While less of the Higgins PT Boats were produced than the competing ELCO series, many more of the type survived the test of wear and tear. The American side of the PT boat ("Patrol Torpedo") wars of World War 2 are primarily remembered through the exploits of the men governing their ELCO PT systems against the vessels of the mighty Japanese Navy. PT boats were a unique class of fighting ships, designed to counter ships of larger classes through firepower and speed. Prior to the American involvement in World War 2, the USN did not field a PT boat squadron.
In the end, the USN was sold on boats from all three manufacturers - ELCO, Higgins and Huckins - and offered defense contracts to all three.
All of the chosen PT boat designs were to field the same armament as well and this included provision for 4 x 533mm torpedo launchers and defense by 4 x 0.50 caliber Browning heavy machine guns - the latter weaponry held in two individual, open-air, trainable dual-mountings (turrets) fitted to either side of the cockpit superstructure. The USN ordered 24 Higgins 78-footers for immediate service and they were made available in the latter half of 1942.
First American combat actions of Higgins PT boat crews took place in the oft-forgotten battles of the Aleutian Islands campaign near Alaska. Other Higgins boat crews operated their 78-footers in the Mediterranean region and these proved highly effective in managing control of waterways important to the Axis.
If anyone is interested, the PT-309 has been restored and is on display at the Pacific War Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas.
However, the USN held two major designs as their standard PT boat and this included the ELCO 80-footer and the Higgins 78-foot. It was not until the late 1930s that the USN began an initiative to select a dedicated PT boat design and began work with the ELCO concern. The Higgins design of choice became an 82.5-foot submission (based on a Sparkman & Stevens design) that was eventually shortened by USN request to 78-feet and would make up no fewer than three classes as the PT-71, PT-235 and the PT-625. Top speed was approximately 40 knots in ideal conditions though this was largely controlled by the environment. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 thrust the American Navy into open war by early 1942 - leaving just the ELCO boats as the earliest PT participants.
Often confused with the ELCO and Huckins boats they competed with, and operated alongside, Higgins boats were clearly distinguished by their well-forward set cockpit superstructures aft of a short forecastle. The Japanese invaded the island chain in an effort to attract the attention of US Navy forces away from Midway but American code-breaking prowess revealed the move to be nothing more than a strategic ruse.


Supply lines running from southern Europe into northern Africa were critical to Axis success on the African continent and Allied control of these waterways would play just as important a role when the Allies would move to retake these key strategic areas en route to their final assault on Italy and Germany proper.
Higgins class PT boat used in the Mediterranean theater.I was able to locate a set of drawings showing how the boat was configured. While ELCO represented most of the PT boats produced for the US Navy - with 326 total units in play - Higgins Industries of New Orleans was next with production totaling 199.
The resulting design was adequate but lacked much in the way of what the USN required of its official PT boat squadrons. Of note concerning the Higgins design is that it did maintain the same engines, internal working components, cabin spaces, displacement and beam as her ELCO boat sister. The twenty-four Higgins boats were made into two squadrons though some early production vessels were shipped overseas - six examples were sent to the British Royal Navy and a further four sent to the Soviet Navy.
Armament was situated to the starboard side of the cockpit cabin structure, at amidships and at the stern.
As such, the campaign to take back the islands received little in the way of attention and it was a combined Canadian-American military effort that ultimately won back control of the island chain from the Japanese - though not without loss of life and equipment in this unforgiving part of the world. Primary adversaries in these waters became the German Navy "E-Boot" and "S-Boot" class vessels of similar design scope. Material presented throughout this website is for historical and entertainment value and should not to be construed as usable for hardware restoration, maintenance or general operation. A third manufacturer - Huckens Yacht Corporation - managed just 18 examples and these were mostly reserved for training crews and active patrolling in Hawaiian waters or near the Panal Canal Zone - never seeing combat like her sisters. Both Higgins and Huckins were already at work on their own designs but these were formulated as private ventures utilizing each company's own resources. The four torpedo tubes were set along the sides of the vessel and angled outwards of the vessel's centerline. Higgins boats were also active on the morning of the Allied D-Day invasion into Northern France.
As such, the ELCO and Higgins boats bore the brunt of the PT boat wars wherever they were needed - and they did operate all around the world - from the Mediterranean to the English Channel and across the Pacific Theater. Additionally, these smaller vessels were harder to spot along the horizon and against the back drop of the deep blue sea.
The engines held origins dating back to the US Army's "Liberty" bomber aircraft but were of course modified for marine service.


The 1943 Higgins boats were issued with 3 x 1,350 horsepower engines and displaced at 43 tons. These vessels were used to screen potential German naval presence away from the landing forces and offered due protection to the amphibious operation as a whole. PT boats - built of wood - held inherently potent firepower and were, by and large, much cheaper to produce than her larger steel sisters.
Seven boats were entered including three by Higgins - a 70-footer, 76-footer and an 81-footer. Early Higgins boats were sent overseas to fulfill Lend-Lease commitments to both the British and the Soviet Union.
By 1945, the series had graduated to 3 x 1,500 horsepower engines and displaced at 48 tons. The deck and every thing above it were scratch built except for the guns which were White Ensign kits. The competition would trial all of these boats off the coast of New London on a week in July of 1941 and include the all-important test of open-sea travel. Remarkably, the vessel's top speed was still listed at 40 knots and all other dimensional measurements remained the same. Like their ELCO brethren, the Higgins boat armament were always in the process of being modified "in-the-field" per mission requirements - even standardized USN armament changed based on successes encountered with ad hoc weapon arrangements. The cabin is made from used gift cards, the Torpedoes are made from ball point pens and the deck is a plastic sheet with the planks scratched into it.
This event came to be known to history as the "Plywood Derby" despite the fact that the PT boats were constructed of mahogany. Amazingly, no major modifications were made to either the Higgins or ELCO boat series in the whole of the war - a testament to their stellar initial designs.




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