Monday, April 30, 2007

172's Last Patrol

Dusk is setting at Rendova on September 7, 1943, as PT-172 under the command of Lt [jg] Hamilton slips out with other boats for another night of barge hunting. Daihatsu traffic around the barge terminus on Vella Lavella has been unusually active the past few nights. Over the past few months, the PT mission had been evolving from torpedo attacks on destroyers to vicious gunfights with Japanese small craft whose draft was too shallow for effective torpedo attack.

The war for PT-172 and her crew had been filled with luck and frustration so far. Of the six PT boats of MTB Sqn 10 that were aboard the SS Stanvac Manila when the ship was torpedoed by the I-17 on May 24, 1943. Only PT-172 made it to Noumea under its own power. PT-165 and PT-173 were lost due to the sinking; 167, 171, and 174 were towed in.

Then there was the dark night of August 1-2, 1943 when fifteen PT boats tangled with the destroyers of the Tokyo Express in Blackett Strait. While PT-171 of 172’s division made contact with the enemy destroyers and attacked, 172 and 170 could not because 171’s attack fouled their approach. Then as these two boats were evading they came under attack by Japanese float planes, which fortuitously missed both madly maneuvering boats. By the time these boats retook their positions, the Tokyo Express was long gone. It was during this battle that PT-109 was cut diagonally in half by IJN Amagiri.

Now PT-172 and other boats, including 118, were moving towards Vella Lavella. A first quarter moon was not scheduled to rise until after 0130 and the PT boats possessed radar, so it was prime hunting time in the inky tropical blackness for the PT force.

The night passes as 172 idles on her center engine through the water. Everyone peers into the darkness for a sense of movement along the shoreline, a glimpse of white from a bow wave, or the appearance of green blips on a radarscope indicating business. Then a lookout spots something and everyone gets to their battle stations very quietly. Charging handles are pulled, rounds chambered, and personal weapons are readied in case combat gets close. 172 and its division mates close on the suspected target, goosing the engines for a bit more power. And then the target can be spied, it is a daihatsu; a tough armored barge. The gunner up on the bow manning the 37mm cannon from a salvaged P-39 takes aim. 172 and the other boats are starting to plane as their speed increases, everyone focuses on the daihatsu and its unsuspecting crew.

Then calamity as 172 lurches forward as a grinding noise is heard from below decks. It seems 172’s luck has finally run out. Lt Hamilton tries to wrest the PT from the grip of the uncharted reef everyone now knows they are on. The center engine is put into reverse and full power is applied as the outboard engines are put in neutral, the boat strains but it is stuck fast. Everyone can hear the crunching of wood as the coral rips the bottom out. 172 settles deeper into the water as Lt Hamilton calls the other boats for a rescue. PT-118 and the other boat break off their attacks to assist 172. Now misfortune doubles when 118 moves close to 172 to assist evacuating, another outcropping snags 118 in its destructive embrace. With two boats stuck fast with water pouring into the engine spaces and forward, the men of both boats abandon ship to the last remaining operational PT boat. The final chapter plays out as this boat opens fire on the two stranded boats to prevent the Japanese from gaining anything of value from the wrecks. The trip back to Rendova is one traveled in silence as dawn approaches and two crews deal with losing their boats while not sinking any enemy barges.

The above is fiction based on known history and PT tactics&weaponry. My idea on what happened until I get a hold of Buckeley's At Close Quarters and see if that book details the actual events. Be interesting to see if I came close.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I spoke last night to the US Consul in the Solomons. She has a report from the police team that went out to the reef last week to inspect the wreck. It is not a US PT boat from WW 11. The ammo aboard her is a Jap. Looks like it was a Jap supply ship about the size of a PT boat. The likelihood is that she was sunk by a US PT boat patrol. The Japanese Govt have been informed the find.


Bern Lagan (Sydney, Australia)