When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States was thrust into a war that it hadn’t necessarily planned on participating in. America realized very quickly that the Pacific battlefield would be an island-hopping campaign. This would include attacking and harassing supply chains and combatant ships. This mission profile was a perfect fit for the Navy’s new and improved patrol torpedo boat, better known as the PT boat.

Before World War II began, the U.S. Navy had identified the need for a high-speed attack boat. In 1938, the Navy held a competition, looking for different manufacturers to design and build a boat that the Navy could put into service. These competitions were known as the “plywood derbies” and many companies were involved in them. After many rigorous test competitions and sea trials, only a few manufacturers remained. Electric Launch Company (Elco) and Higgins Industries would be the main builders to create the PT boat fleet. A side note, Higgins Industries may be a familiar word to many: Higgins Industries was responsible for the design and construction of the landing crafts used at D-Day and Iwo Jima — theirs was a pivotal design that helped bring WWII to an end.

There were 326 Elco boats built during WWII. These boats measured 80 feet in length and had a 20-foot beam. Their hulls were built out of diagonally laid mahogany planks and held together with copper rivets and bronze screws. This type of construction allowed for easy maintenance and repairs in remote locations of the Pacific. The Elco boats were powered by triple 4M-2500 Packard engines, which delivered 1,500 horsepower apiece, providing a top speed of 41 knots.

Higgins Industries built 199 PT boats. They measured 78 feet long, with a 20-foot beam. The construction techniques, materials, and engines used were very similar to Elco’s PT boat.

Since PT boats were made of wood and had no real armor, the only way to compensate was to install a large array of weapons. PT boats were typically outfitted with four Mark 13 torpedoes, twin .50 and .30 caliber machine guns, 20 mm cannons, and later on 37 mm and 40 mm cannons.

PT boats often operated at night; the cover of darkness was their greatest strength, especially once radar became a standard on all boats. As units, they would lay and wait in darkness until a Japanese ship would become visible on the radar. Once a target was acquired, they would ambush the enemy with torpedoes and cannon fire. Using these tactics, PT boats were deemed extremely successful and lethal during the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal campaigns. The Japanese indeed feared the PT boat.

An Elco PT boat and its hefty armament (Image courtesy of History.net).