An important weapon that is the very definition of a low value asset, the PT boat manages to be one of the better known weapons of the Second World War.
Let’s take a look at, what will probably be, the only true naval combatant that will ever appear at this site.
Most navies in World War II had some sort of small, fast torpedo boat. Going back to the 1870s such vessels were appearing in the World’s steam-powered steel navies. Every major Navy responded with some sort of high speed escort for their heavy ships, commonly known as Torpedo Boat Destroyers. It soon became clear that these escorts were actually better torpedo platforms than the smaller torpedo boats, and when they were equipped with torpedoes themselves they became broadly known as “Destroyers”. During World War I Destroyers added anti-submarine and anti-aircraft roles to their duties. By World War II the Destroyer was THE indispensable all-purpose escort.
But with the increase in roles came an increase in size and cost. It could take years to design, build and train a destroyer force. In the mid-1930s the Royal Navy started to take seriously the idea of a small, fast torpedo boat that could be built quickly and en masse. Such boats were classified as MTBs, or “Motor, Torpedo Boats” (like there could ever be any confusion that a 40+ knot boat didn’t have a motor).
The US Navy took notice and took interest in 1937 and by 1940 had eight prototypes (appropriately PT 1 – 8) from three different builders. None of these was particularly acceptable. Before this testing was even fully underway the Electric Boat Company (later known as “Elco”) purchased a 70′ Vosper MTB from Britain. It was unusual in Britain’s desperate situation at the time to sell such a weapon to a private interest, but Electric Boat Company was well known to the Royal Navy having built 550 80′ launches for them in just over a year during the First World War. This boat was modified by Elco as their own design that became PT – 9. They won a contract for ten follow on 70′ boats.
Nomenclature for these boats was always a bit odd; the Navy seemed to consider the British term MTB an umbrella term for all such craft. Accordingly they were then organized into groups called MTB Squadrons (or MTBrons). Yet the US Navy’s specific boats were PT Boats.
The 70′ boat came to be considered too small and fragile for needs, but an improved 77′ boat was much more acceptable. 25 of these were built, and in the early Philippines Campaign they were the first PT Boats to see combat; including, famously spiriting Douglass MacArthur out of Corregidor for an airfield on Mindanao where he flew to Australia.
Size was however, still a critical concern with these 77′ boats. Elco and the Navy concluded a slightly longer boat would offer better sea keeping and make the boat a better weapons platform. The resulting 80′ Elco was slightly slower at 40 knots, but a great improvement in every other way. It displaced 56 tons and was powered by three 1200 hp Packard marine engines. Its basic armament started with four torpedo tubes; depth charges; two, twin .50 machine gun mounts; and a 20 mm cannon for anti-aircraft fire on the stern. It was fully expected the broad decks could support additional pedestal mounted machine guns or 20 mm cannon.
These are the boats that fought extensively around Guadalcanal and through the extended Solomons Campaign. Not only for patrolling the congested, contested waters but especially as barge busters. The Japanese were constantly moving troops and supplies between bases and islands with armed barges and amphibious vessels, PT Boats slugged it out with these little flotillas. They also saw extensive use as guides and protectors for a range of light Allied shipping. A popular upgrade proved to be 37 mm cannon pilfered from damaged Airacobras. In fact, this upgrade became so popular due to high rate of fire and actual armor piercing ability, that it was virtually standard by the end of 1942. PT-109 was the most famous of these early 80′ boats.
Elco would ultimately build 326 80′ boats. Although the major architecture never changed their were improvements. The most significant being more power from the Packard engine. Another 150 hp from each. This could add several knots to the top speed, but that was mostly offset by more armament. Especially since the boats were used more as small gunboats than actual torpedo boats. A major upgrade was replacing the stern mounted 20 mm cannon with a 40 mm Bofors. The 20 mm was moved forward, at centerline or offset. In the Pacific they never stayed front and center as this was the prefered location for the 37 mm cannon. Rocket launchers were added, eight tubes per side. This could unleash firepower equal to a destroyer’s broadside, at least for one salvo. Reloads were carried but couldn’t be accessed during combat.
Radar and improved radios were added, greatly enhancing the boats as scouts and for night operations. All these changes made weight an issue; so a new, much lighter, torpedo drop rack replaced the old style torpedo tubes. These could also carry depth charges, but this became an either/or proposition. Finally, in early 1945, the always popular 37 mm cannon became a standard factory fitting.
The 80′ Elco was THE boat for Pacific operations. Apart from the Solomons they were heavily involved around New Guinea. In these campaigns they caught the attention of the American Press and became known as “Mosquito Boats” or “Plywood Battleships”.
They were also scattered in little bases all across the Pacific, any place trouble was expected. There were also numerous temporary bases used, anywhere a tender might drop anchor. But the Philippines became the biggest campaign for PT Boats. With thousands of islands and hundreds of thousands of Japanese looking to delay and cause harm at every opportunity the little boats waged battle from October 1944 to the end of the War.
This particular boat, PT-491, was a fairly late build Elco that served throughout the Philippines Campaign. It’s most intense encounter came early in The Battle of Surigao Strait. Admiral Nishimura’s task force with two battleships came under attack from several groups of PT Boats. The most violent clash was with “Section 9”, three boats; PT-490 (“Little Butch”), PT-491 (“Devil’s Daughter”) and PT-493 (“Carole Baby”) [PT Boats almost never carried their name anywhere on the Boat, it was a crew familiarity only sort of thing]. The night of October 24/25, 1944 was a dark and stormy night (no really! It was!); Section 9 approached the Japanese via radar navigating through intense rain. They broke into the clear at 700 yards and immediately started their torpedo runs. They launched at 500 yards and promptly came under accurate fire. “Little Butch” was damaged and “Carole Baby” was badly smashed with two dead and a direct hit to the engine room. They scored no torpedo hits, only one torpedo boat might have scored a hit that night. As I said earlier, torpedo boats were actually not great torpedo platforms, way too unsteady at launch. But they contributed a lot to the confusion of the Japanese by coming at them, launching torpedoes and automatic weapons fire for over an hour, that badly fragmented the Japanese force prior to the destroyer attacks causing more meaningful damage.
Meanwhile badly wounded “Carole Baby” crept towards shore where its crew beached it. “Devil’s Daughter” was able to get the crew off before the wreckage was swamped by the rising tide. This made “Carole Baby”, officially, the last ship to sink in that epic Battle. For a more complete treatment of the battle see my review of “Battle of Surigao Strait” by Anthony P Tully; or even better, read the book!
I didn’t have any specific photos of PT-491 (or any boats in Section 9) so I simply went with a normal Measure 31 camouflage scheme. Having never built a boat before I realize I made a couple mistakes. The biggest just being that apparently the usual patterns of Measure 31 were all depicted on charts, whereas mine here is more random, oops. Secondly, although I found right away that the disruptive colors (Dark Navy Green and Black) were only applied to the vertical surfaces, I found out too late that the base color (Ocean Green) was also only applied to the vertical surfaces; the deck should be a slightly different Deck Green color. I was using three different sources (an older and newer Squadron/Signal book called “PT Boats in Action” and an Osprey book called “US Patrol Torpedo Boats”) only one of them mentioned this Deck Green color. Its not a noticeably different shade in black and white photos.
Which brings me to the kit. This is the Merit kit. It is modern, well engineered and well molded. Some parts, like the twin .50 mounts, are very fiddly and difficult. But overall there were no major problems apart from noting I’d never built a boat before. So I mostly followed the kit directions pretty closely. I deviated a couple times when I saw potential trouble; like the kit directions would have you attaching propellers and rudders in step 3. I knew those would get broken several times if I did that, so I left them off for last. I’m glad I did it, but it is fair to mention attaching them last was a minor headache; you can’t flip the boat over anymore with everything built up on top! So I wound up on the floor using a flashlight to look up for locating holes with the stern hanging off the edge of my model workbench. All things considered I’d call this a normal sort of modeling issue to overcome, it just emphasizes that building a boat was different!
I’d also comment the directions had no color call outs, just the one big color diagram of the finished model and a list of colors. So a lot more breaks for research (“now what color is that thing!”). Fortunately my new supplier of enamel paints (“True North”, wonderful paints) actually specializes in naval colors so my confidence level in major camo colors is very high, well apart from the Ocean Green/Deck Green thing. There was also no mention of the anchor line in the directions! Even though the anchor is beautifully molded with a line opening, the ship has the opening at the tip of bow for the line AND the ring on the steel bow plate for the line mount. This is a lot more obvious than antennae wires many modelers feel the need to put on airplanes! Its a rope cable! Not a big deal to borrow some fine twine from my wife’s craft supplies, just a funny thing for the directions overlook.
Before concluding, and knowing I may never revisit any kind of boat, I should mention a few other things about the US PT Boat story. Although Elco boats were the most produced sort and the only sort in the Pacific (Elco boats could found at other worldwide bases too), the Navy concluded Elco could not meet all their needs. So Higgens Industries of New Orleans provided a second source with a unique proprietary design. Higgens was sure they could do better than any competitor so their 78′ boat owed little to any other design. It was comparatively more sturdy and maneuverable than the Elco boats but its overall seakeeping was inferior and Higgens crews could expect to be wetter most of the time. 209 Higgens PT Boats were built and they went through a similar progression with power and armament. Higgens Boats served in the Mediterranean, England and later Europe. In addition most bases in the Americas were patrolled by Higgens boats. And yes, this is the same Higgens Industries that is so well known for Amphtracs and a number of amphibious assault boats. Ironically, today most surviving PT Boats are Higgens boats; that may be because so many served in US coastal areas. Elco boats in the Pacific were mostly burned when the War ended; 121 of them in the Philippines.
But wait there’s more! Huckins Yacht Company of Jacksonville Florida also built 18 78′ boats to their own design. These were apparently the fastest and most maneuverable PT Boats, but also the most fragile. They served in Rhode Island, the Canal Zone and Hawaii (so no combat).
I’m not clear on the details, but apparently 70′ (or 71′) Vosper MTBs were also produced in the US for Soviet lend-lease. One such, that was finished after the War (and thus after lend-lease had ended) became “PT-73” for the TV show McHale’s Navy.
Such small, fast boats have been used ever since too. Not with torpedoes anymore, but as gun and rocket platforms. They are typically conflict only type vessels, plywood boats are hard to mothball but cheap to build. And that last is the whole point.