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In Our Waters - The Plywood Derbies

As the darkening clouds of an impending world war loomed, the rumble of throaty marine engines roared in the waters off of Sarah’s Ledge in the Long Island Sound. Ten boats jockeyed for position at the starting line awaiting a radio call that would indicate that they could commence with their one hundred and ninety-mile race. All of the coxswains and crews were ready for the endurance run. Lucrative government contracts tantalized the designers, engineers, and financial backers who had labored over their entries into the contest. A special type of boat was needed for America’s allies, and the race was on to supply that boat. In the early morning hours of July 24, 1941, the radio call emanated from the speaker boxes aboard the gaggle of circling boats. Deftly sliding up onto planes, the boats of various designs, began the race that would become known as the first Plywood Derby. The winner of the race from Sarah’s Ledge to Montauk Point would be a test of design, endurance and determination. The design winner’s boat, following a long and arduous development process, would constitute a vital step in the implementation of PT or Patrol Boats into the fleet of the United States Navy. The need for small coastal motor boats had become apparent during the First World War, and during the inter-war years European navies had continued in the further design and advancement of small torpedo armed boats. While most of the European nations had incorporated various designs of coastal motor boats into their burgeoning array of floating assets, the United States waned in their wake of progress. On December 5, 1936, Rear Admiral Emory S. Land, Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, took action in the issuance of a memorandum to the Chief of Naval Operations highlighting the need for the U.S. Navy to look into the possible utilization of coastal motor boats for the service. “The results obtained in the foreign services are such as to indicate that vessels of considerable military effectiveness for the defense of local areas, are being built, the possibilities of which should not be allowed to go unexplored in our service. It is, of course recognized that the general strategic situation in this country is entirely different from that in Europe, so that motor torpedo boats could not in all probability be used offensively by us. It appears very probable, however, that the type might very well be used to release for offensive service ships otherwise unavoidably assigned to guard important geographic points such as an advance base itself.” Admiral Land, realizing the potential – although limited in defensive posturing mainly according to his memorandum – had set a course that would greatly assist in the development of the United States’ own fleet of motor torpedo boats. With final approval by the General Board and under the authority of the Secretary of the Navy in 1937, Congress appropriated fifteen million dollars in 1938 for the construction of experimental vessels, no more than three thousand tons standard displacement. The only caveat to the allocation was that the project funds would remain under the direct authority and supervision of the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While he never wore the uniform of the Armed Services, Roosevelt had served as the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy during the heady days leading into and during the First World War. While his fifth cousin once removed Theodore Roosevelt urged Franklin to join the services and fight for his country, Roosevelt remained at his post in the Department of the Navy. While some, including many within the White House questioned and were dismayed with Franklin’s constant argument for funding to expand the U.S. Navy’s assets, FDR had originally followed the lead that former President Woodrow Wilson had taken during WW I, and had hoped that America could avoid another war. Despite his Wilsonian approach to yet another war on European soil, he did authorize the utilization of funding for the development of experimental vessels that could be utilized by the U.S. Navy including the PT boat design and implementation as a new arm of the nation’s naval assets. In 1938, the U.S. Navy invited boat builders and naval architects to submit designs for several small displacement vessels including two classes of sub-chasers (165’ and 110’) and two classes of motor torpedo boats (70’ and 54’). The requirements for the two classes of motor torpedo boats included an overall length of 70’, not to exceed 80’, a speed of forty knots, and a minimum service radius of operations of 275 miles at top speed and 550 at cruising speed. In addition, the larger of the two classes of motor torpedo boats had to be able to carry at least two 21 inch torpedoes, four depth charges, and two .50 caliber machine guns. The boats would have to be fast and lethal. In September of 1938, winners were announced in the two classes of motor torpedo boats. Contracts were provided for the construction of several crafts under the design stipulations. While the boats were structurally sound and of apparently of good quality, the British had beaten the U.S. designers to the drawing board and into the water. By the time the experimental boats hit the water, they were arguably inadequate to fulfill the needs of the U.S. Navy. A British designed, Scott-Paine motor torpedo boat, was approved for purchase and for review by the Department of the Navy after President Roosevelt approved the Secretary’s letter indicating “O.K. if price is as low as the proposed American 70-footer.” On September 5, 1939, the Scott-Paine designed motor torpedo boat arrived in New York and was unloaded from the S.S. President Roosevelt. After transport to the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut, the newly named PT-9, was reviewed and tested. On December 7, 1939, the U.S. Navy, after receiving positive reports from U.S. Navy officers who were aboard for the rough-water tests of the design, granted Elco the contract for the construction of the experimental boats for further evaluation and testing. Over the course of the following few months, Elco designers and builders realized that plans of the PT-9 were nothing more than a “hodgepodge of partial sets of blueprints for three separate boats none of them exactly matching PT-9.” Despite the set-back, the designers and builders were able to deliver their entry to the U.S. Navy in June of 1940. While the difficulties of the PT-9 design and building issues were finally resolved, the U.S. Navy also authorized several other designers and boat builders to offer their own versions of the newly classified Patrol Boat class of boats. Fisher Boat Works, the Miami Shipbuilding Company, Higgins Industries, and the Philadelphia Navy Yard all constructed PT boats that were to form Squadron One of the Motor Torpedo Squadrons. A second squadron would follow with additionally constructed boats. By December 31, 1940, both squadrons, a mixture of designs and sizes, navigated to southern waters for a series of trails. Along with PT tenders U.S.S. Niagara and the Hi-Esmaro, the two squadrons set out for testing and though the tests would prove difficult and trying for all of the boats, the tests did provide a bounty of valuable information for further design and construction. Clearly, further testing and retrofits would be needed. The war though took center stage and a need for boats in Europe was the main priority. As such, both squadrons of boats were ordered north for transfer to Europe under the Lend-Lease program. Amidst the testing and transfer, the U.S. Navy awarded a new contract to a Scott-Paine-influenced design of a longer length of seventy-seven feet. While the original 70’ boats entered war-time service in various European theaters of operations, the new 77’ foot PT boats readied for testing. On July 24, 1941, a bevy of boats gathered off of Sarah’s Ledge to compete in what would eventually be coined the first Plywood Derby. A total of nine boats of various designs rallied at the starting line all of their crews with hopes of finishing first in the competition. The course, a total length of one hundred and ninety miles, would run from Sarah’s Ledge, in the waters off of New London, Connecticut, to the eastern end of Block Island, around Block Island, out to the Fire Island Lightship, and then to the Montauk Point buoy. As navigators double-checked their charts, conditions were reported positive with a moderate swell and a light cross chop. As all boats were in various stages of armament, some of the boats were laden with additional weight to ensure a level of uniformity in the testing. The flotilla of test boats included the PT’s 20, 30, 31 and 33, three Higgins’ designed boats, PT 6, 70 and a 70’ boat built for the British powered by triple Hall-Scott nine hundred horsepower engines, the PT 69, designed by Huckins, and one boat built by the U.S. Navy, the PT-8, which was the only boat built with an aluminum hull. The derby would prove to be tougher than expected for several of the floating field. Five minutes into the race, the Higgins designed British PT boat experienced engine trouble and forfeited further competition. Four of the boats suffered varying degrees of structural damage and were also forced to end their voyages. PT-33 developed stress cracks off of Block Island, PT-70 experienced damage to her deck and frames between Block Island and Montauk, and the PT-30, though she lasted through the end of the race, was deemed a non-contestant due to her damage and eliminated from the final results. The remaining boats finished the endurance run with two Elco-designed boats taking first and second place with average speeds of 39.72 knots and 37.01 knots respectively. Third in placement was the Huckins designed PT-69 which averaged 33.83 knots, the fourth the Higgins’ PT-6 with a speed of 31.40 knots and in dead last, though she did finish, the U.S. Navy’s aluminum hulled PT-8 with an unimpressive 30.72 knot speed. Many of the financial backers and designers balked at the accuracy of the tests due to the fact that the “ballast could not be disposed as to give horizontal and vertical movements equal to the simulated loads, but had to be distributed in the best available stowage spaces on the boat. The Board of Inquiry, which was in charge of the testing, realized the inadequacies in the tests and conceded to a second derby in early August. On August 12, 1941, a newly determined field of entrants, totaling six boats, rallied at a new starting point, Race Rock, to start the second Plywood Derby. With the U.S.S. Wilkes running at full-speed alongside her mosquito-fleet of boats, the race was commenced. Sea conditions for the second test would push the boats and their crews to a new level of endurance. Heavy cross swells prevailed and in the waters west of Montauk, swells ranged from six to eight feet with occasional breakers towering at heights of ten to twelve feet. As sheets of green water sprayed over the bows, heavier seas were on the horizon. In the confused sea south of Block Island and toward Montauk Point, the boats and their crews were subjected to walls towering nearly fifteen feet. The flotilla fought on through the seas with various degrees of casualties. PT-69 suffered “several fractured bilge stringers” and was forced to withdraw from the test. PT-70’s suffered injuries to her deck planking and fittings while the PT-21 suffered minor cracks in her deck. The Elco boats, PT-21, was deemed the winner of the derby with an average speed of 27.5 knots with the Higgins’ designed PT-70 only slightly abaft at a speed of 27.2 knots. PT-8, the U.S. Navy designed boat averaged 25.1 knots with the Higgins British motor torpedo boat serving as the anchor boat with an average speed of 24.8 knots. The U.S.S. Wilkes, a destroyer, which ran alongside the flotilla, ultimately averaged a speed of 29.8 knots and made the entire run in six hours and eight minutes, a total of twenty five minutes faster than the winner of the derby. The U.S. Navy concluded the test indicating and conceding that despite the outcome that it appeared that “for the assigned mission, modern destroyers possess no sensible advantage over the motor boats even under sea conditions highly unfavorable for the latter, and that in areas where limited visibility is not unusual the motor boats might readily prove more adaptable than the larger vessels within the limitations of their operating ranges.” Though the U.S. Navy would ultimately issue a new edict on the requirements for the newly-minted Patrol Boat or PT boats for their use in combat missions, the two Plywood Derbies that took place in the waters of the Long Island Sound in July and August of 1941, provided the U.S. Navy with a wealth of information that would ultimately lead to the construction of fast, lethal and efficient boats that would, unlike Admiral Land’s initial assessment of defensive-only use, to both defensive and offensive capabilities that would serve the U.S. Navy and her various services with a host of functionality and efficiency throughout the Second World War. The PT boats that evolved from the Plywood Derbies of the Long Island Sound would serve as an integral component to a countless number of missions throughout both the European and Pacific Theatres of combat and would serve their nation and the allies as they fought the tyrannous foes that threatened the freedom of millions in the waters where they were stationed. The Plywood Derbies, a series of endurance tests that s provide the necessary information and data needed to design and build hundreds of efficient, deadly and in many cases, boats capable of a host of missions of mercy for downed aviators and beachfront-bound U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers, was largely due to the tests that were conducted in our waters.

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