THEY WERE EXPENDABLE Ė In 1942 a book written by W.L. White was published by that title that told the story of the PT-Boat Third Squadron based at Manila on December 7, 1941. The small squadron of only six boats, PT-31 through PT-35 and PT-41, were commanded by Lieutenant John Bulkeley. All of these boats were built by Elco and were of the 77-foot design. In 1945 John Ford directed a film version of the book and used the same title. With John Wayne as Lt. (JG) Rusty Ryan and Robert Montgomery as the squadron commander, Lt. John Brickley, the film is one of the more memorable cinematic efforts from the war.
The United States Navy came to the Motor Torpedo Boat late in its evolution. The Royal Navy developed the concept after seeing the results of civilian speedboat competition. In 1903 Sir Alfred Harmsworth initiated the Harmsworth Trophy to recognize the fastest motor boat in annual international races. Each year competitors would incorporate new equipment and theories that would, hopefully, give them the edge in that yearís race. All the data for these developments was kept and proved to be of great worth when naval versions were developed. Originally boats moved through the water by displacing it with the hull. For this the boats had rounded bottoms. However, at higher speeds there was a very significant loss in efficiency. Greater power would tend to push the stern lower in the water, rather than add speed. The answer was to have the boat skim over the water, rather than to push it out of the way. The boats evolved into flat bottom, keel-less craft with high sides.
With the advent of World War One three countries developed the motor torpedo boat to a significant degree. Britain had the early lead in research, thanks to the data from the Harmsworth Trophy. Called Coastal Motor Boats (CMB) Thorneycroft built different designs up to 55-feet in length. They were a direct adaptation of a civilian racer design. They looked good on paper, since they were capable of speeds of 33 to 40-knots in calm seas. Oddly for the Royal Navy, there was minimal thought to seaworthiness. Torpedoes were launched backwards off the stern. During the war the CMBs were not aggressively used. The largest German warship sunk by them was a destroyer. Their most successful use was after the war in 1919 during the interventionist period against the newly created Soviet Union. CMBs were used to attack the Soviet Baltic Fleet at Kronshtadt. The dreadnought Petropavlovsk, the predreadnought battleship Andrei Pervozvanny, and the training ship Pamiat Azova were all sunk or beached.
Germany developed larger boats, much more capable of operating in a seaway. The ability to operate in rough seas was one of the German design requirements. The German boats were slightly longer and beamier. Their speed was around 30 knots but they could operate in heavy weather. The operation of the German boats was even less distinguished than the British CMBs. They failed to sink any significant ship and were used primarily to run out, cut British anti-submarine nets and run back into port. However, the German boats did prove to be a good basis for design of the Kriegsmarine S-Boats, which proved very effective in the Second World War. The only country that really used imagination and daring in their use of motor torpedo boats was the Italian Navy. Their boats were in MAS squadrons and were responsible for sinking two Austro-Hungarian battleships. In World War Two, when the main Italian fleet was employed in a timid manner, the Italian MAS squadrons and special naval operations units, continued to operate in a daring and effective manner.
The United States Navy sat out the development and employment of motor torpedo boats during this period. Prior to 1917 almost all of the naval budget went into battleships. There was an occasional destroyer or submarine but cruiser development went into ten years of hibernation. There was certainly no money for the untested MTB. After entering the war the emphasis shifted to ASW systems and the USN built massive amounts of destroyers and submarine chasers. Although the USN did not pick up the small swift craft, they would be greatly benefited in the future by a spin-off effect. By 1915 British ship building capacity was maximized and the Royal Navy still needed smaller craft. As a result the RN went on an overseas shopping trip. In the United States representatives of the Admiralty entered into negotiations with a pleasure boat company from Bayonne, New Jersey named the Elco Boat Company. A contract was signed for Elco to build fifty 75-foot wooden hull motorboats for ASW work. With a top speed of 19-knots, the boats were not fast but they were tough. Because of the stringent US neutrality laws, Elco had to build the boats in Canada. The RN liked the Elco product so much they contracted for an 80-foot design but this time for a whopping 500 boats. Elco developed an efficient assembly line to take on this order. The experience gained by Elco in producing the 75 and 80-foot wooden boats for the RN would pay enormous dividends for the USN a generation latter.
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.
Invitations were quickly extended for designs for two MTB designs, one a small 54-foot boat and the other, a larger 70-foot version. The 54-foot design would have a very limited range of 240 miles, two torpedoes, a speed of 40-knots and to displace no more than 20-tons, so that the standard navy crane could lift it. The 70-foot design was to have at least two 21-inch torpedoes, depth charges, a top speed of 40-knots and a range of 550 miles. By the submission deadline of September 30, 1938 there were 37 designs submitted. The navy narrowed the field to three of the 54-foot designs and five of the 70-foot designs. After receiving more detailed plans from the finalists, six boats were ordered in May 1939. The designation Patrol Torpedo (PT) was adopted for the MTBs of the USN. The numbers PT-1 through PT-6 were assigned to the new construction. PT-1 and 2 were direct adoptions of the winning 54-foot design and were awarded to the Miami Shipbuilding Company. PT-3 and 4 were substantially modified 54-foot designs awarded to Fisher Boat Works of Detroit, Michigan. PT-5 and 6 were the 70-foot design, stretched to 81-feet, and were awarded to Higgins Industries of New Orleans, Louisiana. The USN added two more, PT-7 and 8, a wholly navy design of 81-feet to be built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
In January 1939, while aboard a destroyer running trials, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Charles Edison, approached another guest aboard the ship, Henry Sutphen of the Elco Naval Division of the Electric Boat Company, makers of submarines for the USN. Edison suggested that Elco get involved in the MTB business. Edison further suggested a clandestine mission for Sutphen. The Secretary recognized that with their experiences with the CMBs of World War One, that the Royal Navy had far greater experience in the field than the USN. Further, he reasoned that their designs were probably far better than the designs for the current eight boats being built for the USN. Edison suggested that Elco travel to Britain, buy a British MTB and bring it back for detailed study. Politically, the USN could not go out and buy a foreign design, even a British one, as it would have created a political firestorm with domestic builders. So with no written agreement and only the verbal commitment that Edison would try to get the navy to purchase from Elco anything brought back from Britain, Sutphen sailed for England of February 10, 1939.
The Admiralty was more than happy to entertain Sutphen and cooperate. They still appreciated and remembered the valuable services that Sutphen and Elco had provided in the First World War and in the spring of 1939, it certainly looked like they may need Elcoís production facilities in the not too distant future. The RN gladly showed Sutphen all of the designs and production facilities for the different models of British MTBs. The design that most impressed Sutphen was a 70-foot design from British Powerboat. The sleek design had only been purchased in minimal numbers for the Royal Navy, which preferred the Vosper designs but Sutphen liked the speed and lines of the design by Hubert Scott-Payne. With the admiraltyís complete blessing, Elco bought one copy of the British Powerboat design, powered by three Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, which were truly spectacular power-plants, plus rights to US manufacture. The news was wired to Edison, who sent all the way up to President Roosevelt. FDR quickly gave his blessing and Elco found itself in the PT-Boat business. The name Elco would become synonymous with PT-Boats to the same extent that the name of the parent company Electric Boat became with USN submarines.
The 70-footer did not arrive in the US until September 3, 1939, two days after the outbreak of World War Two. The boat now named PT-9 was taken to the Electric Boat facilities at Groton, Connecticut for testing. Scott-Payne, bitter from the failure of the RN to appreciate his design, put PT-9 through the trials. Edison, now acting Secretary for the Navy, wanted to spend the remaining unspent $5 million of the 1938 appropriation for experimental boats on Elco versions of PT-9. Sutphen said that he could provide the USN with an additional 16 boats but Edison talked him into producing 23 more boats so that the USN could field two complete 12 boat squadrons. Sutphen later said that Elco lost $600,000 on this initial deal but of course would more than make this up with subsequent contracts as the prime PT-Boat producer for the USN. So on December 7, 1939 the USN inked its first contract with Elco for PTs. PT-9 was not officially delivered until June 17, 1940 because Elco engineers had to template every part of the original British built boat for the production of the US versions, which were to be powered by Packard engines in lieu of the Rolls-Royce Merlins.
The USN organized its first three squadrons with all of the experimental boats being assigned to Squadron 1 and the Elco 70-footers making up Squadrons Two and Three. PT-9 was the first member of Squadron One with PT-3 and 4 joining in late July 1940. As Edison foresaw, none of the other experimental boats measured up to PT-9. PT-1 and 2 languished at the Miami builders for a year and a half, awaiting Vimalert engines as was also the case of the Higgins PT-5, which was eventually delivered. PT-6 was never accepted and in turn was sold to Finland. Navy built PT-7 and PT-8 were totally unsatisfactory in performance. Indeed all of the eight US designed boats purchased with the initial $10 million of the $15 million for experimental designs were failures. Although the history of the USN PT-Boat did bloom later with US improvements and design innovation, the initial start to the USN PT program is firmly based on the British built PT-9.
By January Squadron One and Two were sent south for testing around Cuba. Squadron Two was composed of entirely Elco 70-footers, including PT-9, which had been transferred out of Squadron One. Squadron One consisted of PT-3, 4, 5, 7 and 8. The boats of the First Squadron failed the tests miserably and even the Elco boats of the 2nd Squadron had teething problems. This was exactly what the USN had expected as it allowed for correcting problems before the USN was confronted by war-time expediency. When they returned all of the 70-foot Elcos, as well as PT-3, 4, 5 and 7 were earmarked to be transferred to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease Program. A new improved Scott-Payne design was slated for PT-20, the last boat of the original Elco contract. The USN wanted future boats to be capable of carrying four 21-inch torpedo tubes. PT-20 was redesigned to add an additional seven-foot section at the stern to accomplish this goal. With PT-20 the Elco 77-footer was born.
The Elco 77-footer became the first USN boats to enter into combat but that was still in the future. As part of the 1941 appropriations $50 million was earmarked for PTs, with a competition in July 1941 to decide who would get the contract. Although many factors were listed for consideration, top speed became the predominant factor sought by the various builders. The resulting tests became defacto speed boat races dubbed the Plywood Derbys. Elco of course had the inside tract with several working examples of the Elco 77-footer. Higgens after being burned with the outside design for PT-5 and 6 came up with their own design, PT-70. This 76-foot design was well liked. Although not as fast as the Elco boats, it rode smoother than the Elco boats, which endeared the design to their crews. PT-70 became the basis for the mass-produced Higgins 78-foot design. Another designer that contended was the Huckins Yacht Corporation, whose design was powered by four engines. During competition, rough seas were frequently encountered. During a six hour race, the USN allocated one of its new destroyers to participate, The orders for the USS Wilkes was to make her best possible speed for comparison against the PT contenders performances. The Wilkes using all of her power was only able to finish the race a few minutes before the first of the PTs, an Elco 77-footer, crossed the line. The Elco 77s proved to be the fastest and driest boats in the competition with the Higgins design not far behind. The Huckins design was rated less desirable than the Elco or Higgins designs. After studying the results, Elco, Higgins and Huckins were invited to submit larger designs in the 75 to 82 foot range. Contracts were inked with Elco for 36 Elco 80-footers, Higgins for 24 78-footers and even Huckins for 8 of their design but this was in early December 1941. Of course the parameters changed completely on December 7, 1941.
When the USN Pacific Fleet was incapacitated by the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were 29 Elco 77-footers serving in Squadrons 1, 2 and 3. Squadron Three was a small 6 boat squadron that had been sent to Manila to give MacArthur a greater naval presence. All six boats were Elco 77-footers and was comprised of PT-31 through 35 and PT-41. These boats included some field modifications. In addition to the two twin Browning .50 machine gun mounts, two additional .303 Lewis guns were placed on pole mounts on the forecastle. The Lewis gun was introduced in World War One and been used not only by the Royal Army but also by British fighters such as the SE-5. Instead of using belt fed ammunition, Lewis guns ammunition was fed by a circular drum. Apparently it was reasoned that they would be more easily resupplied by changing out drums than a belt fed gun on the bucking bow of a PT boat. The press jumped on the PT as a miracle weapon. Their crews were cocky and over-flowed with panache, in contrast the staid and conservative larger ships. Grossly inflated capabilities were attributed to these initial boats, such as a 70-knot speed in 15-foot seas. In reality they had a speed of between 26 to 35 knots depending upon the age of the engines. 600 hours was allocated for engine life and the older the engines the slower the boat.
In the early months of the war in the Pacific, there were few replacement engines available, especially in the Philippines, which was quickly isolated by the Japanese Navy. Although Squadron Three was slated to receive six additional boats from Squadron One, these boats were transiting the Pacific and were at Pearl Harbor on December 7 and hence, never got to the Philippines. The wooden hulls would become water-logged and would have to be removed from the water to allow for drying-out and removal of sea growth. Of course this was not a consideration for Squadron Three, where MacArthur desperately needed all six of his boats to be in continuous operations. The over-worked boats of Squadron Three had over-worked engines and a significant drop in speed. They could be easily over taken by Japanese destroyers and their best chance was in a night action where they could use their low silhouette to best advantage. After Pearl Harbor the reeling USN pinned even greater capabilities on the PT, which were eagerly consumed by the public. However, these capabilities far exceeded what the design was capable, even when fresh from the builders. The Elco 77-footers in Squadron Three were far from fresh. The 1942 publication of the book, They Were Expendable further romanticized the exploits and capabilities of Squadron Three.
The December 1941 air attacks on the Philippines destroyed the machine shops as well as the stock of spare parts, gasoline and torpedoes for Squadron Three. From that point it was only a matter of time before the boats would start breaking down because of mechanical problems beyond the capability of their crews to fix. However, they still went out on their nightly patrols and engaged Japanese barges and shore positions. The engines in the boats, like aircraft engines, needed constant maintenance and without the necessary parts, it sometimes seemed to their crews that the Elco 77s engines were held together by duct-tape and chewing gum. During the five months that Squadron Three operated in the Philippines, they listed that they had sunk four Japanese ships with torpedoes. On December 17 PT-32, 34 and 35 went to rescue passengers of SS Corregidor, all evacuees, which had hit a mine while leaving Manila Bay. During the night, they fished people out of the water. The next morning a head count revealed that PT-32 had carried 196 of the passengers to safety, an all-time record for most people on a PT. Later PT-32 attacked what was thought to be a Japanese cruiser off Bataan on the night of February 1, 1942. She thought that two of her torpedoes had struck, although this was never confirmed by a post-war examination of Japanese records.
On March 11, 1942 the remnants of Squadron Three, down to four boats, were assigned with the task of taking General MacArthur and his family from Corregidor, south to the island of Mindanao, where they could be evacuated by air. This alone was a touch and go mission, in which the little boats barely evaded the overwhelming power of the Imperial Japanese Navy but came through successfully, for which Bulkeley was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The boats by this time were floating wrecks, with PT-32 operating on one engine, having to be destroyed en route, when she broke down.
On April 8, when only two of the boats were still operational, they claimed that they sunk a Japanese cruiser. On that night PT-41, commanded by Squadron Commander Lt John Bulkeley and PT-34, commanded by Lt Robert Kelly, portrayed by John Wayne under the name Rusty Ryan in the film, were off Cebu. They sighted what they thought was a light cruiser of the Tenryu or Kuma Class. They moved into 500 yards of range and attacked. Unfortunately, they were plagued by the defective Mk VIII torpedoes. The first two torpedoes of PT-41 ran erratically and the second two ran straight but failed to explode on contact. The alerted Japanese turned on searchlights and opened fire. As PT-41 kept the Japanese busy by running alongside the Japanese ship and dousing her with machine gun fire, PT-34 started her run. Her first two torpedoes missed astern, so PT-34 circled to use her last two fish. Fired from astern, Kelly observed two water spouts. Kelly assumed that he had hit the cruiser and Bulkeley reported that the cruiser was enveloped in yellow smoke and that "It could be seen that the cruiser was sinking by the stern with her bow up in the air." Although the action was also witnessed from the land by a US Army soldier and American professor, a post war search of Japanese records failed to uncover any Japanese losses reported that night. However, the exploit made it into the book and subsequently into the movie. By the end of formal resistance, still cut-off, without repair parts, gasoline or ammunition, the last of the Elco 77s of Squadron Three had to be destroyed but they had created a myth.
Of course, there is much more to the Elco story but that rightfully belongs to the story of the Elco 80-footer, which will be covered shortly in another review of the Elco 80 from a different manufacturer. (History of the early USN PT-Boat program and the Elco 77-Footer from United States PT-Boats of World War Two by Frank D. Johnson)
The GMS Elco 77-Foot PT
When I opened the package that contained the GMS Elco 77-foot PT, I was immediately struck by the excellence of the presentation. Here Iím not talking about the model itself but in the manner that it is packaged and presented. For a small model, the GMS packaging is the best that I have seen. It is totally first class. GMS packages the model in a very sturdy box, adorned with a full color photograph of the completed model. Upon opening the box youíll notice that the contents are subdivided into one section for the hull and one section for the smaller parts, with all parts being further protected from damage by card board or heavy card inserts. It is extremely well thought out protection scheme and again, the best that I have seen on a model of this size.
The hull is two piece, being separated at the waterline. This allows the modeler to build it full hull for display on an included display cradle or waterline. Of course to display the model in a diorama, you may need to join the hull bottom with the top, depending upon what you wish to show. To show the Elco 77 at dock or idling through Manila Bay, you wonít need the lower hull but to show the boat at speed or in an attack, the lower hull would be needed, as the lower bow was visible at higher speeds.
The lower portion of the hull is extraordinarily well protected within a hollow cardboard sleeve. The reason for this is instantly recognizable in that the bottom of the stern has very fine and delicate propeller shaft support struts for the two outboard shafts. The lower hull is on a thin sheet of resin but is easily removed and sanded clean.
The upper hull is a work of art. I donít know where GMS will go from here as their first offering, the Elco 77-Foot PT is first rate in every category. Its like the company started out with no learning curve. This product is as good in detail and casting quality as the best from any company. A 77-foot PT Boat in 1:350 scale is still a small model but GMS has a huge amount of detail in the small frame. Of course it is best to just examine the photographs but to just highlight some of the features is worthwhile. There is plenty of deck detail from fore and aft deck hatches, torpedo tube mounting plates, Lewis gun mount positions, deck coamings, deck lateral bracing and assorted cleats and odd equipment. The superstructure is part of the hull and its almost tear drop shape from the top view is very appealing. The Elco 77 has an enclosed cockpit, almost like a speedboat design, which is very evident in the GMS model. The large window on the front part of the superstructure and vision slits lining the aft part are very cleanly incised into the resin. It will be very easy to darken and add depth to these features. The superstructure also has its own share of fittings. The two circular .50 twin mount positions are most evident. They are hollow but only partially. This presents no problem as there is a gun mount as well as twin Brownings for each position and you would only need to use the upper part of the torso for crewmembers manning those positions. Although you could take the time and effort to further deepen the gun tubs, I really donít think that it is worth the effort or risk in doing so. The superstructure has a nice sliding hatch and runners on the aft deck as well as other hatches on the side and front face. The deck contains locator holes for the ventilator cowlings and Lewis guns. Unfortunately my photographs do not do the actual model justice. For some reason my camera has the tendency to focus on the darker background rather than on the very light colored resin.
Just listing the small resin pieces shows the detail included by GMS in this kit. Torpedo tubes (4); torque rods (8); twin Browning circular carriage (2); twin .50 Brownings (2); .303 Lewis guns (2); Lewis ammunition drums (2); cowl vents (5); blower vent (1); mast (1); anchor light pillar (1); anchor light pillar stud (1); bow light pillar (1); bow light pillar stud (1); searchlight (1); life rings (2); propellers (3); rudders (3); and model pedestal/cradle (1). That is 41 resin pieces in addition to the two hull halves. That is a lot of detail crammed into a small model. The one down side of having this degree of fine detail done in resin is the need to use patience and care in removing most of the pieces from the very light resin film in which they are cast. Some parts are ready to go in that they are not on film but most of the smallest parts need to be removed from the film. Do not rush! Take your time and be patient in releasing these minute parts from their film and the results will be more than worth the time that you have invested. Because of the incredible delicacy of these smaller resin parts, the kit may not be suitable for the beginner to resin model construction.
One other conundrum will be how to present the model. Do you want to show the Elco 77 in pristine shape from the builders? The topics and opportunities to place this model in a diorama are overwhelming. Many modelers will undoubtedly go this route but even here there are so many choices to make. Moving through Manila Bay or tied up at a dock before the war would be far different in appearance than the that of the tired, worn out veterans of Squadron Three in spring 1942. You can have PT-41 at the dock as General MacArthur says good-bye to MG Wainwright. How about adding Douglas MacArthur, talking to Lt. Bulkeley, as PT-41 glides south in March 1942, or the last charge of PT-34 and PT-41 on April 8, 1942? For those that like to add a lot of figures, what about PT-32 carrying 196 refugees? Finally, for the Hollywood types, you can depict John Wayne as Lt. (JG) Rusty Ryan, single-handedly dispatching the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Whichever way you go, GMS has provided a top-notch kit for doing so.
At this time the GMS Elco 77-Foot PT can be purchased directly from Andrei Gorbunov of GMS (firstname.lastname@example.org), Don Spielberger of Loyalhanna Dockyard (email@example.com) or Jacques Druel of LíArsenal (firstname.lastname@example.org).