The Plywood Derby
On July 21, 1941, the first of two plywood derbies took place off the waters of New London, Conn. Nine PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats from four shipbuilders competed for the chance to contract with the U.S. Navy to develop what was to become the “small navy.”
These small (70- to 80-foot) fast surface attack boats were to become famous for their daring and harassing attacks on the Japanese supply lines in the South Pacific theater of war. Eventually approximately 600 were built and served across the globe from the waters off Panama, to the Mediterranean as part of the Lend Lease program, and, perhaps most notably, off the Philippine coast and New Guinea in World War II.
The four shipbuilders included Elco, who eventually won the contract and built the vast majority of the U.S. PT boats, the Huckins Yacht Corporation and Higgins Industries. In addition, the U.S. Navy built its own boat, PT 8, with its all-aluminum construction.
The competition for the U.S. Navy contract consisted of sea worthiness and speed trials beginning at New London at Sarah’s Ledge, with the nine entries racing at full throttle on a 190-mile course on the open sea to the eastern end of Block Island, then around Block Island past the Fire Island Lightship and ending at Montauk Point. The boats were ordered to carry a 20,600 pound ordinance load consisting of machine guns and ammunition, depth charges, and two 21-inch torpedo tubes and torpedoes.
Not all of the boats had the required armament yet installed and had to carry metal ballast of the same ordinance weight of the finished boats. All of the boats with the exception of the U.S. Navy entry aluminum boat (PT 8) were made of double-crossed planked mahogany hulls with plywood decks, which inspired the term “plywood derby” for the sea trials. Only six of the nine boats completed the initial race. Three dropped out because of either mechanical or structural failure.
Pictured here is the winning boat, PT-20 built by Elco and powered with three Packard Marine engines. PT-20 crossed the finish line with an average speed of almost 40 knots – the speed the Navy was hoping to achieve in its future PT boat service. PT-31, also an Elco boat, came in second at 37 knots. The Navy’s boat PT-8 (the most expensive boat to build) came in last at 31 knots and was never put into production.
PT-20 became the prototype for PT boat production during World War II. After the sea trials, it was shipped to Pearl Harbor as part of the first two PT boat Squadrons and was in the water during the Japanese attack on Pearl on December 7, 1941. From Naval combat records, PT 20’s squadron boats were credited as the first surface vessels to open fire on the attacking Japanese Zeroes. Later in the attack, this PT boat along with others was ordered to patrol the devastated harbor for enemy submarines thought to be part of the Imperial Japanese Navy surprise attack. The fate of PT-20 is not known but likely was decommissioned, burned and sunk by the Navy along with the majority of PT boats still afloat after the war ended.
Guest post by Lee Greenwood, Rosenfeld Collection volunteer