PT boat restoration a mission for WWII museum, volunteers

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A 1943 New Orleans-built patrol torpedo boat, PT-305, is being restored to its World War II condition. When completed, it will boast three Packard engines, torpedoes, depth charges, two twin 50-caliber gun positions and a host of other features. The PT-305 served in the Mediterranean Theater during the war but was built at the Higgins City Park plant. Volunteer Doc Warren walks under the bow of the PT-305.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A 1943 New Orleans-built patrol torpedo boat, PT-305, is being restored to its World War II condition. When completed, it will boast three Packard engines, torpedoes, depth charges, two twin 50-caliber gun positions and a host of other features. The PT-305 served in the Mediterranean Theater during the war but was built at the Higgins City Park plant. Volunteer Doc Warren walks under the bow of the PT-305.

Two stories accompany the ongoing restoration of the PT-305 boat at the World War II Museum, project manager Bruce Harris said.

First, there’s the patrol torpedo boat’s bold and daring battle history, credited with sneaking up on and sinking two Nazi ships off the coast of Italy.

Then, there’s the all-volunteer restoration taking place in the same city where the boat was built in 1943. Since the museum bought the PT boat in 2007, volunteers from all walks of life have been spending their retirement, or their weekends, doing whatever Harris asks them to do, no matter how messy, greasy or tedious.

Harris described the devotion and willingness of the volunteers as reminiscent of the wartime “all in it together” mentality.

The volunteer team started with close to 40 World War II veterans, Harris said, but now, after another died last week, they are down to just one, still working on the boat at the age of 87.

Once restored to operating condition — aside from the weapons that will just make loud noise using propane and oxygen — it will be the only PT boat that saw combat that again will be put to sea. There are no torpedo boats left on the water with original engines, said Robert Stengl, boat builder and logistics engineer.

With a launch date set for March 15, 2015, the plan is to unbuckle the giant windowed wall of the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavillion and transport the boat to the nearby Mississippi River. Sea trials will take place on Lake Pontchartrain.

While Higgins Industries Inc. and its owner, Andrew Jackson Higgins, are known as the creator of the “Higgins boat” landing craft, it also built 199 PT boats in New Orleans. After the war, many were stripped of their engines and machinery and set on fire by the U.S. Navy, which no longer wanted to use wooden boats.

The PT-305 survived because it was in transit to the Pacific theater.

The boat, which had three Packard 1500-horsepower engines and carried 3,000 gallons of gasoline, was built for speed and maneuverability. The 78-foot boats had a top speed of 50 mph.

During World War II, the PT boat was able to sneak up on much larger ships under the cover of night and torpedo them before speeding away.

Harris called them the “fast and most lethal pound for pound in the Navy.” The Japanese called them “Devil boats.”

Finding parts for the boat work is a bit of an ongoing treasure hunt, led by Stengl. Right now, he’s working on getting a part from Argentina, where the Navy donated 10 boats.

Stengl said he uses Craigslist, eBay and a wide network of museums and collectors to seek out parts, with the goal of procuring as many original components as possible.

Local and national shipyards also have stepped up to help, he said.

“I can find things,” Stengl said.

From copper rivets on the mahogany deck to square-headed bolts on the hex head, Stengl said he wants it to be so precise that a crewman in 1944 could step on the boat and not know the difference.

A life raft that had never been out of the box — the kind used on the boat — came from a living room in Ohio. A man in California made an exact reproduction of a telegraph throttle control.

The engines are a challenge, Stengl said. On many of the surviving PT boats, the massive engines, which burn through 150 gallons of gas in an hour, were removed, and the boats turned into pleasure crafts.

One of Stengl’s prize procurements was an original engine found in Wisconsin.

From a farmer’s barn in Illinois came boxes of original engine parts that had never been opened. He found a company in Nevada that could reproduce the machine guns.

He’s also located two boats in Poland and is negotiating for parts, though with limited resources.

All U.S. Coast Guard safety regulations must be met. Stengl said that with 3,000 gallons of fuel on board, fire is the biggest concern.

After the boat goes out on the water, locally, nationally and with dreams of retracing its battle days in the Mediterranean, it will return to display at the museum.

It will be maintained and kept in working order, able to go back on the water with short notice.

The PT-305 came from Galveston in rough shape; the group spent more than a year in research and preparation, cutting 10,000 sheet plans down to just 450.

Because the shape of the hull was modified by Andrew Higgins to eliminate the phosphorescence trails the Japanese were able to follow, it took three tries to get the shape right as the changes weren’t included in the sheet plans.

Until the new air-conditioned pavilion was built, the boat sat nearby in a hot, leaky, building.

Harris said he’s been part of a team of volunteers devoted to restoring World War II boats for the past 14 years. As the group completed one painstaking project, it looked for the next boat, but nothing with the scope and exceptionality of the PT-305.

They have a certain charm and excitement, Harris said.

“I’ve got one great thing left in me, and this is it,” he said.