PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON NAVAL HISTORY
BARGE-BUSTING WITH THE
BY RICHARD H. WAGNER
(Originally published by the Navy League of the United States, New
York Council in The Log, Fall 2007).
Two of the most frequently discussed topics in today's naval literature are the need to
adapt the Navy for combat in the littorals and the need to develop the Navy's ability to
work with other services in joint operations. However, neither of these are new concepts.
When he was a young Soldier in World War II, my father was informally seconded to the
Navy to fight in surface actions in the shallow waters surrounding the Solomon Islands.
The Solomons Campaign
The Solomon Islands lie in two roughly parallel lines in the South Pacific. When the
Japanese began to build an air base on the eastern most island in the chain, Guadalcanal, it
threatened the lines of communication between the United States and Australia. To
remove this threat, the Marines landed on the island in August 1942 and seized the airfield.
After a series of savage land and naval battles, the United States secured the island in
The American plan now became to move up the Solomons with the goal of eventually
ejecting the Japanese from their stronghold at Raebal. The next step was to take the New
Georgia group of islands, which lie to the west of Guadalcanal. Accordingly, Marines and
Army troops were landed on New Georgia in June 1943.
As on Guadalcanal, the initial success of the landings was followed by a determined
Japanese resistance. Moreover, while the jungles of Guadalcanal had been broken by large
grassy fields, New Georgia was unbroken jungle surrounded by coastal
mangrove-swamps. There was an almost constant misty rain, mud, snakes and
In the battle for New Georgia, the Japanese made extensive use of self-propelled
armored barges to bring in reinforcements, re-supply existing troop concentrations, and to
evacuate troops when they became surrounded. Because of their shallow drafts, these
barges could maneuver in the shallow, reef-filled waters surrounding New Georgia and its
neighboring islands. American destroyers were not able to follow them into these waters.
Consequently, the job of "barge-busting" in the littorals around New Georgia fell to the
Navy's PT boats.
Torpedo boats can be traced back to the turn of the 20th Century when various
European powers began experimenting with placing torpedoes on small motor boats.
During World War I, Britain and Italy made extensive use of torpedo boats with the Italian
navy scoring some impressive successes against Austrian capital ships. However,
because of their limited range, the U.S. Navy felt such boats would be of little value in
defending a nation surrounded by two large oceans. As a result, the Navy limited itself to
purchasing a few torpedo boats for experimental purposes.
In 1934, Hubert Scott-Paine, a Briton, designed the first modern torpedo boat. As
finally constructed, Scott-Paine's boat was 70 feet long, carried four torpedoes, had
machine guns in two power-driven turrets and could do 42 knots. It was light, strong,
fast and maneuverable.
Such developments in Europe prompted the U.S. Navy to take another look at
torpedo boats and a design competition was held in 1938. As a result, contracts were
signed with several manufacturers to build some experimental boats.
Meanwhile, however, Henry R. Stapleton, Executive Vice President of the Electric
Boat Company ("Elco") persuaded Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison that the
American designs were obsolete in comparison to the Scott-Paine boat. As a result,
Stapleton was commissioned to go to England and purchase a Scott-Paine boat with an
eye toward building such boats for the Navy. Since they did not have a complete set of
blueprints for the boat they purchased, Elco engineers took the boat apart, precisely
measuring every part, and created a blueprint.
In order to evaluate the competing designs, in May 1941, the Navy held a series of
trials in the waters around New York, which was unceremoniously dubbed "The Plywood
Derby" in reference to the fact that the boats were made of wood. The Elco boat was the
clear winner. However, the Navy was also impressed by revised designs from Higgins
Industries and by a small yacht manufacturer Huckins Yacht Company. Consequently, all
three were given production contracts.
With 385 boats, Elco produced the most PT boats for the Navy during World War II.
Most of these boats were 80 feet in length but there were also 77-foot and 70-foot
versions. Higgins produced approximately 200 boats but most of these were used in the
European theater. Huckins only produced 18 boats and none of them saw combat.
The Elco design was the one used primarily in the New Georgia battles. These boats
were 80 feet long and had a beam of 20 feet. They were powered by three 12-cylinder
Packard marine engines that were derived from an airplane engine design. Consequently,
the boats used aviation gasoline, which their hungry engines consumed at a rate of 66
gallons an hour per engine at 23 knots. But, at top speed (41 knots), consumption grew
to 166 gallons an hour per engine. With a 3,000 gallon fuel capacity, a patrol could only
last six to 12 hours depending on speed.
The hulls of the Elco boats consisted of two layers of mahogany planks with a layer
of airplane fabric glued in between. While there was some protection around the wheel
and the turrets, enemy machine gun fire could cause splinters to fly as on the wooden
warships of Nelson's time and a direct hit from a naval gun or a bomb from an aircraft
was usually catastrophic.
In relation to their size, the PT boats carried the heaviest armament of any naval
vessel. The early boats had four torpedo tubes and two-twin .50 caliber machine guns in
two turrets. Subsequently, a 20mm Oerlikon cannon was added at the stern.
The problem was that in fighting barges, the PT's torpedoes were ineffective.
Because the Japanese barges had a draft of about five feet and the minimum depth setting
for an American torpedo was ten feet, the PT boats' torpedoes would pass underneath the
barges. Consequently, the firepower of the PT boats had to be increased.
While the manufacturers back in the States looked for ways of increasing the
firepower, Sailors in the field took matters into their own hands. In the most famous
example, the crew of Lt.(j.g.) John F. Kennedy's PT 109 bolted a single-shot 37mm
antitank gun to the bow of their boat. The 39mm cannons off crashed Army Air Corps
P-39 Aerocobras were attached to other boats. Three boats had their torpedo tubes and
depth charges removed so that they could carry 40 mm guns and armor. Other
commanders looked around for other handy sources of additional firepower.
A Soldier Goes To Sea
George R. Wagner grew up on the waters of Long Island Sound and the South Shore of
Long Island. Both with the Sea Scouts and with his brother Bill, he built numerous sail
boats and other small craft. Because this was the Depression, these boats were
constructed from scrounged materials and as the boys discovered, not always seaworthy.
In 1940, with war looming, the boys decided to join the Navy. Because Bill was still
underage, they persuaded their grandmother to sign a paper authorizing Bill to enlist.
However, when they went for their physicals, the Navy decided that George's eyesight
was not up to combat at sea and rejected him. Consequently, Bill was in the Navy and
would go on to serve on USS WASHINGTON (BB 56) at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
(See The Log Winter 2005 at p. 9) while George was left as a civilian.
Not for long, however. In January 1941, George was drafted into the Army of the
United States. He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division "Tropic Lightning." He
served on Guadalcanal, then on New Georgia and later in the Philippines.
Despite the eye problem identified by the Navy, George proved a good marksman. In
addition, he had an aptitude for things mechanical. Therefore, the Army reasoned, he
should be an "automatic rifleman". In other words, a specialist with the Browning
Automatic Rifle ("BAR").
The BAR was designed in 1917 by John Browning as a means of providing automatic
weapons fire for troops assaulting enemy trenches. However, the Army was concerned
about this advanced design weapon falling into enemy hands and thus very few were
actually used in World War I. What made this weapon superior to contemporary weapons
was that it could be fired like a rifle from the shoulder position, from the hip while
advancing or like a machine gun from the prone position. It had a standard magazine of
20 rounds of .30-06 caliber cartridges and an effective fire rate of 550 shells per minute.
Although the BAR had become the standard heavy fire support for Army infantry
squads by the beginning of World War II, it did have several problems. It was
mechanically complicated, difficult to clean and had parts that were subject to corrosion in
moist environments. Most significantly, however, was that it weighed between 16 and 19
pounds, depending upon the model. This was nearly twice the weight of the standard
infantry rifle, the M-1 Garand. In addition, there was the weight of the ammunition and
Indeed, George found the BAR too heavy to carry around in the heat of the jungles
and swamps of the South Pacific. As a result, it would become "lost" shortly after landing
on an island to be replaced in turn by a variety of weapons including submachine guns and
carbines supplemented by various pistols and knives. However, he preferred the M-1
Garand as having the best combination of weight and accuracy.
No one seemed to mind this self-initiated re-equipment. In the jungle, the men were
allowed to use whatever weapons suited them. However, from time-to-time someone in
authority would recall George's automatic weapons specialty and he would be issued
another BAR or a light machine gun. Such re-equipping usually presaged trouble because
they usually came when there was a need for automatic weapons fire.
The Barge Fights
It is not clear who came up with the idea but after fighting in the jungles and swamps of
New Georgia, George and some other Soldiers were ordered to rendezvous with some PT
boats along the coast and to bring their automatic weapons. The mission was to assist
the Navy in fighting the barges that were shuttling troops between New Georgia and the
Japanese stronghold on the neighboring island of Kolombangara.
The primary barge used by the Japanese in the Solomons was the Type A Daihatsu.
This metal-hulled craft was nearly 50 feet long and weighed about eight tons. It was
capable of carrying up to 120 men or 15 tons of cargo. It was no greyhound as it could
only do about one knot. However, they traveled by night and hid along the jungle shore
during the daytime, making it difficult for them to be spotted by airplanes.
The coxswain and the engine room were armor-protected. In addition, each
Daihatsu came equipped with two machine guns. This armament was frequently
supplemented in the field by 40mm guns as well as by the firepower of the troops that the
barge was carrying. Thus, the barges were formidable opponents for the wooden PT
boats. Furthermore, the Japanese built shore batteries along the barge routes and used
seaplanes to provide air cover.
Some of the PT boats had radar but they also relied upon lookouts for the difficult
task of spotting the barges against the dark shorelines. Black Cat night aircraft would also
occasionally guide the boats to their targets.
The soldiers took up positions on the PT boats as they proceeded along the coast in
the darkness. George set up the BAR on the bow of the boat.
Bullets from the PT boats' machine guns and lighter caliber weapons could not
penetrate the armored sides of the Daihatsus. However, their continuous fire kept the
heads of the Japanese gunners and troops down. This enabled the PT boats to maneuver
behind the barges where they were more vulnerable.
When a barge was discovered, the night would erupt in a blaze of tracer fire. The
Soldiers and the PT boat's guns firing and the fire returning from the barge. The
opponents were at point blank range, separated by some 20 yards - - the Japanese relying
on the barge's protective armor while the PT boat maneuvered for advantage in the
shallow water. In a few moments of intense fire it was all over with the barge disabled or
During the period 21 July 1943 through the end of August, the 52 PT boats based
around New Georgia engaged approximately 100 Japanese barges. They sank 15 and
damaged some 22 others. More important than the box score, these battles disrupted the
Japanese supply and reinforcement chain making it impossible for the Japanese to
withstand the advance of the Marines and Army troops ashore.
Although never mentioned in the histories of the campaign, Army troops participated
in several of these engagements. It is ironic that one of those Soldiers passed over when
he volunteered for the Navy fought in some of the most intense close-quarters surface
actions since the days of Decatur and Hull.