Philippines, and became legendary for its part in evacuating the islands’ top American officer. Just before Corregidor fell, PTs under the command of Lieutenant Junior Grade John Bulkeley whisked Douglas MacArthur, his family, and a few select others off Bataan, carrying them south to board a plane for Australia. Within months a best-selling account of that feat, W. L. White’s They Were Expendable, was sparking ardor for the diminutive boats and their crews (see “An American Romance,” page 35). Junior officers and enlisted sailors, mostly reservists, flocked to serve aboard PTs. In September 1942, Bulkeley, addressing the naval midshipmen’s school in Chicago, asked for 50 men to sign up for PT duty. The class’s 1,024 members volunteered en masse.
In early 1944, MacArthur prepared to advance on the Philippines by capturing strategic New Guinea harbors along the shores of the Bismarck Sea. These fights blooded the newly commissioned PT Squadrons 33 and 36, crewed by untested men, and called on the experience of Squadrons 7, 12, and 31, whose crews were veterans of the 1942–43 Solomon Island Campaigns.
Light, speedy, and agile, PTs were originally designed for hit-and-run torpedo strikes against larger vessels. During the earliest sea engagements of the protracted struggle for Guadalcanal, however, the fragile boats and their fearless crews were often employed in the manner of much bigger destroyers—and too often found themselves overmatched as they confronted flotillas of Japanese cruisers and destroyers dispatched to support and supply ground forces. PTs performed significantly better when deployed as gunboats along the coasts of the Central Solomons and New Guinea in late 1943 and through much of 1944, coordinating with Allied ground forces to shoot up Japanese barges, troops, and gun emplacements.
Hard lessons from the earliest, most frustrating months in the southernmost Solomons had forced a recasting of PT tactics and equipment. Boats acquired heavier-caliber guns. Armorers replaced World War I–era tubes and faulty Mark 8 torpedoes with new racks holding Mark 13s. Skippers who found they were not using torpedoes sometimes removed half their tin fish in favor of mortars, rocket launchers, and more guns. These heavier armaments gave PT crewmen— especially replacements—a cocky air. “We were afraid of nothing,” said Quartermaster Third Class Tom Tenner, who joined Lieutenant Junior Grade John A. Cady’s PT 127 in spring 1944.
To be chosen for PT service, sailors had to have progressed beyond the novice ranks of seaman recruit and seaman second class—“seaman deuce,” informally—though boat captains and executive officers might arrive at a dock in the South Pacific straight from Motor Torpedo Boat Training School in Melville, Rhode Island. The typical PT roster of two officers and 12 to 14 sailors knit into a tight ensemble that bound all aboard, from deckhand to boat captain—usually an ensign or juniorgrade lieutenant. Squadron leaders accommodated this by weeding out boat officers who did not treat loyalty as a two-way responsibility. Successful skippers ranged from easygoing— the lieutenants junior grade Cady of PT 127, Richard Brown of PT 493, and Harley Thronson of PT 491—to alpha males like PT 524’s Lieutenant Junior Grade James P. Wolf, a former college football lineman. To Gunner’s Mate Walter Kundis, 19, the Texas-born Wolf was indisputably “boss of the boat.”
The key was mutual respect that extended to accommodating crewmembers’ skills and preferences. The task of pointing the stern-mounted 40mm Bofors gun toward targets, for instance, was generally assigned to a gunner’s mate, but not on PT 127, whose Bofors pointer was crack-shot Machinist’s Mate Don Bujold, 22. Astute skippers allowed crewmen to swap into stations where they felt most comfortable—or least vulnerable. Tom Tenner switched his station at general quarters from topside to the PT 127 chartroom, where he could always be aware of what was up. Jake Hanley, a radioman from Columbus, Ohio, worked the port twin .50-caliber Browning machine guns when he wasn’t at the microphone and dials. Ted Gurzynski was
PT 493’s lead machinist’s mate, but he, too, operated a pair of Brownings. “I thought I had a better chance of coming out alive if I was topside,” Gurzynski said. PTs proved especially indispensable in the gritty war along the New Guinea coast. Dense jungle prevented the Japanese from moving reinforcements and materiel by land, so they waited until nightfall to send in shore-hugging troop and supply barges. The Allies responded with PT boats in warfare that hinged on a harsh equation: torpedo boats lacked space for prisoners; their foes refused to surrender. “Our job was to bust barges and take care of bobbing heads,” a crewman said. “When the heads stopped bobbing, the mission was done.”
ONCE THEY REACHED LEYTE GULF, the PT crews went straight to the sort of work they had mastered off New Guinea, claiming seven barges and a small freighter. Crews had to cadge food and stores from bigger U.S. Navy vessels and beg gasoline from a Seabee barge until the tenders Oyster Bay, Wachapreague, and Willoughby set up shop in San Pedro Bay, assuring the PTs of a supply line at the northern end of the gulf.
On October 23, Squadron 12, joined by some Squadron 7 boats and the Wachapreague, moved about 65 miles south to a bay at Liloan, on Panoan Island—the better to monitor the approaches to Surigao Strait, just to the east. The next day, fresh from night patrol, the Liloan boats got orders to prepare for intruders. “We were signaled to come in, refuel, and rearm,” radioman Hanley said. “We had a big mission coming up that night.”
Meanwhile, up in San Pedro Bay, Lieutenant Chambers saw PT skippers scrambling like fighter pilots out of a midday briefing convened aboard Oyster Bay. Chambers, who had skipped the captains’ conclave on the tender to arrange fuel, water, and chow for PT 491, sensed the urgency. “Everybody was shouting about the Japanese coming through and where the boats were going to be positioned,” he said. “They put three of us—the 491, 490, and 493—out in the middle.”
In all, 39 PTs, in 13 three-boat sections, deployed in positions bordering Surigao Strait and its southern approaches. There they waited through the afternoon and evening of October 24 for what proved to be Vice Admiral Shōji Nishimura’s lead striking force—two battleships, a heavy cruiser, and four destroyers—trailed by a secondary force, commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima, of three cruisers and four destroyers. The American commander of the Leyte invasion’s Bombardment and Fire Support Group, Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, did not want to give his foe anything like an even break. He arranged his blue-water combatants at the strait’s northern mouth in three supporting lines of attack: 28 torpedo-equipped destroyers on the flanks, a screening line of eight cruisers, and, behind the cruisers, six battleships poised to “cap” the Japanese column with broadsides from their main batteries.
The prospect of launching torpedoes animated PT crews. Many boats carried extra personnel—some were assigned specific duties, others simply wanted in on the action. PT 493’s expanded complement included Lieutenant Junior Grade Richard Hamilton—exiled from another boat on which Hamilton’s aggressiveness had earned him the nickname Dicky Dare—as well as a radar technician and a corpsman.
Two PT sections waited where the Mindanao Sea narrows between the islands of Bohol and Camiguin. At about 10:15 p.m., three boats stationed near Bohol detected the approaching Japanese on radar. As the PTs dashed to confront the enemy, Nishimura’s ships emerged from behind a lifting haze. The PT crews were trying to transmit initial contact reports when enemy crewmen spotted them. Japanese battleships lofted star shells as their destroyer and cruiser consorts switched on searchlights, advanced, and opened fire.
THE FIRST JAPANESE ROUND to connect hit PT 130, shattering a torpedo warhead and tearing up the deck but causing no injuries. The PTs released smoke and fled as enemy fire intensified. Torpedoman Bob Clarkin was aboard PT 152. “The first thing I knew, the boat was hauling ass,” he said. “We were caught in a searchlight. The noise was incredible.”
An explosion killed PT 152’s Charlie Midgett at his station on the bow 37mm mount. Fires flared topside and below. “Some guys carried Charlie and a couple of wounded down to the skipper’s cabin,” Clarkin said. “The mattresses in crew’s quarters were burning, so I hauled them up and tossed them over the side.” Enemy rounds continued to howl and splash. The boat’s skipper, Lieutenant Junior Grade Ian Malcolm, signaled Clarkin to roll a depth charge in hopes of duping the enemy with an explosion. Clarkin doubted they would even notice. For whatever reason, however, the Japanese did veer away, and PT 152—burning, bow splintered, one crewman dead and three wounded—survived and withdrew from the fight. PT 130, its radio out of commission, sped southeast along with Ensign Peter R. Gadd’s PT 131. Near Camiguin, Cady and Gadd linked up with PTs 127, 128, and 129.
“Mal, are you scared?” Cady shouted by megaphone from PT 127 as boats 130 and 131 approached.
“Hell, no!” Malcolm yelled from PT 130. “I’m terrified!”
Malcolm pulled the 130 in close and boarded PT 127. He and Cady went below to the chartroom, where Quartermaster Tenner sat glued to his radarscope. Radioman Hanley got out a codebook and enciphered Malcolm’s information for voice transmission. “The Japanese were trying to scramble the signal,” Hanley said. “But I finally got a confirmation.”
Hanley’s transmission, received and passed along by the tender Wachapreague, reached group commander Oldendorf shortly after midnight. As Oldendorf was learning where the enemy was, Nishimura was radioing Kiyohide Shima, steaming in behind him, and Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, leading a pincer force through San Bernardino Strait. Nishimura’s message: “Advancing as scheduled while destroying enemy torpedo boats.”
FURTHER TO THE NORTHEAST, the boats of PT Squadron 12—commanded by Lieutenant Junior Grade Dwight H. Owen—were the next to square off against Nishimura’s ships, southwest of Panaon Island. Aboard PT 151, Owen watched as guns flashing and star shells bursting to the southwest signaled the Japanese vessels’ approach. At about 11:40 p.m., as Owen’s boats closed on a battleship, a cruiser, and three destroyers, an enemy searchlight caught the PTs in its sweep. Boats 151 and 146 launched torpedoes and turned tail, momentarily reprieved by darkness when one of their stern 40mms knocked out the enemy light. Another spotlight flashed on, but the three were able to zigzag to safety, 151 with minor shrapnel damage.
Nishimura’s advance element now approached the narrows between Panaon and the big island of Mindanao. There, 15 more PTs waited—six near Panaon, nine to the southeast. These crews had been close enough to Owen’s scrap with the enemy to see the gunfire. The Japanese column neared Panaon’s southern tip, where the enemy vessels shifted formation and changed heading from northeast to nearly due north. Robert Leeson’s PTs 134, 132, and 137 soon had the Japanese on radar. The American crews reported their sightings, then attacked, PT 132 expending four torpedoes and PT 134 three, all missing. Lieutenant Junior Grade Isadore M. Kovar’s PT 137, its radio and radar inoperative, managed an additional errant shot.
As the Japanese engaged Leeson’s craft to port, PTs 523, 524, and 526 of Squadron 36 rumbled from the cover of Sumilon Island and pounced to starboard. Backlit by explosions and star shells, the Japanese made inviting targets. In his headphones, Gunner’s Mate Walter Kundis, poised at PT 524’s port torpedo rack, heard an excited Texas twang. “Let’s get in closer!” the boat’s skipper, Jim Wolf, was shouting. “Let’s get in closer!” No sooner did Kundis finally pull the lanyard than the boat dipped. He lost his footing and was headed overboard when a torpedo-man grabbed him by the belt.
The latest set of attacking PTs sheared off toward shelter. The enemy, flanks again secure, turned to confront PTs 490, 491, and 493 head-on. PT 491 came under fire. “All we could do was aim our guns at the lights,” Lieutenant Chambers said. “Like sticking our fingers in their eyes.”
At first PT 491 was moving in tandem with 493, with PT 490 out of sight up ahead. Thronson, who had 491’s spotlight going, released a pair of torpedoes. A Japanese round destroyed the light, narrowly missing Chambers’s head. PT 491 made a frantic escape. “Japanese ships were so close we could have bumped into one of them on the way out,” Thronson said.
Aboard PT 493, the enemy lights were so dazzling they made Ted Gurzynski feel as if he was on stage. Skipper Bill Brown gave executive officer Nick Carter the wheel so he could focus on releasing torpedoes. “We ended up firing three,” Brown said. “Shrapnel jammed the fourth fish in the rack.” Ordering Carter to turn hard left and open the throttles, Brown ran aft to generate smoke. In the glare of enemy searchlights and star shells he felt like he was breaking out of jail. “I could even read the dials on my watch,” he recalled.
“We were running for hell,” Gurzynski said. The Americans aimed every gun that they could, including Gurzynski’s twin .50s, in the direction of the unrelenting spotlights. Water plumes bracketed the boat. One Japanese round, and then another two, battered PT 493. “The first shell went right through, just below the deck but above the engines, barely missing the gas tanks,” Gurzynski said. “The next knocked out the generator and went through the bottom of the boat on the starboard side.” PT 493 began flooding.
The third hit to PT 493 struck just aft of the chart house, hurling Brown and Carter from the cockpit. An explosion propelled corpsman Bill Gaffney into the well. “He was killed instantly, blown right out of his shoes,” Gurzynski said. That round also killed the boat’s cook, Anthony Tatarek, at the bow 20mm. Brown, Gurzynski, and seven others were wounded. Radioman Bill Sekerak, who had been alone in the chart house, came out unscathed. So did Al Brunelle, a 115-pound wisp of a machinist’s mate who had been in the engine compartment. Brunelle did what he could to keep the situation from worsening by killing circuit breakers and plugging one of the holes in PT 493’s hull with his kapok life jacket.
The crippled PT 493 drifted west toward Panaon. Brown marveled that Carter still had the boat under control. “We approached some shoals, but he got us through,” Brown said. “Finally we hit the rocks—bonk.” As 493 settled near a sandbar, its stern submerged, Brown sent a crewman ahead to scout. Then, one by one, the men climbed down, the last of them carrying the bodies of Gaffney and Tatarek.
By 2:25 a.m., more than two dozen PTs had fired torpedoes at Nishimura’s ships and missed. Enemy fire had killed three PT crewmen and wounded 20. One torpedo boat was aground. The dueling had cost the Japanese a few searchlights—and any pretense of taking the Americans by surprise. Farther up Surigao Strait, more PT sections tugged at the reins but were ordered to stay put. The destroyers were going in.
THE SUBSEQUENT MELEE COST Nishimura both of his battleships, three destroyers, and nearly his life. The PT crews nearest the strait had the best view of that spectacle. From the Panaon sandbar, 493’s wet, wounded crew witnessed huge explosions and tracers arcing like meteors, mostly from American vessels. The view from the deck of PT 491, off Panaon, was awe-inspiring. “Japanese ships were blowing up right in front of us,” Lieutenant Chambers said.
As American and Japanese destroyers, cruisers, and battlewagons grappled at the mouth of Leyte Gulf, Shima’s force continued its advance. At about 3:15 a.m. on October 25, three Japanese cruisers, screened by two destroyers leading and two trailing, skirted Panaon’s southern tip to enter the strait. The larger enemy vessels crossed paths with PTs 134 and 137. Section Commander Leeson’s PT 134, taking a bead on the lead destroyer, fired its last remaining torpedo. The shot went astern of its target but Kovar’s thus far luckless 137, ranging in close to another destroyer, also fired a torpedo. Kovar’s fish went too deep to strike the intended target but did hit the more distant and deeper-draft Japanese cruiser Abukuma, slowing the big vessel so much it had to drop out of formation.
By 5 a.m. Japanese forces were in full retreat. Of Nishimura’s advance force, all that remained was the destroyer Shigure and the cruiser Mogami, damaged and burning after being struck by cruiser Nachi. Hampered by the limping Abukuma and Nachi, Shima chose discretion over oblivion, and also withdrew. Temporarily spared Admiral Oldendorf’s wrath—the group commander was reorganizing his forces to take up the chase—the enemy again had PTs nipping at them like terriers.
One PT boat—Lieutenant Thronson’s 491—spotted Mogami just after 6 a.m., as the sun was rising. “She had fires on her stern, and another ship [likely Shigure] alongside,” Chambers said. Thronson attacked the Mogami. “The Japanese saw us coming,” Thronson recalled. “Eight-inch shells were splashing all around us.” Thronson finally gave the launch signal. “We were still too far away—they had time to turn and the fish just streamed down the sides of them,” Chambers said.
Thronson then raced for the shelter of Panaon. For what seemed an eternity, he chased splashes trying to evade incoming rounds. “It was a miracle we escaped,” he said.
Meanwhile, PT 194 also took a shot. “We made a run and I just managed to drop a torpedo over the port side,” Torpedoman Andy Gavel said. “As we swerved, they got us in the stern.” That round killed Harold Jenkins, 36, the pointer on the aft 40mm, and silenced two of the boat’s three engines. “They were peppering us with everything,” Gavel said. “With only one engine, we just had to wait it out.”
At Panaon the men of PT 491 spotted figures on shore near the damaged PT 493, only its bull nose visible. Once the intact boat had taken on 493’s casualties and unhurt crewmen, Lieutenant “Dicky Dare” Hamilton—despite a nasty nose wound—boarded the ruined boat to demolish its code machine. PT 491 towed 493 to deeper water, where the hulk sank, then motored to San Pedro Bay to offload its passengers.
By the time the PTs finished their rounds of the fight, 30 of 39 boats had withstood enemy fire. Ten were hit during the enemy’s stately advance or helter-skelter retreat. The battle’s final exchange may have come when a Japanese cruiser fired on Squadron 7’s PT 127, bound for Liloan after sunrise. “When we got going again we saw things floating in the water,” Machinist’s Mate Bujold said. “At first we thought they were coconuts, but finally saw they were the heads of Japanese sailors.”
As PT 127 bypassed the men in the water, Bujold overheard a shipmate’s plainspoken judgment: “I bet there’s an admiral in there somewhere who’s been busted to a seaman deuce.”
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.