By James D. Gray GMCM SWCC Ret. Combatant Craft Crewman Association Historian
Most people within the NSW Community trace the heritage of the special boat teams back to the Patrol Torpedo boats of World War II, and they would be correct. The PT squadrons did insert and extract agents as a secondary mission. However, for one small three-boat element, it was a primary mission.
At the outset of WWII, this task was one of the missions of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. By 1943, the OSS still had no organic means to deliver agents from the sea in the European Theater, but British Motor Gun Boat Squadron 15 had been almost routinely running agents to and from the occupied continent since 1940. British Special Operations Executive grudgingly took the fledgling OSS under its wing and explained the nature of the tasking. Ultimately, the OSS needed boats. An urgent request was made to the U.S. Navy for a PT boat squadron to fulfill the mission. The Navy responded to the request by making three boats available, from its training command in Melville, Rhode Island.
In March 1944, PT boats 71, 72, and 199 were placed in commission as the re-designated PT Boat Squadron 2(2) the 2nd iteration of PT Boat Squadron 2. The old PT Squadron 2 had been decommissioned after the Solomon Islands Campaign. While the PT boats themselves had seen many hours as training boats, the selected OSS boat squadron personnel had an active and decorated history. The commanding officer of this three-boat unit was Lt. Cmdr. John D. Bulkeley, best known for taking General Douglas McArthur off the Philippines and being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his combat delaying actions in the Philippines in 1941. The boat crews were comprised of battle-tested veterans who had rotated home from the Pacific. All were volunteers.
By late April 1944, Squadron 2(2) reached its base in England. Dartmouth was a secluded port on the English Channel used by British Combined Operations. The 78-foot Higgins PT boats had been modified for their “special duties.” The torpedo tubes were removed, and with the weight gone, three powerful 1,200 hp Packard engines were installed. This gave the boats a speed of 45 knots and a range of 400 miles. They were also fitted with special navigation and fathometer equipment, and the communications suites were upgraded (yet most operations were done under radio silence due to the high use of RDF by the Germans). Armament for the boats were a 37mm automatic cannon, twin 50cal. machine guns (port and starboard), and a 20mm cannon amidships with a 40mm cannon on the stern. Two Mk6 depth charges and an Mk3 smoke generator rounded out its offensive and defensive capabilities. To finalize the modifications, a British Camper-Nicholson dory was added to the boats. The dory had padded sides, muffled oarlocks and four cupped oars, making insertion and extraction as quiet as possible. The boats were now ready, and the crews were instructed by the British on every tactical aspect of the mission, from mission planning to insertion and extraction of agents.
On May 19, 1944, PT 71 got the squadron’s first mission. Furious mission planning and coordination with the OSS and the BCO had to be accomplished; boat preparations and last minute details had to be resolved. The mission: the delivery of an agent working for the SOE. The agent showed up on the pier dressed as a French peasant and accompanied by a British naval officer who would act as liaison between the boat crew and agent. After dusk, the PT quietly slipped out of Dartmouth and transited to the area of operations. Later in the evening, the blacked out PT idled into the insertion point off the coast of Normandy. The correct light signals were exchanged with the French Resistance forces ashore. The assigned crewmen and agent silently lowered the dory into the sea and rowed ashore. After a brief challenge and correct reply, the agent was with the resistance forces and the resistance forces also passed some “mail” in a canvas sack to be taken back. The mail was intelligence gathered, including notes recording obstacles the Germans had planted along the shoreline. Extraction was accomplished by dory to PT. While extracting, they experienced an engine casualty and made the necessary repairs before completing a high speed transit home. At Dartmouth, PT 71 received a hero’s welcome from the rest of the squadron. The first mission was a success and set the pace for future operations.
Lt. Cmdr. Bulkeley on another mission went ashore to gather sand off Utah Beach, much like the well known NSW Operator Phil Bucklew who recovered sand on Omaha Beach. This sand would determine if tanks and other vehicles would bog down attempting to cross the beach on D-Day. The most spectacular “projected” missions by the OSS to Squadron 2 was for a long range transit, evading the German blockade in the North Sea to Denmark to deliver arms and supplies to the Danish Resistance Movement. Because of it being such a long transit; there would be no return trip. With luck the boat crew would be interned in Sweden for the remained of the war. Nevertheless, there was no difficulty assembling a crew of volunteers. PT 72 was chosen for the mission and fitted with extra fuel tanks and loaded with its cargo. On its final check run, she had a serious engine casualty and before repairs could be made, the OSS canceled the mission. From May to October 1944, Squadron 2 engaged in 20 missions for the OSS, landing agents and supplies on the German held coastline. All missions were successful considering the threat from E-boats, mines, shore gun-batteries, radar and RDF sites, sentries, and guard dogs. Their success is truly the mark of their professionalism.
In its short existence squadron members would be awarded 11 Bronze Star Medals and three Navy Commendation Medals. The OSS would also use boat units in the Mediterranean and Pacific Theater of Operations during WWII. And, Special Boat Team 12’s building would be named for John D. Bulkeley.