WWII veteran recalls days as gunner on PT boat

Hide caption “The PT boat was the Cadillac of the Navy,” based on the speed, maneuverability and armament, said Ken Clarke, who was assigned to PT 512, which pursued enemy shipping and aircraft.

World War II veteran Ken Clarke, a native of Dubois, Pennsylvania, was drafted into the U.S. Navy right after high school graduation in 1944 and served 18 months as a forward gunner on a high-speed torpedo boat.

After boot camp in San Francisco, Clarke was assigned to PT 512 which, he said, made regular patrols and spotted and pursued enemy shipping and aircraft in waters around the Philippines.

Clarke said his PT boat crew went out on patrols that would last from a few hours to all day. He has a model of PT 109, commanded by John F. Kennedy, who went on to become the 35th President of the United States, on his mantle.

During an interview recently at his southeast Marion County home, where he has lived for 29 years, Clarke pointed to the open air gunner’s position in the front of the PT 109 model, which matched the position he manned on PT 512.

“The PT boat was the Cadillac of the Navy,” Clarke said, based on the speed, maneuverability and armament of the craft. “The PT boats had three engines, which ran on aviation gas, and two engines were used most of the time. A third engine was used mainly for emergencies,” he said.

According to the World War II PT Boats Museum and Archives website, www.ptboats.org , PT boats were built by Elco Naval Division of Bayonne, New Jersey, and Higgins Industries of New Orleans, Louisiana, with the Elco model measuring about 80 feet long, or nearly two feet longer than the Higgins boat. Both craft were about 20 feet wide. Clarke said PT 512 was an Elco model.

The website lists the armament on the Elco as “four roll-off racks for Mark XIII 22.5-inch diameter torpedoes; one 40mm gun; one 37mm gun; one 20mm gun; two .50 caliber machine guns; 2-4 depth charges; smoke generator; two Mark 50 5-inch rocket launchers.”

Clarke said while serving on the PT boat he heard of Kennedy and his PT 109 crew being struck by a Japanese ship and later being rescued from an island in enemy territory after writing an SOS message on a coconut.

“It hit home,” he said.

According to a the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website, www.jfklibrary.org , on the dark “moonless night” of Aug. 1, 1943, Kennedy, then a Navy lieutenant, j. g., commanded “patrol torpedo” boat PT 109, which was on patrol in the Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands. PT 109 and 15 other PT boats were looking for ships of the “Toyko Express” supply convoy and after a number of PT boats had fired their torpedoes, PT 109 and at least two other PT boats remained in the area.

Around 2:30 a.m. a craft, first thought by the crew of PT 109 to be another PT boat, but which turned out be the Japanese […]