They were made of wood, carried no heavy guns, and would sink at the drop of a hat. But they were fast, hard to hit, and could kill nearly anything afloat. Pound for pound, the deadliest boats of World War II weren’t the carriers or the legendary battleships, they were the humble patrol torpedo boats.
America invested heavily in capital ships in the inter-war years, concentrating on battleships and carriers that could project power across the deep oceans. Combined with destroyers and cruisers to protect them, this resulted in fleets that could move thousands of miles across the ocean and pummel enemy shores. It was a good, solid investment.
But these large ships were expensive and relatively slow, and building them required lots of metal and manpower. There was still an open niche for a fast attack craft like the Italian motor torpedo boats that had famously sunk the SMS Szent Istvan in World War I.
Boat builders who had made their name in racing lined up to compete for Navy contracts. They held demonstrations and sea trials in 1940 and 1941, culminating in the “Pinewood Derbies” of July 1941.
These were essentially races between different boats with either weapons or copper weights installed to mimic combat armament, allowing the Navy to see what designs were fastest, most nimble, and could survive the quick turns with a combat load.
Not all the vessels made it through. Some experienced hull and deck failures, but others zipped through the course at up to 46 miles per hour. A few boats impressed the Navy, especially what would become the ELCO Patrol Torpedo Boat. Higgins and Hulkins also showed off impressive designs, and all three contractors were given orders for Navy boats.
The Navy standardized the overall designs and armament, though the contractors took some liberties, especially Higgins. They were all to be approximately 50 tons, made of mahogany, and carry two .50-cal. machine guns. Many got up to four torpedo tubes and a 20mm anti-aircraft gun, while a few even got mortars or rockets.
They were powered by aviation fuel and three powerful engines.
All of this combined to create a light, powerful craft that was fast as hell. Two gunners on a PT boat at Pearl Harbor were credited with the first Japanese kill by the U.S. in World War II when they downed an enemy plane.
The little boats would distinguish themselves over and over again, even though there were only 29 in the Navy at the start of the war. Gen. Douglas MacArthur slipped out of the Philippines on a two-day trip through the enemy fleet with Lt. John D. Bulkeley on a PT boat. Bulkeley would earn a Medal of Honor for his actions.
The boats launched constant attacks against Japanese ships, hitting them with Mk. 8 torpedoes. The Coast Guard used 83-foot designs for their submarine hunters and patrol boats, many of which saw service at D-Day where they served as the “Matchstick Fleet” that rescued drowning soldiers.
Also at D-Day, similar landing craft made by Higgins were modified to fire rockets at the shore to suppress shore positions.
But it was during island hopping across the Pacific where the torpedo boats really earned their fame. As Japan’s fleet took heavy losses in 1942 and 1943, it relied on its army to try and hold islands against the U.S. advance, and the Navy’s “Mosquito Fleet” was sent to prey on the ships of the “Tokyo Express.”
Japan’s destroyers and similar vessels could slaughter torpedo boats when they could hit them, but the U.S. patrols generally operated at night and would hit the larger ships with their deadly torpedoes, using their speed to escape danger. It wasn’t perfect, though, as Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy would learn when PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, forcing Kennedy and 11 survivors to swim through shark-infested water for hours.
The patrol boats served across the world, from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and thousands of sailors from the Coast Guard and Navy served on these small vessels, downing tens of thousands of tons of enemy shipping.