Just after Pearl Harbor, a half-dozen PT boats were the US Navy’s only real fighting force in the Pacific. They went at their mission with a vengeance.
By Joseph Hinds
The sun was still low in the sky over the Philippines on December 10, 1941, as 54 Japanese bombers and an escort of fighter planes flew toward the United States’ Cavite Navy Yard at Manila. Holding a beautiful, tight formation at 20,000 feet, the planes pounded the ships below.
Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley, commander of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3, had received advance warning of the attack and started moving his squadron away from the confines of the shipyard for the open waters of Manila Bay. Maneuvering at high speed, his PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats made elusive targets. Five bombers swooped to attack, but ran into a storm of bullets from all 24 of Squadron 3’s guns. Three bombers fell from the sky and two other planes were damaged. So far, the tiny squadron seemed to have a fighting chance against the mighty Japanese force in the Far East.
From the moment the Japanese drew America into World War II–just three days earlier at Pearl Harbor–the 84 men and six wooden boats of MTB Ron 3 ("Ron" is short for squadron) were destined for a fight with the Japanese over possession of the Philippines. The squadron and some dozen aged submarines represented the US Navy’s entire fighting strength in those islands at that time. Opposing them was a massive invasion fleet that included more than 200 modern ships, 1,700 of the world’s newest and best aircraft, and 75,000 battle-hardened men. On the morning of the 10th, the Japanese anticipated crushing the American forces in a matter of days. The Americans, meanwhile, believed a relief force of ships, planes, and men was on the way. Both were wrong.
Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 answered to Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commander of the outmoded and outclassed US Navy Asiatic Fleet, which consisted of the World War I-era heavy cruiser Houston, four World War I destroyers, a smattering of worn out tenders and gunboats, and some barely functional tankers. Hart knew that to preserve this tiny fleet, he needed to get it away from the Cavite Navy Yard. His only hope of slowing the Japanese depended on a limited number of Army Air Corps planes, the six PT boats of Ron 3, a few retirement-ready submarines, and some old navy PBY flying-boat bombers (P for patrol, B for bomber, and Y was maker Consolidated Aircraft’s manufacturer designation).
>Hart was lucky to have Bulkeley as the commanding officer of Ron 3. Bulkeley had a reputation as a bit of a loose cannon, but his daring nature helped make him one of the best and most courageous young lieutenants on Hart’s staff. He had attended the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, but graduated without distinction at a time when the navy gave commissions only to the top half of its graduating classes. Without a commission, he gave the Army Air Corps a try, but failed out of the pilot training course. Fate then intervened in the form of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dictate that all academy graduates receive commissions.
Bulkeley’s first assignment was aboard the USS Indianapolis, and then he moved to the USS Sacramento, operating off the coast of China. There, he watched the Japanese invasion of Swato and Shanghai, and the sinking of the pre-World War I gunboat USS Panay. He saw firsthand what he and his men would face in the Philippines: a dirty and vicious fight to the finish.
Bulkeley prepared his squadron for impending attack at Cavite by having his men stash supplies such as ammo, food, spare parts, and fuel throughout the Philippine islands. They placed these essentials in tiny inlets and coves that their flexible PT boats could reach, but the larger Japanese ships could not.
After the skies cleared on the morning of December 10, Bulkeley’s men returned to Cavite victorious and excited. They had met the enemy head-on in a one-sided fight and had drawn blood. But even though the squadron returned without a scratch or loss of life, what it returned to was a scene of total devastation. Warehouses, machine shops, and other buildings had been bombed to rubble. Many men had been wounded and killed. The squadron began the task of ferrying the wounded to Canacao Hospital and continued at that for most of the day. The dock there was covered in blood, and the staff was a terrible sight, with faces drawn and clothing soaked red.
Before day’s end, Bulkeley’s squadron received orders to clear the naval station because fires from the bombing had begun detonating torpedoes and touching off explosions among stored munitions. The PT crews snatched armloads of food supplies from the bombed-out warehouses, then took their boats out to sea to face the inevitable invasion.
With the major ships of America’s Asiatic Fleet–2 cruisers, 13 destroyers, and 29 submarines–already ordered away from Manila, Bulkeley’s PT boats shouldered the burden of a seaward defense. For four months and eight days they would lurk among the islands, darting out to duel Japanese vessels, performing rescue missions, providing fire support to the troops on the Bataan peninsula on the island of Luzon–whatever was needed. On December 17, for example, the passenger ship Corregidorstruck a mine while attempting to escape the Philippines. PT-32, PT-34, and PT-35 assisted other small craft in plucking survivors from the oil-slicked waters. The three boats rescued 296 people that night.
Another night, Bulkeley was aboard Lieutenant Robert B. Kelly’s PT-34 when they spotted a Japanese flotilla trying to sneak troops past the American flank. With all weapons ready–and even Bulkeley manning a gun–PT-34 attacked. The wooden barges had no hope of outrunning or outmaneuvering the PT boats flashing by. Machine gun fire sawed through the Japanese landing craft, sinking two of them. Others suffered severe damage, and the Japanese flanking attempt became a retreat. It was later discovered that the barges were carrying a full combat battalion, with all of its food, ammunition, and communications equipment, but not one Japanese soldier made it onto Bataan that night.
As if Ron 3 didn’t have enough challenges, the supply situation in the Philippines created another. The boats’ engines were laboring, long overdue for overhaul or replacement but lacking the parts necessary for the job. The guns and radios needed work, too. To complicate matters, a saboteur had dumped paraffin into the gasoline storage tanks, enough to clog the fuel lines and carburetors. Bulkeley’s men had to run the fuel through fine mesh strainers three or four times to clean it. This took hours of valuable time that could have been used to repair equipment, or sleep. When there wasn’t enough time to clean the fuel thoroughly, the boats struggled to make half speed. For the mechanics and crew, there seemed to be no end in sight to the tedious project of purging the fuel lines and carburetors of the dreadful waxy residue.
Amid the frenzy of tedious daily tasks, in March 1942, Bulkeley received a new set of orders and a hefty new responsibility. He was to smuggle General Douglas MacArthur, commander of US Army Forces in the Far East, and his family and staff, south from Corregidor to Mindanao. MacArthur was on his way out of the Philippines (and would soon make his famous promise "I shall return").
Bulkeley assigned four boats to the mission: PT-32, PT-34, PT-35, and the squadron flagship, PT-41. PT-32 had to be abandoned at the end of the mission’s first leg, due to a fire in its engine room. Her passengers and crew were distributed among the remaining boats. MacArthur and his family rode with Bulkeley on PT-41. Kelly’s PT-34 carried Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, commander of the 16th Naval District; Brigadier General Richard Marshal, MacArthur’s deputy chief of staff; and Colonel Charles P. Stivers and Captain Joseph McMicking of MacArthur’s staff.
That night–March 12, 1942–the overloaded boats made their way as fast as they could across a choppy sea against a stiff wind. Periodically, they were forced to stop so crewmen could clean paraffin from the fuel strainers. The boats had to dodge ships and lights from Japanese shore installations, which slowed them down. On March 13, the three boats made it to their destination, Mindanao in the southern Philippines, with all passengers safe. They had traveled an incredible 560 miles at night on the open ocean and managed to evade all Japanese patrol boats and ships. MacArthur and his party would soon board a plane bound for Australia.
A few weeks later, on April 8, PT-34 and PT-41 attacked the Japanese light cruiser Kuma off Cebu, the Philippines. The attack held every hope of success as the PT boats closed in on their prey. A torpedo from one of the PT boats sped through the water, headed straight for the Kuma’s bows. But it was a dud. The opportunity was lost.
Faulty torpedoes were so common in the American arsenal at that time that no one was surprised when one did not explode. The situation was so bad that explosions were more surprising than duds. During the height of the Japanese invasion, US submarines scored repeated hits on troop ships and landing craft full of invading Japanese troops only to see their torpedoes bounce harmlessly skyward off the hulls. It has been estimated that more than 200 torpedoes fired by submarines and torpedo boats failed to explode.
It was the sailors, not manufacturers’ engineers, who ultimately uncovered the problem. They discovered that the detonators were being crushed when torpedoes hit their targets, which jammed the firing pin in place and prevented detonation. It turned out that, due to cost considerations, torpedoes were not being properly tested. They were being fired at concrete slabs–but they were full of water instead of explosives and had no detonators. So, no one on the manufacturing side realized the torpedoes wouldn’t work at sea. The PT boats and submarines in the Philippines might have stalled the Japanese attack by several months if they had had operational torpedoes.
The day after her encounter with the Kuma, PT-34 met her end. Having survived the previous day’s duel, she found herself under the guns of four floatplanes from the very cruiser she had unsuccessfully torpedoed. Kelly himself was at the helm, as he usually was when the fighting began, and 23-year-old helmsman Al Ross manned the automatic Lewis Gun on the starboard side. PT-34’s crew coaxed her almost to top speed as bullets churned the water all around. One crewman fell wounded. Bomb blasts spat fragments into the boat’s wooden hull. She started taking on water, and one by one, her guns fell out of action–but not before Ross had sent one of the attacking planes down in flames.
By the time the planes withdrew, every crewman had been hit, two fatally. Kelly ran his boat, little more than a wreck by then, onto a beach. The floatplanes soon returned to finish her, punctuating the attack with a final, resounding roll of explosions. Most of PT-34’s crew made it to shore, after which some of the men, including Ross, were captured by the Japanese. Kelly escaped with Bulkeley aboard PT-41. He would go on to become commander of Ron 9. (See sidebar for what happened to Bulkeley.)
By the time the Japanese completed their conquest of the Philippines in May 1942, Ron 3 had ceased to exist. All 6 PT boats had been lost, and 18 men had been killed and 38 captured (9 of whom died in prison camps). The loss of a few motor torpedo boats barely earned a note on the navy’s ledger sheet. But no navy could last long against such overpowering odds without spirited young men willing to charge repeatedly into fights they knew they couldn’t win. Battling exhaustion, hunger, and heat until they had no hulls from which to fight, the sailors of Ron 3 proved they were that sort of men.
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