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 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
THE STORY OF ADMIRAL RICHMOND KELLY TURNER
“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
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
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.
with a Foreword by
President John F. Kennedy
“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
“26. THE END AND THE BEGINNING
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.”