Italeri 1/35th scale Elco 80 foot PT boat (596)

By Gerry Nilles

History

You might say that the birth of the American PT boat, in the late 1930s, was a difficult one. Officially designated a Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB), much of the US Navy’s pre-war top brass had, at best, an ambivalent attitude toward developing this class of small combatants. It was only at the very strong backing of President Franklin Roosevelt, and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Frank Leahy that the Navy Board was convinced to implement a program to develop and deploy these small “expendable” boats. Surprisingly, CNO Leahy’s support was in great part due to the influence of his good friend and former Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur, who was at the time commander of all United States forces in the Philippines, realized early on that the Japanese military expansion in the Pacific poses a very real threat. He also knew that the Navy’s ability to provide sea protection, in the form of capital ships, was limited. Being a bit of a visionary he saw the potential of a large force of PT boats, consisting of 80 to 100 units, to make up for the lack of other naval protection. Unfortunately, at the time of the outbreak of the Second World War only six PT boats of squadron (Ron) 3 had been assigned to the Philippines. Yet, despite their small number, and the fact that they knew they were fighting a losing battle, they were extremely effective during those first few critical months of the war. As such, they more than proved the value of the PT boat as a combat class. Ironically when President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur’s withdrawal, MacArthur and his immediate staff made the initial and most dangerous part of the trip, on the four remaining Squadron 3 boats. As a footnote, the story of MacArthur’s departure from the Philippines along with the other exploits of these boats is depicted in the book “They Were Expendable”. Likewise the 1946 Hollywood film version, (of the same title and staring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne), gives a flavor of the story, but typical of that era is a bit more romanticized and propagandized. Interestingly, the six squadron 3 boats were in actuality 77 footers, which was an earlier Elco design, but at the time the movie was made only the Elco 80 footer and the lesser know 78 ft Huckins (not to be confused with the 78 ft Higgins) were available for use by Hollywood. But, be that as it may, this black and white film contains a lot of great footage of early production Elco 80 footers.

The first attempts to develop an American Patrol Torpedo Boat began in the fall of 1938. At that time the Navy had initiated a design competition and subsequently selected a 54 ft and a 70 ft design for further development. These two winning designs along with a third, that was a Navy variation of the 70 ft boat, were then distributed to three individual boat builders for construction. These builders including the Miami Ship building Company, the Fisher Boat Works of Detroit, and the Higgins Company of New Orleans would then build two copies of the design assigned to them. These boats, not surprisingly, were given the designation of PT 1 thru PT 6. Two addition boats, PT 7 and PT 8, were both designed and built by the Navy itself. Disappointingly, none of these first eight boats exhibited satisfactory performance. Fortunately the US Navy’s previous lack of interest in the MTB had not been shared by a number of the major European powers. The British especially had continued torpedo boat development after the end of the First World War. Not surprisingly their designs were years ahead of the efforts currently underway in the US. As such the Navy Board thought it might be prudent to “check” their designs against that of the British. However because of both political and conflict of interest concerns, the acquisition of a British PT Boat, directly by the US Navy, was discouraged. Without going into detail about behind the scenes activities regarding military contractors and the US Government I will just note that at this point the Elco Naval Division of the Electric Boat Company of Bayonne New Jersey was approached and strongly urged to enter the PT boat competition.

Why Elco you might ask. The Electric Boat Company is without a doubt best know for building much of the US Navy’s submarine fleet, both past and present. But what is lesser known about the company, which was established in 1892, is their equally rich and even longer history in building small boats and patrol craft. Not only were they responsible for many innovative designs but they also revolutionized the concept of mass production in the boat building industry. During WWI they were able to deliver an order for five hundred 80 ft patrol boats to the British in less than 500 days. Needless to say Elco’s patrol boat building experience coupled equally with their good relationship with both the US Navy and the British Admiralty made them the natural choice to “quietly” acquire a British built PT boat. So, in early 1939 again at the urging of both the Navy Department and White House two top Elco executives traveled to England, at their own no less, to select and purchase a British built boat. At the time there were three major boat building companies being considered including Vosper, Thornycroft, and the British Power Boat Company. The Elco executives selected and purchased a 70 ft boat that was built by British Power Boat and designed by Hurbert Scott-Paine. In another bit of irony the boat, (now designated PT 9), was then shipped back to the United States on the freighter SS Roosevelt.

The Scott-Paine design seemed to be what the Navy was looking for and as a side benefit it provided Elco with a good starting point. Initially ten additional PT 9 copies (PT 10 – 19) were ordered by the Navy for evaluation purposes. As a result of these evaluations it was determined that not only did the design need to be lengthened seven feet, but it also needed some major structural modifications. A total of forty Nine of these new 77 ft boats (PT 20 – PT 69) were then ordered. Although almost a completely a new boat the 77 footers retained much of the same exterior appearance of the original 70 ft design. At the time of the Attack on Pearl Harbor twenty nine had been completed and were in service. As noted above six of these were deployed to the Philippines, with another twelve being stationed at Pearl Harbor. As a side note it has been claimed, but not confirmed, that it was one of the Pearl Harbor boats that was responsible for shooting down the very first Japanese aircraft on that fateful December 7th morning.

Although the Navy was satisfied with the British design based Elco 77 footer they felt that there was still room for improvement. With this in mind they conducted another PT boat competition in July of 1941. This competition, nicknamed the “Plywood Derby”, involved a number of second generation PT boat prototypes including an all new 80 ft design by Elco. In the end three were selected for production. These included the PT 71 class, a 78 ft boat built by Higgins, the PT 95 class which was also 78 ft and built by the Jacksonville Florida based Huckins Company, and of course the PT 103 class which is the Elco 80 footer and the subject of the review. It should be noted here that early on in production the Navy decided to standardize with just two designs, the 80 ft Elco and the 78 ft Higgins. Subsequently the Huckins contracted was terminated after the delivery of eighteen boats.

The first Elco 80 footer, PT 103, went into the water in May of 1942. Of the three designs selected the Elcos were the largest. Not only were they longer, but they were also slightly wider and much heavier. Despite displacing 38 tons, which significantly out weighted either of the other two classes, their speed of a little over 40 knots, (about 45 mph) was the same. The Elcos were also a stable riding boat, or as it is said they had good sea keeping ability. This quality not only made them an excellent gunboat platform, which as the war progressed became an increasingly important factor, but also for a dryer and more comfortable crew. A total of 356 Elco 80 footers were built in a period of almost exactly 3 years to the day. During that time the only real changes to the basic structure of the boats were some increases in the height of the deck cabins and the size of the engine ventilation intakes. However, changes in armament during this same time period is another story. Initially the boats were configured with anti-shipping in mind. They came armed with two twin 50 caliber machine gun turrets, that were stagger mounted, port and starboard off the deck cabins, a single 20mm cannon mounted on the aft deck and four 21 inch torpedo launching tubes (two per side) that were capable of firing the Navy’s Mark VIII torpedo. But as the war changed, especially in the campaign to take the Pacific island, the mission also changed. In the beginning many of the upgrades in firepower were made in the field by the individual boat crews. I should note here that requests for PT boat duty was very sought after, and that the supply of candidates far exceeded available openings. So not surprisingly those selected to serve on a PT boat were among the best of the best as far as being both aggressive and resourceful. As such it was not at all unusual, especially early in the war, for PT boat crews to go out and scavenge anything they could strap to the deck to increase both their hitting power and range. Particular favorites were the 37mm nose cannon from discarded USAAF Bell P-39s Airacobras. Smaller Army field artillery pieces such as anti-tank weapons and mortars were also used regularly. Even larger weapons such as the Army’s mobile 40mm antiaircraft battery were adapted. Eventually, many of these field mods, as well as other updates such as newer radars, the replacement of the heavy torpedo tube launchers with the much lighter roll off racks and special built (swing out) multiple rocket launching systems were incorporated directly at the factory. Without a doubt, when it came to increased firepower, late war boats, such as PT 596, represents the ultimate Elco 80 footer configuration.

Now, I think it can be safely said that the Elco 80 footer became synonymous with the term PT boat. Neither of the other two classes came close to the Elco production numbers, especially the Huckins. Although close to 200 Higgins 78 footers were built, they were, with the exception of a squadron that went to the Aleutians, almost exclusively deployed to the Atlantic and Mediterranean theaters of operations. Conversely the majority of the Elco 80 footers went to the Pacific, which not only was predominately an American war but also both a naval and island fighting war for which the PT boat was ideally suited.

In conclusion the Patrol Torpedo boats tour of duty in WWII lasted just a little over three years. Actually, when looking back at the total history of US Navy PT boat types, for all practical purposes advancing technology had rendered them obsolete after only six years, (1939 to 1945). Since then the US Navy has not seriously developed or fielded a comparable type with the possible, and remote, exception of the Vietnam War era PBRs and Swift River patrol boats. However, I don’t think the mystic of the American PT boat will ever be forgotten. Probably the American Revolutionary War ship captain John Paul Jones said it best “Give me a fast ship, a good crew, and I intend to go harms way”, and that is exactly what WWII PT boats did.

The Kit

As I initially looked at the kit several things struck me immediately. First, aside from being such a nice large scale that didn’t have many tiny parts, with the possible exception of some of the photo-etch, it also look to a fairly easy kit to construct. Secondly the majority if not all of the kit looks like it can be built as a group of easier to handle and paint subassemblies and then attached during final assembly with little if any filling or touch-up needed. After all that’s how the real boats were built. By the way, attention all you R/C types, the main deck is screwed on not glued on.

As for the kit itself, it is mixed media consisting of five large spru trees along with the main deck and hull that are all cast in medium gray styrene. Also included are a sheet of pre punched clear acetate for the windows and deck lights, a large sheet of photo-etch containing a number of details parts for various subassemblies, two (optional) turned aluminum gun barrels for use with the 40mm and 37mm deck guns, some plastic mesh screening to be use on the engine room ventilation intake, and various size wire to be used as safety lines, anchor cable, etc. As for printed items the kit includes two booklets. The first is a very easy to follow 33 page assembly instruction guide that is exceeding well illustrated. The second is a 47 page combination history document, walkaround and color profiles. The Walkaround section is especially interesting in that it shows one of the few remaining Elco 80 footers that has been rescued and beautifully restored and is now on display at the PT Boat Museum in Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts.

Overall both the accuracy and quality of all of the castings is excellent, with no sink or ejector pin marks. Like wise overall attention to detail is equally excellent right down to the 50 cal machine guns and ammunition belts, the correct thickness of the various railings, and any number of the other weapons or details such as the radar antenna assembly, just to mention a few.

Markings

Needless to say PT boats did not have a lot of markings. However the kit does include the boats numbers, several detail decals including the engine instruments dials, and an American flag. All are of good quality.

Conclusion

From a first look standpoint this kit appears to be an excellent model. Its larger scale (1/35th) certainly lends to a very high level of detail, which Italeri has taken much care to include. But, on the other hand, this doesn’t seem to be an overly complicated model to construct. Don’t get me wrong; if done right this will not be a fast build, just not a complicated one.

My thanks to Italeri for the sample review copy.

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