PT 109: Prelude to Fame
July 1942-April 1943

Chapter Three: Combat

The night of November 30/1 December 1942 saw the Imperial Navy's first attempt to deliver supplies using the drum-dropping technique. Rear Admiral Tanaka was probably the finest destroyer commander the Japanese had; on this night he led an eight-ship Express carrying 1,360 supply-laden drums to be deposited off Guadalcanal's shores. But coming up from Espiritu Santo to meet Tanaka was Task Force 67 of the US Navy--eleven cruisers and destroyers commanded by Rear Adm. Carleton H. Wright.

Approaching the Guadalcanal coast near the village of Tassafaronga, Tanaka was surprised by the American ships waiting in deadly ambush, but the samurai sailors regrouped and quickly sent forty-four torpedoes swimming in a deadly race for the American battle line. While American cruiser guns pummeled destroyer Takanami into scrap suitable for the shipbreaker's yard, six Japanese Long Lances ripped into US heavy cruisers Northampton, New Orleans, Pensacola, and Minneapolis with devastating results. Cruiser Northampton became the newest resident of Ironbottom Sound early in the morning of 1 December; the other three cruisers were so badly damaged that they would be out of action for almost a year. And although the Battle of Tassafaronga was a Japanese tactical victory and a humiliation for the USN, Tanaka still did not accomplish his main mission--all 1,360 supply drums were still on his destroyers' decks when his ships returned to their base in the Shortlands.

Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka IJN

The PT's of Tulagi were pressed into rescue service shortly after the battle. Lt. j/g Leonard Nikoloric's PT 37 picked up 86 of Northampton's men out of the water, and the crew of Lieutenant Westholm's PT 109 pulled another 94 more from the sea. The PT's had by now proven their suitability as rescue craft, and 109 would perform this duty several times. Later in the campaign the 109 attempted to pick up some Japanese sailors who had their ship sunk from under them. The crew managed to rescue all the Japanese save one, an officer. Lieutenant Westholm motioned to the officer that his part in the war was over, and that it was in his best interests to accept American hospitality for the duration. The enemy officer's response to this was to start swimming away. Westholm then came up with the idea to corner the Japanese sailor towards the boat with bullets. Firing his pistol ahead of the escaping enemy, 'Westy' had nearly succeeded in his plan until one of the motormacs came up from the engine room, curious to see what all the commotion was about. The Japanese officer was nearly within the waiting hands of the crew, but after seeing the skipper firing at the man in the water (and under the assumption Westholm had lousy marksmanship) the engineer picked up a rifle and put a bullet into the enemy sailor's head.

Tassafaronga aftermath. (above) USS New Orleans; a Japanese torpedo removed her bow all the way up to Turret No. 2. (US Navy via Below, PT 109 is carrying 94 survivors of sunken USS Northampton. Photograph taken from USS Pensacola. (National Archives)

PT 109's first sortie against the destroyers of the Tokyo Express came on the night of December 7/8 1942. Twelve destroyers led by Captain Toijiro Sato IJN in destroyer Oyashio steamed down The Slot on a typical supply-drum run for the Emperor's soldiers. Captain Sato had commanded a destroyer division at Tassafaronga, and his ships had inflicted the most damage to the American task force during that battle. Cactus Air Force dive-bombers jumped the Japanese as they made their way down the Slot, hitting two destroyers with their bombs. With two healthy destroyers escorting the damaged cripples back to their Shortland base, Sato continued on with his reduced force towards Guadalcanal. No heavy US ships were available to stop them; the only floating navy of any consequence to counter the Japanese were the PT boats of Squadrons Two and Three. Eight boats were available for the night's action, and they were divided up between scouting elements and a striking force. Lieutenant Westholm's PT 109, with Lt. Charles Tilden's PT 43 were one scout group, patrolling an area between Kokumbona and Cape Esperance, while another scout unit of Lt. Henry Taylor's PT 40 and Lt. Robert Searles' PT 48 covered the area off Guadalcanal's northwest tip. Standing to south of Savo Island was the striking force: Lt. John Searles in PT 59, Lt. Lester Gamble in PT 37, Lt. j/g Marvin Pettit in PT 36, and Lt. Frank Freeland in PT 44. Expectations aboard Westholm's 109 ran high, for this would be the first combat test of the Elco-80 foot PT, and the squadron leader and his men were eager to see how the boat would work out in action.

First contact with the Express was made at 2320 by Lieutenant Taylor in PT 40 and Lieutenant Searles in PT 48. Captain Sato's ships were heading directly towards their position, approaching from the northwest. As the two PT skippers guided their boats into firing position, one and then another of PT 48's Packard engines labored and died, probably from contaminated gasoline. As the motormacs below decks frantically tried to get the engines running again, the Japanese spotted the stricken boat. Two of Sato's screening destroyers peeled away from the formation, bore down on the unfortunate boat, and opened fire with a punishing barrage. With shells falling all around the PT, and a smoke screen from both the 48 and 'Stilly' Taylor's PT 40 leaving a confused scene for Imperial gunners, Searles retired the crippled torpedo boat towards the Savo shore, while PT 40 distracted the attention of the Japanese by outrunning the two destroyers in a high-speed run to the southeast. The presence of these two boats caused Captain Sato to reverse course, but fifteen minutes later the Japanese commander reformed his ships and headed through the channel between Savo and Cape Esperance. This time the Express encountered the four-boat strike force, and all hell broke loose as the speeding mosquito boats darted in and out of the destroyer formation, creating mass confusion among the Japanese. The PT sailors dropped a dozen torpedoes into the water, but not one of the notoriously slow running 27-knot Mark VIII warheads struck the hulls of the fast-stepping 35-knot Express. Nonetheless, the very real threat of being blown out of the sea by an unseen torpedo did little to soothe Captain Sato's nerves, and a dogfight with Lt. John M. Searles' PT 59 a minute later quickly robbed the destroyer leader of all piece of mind. After firing two torpedoes Searles sent his 77-foot, fifty-ton PT 59 charging towards the enemy flagship, impudently coming to within the suicidally close range of 100 yards of Sato's 388-foot, 2,490 ton Oyashio. The 59 boat's bluejackets then let the Japanese sailors on deck have it with all guns, raking the flagship's bridge, superstructure, searchlight platforms, exposed guns, and decks with a withering fusillade of .50 caliber and 20mm fire. Even the boat's chief engineer got into the act, banging away with a rifle at the bridge of the quickly-passing steel behemoth while hanging out of the engine room hatchway. The PT then made smoke and retired, speeding from the scene having collected ten bullet holes in her hull and cabin courtesy of Japanese automatic weapons fire, none fatal; Oyashio suffered ten of her sailors killed or wounded.

Track chart of the night action of December 7-8, 1942.

Lt. John M. Searles USNR (PT Boats, Inc.)

As the PT 59 cleared out for safer waters, Sato's ears were once again assaulted with the noise of internal combustion engines. One was the steady drone of an American cruiser floatplane in the sky above, spotting for the PT's and shadowing Sato's every move; the others were the howl of six Packard V-12's running wide open, as PT's 109 and 43 rushed towards the scene of battle. The machine gun duel between Oyashio and the PT 59 had not gone unnoticed, for it had attracted the attention of Rollin Westholm in the 109 at 0015. Not wanting to be left out of the action the Squadron Two CO opened up his throttles and sent the 109 boat on a fast sprint up to Cape Esperance, with Charlie Tilden's PT 43 hard on his heels. Seeing the two boats roaring towards him with torpedo tubes at the ready convinced Captain Sato that it was time to perform the classic naval maneuver old sailors call 'getting the hell out'. The Reinforcement Unit reversed course a second time and began steaming back up The Slot well before Westholm and Tilden could get into torpedo range; when Sato's ships arrived back at Shortland the next morning, the supplies they supposed to deliver were still piled high on their decks. Top American Navy brass, hearing of this action, were nonplussed; without any losses the daring, undisiplined young 'Hooligan Navy' PT officers and men in their little wooden cockleshells had managed to turn back the formidable Tokyo Express--the same Express that demolished a powerful US cruiser-destroyer force detailed to perform the same mission the week before.

The next morning found 109 carrying out its first 'boat rescue'--after escaping from the Japanese shelling the previous night, PT 48 became the newest initiate of the 'Hard Rock Club'. This was a not-so-exclusive fraternity whose members were boats that had run aground during patrols, and by this time most of the PT's of the Tulagi splinter fleet had been on the rocks at least once. Westholm's 109 pulled the 48 boat off the beach with little damage or trouble, and escorted her back to Sesapi without incident.

The evening hours of 11/12 December 1942 was another typical no-moon night for the Express, but it was a clear one, with good visibility. Under the star-filled void eleven Japanese destroyers sailed down The Slot at high speed, headed once again for the violent waters of Ironbottom Sound. Six of the ships were heavily laden with supplies while the remainder acted as escorts. Tonight the redoubtable Rear Admiral Tanaka led the Reinforcement Unit, with his flag in the large anti-aircraft destroyer Teruzuki. And as usual, all available PT boats were out to greet them. Lt. John Searles, skippering 109 for the evening was the first to spot the incoming Japanese. The elder of the Princeton-educated Searles brothers, Jack was Squadron Three's executive officer, and one of the more successful PT skippers in the Guadalcanal campaign. Two nights earlier in PT 59, Searles and his crew sent the big Japanese submarine I-3 of 1,955 tons displacement to a watery grave with a single torpedo. Now Searles was patrolling near Cape Esperance when a little after 2330 he spotted Tanaka's destroyers and called out on the radio 'Caesar passing through Rye', the code for enemy ships passing through the Savo-Esperance channel. At about the same time, radio chatter from the two-boat Kamimbo Bay patrol indicated that one of the PT's had run aground. Searles took the 109 around to Kamimbo to see if he could be of any help; meanwhile the Japanese ships came within range of the three-boat strike force of Lt. Lester H. Gamble's PT 45, Stilly Taylor's PT 40, and Ensign Williams E. Kreiner III riding in PT 59. As the unsuspecting Japanese completed dropping 1,200 drums of supplies into the sea, the three boats crept in unseen to 1,500 yards and fired torpedoes. While the boats were running for the nearest exit--still undetected--an explosion signaled someone's torpedo was dead on target. The victim was none other than Admiral Tanaka's flagship Teruzuki, and the torpedo from Lieutenant Gamble's PT 45 killed nine men, knocked off a propeller shaft and the rudder, ignited a huge oil fire, and injured the admiral, rendering him unconscious for a time. The destroyer's crew tried desperately to save their ship, but the fires were too furious to be checked--Teruzuki was doomed. The wounded admiral and 56 others transferred to destroyer Naganami, while destroyer Arashi took off another 140 men. Teruzuki's skipper, the destroyer division commander, and 154 other sailors managed to reach Guadalcanal in boats. Teruzuki herself burned for nearly three hours until flames reached her depth charge magazines and she exploded and sank.

Destroyer IJN Akizuki. Her sister ship Teruzuki was sunk by PT 45 the night of December 11/12 1942.

At Kamimbo Bay, near Guadalcanal's northwest tip, Lieutenants Frank Freeland and Charles Tilden were on a sub hunt; radio intelligence indicated that an enemy submarine would arrive in the area around midnight. Freeland was at the helm of his PT 44, but Tilden, his PT 110 in the drydock for repairs, skippered Squadron Three's PT 61. Universally disliked by the PT men, the Kamimbo bay beat was known by the PT sailors as the 'Bitch Patrol' because if a boat ran into trouble here--a million miles from anything American' was how one PT veteran put it--both boat and crew would be trapped on two sides by incoming enemy ships at sea and a Guadalcanal shoreline thick with numerous, murderously hostile sons of Nippon. It was Tilden in the 61 boat that had run aground, on Pig Rock Reef off Kamimbo, and Freeland's PT 44 hovered nearby, attempting to help. When PT 109's contact report came over the radio, Freeland headed his boat around to Cape Esperance to get in on the action. When the 44 was two miles west of Esperance, the crew had the satisfaction seeing Teruzuki burst into flames from Lieutenant Gamble's torpedo hits. The explosions also got the attention of Jack Searles in the 109, who then began his own run against the Express. The two PT's sped close by the burning destroyer, then out of the darkness three more destroyers appeared from the port side, sailing in column formation on an opposite course, and apparently unaware of the boats' presence. The two skippers independently began torpedo runs, but flames from stricken Teruzuki silhouetted the boats to the Japanese, and the lead ship in column began to open fire. Their attack broken up, the two boats were forced to retire towards Savo behind smoke screens. Undaunted, the two determined PT skippers swung their boats around for another attack. As Freeland's PT 44 came out of its turn, shellfire from a destroyer--either Kawakaze or Suzukaze--hit the boat in the engine room, stopping the 44 dead in the water. Another salvo reduced the crippled 44 to burning firewood as the crew abandoned ship. At the same time, Jack Searles in PT 109 was dodging and weaving behind a smoke screen while 5-inch shellfire exploded all around the boat. After the enemy was reported gone at 0115, Searles kept the boat on its patrol station; later while looking for possible survivors the 109 picked up fireman Lyle Dowling, who jumped from the 44 before it exploded. Stilly Taylor in PT 40 picked up three bodies, then while poking around Savo later that morning found Lt. j/g Charles M. Melhorn, also from the 44, standing on the beach. Two men in a rubber raft retrieved Melhorn and brought him out to the PT 40 at 0830. Dowling and Melhorn were the only survivors; two officers and seven men were lost with their boat, including Lieutenant Freeland and Ensign John Chester, who had just been transferred from 109 upon its arrival in Tulagi nearly two and a half weeks earlier. Of the 1,200 drums released by Tanaka's destroyers only 220 reached Japanese soldiers ashore'the rest were riddled and sunk by gunfire from PT boats and aircraft. The grounded PT 61 was pulled off the reef later that morning by subchaser PC 476. Also later that morning, three of Teruzuki's survivors were found by PT 109. Once the crew press-ganged them aboard, they were taken to Tulagi and were turned over to the Marines.

After this hard won but heartbreaking victory the Japanese made no more Tokyo Express runs to Guadalcanal in the remaining days of 1942, doubtless due in no small part to the rude reception the PT men gave Tanaka on December 11. It was about this time that the 109 was selected for a small experiment in radar. Someone figured out that a radar-equipped PT would be much more effective in finding--and fighting--the Japanese, so a radar set was scavenged from a wrecked Catalina PBY flying boat and installed aboard 109 on December 18th. Unlike most radar types whose antenna swept the seascape at 360 degrees, the antennas for this set were fixed in place, and were mounted on the PT's foredeck. According to a former radioman, the radar operator could only see on his scope a limited angle staight ahead, and the only way to change search directions was change the direction of the boat. Despite this the PT sailors found the the radar set a nice little item to have, if only they could keep it running. The set's power supply was proved to be quite unreliable and was prone to fail at any given moment, which may be the reason that it was removed sometime later. The disappointed PT skippers had to wait a few months more for a reliable radar unit especially made for PT's to arrive from the United States. By that time the cruisers and destroyers that were the principal prey of the Guadalcanal PT's were staying out of the torpedo boats' range, and PT crews would be hard pressed to find really good, juicy torpedo-worthy targets. But even with its faults the set convinced the PT sailors that a reliable radar unit would be an asset to future PT operations.

An unknown Elco 80-foot PT cruises the Tulagi shoreline, early 1943.

New Year's Eve 1942 saw the strength of the Tulagi splinter fleet increase by six with the arrival of four boats of MTB Squadron Six's Division 16: PT's 115 (Ens. Bartholomew J. Connolly III), PT 116 (Ens. Ralph L. Richards) PT 123 (Lt. Frank J. Leary) and PT 124 (Lt. Clark W. Faulkner, acting squadron CO.) Arriving with Division 16 were two boats of Squadron Two-- Lt. John H. Claggett's PT 111 and Ens. George S. Wright's PT 112. The new boats had arrived just in time, for the reformed Tokyo Express had just resumed its nightly supply runs, the first of which was on the night of January 2/3 1943. The New Year also brought a new conductor for the Express; Rear Adm. Tomiji Koyanagi took over the reins of the Reinforcement Unit, replacing Rear Admiral Tanaka. Tanaka had been put on the sidelines from the injuries he recieved on December 11, as well as telling his superiors a few unpleasant truths about the situation at Guadalcanal.

Koyanagi led ten destroyers from Shortland, with five loaded with food and ammunition. The Japanese destroyermen expected a fierce PT boat response and braced themselves accordingly. The five escorts were fitted out with extra 13mm machine guns just for mosquito boat extermination duty. Air cover was provided by three floatplanes from the Imperial Navy's Shortland-based R Area Air Force, but even with air protection, the Express ran afoul of an ambush laid on by by Henderson Field-based Dauntless SBD dive-bombers. The Marine SBD's--nicknamed 'Slow But Deadly'--selected one of Koyanagi's ships for punishment, damaging it enough to warrant its return to base with a healthy destroyer as escort. The remaining eight destroyers kept right on going until they met eleven PT's lying in wait. On station was PT 109 with Rollin Westholm at the wheel. As Lieutenant Westholm sailed the boat to its assigned patrol station, it was attacked by a floatplane that dropped two bombs off the PT's port beam. These floatplanes, code-named 'Pete' by the Allies, were the bastard cousins to 'Louie the Louse' and would soon become the newest addition in the Imperial Navy's repertoire of anti-PT tricks. To the PT crews, the Petes would quickly become their most hated adversaries for the rest of the fight for the Solomons. The torpedo boat men could barely make out their airborne nemesis flying above in the darkness, while the planes could easily spot the wakes of the speeding PT's up to four miles away, thanks to phosphorescent glow. A former PT commander later stated the boat's wake was, for the floatplane pilots 'a bright shining arrow pointing right up my ass'.

Five minutes after the floatplane attack an enemy destroyer off 109's port quarter fired on the 109 with its five-inch guns. Westholm laid smoke, retired, then spotted another destroyer lurking in the darkness four minutes later. The Squadron Two CO stalked his target for a few minutes, then pressed the buttons on the cockpit instrument panel to release two torpedoes. The Mark VIII's leaped from their tubes, and were observed to run 'hot, straight, and normal' towards the enemy warship. But before the slow running torpedoes could reach their target, the Japanese destroyer captain, probably suspecting Westholm's intentions, turned his ship towards the PT, causing 109's underwater missiles to pass ahead of the destroyer. Then it was the turn of the Japanese to make life uncomfortable for the American torpedo-boat men, giving PT 109 another explosive sample of Japanese gunnery. Westholm steered 109 towards the relative safety of Savo Island behind a protective wall of smoke. The samurai sailors lost track of the PT in the billowy white fog, but the boat did not escape the notice of a Pete prowling above. Following the wake of the speeding PT, the floatplane pilot dove his machine down to the deck in a strafing attack, but only succeeded in spraying the water behind the boat with machine gun bullets and killing a few fish. Hot lead from PT guns soon persuaded the aerial marauder to look for easier game. Afterwards, Westholm resumed his patrol station east of Savo; but the enemy warships had left the area, leaving a now-torpedoless 109 to return to Tulagi without further incident.

Copyright © 2002-2013 by Gene Kirkland