Researching the PT's

Obtaining Documents and Photographs from
The National Archives and the Naval History and Heritage Command

You're thinking about doing serious research on motor torpedo boats; either a certain boat, a particular squadron, or probably a major campaign and you want to know the role of the PT boats in said campaign--but you're not sure where to start. One can do some research using this marvel of modern life, the Internet. Most search engines can put you on the right track on where to find a few things--some may even be available for download. Once found, some documents and photographs can be sent for if you approach the right government agency and fill out the proper paperwork with the correct reference numbers and so-on. But please keep in mind that the staffs of these agencies are very limited, and the amount of research requests they receive number in the thousands, if not millions; and each request can cover almost every conceivable topic under the sun. Also, from a specialist's point of view, you may possess information even the "experts" may be unaware of (no fooling--I still remember going to the Naval Historical Center in Washington DC back in 1982 and having one of their staff tell me Higgins Industries did not make PT boats--only landing craft. At that time (I was only twenty) I didn't have the heart to correct him--nowadays I'm a bit more combative. Anyway, for this sort of research, sometimes you have to physically go out and get what you need.

The sources available are many, but for the purposes of this how-to, I'll confine my comments to two facilities that I have personnaly used. The first is the National Archives in Washington, DC. When I first began my PT researches in the mid-1980's, the boat logs were kept in the Main Building, located at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown DC. This is the building many people think of when the term "National Archives" is mentioned. After 1994, all my research has been done at the Archives II building at 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, Maryland. The National Archives is accessible to all (provided you're not workin' for Al-Qaeda or Bin Laden), the staff is very, very helpful (for the most part), and instructions on how to get there and hours of operation are listed in detail at the
Archives website. This is the procedure I go by when I am on my research trips:

Take the free shuttle bus from the Main Archives Building in downtown Washington DC; this shuttle rides every hour on the hour Mon-Fri between 8am-5.00pm. The bus is primarily a shuttle for Archives employees, and researchers can ride on a space-available basis. So far I've been on about six week-long research trips to the Archives, taking the 8am bus to Archives II and staying until the last bus arrived at 5.00pm--and did this daily for the duration of my time in DC--not once have I been turned away for lack of space...though I will admit a couple of times there was cause for concern.

Upon arrival and search, have a guard show you where the registration office is; once you're there you go through a twenty-minute orentation period; once done, you will receive your free researcher card. The card is good for one year and is necessary to get in and out of the various research rooms. Next, take ALL of your excess gear to the locker rooms in the basement. NOTHING is permitted in the research rooms unless it has been examined and tagged by Archives security. No coats, hats, briefcases, bags, or purses are allowed, period. Sweaters may be worn (and when you go in the summer you might need it--the research rooms' air conditioning seems to come straight from Siberia some days). If you need to take notes, there are ample pencils and paper in the research rooms for your use--no outside notebooks, journals, or books are permitted, either. If there are some loose notes you need to use, or a book you need as reference, they must be registered at the main security desk.

For photographs, the place to go to is the Still Picture Branch, fifth floor. Tell the staff when you get there what your line of research is, and they will instruct you in the proper usage of searching through the card catalogs, filling out forms and handling pictures when they arrive at the room. For the cash-strapped researcher, you can use their Xerox machines, which can print a reasonably good viewing copy for 10 cents apiece. To activate the copier, one must obtain a copy card, located in the research room. You put as much money as you think you need on it, and insert the card into the card reader attached onto the machine. Don't put too much money onto the card--if you do, you will not be able to get a refund for money not used. This was what they were using on my last trip (June 2005) but as I write this, I think that they are switching to a format where you can use your credit card, much like Kinko's does.

If price is not an issue, there are two Kodak Picture-Maker stations that are available for use. These will give you high-quality photographic copies suitable for publication for $5.75 (I think) each. To pay for these, you'll get a receipt from the reading room desk, and then go down to the cashier's office and pay for them either with cash or a credit card. To get around the cost issue, one can bring their own scanner and scan the pictures you want at no charge. That is what I did on my last trip, and while it was some burden lugging around my laptop, scanner, and portable CD burner (especially as I was dependent on public transportation) in the end it was worth it. I managed to scan some 150 photos'and that was on items I was looking for. If you should want to take a scanner, be aware that it must be a flatbed machine, in order that no damage to the documents or photographs may incur. No other type of scanner is permissible.

The National Archives Main Building,
Washington, D.C.
The Archives II facility,
College Park, Maryland

An actual request slip from my last trip--this one I filled out in the Still Pictures Branch on the fifth floor of Archives II. Fairly simple, you fill out your name and the record ID--in this case, the photo number (80G-13116) and the box number (60) where the photo can be found. The photo number is found in the card catalog; the box number you will find when you search through the catalogs provided by the staff.

For documents, such as muster lists, boat (and ship) logs, squadron action reports and war diaries, the Modern Military Records unit of the Textual Archives Services Division, located on the second floor, is where you need to be. They provide reference services on those military records in College Park created after 1900 and include documents created or accumulated by the various components of the Department of Defense and its predecessor, the War Department. The PT squadron war diaries and action reports were held by the Operational Archives Branch of the Naval Historical Center (more about later) until 1995 when they were transferred to the National Archives. Upon entering the research room and signing in, you'll need to consult with one of the staff as to the purpose of your research; from there, you'll be escorted to the back room where one of the senior researchers will assist you in the use of the various catalogs for finding your documents. You'll fill out the necessary research slips, and when done, you will be escorted out to the research room to await your documents. There are five document 'pull' times during the day: 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, 1:30 and 3:30. No record pulls are done in the evening or on Saturday, so coordinate your time accordingly. Copies can be made of your documents, again at 10 cents per page, in the same format already discussed; there is also a large book copier (see below) for making copies of bound material (like the PT deck logs) the staff will not let you lay upside down on one of the regular copiers, for fear of damaging the records. Copies from this machine are printed on 11x17 paper and are 75 cents each.


The machine for making duplicates from bound material, located in the second-floor research room of the Modern Military Records unit of the Textual Archives Services Division, Archives II, College Park, Maryland.

The second place I have done some research was the Operational Archives Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command (formerly the Naval Historical Center) mentioned earlier. This is located on the third floor of Building 57 on the grounds of the Washington Navy Yard in southeast Washington DC. It has been well over ten years since I have been here, and I understand a lot has changed. As I related earlier, the PT documents I first saw here in 1993 have now been transferred to the National Archives; but photographs can still be viewed in the Photographic Section located on the second floor of Building 108. The Photographic Section has extensive pictorial reference files on all aspects of naval history. Its own collections are the principal source of photographs and other illustrations of U.S. Navy subjects made prior to 1920, and contain a wide selection of unique photography from later years. It also holds thousands of references to naval photographs held by other repositories. Xerox copies can be made for about 10 cents each or you can bring a scanner and save them to your laptop's hard drive. Due to security concerns in a post-9/11 world, one must now make an appointment some time in advance before coming to the Navy Yard to do research. Go to the NHHC website ( to check on hours of operation, as these periodically change.

The Photographic Section provides limited research services in response to written and telephone inquiries. Such requests should be as specific as possible concerning names, dates, places, ship hull numbers and other details of the views wanted. Since the volume of research inquiries usually far exceeds the available service resources, responses are not necessarily timely. Send research requests to:

Photograhic Section
Naval History and Heritage Command
805 Kidder Breese SE, Washington Navy Yard
Washington DC 20374-5060
Phone: (202) 433-2765; DSN 288-2765

If extensive research is required, it must be conducted in person. Appointments are essential to ensure access to the Washington Navy Yard and the availability of reference staff, and please telephone the Center to make the necessary arrangements.

Other sources for PT-boat related photographs:

The United States Naval Institute

The United States Naval Institute, a privately-funded professional organization for the sea services, has a large collection of naval photography. Subject matter covers all eras, but emphasizes the 20th Century. The Naval Institute has also obtained a number of important independent photo collections, notably including those of late naval author James C. Fahey, and of the old "Our Navy" magazine.
The Naval Institute Photographic Library can provide LIMITED RESEARCH, emphasizing services to members of the U.S. Naval Institute. It also can provide reproductions of many photographs in its collections.

For further information, CONTACT:
Photo Service, U.S. Naval Institute
291 Wood Road
Annapolis, MD 21402-5035
FAX: 410-269-7940

The Library of Congress

Copies of images may be obtained from the Library's Photoduplication Service, which is a separate part of the Library (telephone 202-707-5640; email: In general, orders must be accompanied by reproduction numbers or call numbers that are used to identify the material being ordered. It takes from 3 to 6 weeks to get copies. Xerox machines are available in the Division's Reading Room, but many images are too old or fragile to be xeroxed. The staff does not provide receipts for costs incurred in making xerox copies. Simple hand-held camera copying that does not require lights or other equipment or special handling of the images is allowed as an alternative to xeroxing. Exceptions are made for qualifying documentary film makers. Digitized images appearing in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog and on the web site can be downloaded at public reading room workstations. Higher resolution images may require use of a zip disk (100 or 250 MB) formatted for use in IBM compatible machines or a USB flash drive formatted for IBM compatible machines, as the size of many images exceeds the space available on diskettes. It is not possible to download to CDs at the public workstations. Scanning equipment is not allowed because of handling concerns and the light they omit. Digital cameras are allowed (see "Simple hand-held camera copying" above).

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (no kidding!)

Rudy Arnold (1902-1966) was an accomplished airman and photographer, and photographed many of the major news stories of the 1920's and 1930's. The Rudy Arnold Photo Collection consists of hundreds of negatives, glass plates and color transparencies of aviation subjects that span Arnold's career as an aviation photographer, and his collection at the Air and Space Museum also contain some thirty-odd photographs of Elco 70-and 77-foot PT boats of Squadron Two performing exercises in New York Harbor. Unfortunately, restrictions govern copying of these photos, so if you are planning to order one of these, put a crowbar in your wallet--to have copies made from this collection (or any of the Smithsonian's holdings) for personal (non-commercial) use are $25.00 each.

Copyright © 2002-2013 by Gene Kirkland