Chapter XII: The PT Boat
I joined the George Powell, a Liberty ship, as first assistant. Walter Stich was chief engineer on this vessel. He was a fellow Party member with whom I had had the good fortune to have sailed several other ships. Walter was the kind of guy I loved to sail with. He was knowledgeable, an excellent engineer, and an easy man to talk with. I looked forward to a good trip.
On board our ship was a wonderful skipper named Ole Olson, a guy about 70 who had retired from the sea and was now brought back for the emergency. In the tropics he loved to walk around in his underpants and nothing else. His body was covered with hair, lots of it, and the crew hung a nickname on him, The Bear. His pot belly seemed out of control as it lopped over the top of his trousers. He cursed anything and everything: the military, the ship, the crew, the sea. Nothing was safe from his wrath. In spite of his temper, he was a great seaman and a great poker player. I liked him immensely, and he liked me.
Across from my room was the purser's office. A desk, some file cabinets, lots of paper and a typewriter were its main furnishings. When the purser was not around, I would make use of the typewriter to type my letters. While typing a letter one fine afternoon, I heard The Bear shouting in the alleyway. "Oh, purser, where are you?" He came to the purser's door and looked in. He was surprised to see me at the desk, typing away. "My God, I thought you were the purser. My, but you can type faster than the purser. Where did you learn all that? In college?" Before I had a chance to play with the answer he was gone on his way, looking for the purser.
That great navigational instrument, the sextant, always fascinated me. It was the age-old instrument that mariners had been using to crisscross their way across the oceans of the world. My opportunity to use one came one morning as the third mate was using his. He showed me how to bring the sun down to the horizon and obtain a reading. It just so happened on that The Bear appeared on deck and saw me with the sextant as I was giving my reading to the mate. "Hold it," he said, surprising me by coming directly to me to check the reading. He looked at my instrument, then took his own test. "By golly, I get the same reading as the first assistant." He turned to me with a surprised look on his face. "You sure are one smart guy."
I suppose the biggest surprise came to him a week later as we were being escorted through some islands in the Philippines, heading for the invasion of Subic Bay. In a ten-ship convoy that we caught up with about fifty miles from Subic Bay in the south China Sea, we had one destroyer and a smaller vessel, a destroyer escort. The destroyer headed the convoy, slowly zigzagging across the path of the slow-moving ships. The weather was hot, not a cloud in the sky. I stood on the bridge talking to the radio operator as we both rested our arms on the bridge railing, watching the antics of the destroyer and the other ships in front of us. Suddenly the destroyer's Morse code signaling light went into operation, dash-dot-dash. "He's saying something," I said to the radio operator. "I wonder what he's saying?"
"Looks like he's saying PQ, PQ, PQ, whatever that means. I don't know," the radio operator replied. "I better go into my shack and stand by the set in case he decides to reach me." He left the bridge. At this time The Bear came charging out from the wheel house, excited as a wet hen. "What the hell is that fool on the destroyer saying?" he asked, not really expecting an answer from anyone. "I think, captain, he's saying PQ, PQ, PQ, whatever that means," I replied, feeling safe that the radio operator knew his Morse code.
"PQ, PQ," replied the captain. "What the hell does PQ stand for?" The captain shouted to the chief mate in the wheel house. "Come out here and tell me what that silly bastard up ahead is talking about," he said to the mate. The mate, acting quickly, picked up his field glasses and stepped out on the bridge, focusing on the signal emanating from the destroyer. Then he replied, "It's PQ, PQ. He keeps repeating PQ, PQ."
"I know it's PQ, PQ. That's what the first assistant said it was! What I want to know is what the hell PQ means!"
"I don't know," said the mate.
"Well, damn it," shouted The Bear, "go and find out. Why the hell does the first assistant have to know everything? I must have the dumbest men on deck while the engine room has the smartest! Maybe I should become an engineer." I felt sorry for the mate, who surely didn't deserve all that pressure The Bear was putting on him.
After consulting the code book, the mate returned quickly to the bridge. "Well, what is it?" the captain asked.
"It means, batten down the hatches, a severe storm is ready to hit us."
The captain looked at the sky. It was never so clear as it was at that moment. "The silly bastards," he mumbled while looking at the destroyer.
An hour later a few drops of rain fell on the deck, not enough to glue a postage stamp.
The battle for Subic Bay was waged from the beach as our troops pushed back the Japanese soldiers and drove them inland. It all happened so fast that the Japanese were caught by surprise. First, the destroyer and escort rounded the lee side of the island, then came charging into the Bay with guns blazing away. This drove the Japanese from the beach area and put them to flight as the troop carrier moved in quickly to take advantage of the surprise and panic to get our troops onto the beach. Our Liberty ship was ordered to pull into the Bay right after our troops landed and got a foothold on the beach. We dropped anchor and stood by, waiting for word to uncover our hatches and prepare to unload the necessary supplies. Bullets coming from the Japanese soldiers in retreat were bouncing off our superstructure. We were fortunate that there were no big guns for the Japanese to use against us, since we were a stationary target. We were ordered to stay off the deck for fear we'd be hit.
The next morning things started to shape up more to our liking. The Japanese had been pushed to a safe distance from the beach. No longer were we in range of their trench mortars or rifle fire. We could still hear the sound and feel the tension of the raging fight up ahead and wondered how long it would take before the troops captured the main highway leading into Manila. This was the important phase of this battle, to divert part of the enemy troops away from the defense of Manila while another part of our invading army would attack Manila from another flank.
On the third day I took a rifle and a belt of ammo from our ship's armory, and with the third mate went ashore. We took advantage of our rank; none of the rank-and-file unlicensed personnel were allowed ashore. Only officers were, providing , of course, they were armed. Wearing the officer's cap gave us the privilege of moving anywhere we cared to.
The mate and I worked our way slowly toward the front lines, passing jeeps and ammo carriers on the way. The roadway was the scene of dead Japanese soldiers lying where they had fallen. A few had been hit with flame throwers and their bodies still smoldered. Some had been hit by shell fire and pieces of their bodies were everywhere, including a leg dangling from the limb of a tree. The stink of decaying corpses was nauseating in the hot and humid canyon we were traversing. It brought back memories of Spain. As we got closer to the front lines we came across a first aid and hospital waylay station. Many men who were wounded seriously at the front would have died had they been hauled to hospitals in the rear to be operated on. Here the doctors operated quickly on the wounded and tended those in shock, then moved them to safer and quieter surroundings for the long haul back to health. The front line "hospital" was a big morale booster to the soldier. At least he knew he would get immediate attention if he needed it.
In a small tent I saw at least 20 soldiers lying on cots with bandages wrapped around different parts of their bodies. They looked ashen and exhausted. None spoke, most slept. They had been operated on just a few hours before. Within the day they would be moved to a hospital at the rear. I asked the young doctor about some of the problems they were having in a hospital so close to the front lines. "The front is well-secured at this stage," he said. "We have no fear of being overrun by a counterattack or of being wiped out by a battery of cannon fire. The enemy has no cannons here and their strength has been sapped by our overpowering attacks. If we have a handicap, and we do have problems, it's a lack of whole blood. Our plasma is great, but whole blood is better. We must manage with what we've got."
That was all I needed to hear before my thinking processes took over. We headed back to the ship and reported what we saw. We talked to our crew about the hospital and the men lying there and the work of the doctors operating on men while the bullets whizzed over their heads and the need of whole blood for the wounded.
That night I wrote out a plea for blood donors to offer their blood to the wounded soldiers. All that was required was for them to sign their names to the list and when called on, to make the blood donation. In posting the notice on the bulkhead, I assumed I would be lucky to get half the crew. The next morning I looked at the board and almost went into a happy state of shock. The entire crew including officers, had signed the notice. The biggest surprise came when I saw The Bear's name.
I notified the command at the hospital and all that afternoon groups of five were hauled up to the hospital by jeep. They made their donations, and safely returned to the ship under a well-armed escort. Each donor was handed a short letter of commendation by the commanding officer. One of the nice things that would remain in the minds of the donors was that after they made the donation they were taken through the little hospital, and the wounded were told what the crew of the ship had done. The smiles on the faces of the patients were gratitude enough.
On about the fifth day at Subic Bay one of the young wipers came running to my room. "First, there's a PT boat alongside and the commander is asking for some water. I told him I would check with you."
The commander of the PT (patrol-torpedo) boat, a young man of 25 or 30, was waiting for me. Most of his crew of youngsters was also standing on deck, all with their eyes focused on me. The PT had her bow nudged against our ship's side while her motors created a small wave astern of her. "Yes, commander, what can I do for you?" I asked.
"Sir," he replied, "we are without water. I have asked three other ships for water and they turned us down. Are you going to turn us down, too?"
I could see all those young faces looking up at me. I had the feeling that if I turned them down they would all jump into the Bay. My first reaction was shock. How the hell could anyone turn down another soldier for some water? What the hell kind of people did we have on those other ships? Of course water was a scarce item, and an important one, too. But we were in a better position to make water. All it took was some oil and energy to turn salt water into fresh water. To deny another fighting man this essential was hard to comprehend. "Commander," I shouted down to him, "you can have all the water you need. Get out your hose. We'll have you connected up in a moment."
There were shouts of joy. I had the wiper bring up some water hoses and extend them down to their boats, and at the same time dropped down a line to secure their boat to our ship. I invited the commander to come aboard for a cup of coffee and had a Jacob's ladder put over the side for him to come aboard.
The young commander told me of the days he spent on his boat without any fresh food and nothing but canned army and navy rations. I was appalled by the injustice of the situation. These guys were not getting a decent shake of the dice. I asked him to have another cup of coffee and stick around, and I would be right back.
I headed for the captain's room. I was lucky to find him and the steward together. I explained to him about the PT boat and its water problem and the crew's food problem and the treatment they were getting. Then I suggested that we take the crew aboard, let them all bathe and clean up, then sit them down for a good meal on board. The captain looked at the steward. "Do we have enough to take care of the PT boat's crew?" he asked. The steward nodded. "We can manage." I raced back to tell the good news to the commander. He was pleased. His crew was jubilant.
Soap and towels were supplied and the trek up the ladder by the youngsters began. Hot water, perfumed soap, and the thought of a good meal made the men happy. Our crew members did everything possible to make it a festive occasion. The young commander told me he was awaiting orders to take his craft to Manila Bay in a day or two to cut off any retreat by the enemy. I asked him if he ever took "outsiders" along for the ride. "Yes,"he replied, "as long as they sign a waiver not holding the Navy responsible in case something should happen to them."
"I would like to make such a trip, if at all possible," I told him.
"I can't promise, but I'll keep it in mind."
I was enjoying an afternoon snooze the next day when someone came pounding on my door to tell me that a PT boat was standing by and an officer was shouting my name. I raced out on deck to be greeted by the young commander shouting to me to get a life jacket and come down the Jacob's ladder to his boat. Our purser, a San Franciscan named Schreve, followed me down the ladder. Our chief engineer, Walter Stich, shouted to the commander to make sure he brought us back alive.
Always alert, we followed the shoreline down the coast. Early that same morning, our Air Force had flown over our heads plane after plane of paratroopers bound for the fortress that dominated the entrance to Manila Bay, Corregidor. It had been extremely fortified since the Japanese had taken over the fortress. They put some of their best troops to man the guns we had left behind. Now, hundreds of paratroopers were being dropped on the fortress because the Japanese were so dug in that the only way they could be dislodged was by hand-to-hand combat. Of course, this put our paratroopers in the position of sitting ducks. Many were dead before they hit the ground. Others found it hard to land on the fortress grounds and ended up drowning in the waters around the objective since no small craft could get to them. Those that did make a safe landing were now engaged in some terrifying struggle to wrest control of the island from an enemy that knew their lives might come to an end if they lost control of the last remaining piece of real estate.
On our way down the 50-mile stretch of land, our crew tested out their guns. A blast of ten or twenty rounds from each of the machine guns was proof enough that the guns were in working order. With land on our port side and the vast China Sea off our starboard, the commander stayed just far enough off shore to remain in the safe zone--that is, safe enough not to be picked off by rifle fire should remnants of a retreating army be present. The commander, expecting action, had the crew on alert and stationed at their guns. I was surprised by the youthfulness of the crew. None seemed to be more than 17-years old, with the exception of the motormen and commander. Their faces had just smidgens of fuzz for beards. But beard or not, they all seemed to be well-trained as they went about their duties. As we came closer to Manila Bay, we could make out in the distance a huge armada of ships, including some big battleships, cruisers, mine sweepers, and some two dozen merchant vessels, within half a mile off Corregidor. The loud crackling of static and voices coming across the network with its links to other PT boats and the mother command vessel dominated the air and grew stronger. The screen of our radar was marked with lots of dark spots which represented the vast number of ships gathered in the area.
Our orders were to pass through the passageway of the two command vessels and enter Manila Bay. As our little PT boat swerved to the starboard and passed in between these two giant warships, the crews of both ships lined the railings and watched our boat follow another PT boat. They broke into applause in respect for and solidarity with the crews who manned the torpedo boats.
The sun was just disappearing as we passed through the gap with Bataan on our port and besieged Corregidor on our starboard. A voice came over the loudspeaker from the command vessel, "We will fire a star shell over the fort at 20-minute intervals. Be on the alert for enemy reinforcements moving to the fort as well as anyone escaping from the fort. If you are fired upon from the fort, do not return fire, as our forces are occupying various positions on the fort." "Message acknowledged," replied our commander. I tried to be observant as we passed into the Bay. There were parachutes scattered about on the island, some in the water. Rifle fire and machine gun fire could be heard all over the island. Boom, a star shell exploded over the island, descending slowly and lighting up the area like a Hollywood kleig light. We continued into the Bay, leaving Corregidor behind us.
Ahead of us we could see flames roaring skyward from the many fires within the city of Manila. It seemed like the entire city was being put to the torch. On the mainland, the Japanese were being attacked on one side by our forces which had landed at Subic Bay and were now being driven to their main force in Manila. To the right of Manila, our First Cavalry Armored Division was attacking the Japanese and driving them further toward Manila. It was a no-holds barred situation and one that would doom the Japanese troops.
In the midst of this three-sided attack, the retreating and besieged enemy was being harassed by a powerful movement of Philippine guerillas hell-bent on making the enemy pay dearly for their occupation of their country. Retreating enemy soldiers were shooting any civilian who got in their way.
As we lolled around the Bay, things started to get boring, and at the rate we were going, I figured I might as well find a safe spot, curl up and have a nap. But it was not to be. The commander shouted out, "Stand by, number one torpedo." The radar man had picked up a big ship lying close to shore. Our little boat veered to port and her engines slowed down. I had always believed that torpedo boats came upon their prey with engines wide open at top speed, coming close to the target, dropping the torpedo and veering off and away from the exploding ship. That was the picture one got from government propaganda. In actual life the opposite was true. We crept up on the vessel with our engines running extremely slow and muffled for sound. No one talked, but all eyes stared through the darkness, waiting for the first sight of the vessel. From the radar man came not just the sighting, but the distance to the object. Two thousand yards, then fifteen hundred yards, now less than a thousand yards from the vessel. I could see it now, at first just the silhouette. Now, closer, the smokestack in outline. We were using the brightness of a few stars and the occasional dim light from an exploding star shell to find our way. At that moment I had a great fear that the enemy aboard the ship knew we were there, had set their sights on us and were getting ready to blast the hell out of us and our little boat. I'm sure our commander sensed this also, but he did not show it.
Two men stood at the side of the forward torpedo. "Get ready now," said the commander. Our bow pointed directly at the enemy ship. "Fire. Let her go," he shouted. I heard the small whir of a motor start up. It was the alcohol-driven motor of the torpedo, slow at first, then increasing in speed as the whir got louder. I stayed clear of the torpedo, and not wanting to be in the way of the operation I moved to the far edge of the port side of the boat. In the semi-darkness there seemed to be some confusion at the torpedo rack. The torpedo should have been in the water by now and on its way to the enemy, but, no, the torpedo was still secured to the rack with its propeller going full speed. "Damn it!" shouted the commander. "Take cover; we have a hot one! Get me an axe!"
At this juncture I had some preconceived notions about torpedoes. I had believed that once the motor starts, it is preset for distance and when that distance is reached, the torpedo will explode. Thus, with the motor racing like crazy, it was racking up mileage and, I believed, could explode within seconds. Everybody had scattered, but the commander kept shouting for someone to bring him the fire axe. There were no two ways about it--I expected to be blown to kingdom come within a few seconds. I inched myself over the side of the boat and angled myself so that 95 percent of my body was just touching the water. Then another phobia arose. I'm scared to death of sharks, and the water in and around Manila was shark-infested. I had a notion that almost touching the water would invite a shark to take a nibble on me. The choice of being blown to hell or being a tidbit for some hungry shark stared me in the face. The commander, thankfully, got his hands on the fire axe and saved the day. I rose up to see him swing the axe at a carter pin holding the torpedo to its rack. He walloped it at least three times, but nothing gave. At this point he quickly retreated below deck into the cabin. Sparks started to fly from the motor, and strange new sounds were heard. Another 30 seconds passed, and the motor stopped. This brought the commander back on deck, this time with a flashlight in his hand. He turned it on the torpedo. "Damn it to hell, you pulled two pins and forgot the main one! No wonder it never dropped!" His remarks were sharp and directed to the two torpedo men, both youngsters in their late teens.
He easily withdrew the pin and the torpedo rolled off and into the water, quickly sinking to the bottom. Our little boat registered a slight tilt to port now that the weight was removed from the stateboard side.
"Ready port torpedo," he shouted, "and this time remove all of the goddamned pins!"
The youngsters said nothing but quickly went to the torpedo, removed two pins, and waited for the command to send it on its way. The commander maneuvered the boat to make sure he had the target in position before issuing the order to fire. "Get ready, on the mark," he said, and the two youngsters set the propeller in motion. "Drop it!" the commander shouted, and without incident the torpedo hit the water. For a moment, it seemed like it had disappeared and that this one, too, was lost, but up it came, leaving a fluorescent wake as it headed toward the ship.
I stood holding onto the railing, waiting for this big explosion to take place, but somehow the torpedo drifted off target . It missed the stern end of the vessel by a mere six feet and rode up the sandy beach. There was no explosion, but a lot of gun firing took place. We assumed it was the ship's crew who had taken their position on the beach rather than on the larger target of the ship. In the dark, they may have concluded that it was a landing party and were firing in the direction of the noise.
Our commander was beside himself with the bad luck he was having. We had no more torpedoes. He got on the walkie-talkie and made contact with the other torpedo boat. Within a few minutes the PT boat was within a few yards of us. Our commander related the incident and asked the other commander to finish the job. Within five minutes they launched their torpedo, and blasts of lightning hit the ship. It seemed that the torpedo hit one of the hatch sections just astern of the engine room sector. At least ten minutes went by after the explosion. We waited in silence. We could hear no cries of panic or any other noise coming from the ship. We had no idea what damage, if any, was done by the torpedo. Word was sent to the mother ship lying outside the Bay directing the operations of the PT boats, asking for permission to fire off a star shell to light up the area around the vessel to determine the scope of damage. A word of caution came back to keep a safe distance from the vessel after the shell was fired.
The shell brightened the area and for the first time we could see that it was a Japanese freighter, empty perhaps, with a sizable hole in the area of number four hatch. She had taken a slight list with water pouring through the hole as her hull rested on the sandy bottom, which didn't seem to be very deep.
By now the fire on Corregidor had slackened. Dawn was breaking. We had pulled away from the partially-sunk vessel and idled in the middle of the Bay with the other PT boat. We could hear the loudspeakers crackle as the commander on the mother ship announced that within the next half hour we should be prepared to make our way out of the Bay, since aircraft was due to fly over and drop bombs on designated targets. The ship, now wounded, was to be one of them.
At this moment the other PT boat revved its motors and, without anyone saying a word, raced off to starboard. We had no idea why this happened, until our radar man announced he had discovered a blip on his screen. In a few moments we noticed that, sneaking off under the cover of semi-darkness, there was a small, 35-foot motor barge similar to our LSTs. It had on board at least 20 Japanese marines, fully armed. Their mistake was being too late in abandoning Corregidor and heading for the mainland. Had they left in the middle of the night they might have gone undetected.
When the other boat reached them, there seemed to be no command given to haul or surrender. No time seemed to be wasted before a small cannon shot was fired from the PT boat. So powerful was the shot that it blew several of the marines out of the boat and into the Bay. Another quick shot, and the small vessel quickly sank. I could not see all the action after that, but I did hear a lot of machine gun fire, and then there was silence.
By the time we got on the scene, the other PT boat had pulled one of the marines out of the water and made him sit on deck near the bow. No one said a word or even attempted to give an explanation. We were left to make our own estimate of what could have happened. Our conclusion was that no one really cared much about taking prisoners. We had taken advantage of the surprise. The one lone prisoner on board was for identification purposes and whatever intelligence could be gotten out of him. He may have chosen to drown rather than become a prisoner, but apparently our men fished him out of the water before he had a chance to go under. And why didn't our radar man detect this moving vessel on his radar? He just wasn't looking closely enough. The long hours without sleep and charged-up nerves always operating on battle station alert played havoc with his eyesight. Had the other PT boat not been on the ball, the boatload of marines would have made it to the mainland.
We headed out of the Bay. Word had already been relayed that a Japanese landing craft and its passengers had been engaged in battle and one lone prisoner was coming in. We proceeded out of the Bay in the same fashion we had entered it, between several war ships with their crews lined up on deck, applauding as the PT boats slowly made their way to the mother command ship. The prisoner was handed over and we proceeded back up the coast to Subic Bay.
I had a chance to talk with the young commander as our boat slowly rode the warm swells up the coast. Why, I asked, did everyone seek protective cover when the torpedo was racing if they knew it would not explode? Why the panic?
"There was never any fear," he replied, "that the torpedo would explode. That happens only when it hits something solid. What I was afraid of was getting hit by parts of the motor."
"And how would that happen?" I asked.
"As the motor of the torpedo is set in motion, it begins to pick up speed, because the propellers have no resistance. Once it is in the water, it meets resistance and the motor remains safe. In our case the motor was set in motion on deck, as we expected to drop it into the water. Since we could not release it, the motor was now picking up speed, getting faster and faster. It reached what we call the critical speed and started to disintegrate. Once that happens, pieces of the motor start to fly here, there, and everywhere, and if a piece should hit you, it would be equal to being hit by a bullet. That's why seeking cover till the motor clunked out was the best thing to do. We lost a torpedo, but maybe saved some lives. So? Buy more war bonds."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three