PT-BOAT OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC: Robert Ankers
PT RONs 19, 23
Interview by Francis A. O’Brien for World War II, January 2003
IN between the large sea battles of World War II, a number of less prominent skirmishes took place in the English Channel, the Mediterranean Sea and among the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The chief protagonists were small but heavily armed vessels called motor torpedo boats by the British, Schnellboote (fast boats) by the Germans, motoscafi anti-sommersibili (anti-submarine motorboats) by the Italians and patrol torpedo (PT) boats by the U.S. Navy. They scouted, attacked enemy coastal transports and some-times torpedoed regular warships many times their size. The swashbuckling exploits of those "little ships" and their crews became legendary.
One of the most publicized incidents involving a U.S. Navy PT-boat involved a future president of the United States. PT-109, commanded by Lt. j.g. John K Kennedy, was rammed and sunk by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri in Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands on the night of August 2, 1943. Among the officers serving in Kennedy's squadron was Lt. j.g. Robert Ankers, who described his experiences with PT-boats and his radar specialty in an interview for World War II Magazine with Francis A. O'Brien.
WWII: Where were you when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?
Ankers: I was a college senior, studying electrical engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Though I was a member of the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps, I decided to switch to the Navy because of my interest in radar science, and was eventually commissioned an ensign. About 25 of my classmates studying electrical engineering also joined the Navy. We completed an accelerated course schedule and graduated in early May 1942. From there I reported to the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) in Cambridge, for three months of radar training. There I learned how to operate a variety of radar equipment as well as how to maintain it. I also learned how to instruct Navy personnel in the operation of radar devices.
WWII: What was your next assignment?
Ankers: In September 1942 I was assigned to the naval base at Norfolk, Va where I instructed personnel in the installation, maintenance and operation of radar equipment on board ship. From there I was assigned to the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Center at Melville, R.I., where I trained with radar equipment on motor torpedo boats produced by the Electric Boat Company (Elco) in New London, Conn. Motor torpedo boats, or PT-boats, were new to the Navy at that time. The plan was to put together a number of young crews to operate them in combat conditions. I was only 22 years old at the time.
WWII: Radar technology must have been a rather untried feature of the new boats.
Ankers: Late in 1942, an experimental aircraft-type radar had been installed on a few Elco boats in the Solomon Islands. It was crude and often failed to operate, but it demonstrated the value of radar. Within a year, almost all PT-boats were equipped with reliable radar developed for their use. Installation was atop the mast: immediately aft of the cockpit. Much of the PT-boat's later success was attributable to its radar, which gave the Navy "eyes in the dark" that the Japanese did not have.
WWII: Where did you go after completing the training program at Melville?
Ankers: On April 24, 1943, I reported to Motor Torpedo Squadron 19 at Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, La. The squadron had been commissioned two days before and placed under the command of Lieutenant Russell H. "Snuffy" Smith, a 1935 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Motor Torpedo Boats 235, 236, 237 and 238 were placed in commission the same day. On April 30, 1943, boats 239 and 240 were placed in commission. All of those boats were manufactured by the Higgins boat company of New Orleans.
WWII: You mentioned earlier that at Melville you trained on Elco-made PT-boats. What differences, if any, were there between the Elco and Higgins boats?
Ankers: Elco boats were 80 feet in length, versus 78 feet for the Higgins boats. Other than that they were essentially the same. They carried the same number of torpedoes and had the same armament: a 20MM cannon aft, twin .50-caliber machine guns in the port and starboard gun turrets, depth charges, a smoke-screen generator, small-arms weaponry, and hand grenades. The boats were fast and highly maneuverable. Three 1,500-hp Packard marine engines powered them, and they were capable of accelerating from 8 knots to 40 knots in II seconds. The boats used 100 octane aviation fuel and could reach speeds exceeding 50 knots.
WWII: How many PT-boats were assigned to a typical squadron?
Ankers: Usually there were 10. Some squadrons had 12 boats, but 10 was the usual number. Squadron 19, for example, had 10 boats, numbered 235 through 244.
WWII: What was the size of the crews on these boats?
Ankers: Typically there were 12 enlisted men of various ratings, plus one or two officers. Later, as more and heavier armaments were added, the number of crew members increased to 18. There were only 12 bunks on board, so the men had to "hot bunk;" that is, when a man came on duty, he jumped into the bunk vacated by his replacement.
WWII: Were you assigned to any particular PT-boat?
Ankers: No, but I usually rode with PT-boat 237, nicknamed "Battling Betty." It was commanded by Ensign Kenneth E. Bryant, a good friend of mine. Sometimes I would fill in on other boats if there was an officer vacancy due to illness or some other problem.
WWII What kind of training did the squadron have on Lake Pontchartrain?
Ankers: Lake Pontchartrain is quite large and has plenty of open water. For about two weeks we learned how to patrol and how to operate the boats in combat conditions.
WWII: Where did the squadron go from there?
Ankers: In late May 1943, the squadron broke into two groups, Group Able (boats 235-239) and Group Baker (boats 240-244). On May 20 Group Able, which I was part of, followed the coastline across the Gulf of Mexico to Miami, where we spent two weeks training in saltwater and rough seas. On June 14, 1943, we left Miami for the Panama Canal Zone, arriving there on June 30. There we waited for a large cargo ship to carry our five PT-boats to the South Pacific. On September 14 the boats were loaded aboard the tanker SS White Plains and taken across the Pacific to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands; we arrived there on October 6.
WWII: Why did you stop there?
Ankers: Espiritu Santo was a large staging area for the Navy. It was the only facility in the area with a crane large enough to lift the 55-ton PT-boats from the decks of a cargo ship into the water.
WWII: How long were you at Espiritu Santo?
Ankers: We stayed there for several days getting ready to go to the Guadalcanal area. On October 17 we reached Tulagi, which was across The Slot from Guadalcanal. The Slot was the channel running between Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands. We stayed there for a week making final adjustments and then moved on to Rendova to wait for our first assignment in the battle area. Rendova was the headquarters for all the PT-boat squadrons in the Solomon Islands. It was there that we first saw evidence of enemy action: shattered coconut trees, wrecked planes and the remains of a PT-boat.
WWII: What about the other half of your squadron?
Ankers: Group Baker did not arrive in the Panama Canal Zone until July 7, 1943. After waiting several weeks, its boats were loaded onto the tanker SS Maracaibo and transported to Espiritu Santo, arriving there
on September 27. The group then moved on to Tulagi and Rendova, where we joined them on October 23.
WWII; One of the more noteworthy members of Squadron 19 was a future president, Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy. When did you learn that Kennedy would be attached to your squadron?
Ankers: While we were at Rendova we learned that
Kennedy had been given command of PT-59, which
had been converted to a gunboat as a more formidable weapon against enemy supply barges. Its four torpedo tubes were removed and replaced with additional .50-caliber machine guns on the port and starboard sides, behind armor shields. Also, instead of the 20mm anti-aircraft gun on the stern of the boat, the gunboat carried 40mm cannons fore and aft.
WWII: Did you meet Kennedy at Rendova?
Ankers: No. By the time I got to Rendova, PT-59 had already moved to Lambu Lambu Cove on the north coast of Vella Lavella Island. When our squadron was moved there toward the end of October 1943, I got to know him quite well. In fact, I shared a tent with him.
WWII: Did you know something of Kennedy's reputation at that time?
Ankers: Yes. Our squadron intelligence officer, Lt. j.g. Bayne A. Sparks, told us about him. Sparks had graduated from Duke University and had read Kennedy's book, While England Slept. Later, of course, I learned that his previous boat, PT-109, had been cut in half by a Japanese destroyer in the Blackett Strait on August 2, 1943.
WWII: When did your squadron move to Lambu Lambu Cove?
Ankers: I think it was in late October 1943, probably on either the 30th or 31st. By that time, all of the boats of Squadron 19 had assembled at Lambu Lambu and were tied up in the bushes around the outskirts of the cove.
Ankers: There really wasn't much to it. It was a couple of hundred yards wide at the mouth, which opened into The Slot on the north end of Vella Lavella Island. Choiseul Island, which was occupied by the Japanese, was about 35 miles across from the cove. The Warrior River and Choiseul Bay, where we operated, were about 65 miles away from the mouth of the cove. Around the cove itself, there was a dock and a few native huts. We lived in tents about 1,000 yards from where the PT-boats were tied up. There were still some Japanese aircraft in the area, so we thought it prudent to stay as far away from the boats as possible.
WWII: Can vou describe your living arrangements?
Ankers; It was a squad tent with six to eight cots situated around the outside walls. I re-
member that Kennedy had a corner cot. At night, when we were not on patrol, we lay on
our cots and talked about the war, the Japanese, and the world in general. The conversations rambled all over the place. After a while, Kennedy would interrupt and ask us to get back to the subject we started with.
: Did you have personal
conversations with Kennedy?
Ankers: Oh, yes. One day he and I were walking down to
the boats. I noted that there were large amounts of war equipment in crates stored all over the island. "Jack," I said, "I hope after the end of the war we veterans will have a chance to buy this stuff on the surplus market, and I would think that since we fought over it and were engaged in military operations, the veterans ought to have a priority in being able to buy it and sell it at a profit." He stopped and said: "Really, Ankers. Do you really want that?" He said the greatest challenge our nation would face at the end of the war would be converting a military economy into a peacetime economy. We needed to learn to make refrigerators and stoves and all the things the people were going to need in their homes. He said if we dump all of this military equipment on the open market it would impede the conversion from a military to peacetime economy. I have thought about that conversation many times. While I was thinking about my own selfish needs and wants, here was a man who was thinking about national problems and challenges. To me that was the mark of greatness. Kennedy's unusually trained mind was looking at the big picture, while I was thinking only about myself.
WWII: Did he ever talk to you about his plans after the war?
Ankers: No. It never occurred to me to ask him any questions about his future plans.
WWII: Did other conversations with Kennedy stand out?
Ankers: Not that I can recall. I do remember, however, that during briefing sessions before we went out on patrol, Kennedy would frequently ask: "Skipper, why don't you let me go in first with my boat? This is going to be a strafing operation, and I can fire many more rounds than an ordinary PT-boat." His willingness to volunteer so many times showed me that he was not afraid of the dangers involved.
WWII: What do you mean by a strafing operation?
Ankers: Our principal mission was to strafe enemy barges trying to resupply enemy shore positions on nearby islands. Most of this activity took place at night, and it was dangerous business, because the barges had more armor than we did and greater fire-power. The Japanese barges had larger cannons - their rounds would go right through a PT-boat.
WWII: Apart from strafing operations, did your squadron have any other assignments?
Ankers: Yes. We were frequently asked to pick up Marines who had been on reconnaissance patrols on enemy-held islands. Shortly after we arrived at Lambu Lambu Cove, the base commander received an urgent message that a Marine patrol was trapped on Choiseul Island near the mouth of the Warrior River. Kennedy's PT-59, whose fuel tanks were only half full, was assigned to pick up the desperate Marines. He was assisted by PT-236 of our squadron, whose tanks were full. The plan was for PT-236 to tow Kennedy's boatfull of Marines back to Lambu Lambu Cove once he ran out of gasoline. The mission was a complete success, with 236 under Ensign William F. Crawford extending PT-59 the towline at about 3 am on November 3, 1943, and bringing it back to Lambu Lambu Cove.
WWII: Did your squadron engage in any subsequent combat actions with Kennedy?
Ankers: Not that I can recall. I now understand that Kennedy was relieved from command of PT-59 on November 18, 1943, and returned to the United States, where he was discharged from the Navy, based on his medical condition.
WWII: What else do you recall about Kennedy?
Ankers: When the mailbags arrived, Kennedy would receive back issues of The New York Times. I can still see him with a stack of rolled up New York Times on the floor near his cot. He would slowly go through them. And he wasn't pretending to read them, either Two days later, he could quote chapter and verse from something he had read in the Times.
WWII: How long were you at Lambu Lambu Cove?
Ankers: About a month after Kennedy left the base, there was a horrendous explosion at the fuel dock servicing Lambu Lambu Cove. The gasoline dump caught fire, which lit the ammunition stacked nearby. PT-238 had just completed refueling and was able to get away. PT-239, however, was not so lucky; it blew up. Two enlisted men were killed and several others injured. The remainder of the squadron's boats could not leave the cove, but maneuvered around the fire or used fire hoses to avoid destruction. Because our fuel, food and spare parts supplies were destroyed, the balance of the squadron moved to Treasury Island, arriving there on December 17, 1943.
WWII: What was Treasury Island like?
Ankers: It was a larger PT-boat base commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Robert B. Kelly, one of the heroes of the movie They Were Expendable. Treasury Island was near Bougainville, quite close to the front lines. It was there that I experienced my first major air raid. Army anti-aircraft guns provided security for the island. One night I thought the world was going to blow up. Enemy aircraft came over, and apparently all of the guns on the island opened up on them.
WWII: Where did your squadron go from there?
Ankers: We moved up to Green Island, just north of Buka Island. On the way to Green Island, we stopped at the Cape Torokina base. That night, while lying in Empress Augusta Bay, we saw the flash and [heard the) rumble of enemy guns on Bougainville as the Japanese pressed their final, suicidal counter-attack against the Marines.
WWII: What was your mission at Green Island?
Ankers: We patrolled to Rabaul on New Britain Island, about 100 miles away. It took three or four hours to get there. Rabaul was a major Japanese naval base, and our mission was to intercept any ships coming in or out of the base. Although Rabaul was listed as one of the targets to be invaded, it was ultimately bypassed.
WWII: How long were you at Green Island?
Ankers: Motor Torpedo Squadron 19 was decommissioned on May 15, 1944, and its boats were split up between Squadrons 20 and 23. In August 1944 I received orders to return to the United States. Alter returning home, I got married in December 1944, and then reported to MIT' in January 1945 for training in a new radar technology designed to stop Japanese kamikaze planes.
WWII: How long were you at MIT?
Ankers: For about three months. I was then assigned to an aircraft carrier at San Diego that had been damaged by a Japanese kamikaze plane at Okinawa. By the time the carrier came out of the ship-yard, however, the atom bomb had been dropped and the war was over. I was discharged in October 1945 and returned home to Virginia with my new wife.
WWII: What did you do after the war?
Ankers:: I worked for several small companies that specialized in high-tech communications.
WWII: Did you ever have any other contact with the Kennedys?
Ankers: Yes. A mutual acquaintance arranged a meeting in 1996 with Senator Edward Kennedy at his office in Washington, D.C. When I described to him my conversations with John Kennedy, he said, "That sure sounds like my brother Jack."
Francis O'Brien writes from McLean, Va. For further reading: At Close Quarters: PT-boats in the United States Navy, by Robert J. Buckley, Jr.