USS PT 658 lives up to the “Plenty Tough” motto of PT Boaters
By Jerry Gilmartin
Moored to the Navy Operational Center Pier, floating in the Williamette River, located not far from downtown Portland, Oregon, sits what may be one of the last operational and completely restored US Navy WW2 PT Boats in existance. Welcome aboard the PT658, a 78 foot Higgins PT Boat, built in early 1945 and delivered to the US Navy just one month before the end of WW2. If you did not know the date, one could easily mistake photographs of this boat for those taken in August, 1945, at the very culmination of development of this type of heavily armed yet highly maneuverable craft, popularly known as “Devil Boats”, “Mosquito Boats” or even as “Plywood Wonders”.
Having restored the boat to this pristine condition, the members of the non profit group, “Save the PT Boat Inc.” are justifiably proud of their boat. They have suffered through an arduous journey over the last 22 years, when the group first started restoring a different PT boat, the PT-659. That boat eventually became the source of the engines and running gear to the PT658. The 658 was chosen over the 659 as the better candidate for restoration due to the better material condition and historical authenticity of the hull. Additionally, the group has withstood several major setbacks to their goal of restoring and operating this 78 foot long Higgins PT Boat. The boat has weathered two sinkings; a gale warning, an electrical fire, (when the boat was almost destroyed) and innumerable other obstacles in the way of final restoration of the boat. “We knew when we began that this task would take more time than some of us had,” said PT Veteran Frank Lesage (GM2/c PT205) during the boats dedication ceremony held on June 7, 2005. “People told us it was impossible, that she’ll never float again, let alone run on her own power- but you never tell a bunch of old PT boaters that it can’t be done.” Several of the original group of veterans have since passed away before seeing the completion of the boat. Molly McCready carried on in the can-do spirit of her late father, founding member (and PT boater) Al McCready (RON33 QMC, PT491), by christening the boat with a bottle of champagne on her first swing at the 658’s bullnose. This boat stands as a testament to the perseverance and innovative spirit of PT Boaters as a whole, who often faced great odds in battle against combatants 10 times their size, coupled with being on a craft that was and still is considered as “Expendable”. The PT Boaters were usually located at or near the bottom of the US Navy supply chain, and crews often had to resort to creative methods of obtaining needed supplies. But this spirit that still endures from the all-volunteer force is most likely the same one that made it possible to surmount the nearly endless obstacles faced by the restoration crew. Now, come aboard and tour this historic artifact, that is under the cognizance of the US Naval Historic Branch, and known as USS PT 658.
Hull and Superstructure
The boat was constructed at Higgins Industries Boat Works, New Orleans LA. The keel was laid down 24FEB45, and then launched on 11APR45. After further fitting out, PT658 was completed on 30JUL45, just 1 short week before the first atomic bomb was dropped on 08AUG45 that ended the war by early September. The boat was actually on the way (as deck cargo on an LST) to be lend leased to the USSR when the transfer was cancelled and the ship turned around and offloaded at Port Hueneme, CA. The hull consists of two layers of wood (3/8” spruce and 3/4” mahogany) fitted over 2 inch mahogany frames spaced 12 inches apart. In between the two layers of wood is airplane type canvas that is coated with “doping” to improve the watertight integrity of the hull. The interior spruce layer is laid at 45 degree angles to the outer layer of mahogany planks. The outer layer is parallel to the waterline, and is connected to adjacent planks through the use of oval shaped “joiner-plates” used to join the butt joints from the inside of the boat. These construction techniques makes for a light, yet surprisingly strong hull, and was able to be repaired close to the front lines.
The overall hull form is a classic “step” type planing hull, which requires a speed of about 25-28 knots to lift the bow out of the water, greatly reducing the underwater mass and power needed to push the boat through the water. One drawback of this type of hull design was found to be the extremely visible wake. Going at full speed, the PT Boat wake is normally 20 feet high and 100 feet long. Enemy aircraft could spot a PT Boat at night in tropical areas from miles away merely by searching for their luminous wakes. Some say that even LTjg John F. Kennedy (and later President) as he commanded PT109, was mindful of this threat from by Japanese aircraft that had bombed several PT’s in his squadron in the weeks immediately prior to his collision and loss of the 109. The S.O.P. from his squadron commander was to cruise slowly while on station so as not to stir up the telltale wake. The 109 was cruising slowly when it was hit, partially in response to this policy.
The interior hull of the PT 658 is divided below deck into eight watertight compartments from bow to stern. Starting at the bow is the Forepeak (or Chain Locker), the Fwd Crew’s Berthing/Galley, and next is the Officers Wardroom. Aft of the Wardroom is the Forward Tank Room (Gas tanks), the Engineroom, and then the Aft Tank Room. Near the stern is the Aft Crews Quarters, and the Lazarette (Rudder Room). Four deck hatches provide access to the Forward Crews Quarters, the Wardroom, the Engineroom, and the Aft Crews Quarters. Watertight doors join the Fwd Crews Quarters to the Wardroom, and another between the Wardroom to the Officer’s Head (located between the two 750 gallon Self Sealing gasoline tanks) in the Fwd Tank Room. Two more watertight doors join the Aft Crews Quarters to the Lazarette and the Aft Crew’s Head located similarly between the Aft gas tanks. The Deckhouse of the boat consists of only the Chartroom/Radar Room, constructed of mahogany plywood and frames. The aft end of the Charthouse contains a windscreen and helm controls. The sides of the Charthouse contain two plexiglass windows with dogged cover plates for light control. The rear of the Charthouse is faired into the two circular 5 foot diameter 0.50 caliber Machine Gun Tubs. There is a popular myth that these boats were constructed completely out of plywood. Although some bulkheads and sub decking contain some plywood, the vast majority of the Hull was constructed using mahogany planks.
The boat is powered by three late-war modification model 5M-2500 Packard V12 marine engines. Designed to run on 100 octane aviation gasoline, these engines will develop 1800 Horsepower at 2500 rpm. The model designation denotes the displacement of the engine which is roughly 2500 cubic inches. Each piston is 6-1/8” diameter and has a stroke of 6-3/8”. This large amount of horsepower is a direct result of two significant improvements developed by Packard near the end of the WW2. One improvement was the addition of a centrifugal supercharger. The gear driven supercharger spins faster (20,000+ rpm) and is larger in diameter than earlier superchargers fitted on the Model 4M-2500 engines. The other improvement these engines have is the installation of an Intercooler Heat Exchanger. Located downstream of the supercharger and just upstream of the intake manifold, this cooler allows the pressurized intake air to be more dense, allowing even more oxygen to be rammed into the cylinders and boosting horsepower up to 1800. The biggest thrill most people that ever rode the boats during the war have today is to hear the roar and feel the surge that these engines provide to the boat, as they push her at speeds of 42+ knots. The entire boat feels alive when these engines are running, and many PT Boaters say they are the soul of the boat. Indeed, several times during WW2, the throaty roar of passing PT Boat engines were mistaken by shore based anti-aircraft batteries as incoming aircraft. All of this power however also comes at a price. Each engine, when operating at cruising speed, consumes roughly 66 gallons of 100 octane gasoline per hour. If the speed is raised to the maximum of 2500 rpm, the engines have a consumption rate of about 165 gallons per hour each. The capacity of the boats gas tanks (3000 gallons) give the boat a duration long enough to go on an average mission lasting 12 hours, or about 550 miles round trip.
Pound for pound, the late war US Navy PT Boats were the most heavily armed vessels in the US Navy. Responding to the needs of the crews on the front lines, what had started out as a lightly armed torpedo launching patrol vessel was transformed into a heavily armed gunboat, able to deal effectively with both ships, planes and small craft. The PT crews were also exposed necessarily to the kind of gut wrenching, up close and personal combat, that often occurred in the pitch black of tropical nights from ranges as close as 100 yards. Being exposed to heavy automatic weapons fire from point blank range was all too common in the ranks of the battle weary PT boat crews. The crews asked for or sometimes modified their boats personally to include more and more weaponry as the war progressed. The PT 658 is an example of a heavily armed late-war PT Boat. It includes the two twin Browning M2 0.50 caliber machine guns. These guns have a max effective range of 2500 yards, and can shoot 550 rounds per minute per gun. Each gun is belt fed and is mounted in a 360 degree traversing turret ring. The turret ring has ammunition cans holding 1100 rounds per gun. More ammo was stowed below in an ammunition locker directly below the chartroom..
Next are the two Model M4 20MM Oerlikon Cannons. Each holds a 60 round spiral magazine and delivers 480 rounds per minute. Max effective range is 5500 yards. One of these cannons is deck mounted on the Port side, just forward of the Charthouse, and the other is mounted midships centerline , just aft of the engineroom hatch. The mountings of the 20MM Oerlikon cannons are constructed so that they may be trained vertically to be used also as an anti-aircraft weapon.
Mounted centerline on the bow of PT658 is the 37MM Oldsmobile M4 Automatic Cannon. Originally cannibalized from crashed P39 Airacobra fighter planes, these cannons were found to be very effective when used in an anti-supply barge missions on the PT Boats. Fitted with a 30 round magazine, and delivering 180 rounds per minute with a max effective range of 9000 yards, these guns were a favorite of many PT Boat crews. It only took a few hits on most barges with the 37MM cannon to sink it.
The largest gun mounted on the PT658 is the single air-cooled Bofors 40MM cannon. It packs the biggest punch of any of the guns on the boat. Shooting a projectile of 2 pounds, the Bofors Automatic cannon has a range of 5400 yards and can fire up to 120 rounds per minute. The cannon normally is operated by a crew of 4 men, a Pointer, Trainer, Loader, and Assistant Loader. There are 32 rounds stored on the mount, and 64 more stowed in racks on the deck immediately forward of the gun. The Bofors could be used in either anti-barge or anti-aircraft roles. PT Boats were not regularly equiped with the Bofors until mid-1944. But on the boats that had this reliable cannon installed, the crews were glad to have such substantial firepower that could knock out most targets in only a few hits.
PT 658 also carries 2 US Navy Mark 6 depth charges. These depth charges can be set to explode anywhere between 30 and 600 feet depending on the dial setting of the pistol type detonator. They have a 300 pound charge of TNT and a total weight of 420 pounds. The PT Boats used these weapons either to sink barges (by dropping one next to a target barge) or to discourage enemy destroyers from chasing a fleeing PT boat after it had attacked the enemy formation. No submarines were sunk by PT boats using depth charges during the war. Two subs, however were sunk by the use of PT boat torpedoes against the sub.
Another weapon utilized by PT658 is the Smoke Generator. While not able to actually fire projectiles, the 35 gallon titanium tetrachloride smoke generator tank mounted on the stern makes huge volumes of billowy white smoke and lasts long enough to cover 7 miles at top speed. The smoke could be used to screen landing craft from enemy shore guns, or to screen a close-in torpedo attack by the PT boat. Being able to attack and then completely disappear was a powerful weapon indeed.
Last but not least, is the weapon that gives the PT658 the punch needed to knock out larger vessels. These “heavy hitters”are the 4 Mark 13 torpedoes, mounted in roll-off style launching racks. Two existing racks (along with two additional racks currently being added by the crew) accommodate all four torpedoes recently acquired from the Keyport, Washington Naval Underwater Weapons Museum. The 22-1/2 inch Mark 13 contains 600 pounds of Torpex in the warhead and can travel at a set speed of 33.5 knots. The compressed air and alcohol burning “steam” powered torpedo has a range of 6300 yards (about 3.5 miles). The length of the Mark 13 torpedo is 13 feet 6 inches and it weighs in at 2216 pounds. These torpedoes were designed to be dropped from aircraft such as the Grumman “Avenger” Torpedo Bomber, and were started by pulling a lanyard. As such, they do not require the use of the old style bronze torpedo launching tubes. This ability affords a great weight savings on the PT Boat. Since each of the 4 old-style tubes weigh 3000 pounds, PT Boats using the lighter Mark 13 torpedoes and roll-off racks were able to carry more weapons of other types, such as the 40MM Bofors cannon. According to wartime records available from the Keyport Naval Underwater Weapons Museum, more ships were sunk by the Mark 13 torpedo during WW2 than any other type of torpedo.
Plans are being made for obtaining and installing 2 eight cell 5 inch spin-stabilized outboard rocket launcher tubes, and a 60mm mortar on the bow. Both of these were installed on PT Boats during the war and PT658 will install them if possible as soon as they can be obtained.
The PT 658 is equipped with Raytheon SO3 Surface Search radar. The use of this early type of radar gave PT Boats the ability to locate targets from 16-20 miles away, depending on their size. The antenna is mounted inside of a Radome mounted atop the main mast, a vertical distance above the waterline of 17 feet. It rotated at 12 rpm with the control unit located inside the charthouse. The Radar mast is a tripod that is able to be lowered flat with the deck for when the Boat must pass below bridges and other low clearances. The Radar is supplemented by the installation of US Navy IFF Equipment. (Identification Friend or Foe) consists of the vintage Farnsworth BN Transmitter and the Belmont BK Reciever, and was able to be selected in six code combinations. Each IFF Unit has an antennae of the Ski-Pole design mounted on the mast and the pilot house. The IFF display was married into the PPI screen of the SO3 radar scope.
Radio communications equipment is supplied by Collins “TCS”-type Transmitter and Reciever. It is installed inside the Charthouse, with a remote control unit conveniantly near the helm control. The radio set is a tube type radio with a range of 200 miles or more. The 20 foot tall detachable whip antenna is mounted on the starboard side of the charthouse and can be disconnected from the radio by the use of a knife switch. Finally, the boats Navigation Gear consists of two separate types of compass equipment. The first is a Pioneer Magnetic Compass, similar to those found on aircraft, mounted in a cylindrical binnacle. Next is a Pioneer Flux Gate Gyrocompass. It consists of several sub-components. First is the Power Supply, mounted below the companionway ladder to the Crews Quarters. Next is the Flux Gate sending unit, mounted in the extreme forward bilge below the deck plates in Forward Crews Quarters. There is also a Caging Switch for the Gyro situated nearby the sending unit. The outputs from the Flux gate unit goes to an adjustable Master Indicator found inside the Charthouse, and a Repeater mounted at the Helm Control.
The USS PT658 enjoys a popular base of support from the Portland metropolitan area. Recently, the boat has gotten underway for special events only as directed by the US Naval Historical Branch, Washington Navy Yard, Washington DC. Regularly crewed by a collection of PT veterans and dedicated volunteers, the USS PT658 has taken part in several public outings. The Annual Portland Rose Festival Fleet Week, June 8-11, 2006 saw the PT658 escorting ships from the US Navy, Canadian Navy, and US Coast Guard into downtown Portland. Several high ranking official US Navy visitors, (including several Admirals) were transported at 23+ knots on board the PT 658 as part of the festivities. Each of the Admirals was allowed the opportunity to pilot the boat underway. Included in the entourage was RADM W. French, (USN) Commander, NRNW, also present was RADM K. Quinn (USN) COMCARSTKGRU THREE, RADM R. Houck(USCG) Commander 13th USCG District, Mayor Royce Pollard, of Vancouver, WA, and many others. In the last year, PT 658 has participated in several events such as the Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the end of WW2 at the Fort Vancouver Historic Site, and the Portland Antique and Classic Wooden Boat Show, held at Tomahawk Bay Marina on the Columbia river.
Most significantly, the PT 658 has participated in several “PT Boats, Inc.” sanctioned PT Boaters “Bull Sessions”, which included taking several groups of WW2 PT Boat Veterans underway on the PT 658. Another veterans group, made up of former PT Boat officers, “Peter Tare” headed by Ed Jepsen, himself a former Captain PT230, held their reunion and made a side trip to see the PT658 and they were also taken underway. Most recently, in late July, 2006, the “PT Boats Inc.” National PT Boaters Reunion was held in Spokane WA, and after it was over, a large contingent (45 people) traveled to Portland in order to come aboard and get underway on the PT658. Some notable members of this group included the former CO of PT150, and later Squadron Commander of RON39, LCDR Russ Hamachek (USN-ret). Also on board was the PT Boat curator of the Battleship Cove Museum, Fall River, MA., Mr. Don Shannon. Numerous contacts and freindships were made or renewed throughout these events. Most importantly, hundreds of people who had never heard of a PT Boat or knew of their heritage, saw an authentically restored, Packard gasoline engine powered PT Boat actually operating on the water for their first time. It was history coming alive in front of the entire world!
As always, with any wooden boat, there is still much more to do to help the PT658. Final details of restoring the interior of the boat and appearance are still being completed. New depression ring railings surrounding the 0.50 caliber MG’s are being fabricated and mounted. Three newly acquired Mark 13 torpedoes must be stripped and refurbished and mounted on the boat. The 3 engines are constantly needing repairs and tuning, not to mention the cost of supplying them with AVGAS. A new Captains desk and table are being built for the wardroom. A spare Packard engine has been acquired, and needs overhauled to be used as a replacement. A new gently inclined brow has been installed, thus greatly improving access to the boat from the Navy Pier. The biggest hurdle in store is the planning and building of a Boat House/Museum to store the PT658 inside. Getting the boat out of the weather is of paramount importance to the material condition of the boat. The largest single factor that damaged the boat in the 61 years since it was built were the effects of the weather upon the wooden boat. The Save the PT Boat, Inc. organization has recently begun collecting sorely needed volunteer donations to be able to someday afford either acquiring or building a suitable boathouse. All monies come to the PT658 from volunteers and donations. The boat has a website maintained by the group, www.savetheptboatinc.com . It has numerous photographs and items of interest as well as donation information. Please feel free to visit Portland and come see the PT658. It is literally a one of a kind treasure that should be appreciated by all. Visits to the boat are possible most Mondays & Thursdays between 0900 and 1400. There is no charge to see this historically significant piece of American Naval History. See the website for the most up to date contact information. PT658 is currently located at Swan Island, at the Navy Operational Center, Portland Oregon. It is moored to the barge at the end of the Navy Pier in the Swan Island Lagoon.
PT Boat, Inc.