PT Sailors' Dreams Afloat Once More
PT 658 dances gracefully on the waves after vets and other volunteers successfully restore its hull and deck
A handful of veterans -- after more than a decade of sawdust, tears and hard work -- broke out in grins Monday as their boat floated free of its steel cradle.
The rigging had been its home for more than 50 years, but now the boat was back in the water, five pumps churning to keep ahead of the expected leaks that will continue until the dry mahogany hull swells, making it watertight again.
Next up -- attack the craft's mechanical restoration.
The object of the veterans' efforts -- and affection -- is the 78-foot PT 658, a World War II craft that deteriorated for decades after the war but is getting new life from area volunteers. The Portland group, known as "Save the PT Boat," has spent nearly a decade performing an extensive restoration, with the ultimate goal of creating a center for historic vessels on Swan Island.
The PT boat will make its public debut June 25 and 26 at the annual Antique and Classic Boat Show at Tomahawk Bay Marina on Hayden Island. It won't yet be mechanically functional, but the ongoing results of its restoration will be on display for the first time.
Monday's refloating was a major milestone, but Save the PT Boat continues to face challenges. It wants to establish the historic vessels center, but the dock it seeks for a home is owned by a company that has no interest in maritime trade.
Money also remains an issue. Getting the boat in the water has cost $180,000, not including $100,000 in repairs after an electrical fire last year.
And the veterans talk about their work with a sense of urgency. The group's 18-member roster is down to 10 PT boat vets, and the list continues to shrink.
Monday's operation freed PT 658 from a Navy barge where it has rested on a steel cradle for more than a decade. After it was brought up from California in 1990, work began to replace a deck that was largely gone and to fix holes in the hull.
The boat is one of 764 PT boats built for WWII -- and later made famous by the sinking of PT 109, which was skippered by future President John F. Kennedy. Although the Portland boat never saw action, many PT boats fought in the South Pacific, the Aleutian Islands, the Philippines, Europe, Hawaii and Midway. Fast, loud and lightly armed, they operated mainly at night, according to John Akin, second vice president of Save the PT Boat.
The group began when heirs of a California man offered to donate two PT hulls that he had purchased for scrap years earlier. The Portland group arranged free transport of Boat 658 and Boat 659, with the Navy loaning a small barge, and a salvage and towing company bringing the payload from Alameda, Calif., to Astoria. Foss Maritime finished the haul to Portland.
The 658 has been sitting in its cradle on the barge at Swan Island ever since. The 659 went to Vancouver in 1997, and the "PT Boat Council" pursued a similar dream until running out of money several years ago. The hull of the 659 rests in weeds at Pearson Field, but some key parts live on aboard the 658. The dream for 659 is to cut away portions of the hull to make it into a museum display showing the cramped living quarters.
On Monday, the long effort began to pay off. Foss tug Jim Moore eased the barge and its cargo away from the Navy center dock on Swan Island. Akin said word of the 658's restoration spread quickly among veterans, "and we have been blessed with contributions from all over the country."
Chuck Kellogg of Ridgefield, Wash., though not a WWII veteran, was drawn to the PT -- which stands for "patrol torpedo" -- several years ago by his love for wooden vessels. Since then, his machine shop has been cranking out -- and donating -- everything from replacement torpedo racks to engine hose attachments.
"You can't just thumb through a parts catalog on these boats," Kellogg said. "Every part has to be manufactured."
The boat's quick trip Monday ended at the Willamette River side of Swan Island, where a Cascade General shipyard crane lifted and gently eased it into the water. The stern started to bob on tiny waves, and the veterans knew the boat was free of the cradle. Akin said workers at Foss and Cascade General donated their labor to launch the 658.
Spectators included the historic Portland fire boat Campbell, the Multnomah County sheriff's river patrol and a small collection of boating enthusiasts.
Akin said the old PT boat already has touched numerous veterans across the nation, including the widow of one PT veteran who had died several years earlier.
"I left her alone with the boat, and when she came away she said she had heard voices," Akin said. "She had made contact with her husband.
"Another veteran threw himself against one of the (Packard engines), hugged it and cried. His son said he had never seen his dad cry like that. But those engines were special to us," Akin said. "There's nothing like it -- sitting at night under the very nose of the enemy, hearing the skipper say, 'Light 'em up; let's go home' and hearing the V-12 Packards start to spin."
Bill Stewart: 360-896-5722 or 503-294-5900; firstname.lastname@example.org
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