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|461k||MTBRon 23 commissioning ceremonies, at Higgins Industrial Canal Plant, New Orleans, La., 28 June 1943. Boats present in right front are: PT- 281, 277 and 288
U.S. Navy photo NH 44483
|Naval History and Heritage Command|
The narrow channel between New Britain and New Ireland was filled with a typical South Pacific rainstorm on a black night in May 1944. USS PT-281 whispered softly through the unfriendly waters while the crew, miserable in the drenching downpour, carefully searched the area for Japanese dihatsus, heavily armed barges used to transport men and supplies. Visibility was extremely limited but the glow of the eerie phosphorescense in the wake of the seventy eight foot torpedo boat was a bright signal to the enemy that the feared PT's were on patrol.
The three powerful twelve cylinder engines gurgled through their underwater mufflers as the skipper of the boat, Lt. Walt Binnings, strained his eyes to keep the other two boats of the machinist, Harold "Dobby" Dobson, sweating profusely as he tensely watched the annunciators for a signal from the bridge to engage the two remaining engines to their propellers the fleet little vessel could accelerate to the blinding speed that gave the 281 Boat its fearful attach quickness or provide a means of escape if necessary.
Closed tightly in the light proof chartroom, Tom Ward, the radar operator, examined the green pattern being painted on the Set's cathode tube by its electronic finger. The furiously descending rain reflected the searching beams of the radar, making the eyes of the device as helpless as the eyes of the men standing watch on the saturated deck
Under these severely limited and wretched conditions, the patrol continued.
The hard pressed Japanese had learned long ago the utter futility of attempting to move their barges though the St. George Channel in daytime because of the ever present planes of the Air Force. For several months they had utilized the hours of darkness for barge or ship movements because the lethal aircraft were unable to locate them in the murkiness of a Pacific night. The introduction of Motor Torpedo Boats into the theater of operations had severely curtailed even the use of those long hours of darkness for the desperate Nipponese.
The harrowing game of hide-and-seek continued throughout the long and dismal hours of the sodden night. In spite of careful scrutiny, no sign of any shipping activity could be detected by the sailors. In spite of the rain gear worn by each man, they were soaked to the skin and cold as well. The endless downpour only served to make time seem to pass more slowly. Scalding hot cups of coffee were provided by the ship's cook, "Rocky" Schuster, to help relieve the discomfort of what all agreed was one damned sorry patrol. Men, not on watch, huddled in gun covers around the midship 20mm and grumbled in agreement with "Tiny" Olafson, the huge, blonde Swedish gunner's mate, that this was doomed to be another fruitless search.
It was necessary for the boats to clear the channel before daylight since the Japanese still had a few planes operational out of Rabaul. It would be suicide to be caught within range at sunrise. Reluctantly, Lt. Binnings gave the necessary order over the VHF radio to the other two boats and the murder of the 281 became a mighty roar as the forty-five hundred horses housed in the three Packard engines were released for the trip back to the home base on Green Island at the Northern tip of Bouganville. For the most part, the watch relaxed, since it was improbable that the division would encounter the enemy on the return voyage. The heavy rain continued. The thrill of riding the swift PT as it thundered and jolted across the spume-flecked waters of the Solomon Sea revived the members of the Boat's crew after the long, tedious hours of monotonous patrol in the St. George Channel. Each man was anticipating the relative quiet of the harbor at Green, along with some hot food and a chance to catch up on lost sack time.
Suddenly the three Motor Torpedo Boats of Squadron Twenty-Three sliced into what appeared to be a huge canyon between two towering banks of black storm clouds. The crews were startled to see the clear sky overhead filled with bright stars and a full moon gleaming down upon the speeding boats. Slowly the sailors who were topside began to rise to their feet, every mouth open in amazement, every eye fixed on the sight before them as three skippers pulled back on the throttles of their respective boats. On one colossal wall of clouds were the dazzling bright colors of the rainbow! The luminescence of the brilliant hues was exaggerated by the black backdrop upon which they were projected. The light of the bright moon, shining through the falling rain had produced a moon rainbow!
The hypnotic scene enthralled each nautical viewer and an unforgettable moment was permanently etched on the memory of each man as the three boats lay-to and rocked gently on the sea as all present watched with incredulity. The panorama lasted for several minutes and then slowly faded away leaving the astonished viewers wondering if they had really seen such a sight.
Since the men of the three PT Boats were wartime sailors, they were not aware of a great deal of lore of the sea that is so familiar to lifetime sailors. It was not until some time later that the torpedoman on USS PT-282, Walt Mansell, was told that sailormen for centuries had been familiar with the phenomenon known as the moon rainbow. Men of the sea considered it to be an EVIL OMEN! The appearance of a moon rainbow was so rare that the average sailor, though he spent his entire life on the seas of the world, would probably only see one such in his lifetime. Superstitious sailors concluded that when they did see it, it meant their lives were about over and so the sighting of this phantasm was a HARBINGER OF DEATH!
I am glad I did not know this on the night in May in 1944.
Contributed by Robert Wilkens
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