Hunters in the Shallows: A History of the PT Boat / Boats at War: World War II to Vietnam / the Sea Hawks with the PT Boats at War: A Memoir

By Cooper, William | Naval War College Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Hunters in the Shallows: A History of the PT Boat / Boats at War: World War II to Vietnam / the Sea Hawks with the PT Boats at War: A Memoir


Cooper, William, Naval War College Review


Nelson, Curtis L. Hunters in the Shallows: A History of the PT Boat. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1998. 242pp. $28.95

Polmar, Norman, and Samuel Loring Morison. PT Boats at War: World War 11 to Vietnam. Osceola, Wis.: MBI Publishing, 1999. 160pp. $19.95

Hoagland, Edgar D. The Sea Hawks with the PT Boats at War: A Memoir. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1999. 234pp. $24.95

For many readers, PT boats stir up images that are based on a pair of black-and-white movies and a corny television series, in which the PT crews are portrayed as nonconformist, courageous, and usually successful in near-suicidal torpedo attacks on swift and deadly enemy cruisers and destroyers. While these stories are entertaining, the reality of PT operations and the true effectiveness of the dreaded "mosquito boats" can be found in the three books discussed in this review.

The two books by Curtis Nelson, Norman Polmar, and Samuel Morison are excellent overviews. They give detailed descriptions of the programmatic background and design of the classic World War II Higgins and Elco boats. Both books begin with the U.S. Civil War, when Lieutenant William Gushing, USN, attacked the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle with a spar-torpedo rigged on a small picket boat on the night of 27 October 1864. Nelson points out that Cushing's attack was prototypical of the standard World War II PT attack, in that it occurred at night against an assumed superior, but unalerted, opponent, prompting vigorous counterfire.

Cushing's success notwithstanding, the use of smaller craft against larger craft was not seen as feasible, as survivable by the attacking crew, until the invention and marketing of the autonomous torpedo by Robert Whitehead. Whitehead's early torpedoes were lacking in range and reliability, but he and his team had shown the world's navies a revolutionary weapons system. Still, while some European navies adopted and refined the torpedo and created launching craft, the U.S. Navy was focusing on building the Mahanian blue-water fleet. Coastal warfare seemed to be irrelevant to this massive and costly effort.

Nelson does a creditable job in his description of the employment of motor torpedo boats, MTBs, in World War I. There were some spectacular successes. For example, many readers may be unaware that one of the standard "stock footage" films of the demise of a dreadnought battleship (along with that of the catastrophic explosion of HMS Barham in World War II) shows the Austro-Hungarian battleship Szent Istvan rolling over in the Adriatic after suffering torpedo damage inflicted by Italian MTBs in 1918.

The postwar period is well described, but the real story begins during the U.S. naval buildup in the late 1930s. The pivotal role played by Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison (son of the inventor) in carrying out President Franklin Roosevelt's explicit orders to build warships of all types as quickly as possible is described in detail. While Nelson does a particularly good job of relating the "scandal" of Edison's purchase of a proven and excellent British MTB design while competition between U. …

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