PT Boats: History of the US Torpedo Boats.
Part 1: American Civil War
The American Civil War saw a number of innovations in naval warfare, including the first torpedo boats which carried spar torpedoes.
A spar torpedo is a weapon consisting of a bomb placed at the end of a long pole, or spar, and attached to a boat. The weapon is used by running the end of the spar into the enemy ship. Spar torpedoes were often equipped with a barbed spear at the end, so it would stick to wooden hulls. A fuse could then be used to detonate it.
In 1861 President Lincoln instituted a naval blockade of all Southern ports along the Atlantic and gulf coast of The Confederate States of America. The South, lacking the means to construct a naval fleet capable of taking on the Union Navy and countering the blockade, developed the torpedo boats as their line of defense.
The Torpedo Boats were small fast boats designed to attack the larger capital ships of the blockading fleet.
The CSS David was built as a private venture by T. Stoney at Charleston, South Carolina in 1863. The cigar-shaped boat carried an explosive charge on the end of a spar. It was designed to operate slightly submerged in the water resembling a submarine. However it was considered to be a surface vessel. Operating on dark nights, and using anthracite coal which burns without smoke, David was nearly as hard to see as a true submarine.
The name of the ship, David, came from the Bibles parable of David and Goliath.
On the night of October 5, 1863, David, commanded by Lieutenant William T. Glassell, CSN, slipped down the Charleston Harbor to attack the ironclad steamer The USS New Ironsides.
The torpedo boat approached undetected. Her spar torpedo detonated under the starboard quarter of the ironclad, throwing a high column of water which rained back upon the Confederate vessel and put out her boiler fires. With her engine dead, David hung under the starboard quarter of The New Ironsides while small arms fire from the Federal ship spattered the water around the torpedo boat.
Believing that their vessel was sinking, Glassell and two others abandoned her; the pilot, Walker Cannon, who could not swim, remained on board. A short time later, Assistant Engineer J. H. Tomb swam back to the craft and climbed on board. Reigniting the fires, Tomb succeeded in getting David’s engine working again, and the torpedo boat steamed up the channel to safety.
New Ironsides, though not sunk, was seriously damaged by the explosion.
In 1864, the Union Naval Lieutenant Cushing fitted a steam launch with a spar torpedo to attack the Confederate ironclad CSS Albermarle. The CSS Squib and CSS Scorpion represented another class of Confederate torpedo boats. In 1864, the Union Naval Lieutenant Cushing fitted a steam launch with a spar torpedo to attack the Confederate ironclad CSS Albermarle.
Also, during this year, the Union launched the USS Spuyten Duyvil, a vessel with a number of technical innovations including an extensible and reloadable torpedo placement spar.
Part 2: United States Patrol Torpedo Boat 109
Every ship wreck has a story. But perhaps none is better known than the story of the sinking of the United States Patrol Torpedo Boat 109. Indeed, it’s a tale that helped propel John F. Kennedy to the Presidency.
In 1943, the future president was the 26-year old skipper of PT-109, which cruised the channels of the Soloman Islands in search of Japanese vessels.
On the moonless night of August 2, 1943, at roughly 2:30 in the morning, as PT-109 prowled the waters off Kolombangara Island, the Japanese destroyer, The Amagiri, suddenly emerged out of the darkness and, in an instant, cut Kennedy’s plywood craft in half. So difficult was visibility that it was first believed to be another PT boat. When it became apparent that it was one of the Japanese destroyers, Kennedy attempted to turn to starboard to bring his torpedoes to bear. But there was not enough time. Two of his dozen-member crew were killed instantly, and the back half of the craft sank immediately. The survivors clung to the drifting bow for hours.
At daybreak, they embarked on a five-hour-long swim to a nearby deserted island. Kennedy, having been on the swim team at Harvard, managed to tow a crew member by a belt through his teeth, and was undaunted by the distance.
Several of the other men were also good swimmers, but several were not; two, Johnston and Mauer, could not swim at all. These last two were lashed to a plank that the other seven men pulled and pushed as their strength would allow. Kennedy was first to arrive at the island named Plum Pudding but called “Bird” Island by the men because of the guano that coated the bushes.
Conflicting statements have been made as to whether the destroyers captain had spotted the pt boat and intentionally steered toward it; PT 109 author Robert Donovan, who interviewed many of the destroyer crew, believes the collision was not an accident, though other reports suggest the Amagiri’s captain never even realized he had run down the PT boat.
The explosion on August second was spotted by an Australian coastwatcher Sub Lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans, who manned a secret observation post at the top of the volcano on Kolombangara Island. The Navy and its squadron of PT boats held a memorial service for the crew of PT-109 after reports were made of the large explosion. However, Evans dispatched Solomon Islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana in a dugout canoe to look for possible survivors after decoding news that the explosion he had witnessed was probably from the lost PT-109.
These canoes were similar to those used for thousands of years by people in the Pacific and by Native Americans. In retrospect, these boats were by far the oldest form of technology and the smallest manned craft used by the Allies in the war. But they worked out well because if spotted by Japanese ships or aircraft they would be mistaken for the fishing boats of the island natives.
After two days on the small island without food or water, Kennedy realized they needed to swim to a larger island, Olasana, if they were to survive. It was there that Gasa and Kumana found them.
They first fled by canoe from Kennedy, who to them was simply a shouting stranger. After Kennedy convinced them they were on the same side, it was Gasa who suggested to use a coconut as a “messaging device” and it was Kumana who climbed a coconut tree to pick one.
That coconut later became famous as a coconut Kennedy carved with the message:
COMMANDER… NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT…
HE CAN PILOT… 11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT… KENNEDY
This message was delivered at great risk through 35 nautical miles (65 km) of hostile waters patrolled by the Japanese to the nearest Allied base at Rendova. Later, a canoe returned for Kennedy, taking him to the coast watcher to coordinate the rescue.
Soon, the story of PT-109 became part of the Kennedy legend of courage under pressure, and helped him win voters in the 1960 presidential election. There was even a PT-109 float in the inaugural parade.
The real PT-109, however, sat on the Pacific Ocean floor, smashed and battered until it was located in May 2002 by a National Geographic expedition.
The coconut shell was preserved in a glass container by Kennedy on his desk during his presidency.
PT-109 belonged to the PT 103 class, hundreds of which were completed between 1942 and 1945 by Elco. The Elco boats were the largest PT boats operated by the US Navy during World War II. At 80 feet (24 m) and 40 tons, they had strong wooden hulls of 2-inch (5 cm) mahogany planking. Powered by three 12-cylinder 1,500 hp (1100 kW) Packard gasoline engines (one per propeller shaft), their designed top speed was 41 knots (76 km/h).