American PT Boats Background and History:
The design of US PT boats began in the 1930s as naval planners recognized the need for smaller torpedo boats suitable for operating in shallow waters and possessing capability for high speed and maneuverability . The torpedo boats of the earlier 20th century had been larger and evolved later into destroyer escort type of craft suitable for fleet operations in open waters.
The British were ahead in design of fast, small boats to operate in the English Channel, both as defensive and attack boats and later as rescue boats for downed airmen. Initial design work by American boat maker ELCO (Electric Launch Company), based in Bayonne, NJ, was based on British designs by Hubert Scott-Payne. The first experimental PT boat evaluated by the American navy was a Scott-Payne boat purchased from England by ELCO. The early experimental PT boats were generally shorter (70 feet) than final designs, and had various power plants. Insistence by the US Navy that the final design should be large enough to carry four torpedos in tubes and have fast and agile performance characteristics led to the final approval of four different versions of boats which were longer, had sharp-chined planing hulls, and were powered with the newly available Packard marine gasoline engines. The engines ran on aviation grade gasoline and generated 1200 HP initially, later up to 1750 HP.
The four approved designs were the 77 foot ELCO, the 80 foot ELCO, the 78 foot Higgins, and the 78 foot Huckins. There were relatively few Huckins boats made, (PT 95 – PT 102, OT 255 – PT 264) and none saw combat, so the Huckins boats are not considered further here.
77 foot ELCO PT boat specifications:
length: 77 ‘0″, beam 19’ 11″, draft 4’6″, weight 46 tons, speed 42 Knots, Complement: 2 Officers, 8 crew. Armament 4 x 21″ Mark 18 torpedo tubes with Mark 8 torpedoes; 2 x twin 50 caliber Browning machine guns in two turrets, 2 x 30 caliber Lewis (later Browning) machine guns on pedestals on foredeck. Later upgrades, including field modifications, added heavier guns including 20mm Oerlikon auto cannon, 37mm cannon, and 40mm cannon.
The 77 foot ELCO boats had two variants. The early boats, PT 20 – 44, were delivered in 1941 and were armed with four torpedo tubes, two twin 50 caliber Browning air cooled machine guns mounted in plexiglas covered hydraulically controlled turrets, and two single Lewis 30 caliber machine guns (later Browning) mounted on the deck in front of the cabin.
After the outbreak of WW2 and operational experience, the initial early ELCO 77 boats were modified by removing the plexiglas turret canopies and the gradual adoption of heavier guns as well as different color schemes more suitable for operating in the Pacific, where the boats were based along the shore or rivers using jungle canopy for cover.
Later ELCO 77 (PT 45 – 68) -boats had a wooden deck stiffener added to reinforce and strengthen the deck, which tended to work and crack in heavy seas.
One of the first motor torpedo squadrons (“RON”) 3, (PTs 31 – 35, 41) was stationed in the Phillipines under the command of Lt. John Bulkeley at the time of Pearl Harbor, and the onset of the Japanese assault on the Phillipines. RON 3 boats were the US Navy presence in the Phillipines after the withdrawal of larger vessels and made a valiant stand against superior forces. They evacuated high-ranking American staff from Corregidor to Mindanao, a 560 mile trip, on March 11, 1942, from where a B-17 took MacArthur to Australia on March 17. MacArthur traveled on the 41; Admiral Rockwell on the 34. The story of RON 3 was popularized (“They Were Expendable”) and used for promotional purposes during the war. RON 1 was based in Hawaii; RON 2 in the Panama Canal Zone.
All the boats of the first RON 3 were lost by August 1942. Some were lost to enemy aircraft; most were scuttled or burned to prevent capture upon the surrender of the Phillipines.
ELCO 80 PT Boat specifications:
length: 80 ‘0″, beam 20′ 10″, draft 5’ 3″, weight 41 – 61 tons, speed 43 – 41 Knots (depending on armament) , Complement: 2 Officers, 10 – 12 crew. Armament 4 x 21″ Mark 18 torpedo tubes with Mark 8 torpedoes; 2 x twin 50 caliber Browning, 20mm Oerlikon cannon; later added 37mm cannon, 40mm Bofors cannon, and 5″ rocket launchers.
The 80 foot ELCO boats were an improvement on the 77 foot design and the first 80 foot boats (PT 103- PT 196) entered service in mid 1942. Soon after launch, the first group of 80 foot boats were assigned to the Solomon Islands, where they came up against the “Tokyo Express” as they interdicted the Japanese navy re-supplying and supporting the Japanese troops on the island chain. Initially armed with the standard 4 torpedo tubes, two twin 50 caliber Brownings in turrets, and a 20 mm Oerlikon mounted aft of the engine room cabin, the boats were found by crew to need heavier armament as they operated as “barge busters” among the islands. Crews added 37mm Army field cannon to the forecastle to assist in barge busting and depth charges to help eluding and evading Japanese destroyers. Several 77 foot ELCO boats (PT 59, PT 60, PT 61) were stripped of torpedo tubes and armed with additional 50 caliber machine guns along the sides and 40mm Bofors cannons both fore and aft. Some RONs substituted 20mm cannon for the machine guns in the forward turret of 80 foot boats. This field experience and experimentation was fed back to the Navy and the boat builders and led to two changes in the armament: first, the old style torpedos fired from tubes were substituted with aerial torpedos. The aerial torpedos weighed less than the older torpedos and were launched from roll-off racks, saving the considerable weight of the old style tubes. The savings in weight permitted heavier guns, and late in the war, the 80 foot boats were supplied with one 40 mm Bofors cannon aft, one 20 mm Oerlikon and one 37 mm aircraft style auto cannon on the forecastle, the standard twin 50 caliber machine guns, and two rocket launchers holding eight 5″ rockets on the fore deck. As targets worthy of torpedos vanished, crews commonly substituted depth charge racks for torpedo launching racks and mounted mortars and additional machine guns on the deck and cabin roofs.
Higgins 78 foot PT Boat Specifications:
length: 78 ‘6″, beam 20′ 1″, draft 5’ 3″, weight 43 – 48 tons, speed 40 Knots (depending on armament) , Complement: 3 Officers, 9 – 14 crew. Armament 4 x 21″ Mark 18 torpedo tubes with Mark 8 torpedoes; 2 x twin 50 caliber Browning, 20mm Oerlikon cannon initially, later added a second Oerlikon cannon, and by end of war, armament was much the same as the late 80 foot ELCO boats. A total of 199 Higgins boats were constructed in three classes: PT 71 class (PT 71 – PT 94, PT 177 – PT 254); the PT 265 class (PT 265 – PT 313, PT 450 – PT 485); and the PT 625 class (PT 625 – PT 660). PTs 627 – 660 were cancelled at the end of the war.
Higgins PT boats were built at the City Park plant of Higgins Industries, located adjacent to the present day Delgado Community College, near City Park. When the hulls were completed, they were loaded by crane onto railroad flatcars and taken by rail along the tracks which are today part of the Lafitte Greenway, and transferred to Bayou St. John, at its terminus, near today’s Jeff Davis Parkway. Once in the Bayou, the boats were taken out to Lake Pontchartrain around to the Industrial Canal for fitting out at the main Higgins plant on the Canal. The plant at the Industrial Canal was where the various landing craft, “Higgins Boats” were also manufactured.
The Higgins boats saw action in all theaters where PT boats functioned, but were primarily assigned to duties in English Channel and the Mediterranean. Although there were fewer Higgins PTs made than ELCO boats, more survive. At the end of the war in Europe, the remaining PT boats in that theatre were either distributed to allies or returned to the US to be refitted for the Pacific theater. The war ended before they could be re-deployed and they were therefore disposed of in the US. The PT boats in the Pacific, mostly ELCOs were stripped of anything useful and burned.
Please see the pages on the specific type of boat for further information about the vessels and the models of them.