Knights of the Sea

Knights of the Sea

One was our own
by Frank Pritchard

The following article originally appeared in the Holiday 2002 issue of Newport Life Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission of the publisher and the author.

Over the past twenty years, they have come to be called the Knights of the Sea. However, in World War II, they were considered expendable. They refers to the intrepid crew members of the U.S. Navy's speedy PT (patrol torpedo) boats.

During the early years of that war, these swift, wooden-hulled boats, with a top speed of more than forty knots per hour, wreaked havoc on Japanese shipping in the South Pacific, destroying more than 250,000 tons of cargo. Never individually named, the Navy only gave the PTs number designations. The PTs were often called mosquito boats because they stung the enemy with unbelievable speed and then retreated quickly, and they bristled with armament.

PT-796 at sea
PT-796 at sea. (Navy photo).

In addition to four torpedoes, they were equipped with two twin 50-caliber machine guns, a 20-millimeter gun, a 37-millimeter gun, and several depth charges.

One of the young skippers of the smallest, fastest, and most maneuverable of fighting ships at that time was Dean J. Lewis of Newport. Lewis, now deceased, was a retired lawyer, former mayor of Newport (1950-'54), and unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 1954.

His boat, PT-183, made eighty-five to ninety patrols, most of them at night. It sank a number of Japanese supply barges, often sustaining some damage, but was always able to return to port.

A former Harvard football player, Lewis (who was a teammate of the late Joseph Kennedy, Jr., who was killed when his B-17 was shot down in action over Europe), recalled that he and his fellow PT crew had several close calls in October of 1943.

"We were lucky—just plain lucky," said the former lieutenant commander. "They shot at us, but they missed." Lewis escaped injury during those hair-raising patrols, but one time, a shipmate sitting next to him had a piece of shrapnel tear into his arm.

PT-183 was part of Squadron 11, commanded by retired Navy Captain LeRoy T. Taylor, of Middletown, Rhode Island, from January 1943 through December 1944. According to Taylor, Lewis and all others in the squadron did a good job seeking out Japanese barges at night with the help of radar and occasional moonlight.

Another Kennedy offspring with whom Lewis had more than just a casual relationship was the late President John F. Kennedy. Both trained simultaneously at the former PT boat base at Melville in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Kennedy's future heroics as skipper of PT-109 would become legend. When JFK married Jackie at St. Mary's Church in Newport, two of the invited guests were Mr. and Mrs. Dean J. Lewis.

Lewis graduated from Harvard in 1937 and was a commissioned lieutenant in the Navy three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, he was a second-year law student at Harvard. After several weeks of Navy schooling at Notre Dame and Northwestern University, he wound up at Melville, where he received additional hands-on training aboard PTs. Training included night patrols, without lights, inside and outside Narragansett Bay.

See a real PT!
Battleship Cove, a historic naval ship collection in Fall River, Massachusetts, allows visitors a rare glimpse into the past. There, visitors can see two of the eleven remaining authentic mosquito boats of World War II, the seventy-eight-foot Higgins PT-796 and the eighty-foot Elco PT-617. Other memorabilia and artifacts from the forty-five PT squadrons are on board the battleship USS Massachusetts.

Related links:
See also Amazing PTs of World War II by Constance Beck.

For more information on PT boats, visit the Wikipedia entry or the PT Boats, Inc. website.

Frank Pritchard (1925-2009) was the first civilian public affairs officer at the former Newport Naval Base, and later at its successor command, the Naval Education and Training Center (NETC). He also had a seventeen-year career as a reporter for the Pawtucket Evening Times. At the time he wrote this article he was a contributing writer to Newport Life Magazine, residing in Portsmouth. His interest in history was fed by writing for the magazine (and vice versa).

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