During World War II, Rhode Island residents could hear the roar of PT boat engines from Narragansett Bay all day and see tracer bullets fired over the ocean at night.
They could watch the PT boats racing around either in formation or practicing maneuvers. Perhaps Richard Nixon saw them from the Quonset Point Naval air station while he trained there in 1942. Perhaps George H.W. Bush had an aerial view of the little boats while training at the Charlestown Naval Air Station. And maybe they caught a glimpse of John F. Kennedy racing around the bay, leaving a rooster tail in his wake.
Birth of the PT Boat
The Navy had recognized early in the war that it needed small, high-speed, heavily armed gunboats to use among the hundreds of small islands in the Pacific. From that insight came the Patrol Torpedo boat, known as the PT boat. You may have seen PT boats in motion pictures such as They Were Expendable and PT 109 or the comedy TV show, McHale’s Navy.
Nearly all of the 14,000 PT boat officers and men trained at the small navy base on Narragansett Bay in the village of Melville, a part of Portsmouth, R.I. The Navy didn’t just train its men there, but developed PT boat policies and tactics as well.
Not many histories of these small bases have been written. Melville, however, graduated a disproportionate number of extremely successful men. In addition to a president of the Unite States, Melville graduated a U.S. Supreme Court justice, three movie stars, five U.S. ambassadors, four NFL coaches, six top corporate executives and a U.S. attorney general – to name a few.
This is their story.
The base was formally known as the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center (MTBSTC). The Japanese called them Devil Boats, and the Navy fondly called them the Mosquito Fleet, after their logo. The Secretary of the Navy signed an order establishing the PT boat fleet on Feb. 17, 1942.
In the beginning, a Massachusetts firm began construction on the small base. But then the Navy largely turned it over to the Rhode Island companies of Gilbane, Coleman and Collins. When all was said and done, there would be 59 buildings and 150 Quonset Huts (a Rhode Island invention). These buildings and huts would house classrooms, mess halls, warehouses, machine shops, living quarters and more — everything you’d find in a large Navy base.
The builders literally built a boat basin for the PT boats out of a swamp. It was staffed full time by 57 officers and 280 enlisted men. Motorists could see it from the Mt. Hope Bridge, which connects Bristol and Portsmouth.
Alongside the PT boat training unit was the Motor Torpedo Boat Repair Training Unit (MTBRTU). This unit had a staff of 30 officers and 950 enlisted men. Here they trained on maintaining the three 1500-horsepower Packard engines on a PT boat either in dock or the field. On the other side of the base was the Naval Fuel and Net Depot – a good location because those Packard engines gobbled up huge amounts of high-octane fuel.
Melville also had the advantage of having the Navy’s Newport Torpedo Station on Goat Island down the road from it. The torpedo station could provide training duds, sometimes live, for the torpedo boats to practice with. It also supplied experimental torpedoes to try out and a seven-mile torpedo range running north from the torpedo station up Narragansett Bay toward Prudence Island.
The Navy organized the PT boats into 44 squadrons, generally comprised of 12 boats. All told, the Navy commissioned over 650 PT boats by the end of the war.
The men nicknamed the squadrons ‘RON’, from the last three letters of ‘squadron,’ and added their number. RON 4 began operations at the Newport Navy Base on Jan. 13, 1942. It later moved to the crowded Melville base and remained in operation for the duration of the war. RON 4 patrolled the Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts coastline. Thus Narragansett Bay provided a safe haven for training and experimentation.
Lt. William C. Specht, soon promoted to lieutenant commander, was tapped to serve as Melville’s first commander in March 1942. He also ran the repair and fuel depots. Specht oversaw the construction of the base as well as the development of its curriculum. Navy men assigned to the course at Melville joked they attended “Specht Tech.”
The PT boats were built mostly by the Higgins Company in New Orleans and the ELCO Company, a division of Electric Boat, the submarine builder. They had to measure at least 77 feet long in order to carry and launch Mark 8 torpedoes. They also carried twin 50-caliber machine guns. Some of the PT boats had 20 mm cannons.
The crewmen did their gunnery training at the Anti-Aircraft Center at Price’s Neck on Newport’s Ocean Drive. George Donovan, now 92, remembers them practicing at night. Along with his brother and cousins, he watched from his grandmother’s bedroom window, which faced Ocean Drive. They were fascinated and mesmerized watching countless tracer bullets fired out over the ocean at practice targets towed by small airplanes. These trainees used live ammunition, and occasionally they strayed off target and accidently shot down the tow plane.
The men trained in their PT boats on Narragansett Bay and in the ocean between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard, 10 miles south of Newport. People said the rooster tail and the roar of the engines was most impressive the first time you heard and saw them. These boats could travel between 40-45 miles an hour at full throttle and were physically demanding to operate. So demanding they sometimes said that “PT” meant the men had to be ‘plenty tough.’
Occasionally, things went wrong.
Whenever the torpedo station was going to launch a test torpedo along its seven-mile range off Gould Island, it blew a very loud warning whistle. But one day in 1942 the commander of PT 122 did not hear the whistle, understandable over the roar of three Packard engines. He strayed into the test range and was nearly sunk by a test torpedo.
On another occasion that same year, PT 59 launched a torpedo in error. It traveled an estimated seven miles and struck the cargo ship USS Capella, anchored off Jamestown, and it began to sink. The quick-thinking skipper used his powerful engines to push the Capella to shallow water and thus save her from sinking. She was later repaired and put back into service. However, the entire incident was kept secret until the 1970’s.
Then in 1943, another PT boat launched a torpedo that went off course and sank a freighter anchored off the Quonset Point Naval Air Station.
And while patrolling Rhode Island coastal waters, PT 200 struck an unknown submerged object and sank.
Soon after the end of World War II, the Navy decommissioned the Melville Training Center and dismantled it. All that remains today are a couple of buildings and a plaque to commemorate what once was there. A busy marina operates in the PT boat cove.
When I was a youngster in the early 1960s, my friends and I used to play on an abandoned PT boat, which had been stripped of its armament and beached on the shore of what is now Hanley’s Beach, on Jacobs Point along the river in Warren, R.I. It had apparently crashed into something submerged because it had a large hole in its hull. We could enter the PT boat through the hole and play around, imagining what once might have taken place aboard her.
According to the Warren Preservation Society, what remained of the PT boat burned to the ground about 1970. All that’s left is some iron from what once must have been her engines.
Today there are precious few PT boats remaining, perhaps 10 in the world. Two fully restored boats can be seen on display at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Mass. If you want to experience what they were really like, take a trip to New Orleans and the National WW II Museum where they have fully restored the PT 305 to fully operating condition. You can even take a 45-minute ride on it in Lake Ponchartrain.
As noted previously, about 14,000 people went through the Melville Training Station out of about 12 million men and women who served in the armed forces during the war. What seems to me remarkable, and far out of proportion to its size, is the number notable men who served there.
Here is an incomplete listing:
Anthony Akers, U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand
Paul Austin, Chairman of the Board, Coca Cola
Howard Baker, U.S. Senator from Tennessee, chief of staff to President Reagan, U.S. Ambassador to Japan
William C. Battle, President of Field Crest Mills, U.S. Ambassador to Australia
Charles A. Black, husband of Shirley Temple and aquaculture pioneer
John D. Bulkeley, Navy Vice Admiral and one of the most decorated men in military history, including the Medal of Honor; skippered PT boat that took Gen. Douglas MacArthur out of the Philippines
Michael Burke, CBS Sports executive and President of the New York Yankees
John Clagett, author of 19 books
Bernard A. Crimmins, All-American football player, Notre Dame 1941; college football coach`
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., part of the invasion of Southern France, organized the Beach Jumpers, movie actor
Paul B. (Red) Fay, Undersecretary of the Navy, author
John Harllee, Chairman, Federal Maritime Commission
Michael J. Holovak, All-American football player, Boston College, 1942; college football coach and NFL team executive
John F. Kennedy, U.S. President
Joe Kuharich, college football coach and head coach NFL teams
Elgar Laux, Vice Chairman, Chrysler Corp.
Walter Lemm, head coach Houston Oilers and St. Louis Cardinals
Henry Loeb, Mayor of Memphis, Tenn.
Carl Maddox, Athletic Director, Louisiana State University
Clinton McClain, player, New York Giants
Torbert MacDonald, U.S. Representative from Massachusetts
John N. Mitchell, U.S. Attorney General
Robert Montgomery, actor, President of the Screen Actors Guild
James Madden Newberry, founder of PT Boats, Inc.
Jack B. Olson, Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas
Paul T. Rennell, Vice President, Pan American World Airways
Don Rickles, actor and comedian
Raymond P. Shafer, Governor of Pennsylvania
Preston L. Sutphen, Sr., President of Electric Boat, builder of PT boats
Harold Thorkilsen, President and CEO, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc.
Malcolm Troon, U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Israel and the Soviet Union
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, millionaire
George Vanderbilt, millionaire
Byron White, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Leo Caisse, the author of this story about the 1916 U-boat visit, passed away in 2020. We miss him terribly. He published 10 historical articles, including Ears On the World in America in World War II Magazine, October, 2017. He earned a B.A. and M.A. in American History from Providence College and he lived in East Providence, R.I.
Images: PT Boat at Battleship Cove By Wikimaster97commons – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3846572; John F. Kennedy in PT 109 courtesy the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. This story was updated in 2020.