PT-309 Restoration Underway
PT-309 Restoration Underway
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
Story by Lee Arellano
Rick Thomson, center, with his crew aboard PT-309
The fully renovated Pacific Combat Zone (PCZ) has reopened. The Living History programs are again in full swing, and the WWII veteran, PT-309, is undergoing an extensive restoration.
This boat, manufactured in New Orleans by Higgins Industries, is a rarity. The majority of the PT boats were burned after the war or sold to other countries. PT-309, a survivor, was discovered serving as a fishing vessel off the New York coast. During WWII, it was stationed in the Mediterranean and was credited with firing over 100 torpedoes and sinking five enemy ships. It was also responsible for the capture of an Italian MAS (PT equivalent) boat.
The boat was nicknamed ‘Oh, Frankie.” This came about after a meeting between the boat’s first captain, Wayne Barber, and Frank Sinatra (both shown below) at a New York night club just prior to the boat’s departure for Europe. (Those with long memories will recall the huge crowds of bobby soxers swooning in the 1940s as they called out “Oh, Frankie” while Sinatra crooned love songs to them.)
The boat’s painstaking restoration work is being done by Rick Thomson of The Wooden Boat in Lockhart, TX, who was assisted by team members Woody Golden, James Dunlap, and Tim Auld. Efforts were made to restore the boat as close to its original state as possible. As Thomson said, “the boats were not made to last -- they were made for war, and it is amazing that PT-309 has lasted as long as it has.” He did a lot of forensic work regarding the restoration effort to ensure it is as close to the original as possible. What did not need replacement was left as it was. Thomson is documenting all his work to preserve the historical accuracy.
While some work is being done in the interior and engine room, a lot of the effort (perhaps up to 75 percent) has been to restore the upper deck. In one of its previous incarnations, the vessel served as a fishing boat, and the original deck of Philippine mahogany was replaced with plywood. Thomson explained that in the 1940s, Philippine mahogany was readily available. It had a good clean, straight grain, was malleable, and held up well. It also was not expensive. The latter is not true today, and it took four months to get the type of mahogany that was needed for the restoration work.
PT-boats were used to engage enemy warships, transports, tankers and barges. They were called “the mosquito fleet” or “devil boats” by the Japanese. They were known for their daring and “David versus Goliath” successes. It should be remembered, however, that there was a high rate of loss of PT boats due to Kamikaze attacks, mines, strafing and accidents. Some serving aboard the boats stated that they had been inadequately trained before they were sent to sea. In fact, graduates of the Naval Academy sometimes referred to the PT squadron as “Hooligan’s Navy” because of the mishaps.
When asked how it felt to work on a boat such as PT- 309, Thomson said “its historical presence really made itself felt, and the boat became very special to all those who worked on it.” He added with a smile that because of this, he spent nights waking up worrying about “getting everything right."
PT-boats have always had a mystique about them. This probably is partially due to the well publicized story of PT-109, commanded by Lt. John F. Kennedy, and its encounter with Japanese destroyers when the smaller craft was sunk, killing part of the crew and forcing others, including Kennedy, to swim to the closest islands.
Skipper JFK with some of his crewmates
Another heroic tale in the Pacific was the use of a PT boat, captained by Lt. John Bulkeley, to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff from Corregidor to Mindanao, a very dangerous 600 mile trip. Afterwards, MacArthur commented that Bulkeley had “taken him out of the jaws of death, and he wouldn’t forget it.” He subsequently recommended Bulkeley for the Medal of Honor, which was awarded to him in August 1942.