Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Ignoble End Of An Aging Warrior

Warriors have fought in man’s wars since time began. Many are wounded but live to fight another day. Eventually even warriors must pass on and the men that rode on these old warriors are saddened to see them, once proud and bold, pass into history.

Those who never served in a war don’t understand how men who rode into battle on the modern “steeds” of war come to hold affection for the machinery that took them to war and most often brought them back. Aging Veterans try desperately to restore aircraft, ships, trucks, tanks, ships and boats to pay homage to the machines of war that saw them through many battles.

One such effort began in 1996 as Veterans in Vancouver, Washington acquired PT 659, a 50 ton, 78 foot vessel originally built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, Louisiana and commissioned August 2, 1945, towards the end of the war, with the noble goal restoring an aging warrior to create a waterfront attraction and historical display for those too young to know of the sacrifices made during World War Two to keep many nations free.

With hulls of mahogany and decks of plywood, the little boats, powered by 3 Packard 1200 HP supercharged V-12 engines, would go up against much larger vessels of our enemies, striking hard and fast. They were used throughout the theaters of WW2, but are best known for their action in the Pacific against the Japanese fleet.

Armed most often with four torpedo tubes, one 20mm stern gun and two pairs of .50-caliber Browning machine guns near their bow; they were fast and highly maneuverable vessels that would harass enemy shipping, avoiding detection. Still, several PT’s and crewmembers were lost during the war. Two crewmembers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions.

The heroics of the boats became well known after the war through movies, such as John Wayne’s “They Were Expendable” and later when one PT Commander was elected President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. His actions were chronicled in the movie “PT 109” starring Cliff Robertson. Television added to the mystique of the boats with the successful and highly popular series, “McHale’s Navy.”

Although PT 659 never saw combat, acquiring it for restoration elated many Veterans as so few are remaining today. The boat was in disrepair from many years in the Naval Yard at San Diego, California then in Portland, Oregon for over a decade as parts of her were stripped for the restoration of her sister ship, PT 658, which saw completion.

Costs were astronomical and donations scant. Plans were changed from a waterfront display to cutting the hull open to show visitors the cramped living conditions the three officers and 14 crewmen endured. As those plans fell through, it was decided to donate the boat to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, but again, costs to ship the boat that distance made the plans unlikely.

At a cost of $350,000 to ship the boat by truck, the museum turned down the offer, opting instead to receive another boat, PT 305 from Galveston, Texas, much closer and cheaper to ship and a boat that actually was used in combat in the Mediterranean.

Realizing the dream of restoration of the old warrior were not to be realized and not wanting to see the once proud boat continue to sit in a weed infested field, it was decided to scrap the aging boat. Jerry Pierce, a retired carpenter and history buff said, “The fact that the poor thing was sitting here, waiting for people to save it, it’s always a shame to see one of these go. But if it wasn’t going to be restored, it’s better to salvage,” as saws began cutting up the hull of PT 659.

All is not lost of the dream, though. Enough parts to fill three 18-wheeler trucks were stripped from the old warrior to be shipped to New Orleans to assist in the $5 million restoration underway of PT 305.

Tom Czekanski, director of Collections & Exhibitions for the National WWII Museum in New Orleans said of the PT Boats contribution in the war, “This was the war where PT boats really made a difference.”

While this proud lady built to fight never saw action and died such an unceremonious death at the hands of chain saws, she will live on through her parts in PT 305, reminding visitors of the sacrifices men must pay in order to remain free.

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