by P. T. Deutermann
P. T. Deutermann, former Navy Commodore and author of The Hooligans, discusses the non-regulation and wholly unorthodox ‘Hooligan’ Navy of WWII.
The officers’ wardrooms of the pre-world war II US Navy were modeled after the wardrooms of the Royal Navy, especially in capital ships. Everything was very formal, if not downright stuffy, with dress uniforms required at all times, sterling silver tableware, seating strictly by rank or even lineal number, and full table service provided by stewards. All that changed after the Pearl Harbor attack, or at least the amenities did. Attitudes, not so much. The Navy remained a hide-bound, rigidly autocratic service, afflicted with the ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ aversion to change, any change, from naval operations to naval traditions. All the ships that were sunk at Savo Island in 1942 went to general quarters to the sound of a bugle being played over the ship’s announcing system. Lord Nelson would have recognized the sound – and probably the actual notes.
So, when new concepts and equipment came along, be they related to tactical maneuvers, engineering, ordnance, or communications, there was always resistance. Such was the case with the deployment of the Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) or, simply, PT boat, to the Solomons theater. Torpedo boats had been around since the invention of the Whitehead torpedo, back in the 19th century. Originally small launches, they evolved over time to formidable craft like the German E-boats of WWII, which other navies copied. (Interestingly, an entire type of warship, the destroyer, had been developed to combat them. The term, destroyer, originated from their original mission as Torpedo Boat Destroyers.) The German E-boats were small but very fast and armed with torpedo tubes as well as guns. They would swoop out of the North Sea mists and fall upon convoys or even regular naval formations, sinking merchant ships and throwing a line of capital ships (cruisers and battleships) into disarray because they could launch torpedoes. In 1944, two E-boats killed hundreds of Allied soldiers practicing for the D-Day invasion at a place called
When the American navy deployed to the Solomon Islands, the American version of the E-boat came with them, right after the landings on Guadalcanal. The problem was that they arrived with no agreed combat doctrine, no formal command structure, no common radio equipment, and no logistical support. The regular navy had all of the above and was not of a mind to absorb these new boats into their operations. It wasn’t until the regular navy had its haughty posterior handed to it on Japanese plates did this attitude come somewhat into question. After the defeat at Savo Island, there wasn’t any regular navy left around Guadalcanal. To add insult to injury, the high-command had withdrawn all the transports, the carriers were pulled out of the immediate theater of operations, and the Marines on Guadalcanal were reduced to eating the rice they’d picked off the bodies of dead Japanese.
At that moment, someone finally came up with a mission for the PT boats. Like their German ancestors, our torpedo boats were small, 80 feet or so, wooden-hulled, very fast, and they carried four torpedoes along with cannons and machine guns. With the Guadalcanal cruiser force on the bottom, the general commanding the Marines ashore told them, as only a Marine could, get out there and raise some hell. And they did. For the next six months, they swarmed out of jungle coves and river inlets and ran full power out into the night, searching for Japanese warships or supply ships. At that time, late 1942, the common wisdom was that the Japanese owned the night, the Americans the day because they now had an airbase on Guadalcanal. The Imperial Japanese Navy was intent on rectifying that situation, which led to the campaign for the Solomon Island Chain. That lasted well into 1943, and the PT boat squadrons were in the thick of it.
The regular Navy’s attitude towards ‘unorthodox’ naval warfare concepts, such as the PT boats, had not changed, however. The MTB squadrons were more like pirates than naval personnel. They lived on their boats or in dugout bunkers on the beach, ate what they could forage from passing ships, made midnight-requisition runs to nearby naval supply points, where they ‘liberated ‘most of what they needed, because there was still no formal logistical chain for them. When ashore at one of their jungle bases, they walked around in khaki bathing suits, a Marine T-shirt, and sandals, while they careened their boats to clean the hulls. The officers congregated every evening when not out on a mission for ‘evening prayers’, where they imbibed a brew called a Screamer, made from the grain alcohol that powered their torpedoes and canned grapefruit juice. Regular navy transports learned quickly to post a guard if a PT boat showed up alongside, innocently asking for some fuel and food. While everyone was focused on the refueling operation, a team of thieves from a second, stealthy boat, would climb aboard and steal food, ammo, spare parts, and medical supplies. This was how they gained the name of Hooligan Navy.
Non-regulation, wholly unorthodox, here tonight but somewhere else tomorrow night, and yet willing to close with a Japanese destroyer and duke it out, albeit for only about thirty seconds, and then roar off into the night leaving behind a parting gift of torpedoes and a host of machine-gunned Japanese sailors. As the war progressed and the Japanese navy shrank, their missions became somewhat more mundane – rescuing downed aviators, carrying wounded men from an active front line island back to a safe-haven island, reconnaissance of the next island to be taken. But they were still looked down upon by the Cruisers and Battleship navy. They were boats, not ships, after all. And they were always out of uniform. Horrors.
By 1944, their usefulness, like the big ships of the Japanese Navy, was beginning to wane. The US fleet now had floating hospital ships, long-range reconnaissance aircraft, and an ever-growing number of warships – 10,000 by 1945. This, plus their reputation as a bunch of wild men on the fringes of proper naval warfare, spelled the end. But not without cost: the Hooligans lost many men in those wild, nighttime alley-fights in the Solomons. A future President of the United States had to swim for his life after one of those encounters. They were orphans of a sort, but heroic ones.
P.T. DEUTERMANN is the noted author of many previous novels based on his experiences as a senior staff officer in Washington and at sea as a Navy Captain, and later, Commodore. His WWII works include Pacific Glory, which won the W.Y. Boyd Award for Excellence in Military Fiction, Sentinels of Fire, The Commodore, Ghosts of Bungo Suido,and The Iceman. He lives with his wife of 50 years in North Carolina.