Uncle Sam's Expendable Navy

By Johnson, Frank | Sea Classics, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Uncle Sam's Expendable Navy


Johnson, Frank, Sea Classics


The Elco 77-footer saw more action against enemy

warships than any other type. Yet it remains virtually unknown and unheralded compared to later PT designs

The story of American PT-boats fighting the Japanese in the Pacific during World War Two, is a well-known chapter in naval history. The notoriety the boats achieved during, and then long after WWII can be traced to a number of sources. The dashing courage of the men who, while skipping from wave to wave at 70 knots, had the audacity to challenge the Imperial Japanese Fleet (and claim results) most certainly caught the public's eye thanks to the efforts of romantic writers who could find little else to be enthusiastic about in the early months of the war.

The charisma generated by the small craft remained strong after the end of the war thanks to Hollywood movies and the publicity received by a President with regard to his wartime exploits.

Most naval buffs know what American PT-- boats looked like. Everyone is familiar with PT 109, right? The sleek lines of the Elco 80-ft PT-- boat are unmistakable. And then of course there was the 78-ft Higgins design that also served so well throughout the war. These were the two type boats that first met the enemy in the fierce engagements of the war's early months and then continued to earn laurels until war's end. Right? Wrong!

In fact, those early encounters with the enemy in the Philippines (resulting in the best seller They Were Expendable by Robert L. White and a subsequent John Ford movie) as well as the battles with the Tokyo Express in the Solomons during the campaign for Guadalcanal, were all fought by PT-boats of a design that comparatively few are familiar with. This was the Elco 77-footer, a virtually forgotten boat in the annals of popular PT-- boat lore. Even when they made the movie version of They Were Expendable, John Wayne could be seen at the helm of his Elco 80-- footer, a design that was not in production until months after the fall of the Philippines. (In all fairness, this was an understandable expedience as there were virtually no 77-ft boats in the country at the time of the filming.)

I have often sought suitable words to describe the appearance of the Elco 77-ft design. The later 80-ft boat, as can be seen in the photos, bore absolutely no resemblance to its predecessor and is widely considered to have been the sleekest and most classically attractive of all the boats. The 77-footer was something else. It featured smooth, curving contours and a rakishly flared bow which rose to a peak and then actually began to slope back downward as it reached the tip. The deck bowed as it flowed toward the stern leaving not a great deal of freeboard amidships. Thanks to this feature, the boats were notably wet in heavier chop.

The Elco 77-ft PT-boat was a direct outgrowth of a design built in England by Hubert Scott-Paine. Similar designs were already in production for the British forces when the US Navy announced the opening of its competition for torpedo boat design in 1938. Several American companies, primarily yacht making concerns, entered the competition as well as the US Navy itself, with an all-aluminum craft. But the Scott-Paine boat proved itself clearly superior in speed and stamina to anything existent in the US, a fact recognized by the Elco Yacht Works of Bayonne, New Jersey. They purchased one of the Scott-Paine boats along with the rights for its manufacture in the United States for some $30,000 and began a series of tests.

The Navy was anxious to get going, however, and immediately ordered ten of the 70-footers which Elco promptly produced. Only after the boats entered service was it determined that they were too lightly constructed for the heavier seas off the Atlantic seaboard. A topnotch, no-nonsense outfit, Elco immediately began to redesign the boat. It was considerably strengthened structurally and an extra seven feet was added to the overall length, this to facilitate four rather than two of the bulky American 21-in torpedoes.

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