History Friday — MacArthur’s Plywood Fleet

One of the more interesting “official narratives” from WW2 involves the US Navy PT-boat, its usefulness in WW2 combat and General Douglas MacArthur. This public narrative centers on three events and a post-war claim. The three events are the sinking of PT-109 with future President Kennedy aboard, MacArthur’s escape from the Philippines in a PT-boat and later return to Corregidor in one, and Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s claims that the PT-boat was ineffective in combat. Like a lot of other narratives in and around MacArthur, there are issues of post-war institutional agenda and extinction, decades long classification and just plain lying by selective reporting via the services of the Joint Army Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC). This is a narrative that can now be now pealed back by diligent internet research.

The story of the birth, service and death of the PT-Boat in WW2 was closely linked to General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was made the Chief of Philippine Armed forces in the mid-1930’s after his terms as US Army chief of Staff. What most people do not know is that while he was there, according to Hiroshi Masuda 2012 book MacArthur in Asia: The General and His Staff in the Philippines, Japan, and Korea, MacArthur pushed to have up to 200 British motor torpedo boats for Filipino Naval forces and arranged for a Filipino government contract with Vosper Thornycroft for one of their “Q-Boats.” He also sent letters to the Navy Department stating he wanted to use a US design, but would settle for the British one if he had to. This influenced then Naval Chief of Staff Adm. Leahy, and later Pres Franklin Roosevelt’s defacto chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to fund two small PT-boat units.

PT-658 in the Final WW2 PT-Boat Configuration

PT-658 in the Final Rocket-Gunboat Configuration Prior to Operation Olympic


The Board does mention that at the time the Navy Department was “assisting the Philippine Government in the development of motor torpedo boats for its own program of defense”. Some idea of the efficacy of the aid rendered by the Navy Department can be gleaned from a personal letter of General MacArthur to Admiral Leahy written almost two years later when he asked the Admiral to authorized Captain Chantry of Bu C&R to make available to him any information the Navy might have about progress made in motor torpedo boat development. MacArthur included the statement, “It is only natural that if a suitable boat is developed there in the U.S. within our means that we purchase those boats there rather than abroad.” 11 In short, at the time MacArthur was not only without help from the Navy Department, he was without any idea of progress being made in the United States on motor torpedo boats, and in the two years between the General Board’s letter and the MacArthur letter, the Philippine government had been purchasing “Q” class MTB’s from Thornycroft the English builder. 12

11. Letter from Commonwealth of the Philippines, Officer of the Military Adviser, 29 March 1939.
12. “The Development of the PT” Commander W.C. Specht USN, and Lt.(jg) W.S. Humphrey, USNR as
published in “Elco PT’s in Action” by the Electric Boat Company.

and see the text here from a PT-Boat modeler internet link http://steelnavy.com/GMSElco77.htm

In December 1936 there finally was some stirring in the hierarchy of the USN regarding the use and value of the motor torpedo boat. Rear Admiral Emory Land, Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair sent a note to Admiral Leahy, Chief of Naval Operations, that production of MTBs could be of value for the USN. The Navy General Board recommended a very limited development program on May 7, 1937. However, the concept received a significant push from an unusual source, not a navy admiral but an army general. General Douglas MacArthur, who was in command of the forces in the Philippine Islands. MacArthur knew that he could not get the navy to transfer more heavy units to the Philippines so in early 1937 he started lobbying the navy brass for a force of motor torpedo boats. He correctly figured that the MTB would be a perfect inexpensive weapon system for littoral fighting in the Philippines. MacArthur was met with a stone wall until he talked to Leahy and then there was finally action. In 1938 Congress added a supplement to the naval budget for $15,000,00 for the construction of experimental vessels not to exceed 3,000 tons. The discretion for spending the funds was given to the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The funds were to be spent in the development of a MTB for the USN.

It turns out there is a good reason for this. According to Masuda, two of MacArthur’s “Bataan Gang” were key in this bureaucratic coup. Ex-naval officer, then commissioned by MacArthur US Army LTC (and promoted to full Colonel) Sidney Huff was MacArthur’s go-to in order to get MTBs into the Philippines from Britain, if the US Navy did not build them for him (pg 21 of Masuda’s book). And Lt (jg) (later retired a Rear Adm) John Buckley was a PT-boat tester and the commander of first Philippines torpedo boat unit had been a member of MacArthur’s naval liaison (see page 24 same book). Buckley served in the European Theater after getting MacArthur out of Corrigedor and returned to the Pacific as a PT Boat Squadron commander.

That the Mahanian, blue water, US Navy was not happy with the littoral combatant PT-Boat was an understatement. Adm Turner in particular hated the PT-Boats because a) they were glamorized in the Press via stories like PT-109 and b) one of them mistakenly fired a torpedo at him (his ship anyway) during the Guadalcanal campaign. This is from:

The Amphibians Came to Conquer


“Planning for Use of PT Boats at Okinawa

Before relating the story of the Okinawa assault, the reason for the absence of PT boats in the assault forces will be mentioned.

Vice Admiral Turner, and many other naval officers who had witnessed the PT boat operations in the Guadalcanal and New Georgia operations, thought that the PT boats were anywhere from somewhat to vastly overrated by the public and the press.

Admiral Hall tells the story that prior to the Okinawa operation the overall commander of the PT boats, who had participated in the South Pacific operations, reported to him in Leyte for duty in connection with training for the upcoming Okinawa landings. Admiral Hall asked Admiral Turner by dispatch what part the PT boats would play in the operations so he could arrange appropriate training for them. Vice Admiral Turner informed Admiral Hall that the PT boats would not even be allowed to enter the Okinawa area until D plus 4 or later. Admiral Hall explained:

He evidently had no use for them, and I had no use for them. When I was doing my part of the Normandy landing, (OMAHA Beach) they were of no use whatsoever.32″

And to say that the US Navy treated the MTB squadrons in the Pacific like ugly red headed step children during the war can be measured by fact they did not establish a “Type command” — like the Pacific Fleet had for Destroyers, Cruisers and Battleships — until 5 March 1944. “Type commands” handled logistics and engineering issues for Destroyers, Cruisers and Battleships through out WW2, but it took 27 months of war for the US Navy to get around to the same organization for PT-boats! No attempt was made to create a coordinated PT-Boat torpedo launching doctrine with in the Pacific fleet screening units during the course of the war. This showed up in the PT-boat’s lack luster torpedo performance at Leyte. As for maintenance, the following on PT-boat support in MacArthur’s 7th Fleet is from:

United States Naval Administration in World War II
Commander in chief, Pacific fleet
Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons

[Declassified by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on Dec 31, 2012 by the authority of Executive Order (E.O). 13526]

“The methods of distribution and supply were a matter of constant debate between Service Force representatives and MTB operating force representatives. The lack of an effective liaison was most apparent, and this deficiency was not completely resolved during the entire period of hostilities. An excellent example of this fact , although not actually within the scope or this history, is the manner in which the SEVENTH Fleet MTB’s obtained logistic support, in essence, they relieved ComSerFor7thFlt of the responsibility of logistic support; they made up their own temporary advance base units; they administered their own major base units; they operated a small fleet of supply ships in shuttle trips between these bases.”

In those 27 months of combat in the Solomons Islands and New Guinea, the PT-Boat — despite success in torpedoing a destroyer and a large freighter at Guadalcanal — evolved from a twilight optical sighted torpedo delivery system with a few .50 caliber machine guns to a night time, microwave radar guided, rocket-gunboat. The PTs adapted 37mm autocannon from junked P-39’s of the 5th Air Force, bombardment rockets from MacArthur’s 2nd Engineer Special Brigade and were given lightweight radars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s wartime Radiation Laboratory. The PT-Boat’s normal prey wasn’t major warships. It was landing barges, coasters, luggers and other small wooden freighters of less than 500 tons displacement. They were part of a three phase transportation interdiction system in the south west Pacific made up of 5th Air Force bombers in the daylight, special MIT microwave radar equipped B-24’s and PBY’s with naval radars at night for large freighters and PT-Boats for in-shore anti-barge work to isolate Japanese garrisons scattered along the New Guinea coast and across the Philippine archipelago.

The ‘final’ wartime standard PT-boat armament, illustrated in the photo of PT-658, was:

4 x Mk 1-1 Side Launching Racks for Torpedoes (Only two aft racks
carry torpedoes)
2 x Twin .50 HMGs
1 x 40mm automatic cannon aft
1 x 20mm automatic cannon Forward (Mk 14 on port in Elco, Mk 10 Centerline amidships in Higgins)
2 x Single .50 HMGs on pipe stem mounts on forward torpedo racks or in cockpit.
1 x 37mm automatic cannon on Mk 1-1 on forward mount
2 x Mk 20 Rocket Launchers (each with 8 x 5″ Rockets) (replaced by single Mk 50 Launcher)
60mm Mortar for illumination.

In the post war years the vast majority of PT-Boat kills, the overwhelming majority of which were 500 tons displacement or less, were stricken from the historical record by the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee who issued the following report:

The Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee
Japanese Naval and Merchant Shipping Losses
During World War II by All Causes
February 1947


This report is the basis of Adm Samuel Eliot Morison’s statements regards the ineffectiveness of WW2 PT-Boats in his histories. At the end of the war MacArthur had the 200 PT-boats supporting his command, almost exactly what he desired 10 years earlier. A few months after the war ended, the US Navy collected most of the PT-Boats in the Pacific in the Philippines, stripped them of parts and engines, and then burned their hulls.

That should have been the end of the story, yet even the official narrative has its dissenters. Dissenters with presidential backing who made clear the atomic bombing aborted final act of WW2, Operation Olympic, would have had a huge role for the PT-Boats in that invasion despite the obstructionism of Adm Turner.

At Close Quarters
PT Boats in the United States Navy
Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr.
USNR (Retired)
with a Foreword by
President John F. Kennedy


page –441–

“The original plans for Operation Olympic, the projected invasion of the Japanese home islands, made no provision for PT operations. Subsequent to the drafting of the operation plan, however, the Commander Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet asked Commodore Bates to submit a plan for use of PT’s off Japan, and subordinate commanders of the Amphibious Force made requests on him to provide more than 200 PT’s for use in connection with the invasion. Hostilities ended before the plan could be submitted.”

and Page 445


In mid- August 1945, 30 squadrons of PT’s were in commission. Nineteen were in the Seventh Fleet, six in the Pacific Fleet, three were being reconditioned in the United States for Pacific duty after combat in the European theater, one was shaking down in Miami, and one was the training squadron at Melville. By the end of the year all had been decommissioned except Squadron 4, the training squadron, and the brand new Squadron 41. In addition there was Squadron 42, which had been fitting out in New York in August, and which was the only PT unit placed in commission after the end of hostilities.”

And now you know the story edited out of yet another “MacArthur official narrative.”

24 thoughts on “History Friday — MacArthur’s Plywood Fleet”

  1. Bulkley served in the Mediterranean theater and there is an extensive description of PT boat use in Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s memoirs volume 2. Fairbanks was assigned to Mountbatten’s joint operations command. They trained for two missions, both associated with deception of the Germans. One mission used PT boats equipped with sound systems and pyrotechnics to simulate a large force invading or attacking the shore. Before Salerno, they went into Naples Bay with the PT boats and made lots of noise and smoke to convince the Germans that the invasion was there. It was hazardous for the crews but pretty effective. Fairbanks even went ashore on one of the small islands and got into a gun battle with defenders.

    They volunteered to do similar deception at Normandy but were turned down. The other part of Fairbanks’ work was with “beach jumpers” who went into the beach before the landing to mark sectors or to scout hazards.

  2. Just been reading “At Close Quarters” myself and am almost through.

    I’d agree that PTs against major warships were not particularly effective, especially given the old torpedoes but they were just the ticket against enemy light transport. The book showed remarkable differences between German and Japanese fighting styles too.

    The worst performance of PT boats was in the Aleutian Island theater. The seas were just too rough for them and they’d split their seams.

    If I had had the opportunity to chose a Navy combat unit in WWII, PT boats would be high on my personal list.

  3. Whitehall,

    A lot of that was due to a lack of investment.

    This is from the NDRC Division 14 final summary report —

    Dolphin, MTB Computing Radar Sight, Torpedo Director Mark 33

    An NDRC development contract with Sperry was
    undertaken for engineering design and development of auxiliary equipment.
    This system was tested at Melville, Rhode Island, in the fall of 1944, and
    showed 60% to 70% success in blind torpedo firing at 2000 to 6000 yards.
    As a result the Bureau of Ordnance initiated procurement of 32 Torpedo
    Director Mark 33 units for operational tests, and requested that as an extension
    to NO-172 RL render advisory service. In June 1945 the Project
    10-172 was again extended to provide 200 sets of salvo tables for use in
    firing timed spreads with the Torpedo Director Mark 33. The Service project
    was terminated in October 1945.

    Designation of related equipment: Dolphin – Torpedo Director Mark 33 Mod 0
    Manufacturer: Sperry
    Number ordered: 32
    Procuring Service: Navy
    Number delivered: 0 – as of August 1, 1945
    Unit cost: $12,500
    Value of delivered units: 0

  4. Fairbanks described them as PT boats and his exploits were a great story. I have read both volumes of his memoirs and they are great stories. He knew everybody in the world, including the King and tried very hard to avoid publicity. He is always self deprecating in the books but his story is great.

  5. It’s hard to believe one of these could get with three miles of a destroyer without getting blasted into smithereens. AAA would chew these up like they were paper.

    Probably useful as patrol boats, but I wouldn’t send them into any kind of serious combat.

  6. I had a neighbor when I was a kid, who served in the Pacific, on Mindanao, I believe, on PT’s. I never got a lot of details, but I remember him describing to my father about the searing heat, and the half-assed fueling routines they had to go through at times (by jerry cans) Wish I’d have heard more about them.

  7. Why would you design your boat so that you had to carry three different calibres of shell (in addition to the MG ammunition)?

    My father was turned down when he volunteered to skipper a Motor Torpedo Boat in the Royal Navy in 1939. “We have hundreds of volunteers with those qualifications and many of them don’t wear glasses. Go home to your wife.”

  8. Micheal,

    It is hard to seriously evaluate claims of PT-Boat ineffectiveness given the US Navy’s passive agressive organizational reaction to them.

    At Guadalcanal the PT-boats took out a Destroyer, a freighter and uncounted but numerous Japanese landing barges and coasters, despite having no doctrine, no training, no radar, and bad torpedoes. Despite having the blue water navy types tell them time after time to hide so the brown shoe surface types on their own side wouldn’t shoot them (or get shot by them).

    They did this against an IJN that had superior night doctrine, night training, and superior night optics.

    Towards the end of the Operation Cartwheel there was some cooperation between Nightcat PBY’s and PT-Boats at night…which was promptly forgotten when the Central Pacific drive kicked off.

    The only place there was serious air-sea cooperation in daytime between air components and the PT-Boats was in the Southern Philippines with the 13th Air Force.

  9. Will be interesting to see how the next brush of the blue water navy deals with small craft. Not designed around the torpedo, but around missiles. The soviets thought they would be pretty useful at keeping the blue water navy away from their littoral areas (in conjunction with shore based missiles and aircraft and diesel electric subs). Not so much for blue water combat, but to have pickets and a presence capable of dealing with anything other than a military asset. The blue water navy might be able to dominate where ever they are…but they can’t be everywhere.

  10. A big factor had to be the torpedoes. There are several books about the torpedo problem. I’ve read Iron Men and Tin Fish. The Navy’s incompetence here is amazing. It cost a lot of lives until they fixed it and that was not until 1943.

  11. I saw one go up the river – people would stop on the levee to just watch it go by. AFAIK there is only 1 that was restored in the Northwest –

    According to Wikipedia:


    Perhaps the best example of a surviving Higgins 78-foot (24 m) boat is PT-658, which was completely restored to her original 1945 configuration from 1995 to 2005. PT-658 is now fully functional and afloat, using the three original Packard V12 5M-2500 gas engines. It is the only 100% authentically restored U.S. Navy PT boat actually operational today. PT-658 is located in Portland, Oregon, at Navy Operational Support Center Portland’s Swan Island Pier. The group wishes to maintain the boat as a living, breathing artifact dedicated to the history of the PT force of the Second World War.[26] PT-658 was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.[27]

    I don’t know about the one I saw along our river – it wasn’t 658, or at least it didn’t have the camouflage paint

    With 3 Merlin engines can you imagine the upkeep costs?

  12. There was a converted PT boat in Newport Beach for a while in the 70s. I forget who owned it but he used it as a yacht. He could have run ten Ferraris for the same cost.

  13. Mike – I read in Wikipedia that Clark Gable owned one for awhile – pretty amazing since most were destroyed by the Navy post war – didn’t want to maintain all those plywood hulls – Gable of course died in the early 60s but it wouldn’t susprise me that the Newport Beach boat was his at one point.

    Just imazgine the4 costs of maintaining a mustang; add 2 more of the motors and a big plywood hull –

  14. MacArthur’s thinking about defense of the Phillipines with lots of small, torpedo-equipped boats actually makes a lot of sense. It would be almost a maritime guerilla war. Lots of small islands, lots of places to hide. It is more creative thinking which might have hurt the Japanese if it had been more fully developed.

  15. >Why would you design your boat so that you had to carry three different
    >calibres of shell (in addition to the MG ammunition)?

    The 37mm cannon was used on US Army’s 2nd ESB provisional support battery LVT along with 4.5″ bombardment rockets. They were adapted by the 7th Fleet PT-boats because .50 cal bullet holes were easily patched on wooden japanese landing barges, while the high explosive 4.5″ rockets and 37mm HE shells ripped wooden barges, as well as larger coasters and luggers apart in a single firing pass.

    The PT-Boat crews added 20mm in lieu of some, but not all the .30 and .50 caliber machine guns for anti-aircraft and anti-armored barge reasons in the New Guinea campaign.

    The 40mm was added to the rear of PT-boats after a PT-Boat was hit by a suicide plane hit a PT-Boat in the protracted Ormoc, Leyte naval campaign.

    The 40mm was too heavy to replace the forward 37mm because it prevented the PT-Boat hull from planing without the removal of torpedoes.

    The 4.5″ rocket was replaced in early 1945 with the 5″ spin stabilized rocket for severral reasons including the fact they were going to get proximity fuzes in time or mass deployment for Operation Olympic.

    Proximity fuzed rockets would have eatedn Japanese suicide boats screening the premilinary bombardment operations for the Olympic landings.

  16. I worked with a guy who helped restore PT-309.

    There was an ownership controversy, and some people were disappointed when it was shipped off to Fredericksburg.

    They though it should stay in Galveston and be operational.

    They were planning to install diesels.


  17. Mr. Hiteshew stated: “It’s hard to believe one of these could get with three miles of a destroyer without getting blasted into smithereens.”

    The book “At Close Quarters” offered many cases of combat between PT boats and enemy destroyers. PT boats were able, through stealth, to successfully approach to 400 yards before launching torpedoes. Other melees had approaches of 100 yards or less.

    And there’s the case of PT-109, cut in two in the darkness by a destroyer.

    The high speed evasiveness of PTs made targeting with large guns difficult and the destroyer’s AA guns were the equivalent of the PT boats guns so of equal effectiveness – neither had armor. Plus, the destroyer’s seachlights made for ready targets for the PTs. However, some PTs did get hit, and hit hard, by destroyers – and vice versa.

    At first, the torpedoes where launched with gunpowder charges with bright flashes that gave away the PTs position – that was later changed.

    But yes, destroyers were not the made target of PT attacks and were, after airplanes, their most deadly adversary.

  18. >>MacArthur’s thinking about defense of the Philippines with lots of
    >>small, torpedo-equipped boats actually makes a lot of sense. It would
    >>be almost a maritime guerrilla war. Lots of small islands, lots of
    >>places to hide. It is more creative thinking which might have hurt the
    >>Japanese if it had been more fully developed.


    The US Navy could not have delivered the 800 torpedoes that MacArthur needed to go with the 200 PT-Boats, let alone the crews, boats, the proper doctrine and training.

    IIRC, the US Navy had little more than 1,800 torpedoes of all kinds when the war kicked off. This torpedo shortage was part of the reason for the lack of pre-war US Navy torpedo testing and hard denial by the US Naval Ordnance Bureau until mid-war that their torpedoes sucked.

    The PT-Boat narrative is emblematic of Mac Arthur’s wartime bureaucratic victories and pre-war vision being erased by his enemies after the war.

    The US Navy is the most blatant about doing it. It is not, however, alone in playing this game.

  19. Not that much plywood in a PT boat – hulls are cross planked boards. IIRC some of the partitions are plywood. Most of the wartime boats were just worn out (Elcos tended to seperate at deck and hull joint). Late war production went to surplus as they were fairly costly to maintain and easier to replace on short notice if something similar was need.

    Since USAF 63′ crashboats were mentioned above, here’s a few more


  20. Perhaps the root of the PT logistics problems was the fact that the PT boats largely served the Army’s needs in interdicting materiel for the enemy and little to do with counter-naval force actions.

    The Navy had their prime goals and it wasn’t usually shooting up barges.

  21. Whitehall, I think you hit the nail on the head. What a lot of folks forget is that in times of war, the Army is what wins it, not the Navy, and certainly not the Air Force. Both of those are necessary, but they are in a supporting role to make sure the Army (and Marines) get supported. You have to conquer and occupy the lands of the enemy. You can bomb them silly and strangle their commerce, but to make them surrender, you have to be willing to march young armed men into their homelands and conquer them.

  22. I found two very interesting PT-boat blog posts at the links below:

    The Solomons Campaign: Torpedo Boats and Littoral Warfare
    September 2009

    In retrospect, the PT boats suffered early from a lack of numbers, lack of radar and faulty torpedoes. Whether they could have sunk more ships will never be known. What is known is that their crews were brave men who undertook a challenging task and did it as well as their equipment allowed them to. Whatever failures one can find in the PT operations in the Solomons, it was never because of the crews.”


    (Originally published by the Navy League of the United States, New
    York Council in The Log, Fall 2007).

    “During the period 21 July 1943 through the end of August, the 52 PT boats based
    around New Georgia engaged approximately 100 Japanese barges. They sank 15 and
    damaged some 22 others. More important than the box score, these battles disrupted the
    Japanese supply and reinforcement chain making it impossible for the Japanese to
    withstand the advance of the Marines and Army troops ashore.”

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