NEW ORLEANS—Among the reasons Seinfeld continues to resonate nearly 20 years later, the show seemingly had a joke for every situation. And when it comes to Tom Czekanski, director of collections and exhibits at The National World War II Museum, that joke comes from an episode titled “The Andrea Doria.” Oddball neighbor Kramer has a lingering cough, but rather than visit the doctor, he has a better idea—a veterinarian.
“I’ll take a vet over an MD any day,” Kramer tells George. “They gotta be able to cure a lizard, a chicken, a pig, a frog all on the same day.”
Within his unique professional world, Czekanski is the vet. His role at the WWII museum involves acquisitions and restoration no matter what vehicle in the cornucopia of war land, air, and sea craft happens to be on the day’s agenda. Whether putting an engine in a Sherman Tank from Chicago (via Chile), buying a C-47 Plane off eBay, or confirming free shipping for a Stuart Tank bought online, Czekanski serves as the point person.
“We actually bought the Stuart Tank on eBay, too,” he tells Ars. “I talked to the guy, ‘Your site says it comes with free shipping, but I’m going to be understanding—maybe you checked that box on a previous listing and failed to notice.’ He’s like, ‘Nope, free shipping. My guy who hauls tanks, he’ll bring it down to you but he’s busy this month.’”
The National WWII Museum today boasts hundreds of thousands of artifacts, several of which still qualify as large when placed next to the plane and tanks listed above. But beginning in this now world-class institution’s earliest days, one particular piece of WWII machinery stood out as the organization’s Holy Grail: the humble PT boat. Essentially the most workmanlike of boats deployed during the war, these small and fast vehicles boasted torpedoes and factored into all kinds of naval plans throughout due to their maneuverability and low production costs.
It took a near-decade-long search plus a 10-year restoration effort involving more than 130,000 volunteer hours (not to mention an estimated $6 million in monetary donations, volunteer labor, and in-kind donations), but Czekanski and his colleagues are finally ready to formally unveil their most prized artifact this weekend. It won’t be sitting in the gallery along Magazine Street, however. Czekanski and team wanted the 70-year-old boat to come full circle—they’re putting PT-305 back in Louisiana waters and regularly letting the public in on the ride.
Wait, a PT boat as the ultimate prize?
New Orleans has a WWII history that many non-vets outside the Crescent City may not realize. Most visibly, it was a major ship-off point for servicemen during the war. When experiencing the museum today, in fact, visitors start by simulating a train ride to New Orleans just like a new enlistee.
Where are NASA’s rockets born? “To go to space, it must come through New Orleans”But New Orleans also became a vital manufacturing hub during the war. Local inventor and businessman Andrew Higgins, formerly a shrimp boating man, eventually caught the attention of the government with his idea for a peculiar landing craft with amphibious characteristics. His Higgins boats—or landing craft, vehicle, personnel (LCVP) boats—became one of the defining vehicles for the Allies during WWII.
While most notably deployed during the famous D-Day initiative at Normandy, by the end of the war Higgins Industries ships accounted for 90 percent-plus of the Navy’s ships. The LCVP ships, made of plywood and capable of carrying 36 men, were produced at a facility east of New Orleans in nearby Michoud. At its peak during the war, Higgins employed more than 80,000 people. (Today, the site has evolved into NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, long-time maker of external tanks and the location where hardware for the SLS rocket and Orion were recently produced.)
“Andrew Higgins… is the man who won the war for us,” President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1964. “If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” Even Hitler infamously recognized the colossal impact of Higgins, referring to him as “the New Noah.”
Higgins eventually expanded his operation to produce larger landing crafts, PT boats, and even planes. Given the man’s immense local ties, some WWII museum board members saw any Higgins products as the must-have artifacts for the museum from day one. Obviously, the LCVP would be ideal. “But at the time, there were none available,” Czekanski says. In total, two or three have surfaced since the museum’s opening in 2000. But Higgins boats came in two sizes—LCPs were the slightly larger original model without a ramp, eventually falling out of favor for the LCVPs—and the older models tend to be the ones more likely to survive since the war.
The museum eventually targeted an original Higgins boat first model (meaning no ramp) being used to fish for sturgeon in the San Francisco Bay. The team quickly found funding to acquire and restore the boat, and it even tried putting it in water. “But we soon made the conscious decision not to operate that on a regular basis,” Czekanski recalls. “When we operated, it had to be limited. The Coast Guard said ‘sure, you can operate it,’ so we took volunteers for a ride… but then had a Coast Guard boat shadowing us ’cause people were concerned.”
The museum’s Higgins boat, P10-21, has remained on stationary display in the main gallery since. But that’s not super satisfying for staff like Czekanski. Here, the ultimate goal for any restoration has been operability, not merely show. “Our half-track ran when we got it, so did our jeep. The tanks and everything all run, and keeping all that running is an interesting challenge,” he says. “And when we restore these vehicles, the ones we have running are all running on original-type engines and as many original components as possible—that’s instead of, ‘Get me a nice Detroit diesel and we’ll run all day long without any trouble.'”
Thus, the PT-boat surfaced as a top long-term goal (“The PT boat is a Higgins product, too” Czekanski notes). Back in 2000, Czekanski estimates there were only seven or eight known PT boats still in existence. While not abundant, that meant the odds of finding a functioning PT boat were better than the LCVP. Unfortunately, “we knew every single one of those was in poor condition,” he says. “Just to exhibit [one of these] would require an extensive restoration; there was no way we could ever operate it. The hulls were in such a state, if we just painted the boat and parked it, we would’ve spent the next 10 years sweeping it up every day.”
From the Mediterranean to near-Metairie
Czekanski took his current role with the WWII museum in 2004, never losing sight of the museum’s PT boat aspirations. By 2007, he had PT-305 en route to New Orleans.
According to the museum, the boat dates back to March 30, 1943, when its keel was laid down in New Orleans. From there it was commissioned on November 10, 1943 and assigned to the Mediterranean. Notably, it worked along the coast of Southern France and Northern Italy, including participation in the Invasion of Elba on June 18, 1944, in Operation Dragoon (the invasion of Southern France) on August 15, 1944, and in attacks on enemy harbors near Genoa, Italy in April 1945. Nicknamed Sudden Jerk by its first crew (someone ran into the dock too hard, the story goes), PT-305 sank a German Flak lighter and an Italian MAS boat during these efforts. The US military decommissioned the boat in November 1945 and later sold it along with the rest of its squadron in June 1948.
Sudden Jerk stats
Beam: 20ft, 1in
Draft: 5ft 3in
Weight: 43-56 tons, depending on weapons
Engines: Three Packard V-12s
Speed: 40 knots
Crew: Two officers, 11 men
Etc: PT-305 carried weapons for both anti-aircraft (like .50-caliber twin machine guns) and anti-submarine (a Mark 6 depth charge). It held four Mark 13 torpedoes and utilized radar, which meant it’d often pair up with British MTBs that lacked the tech.
Czekanski says PT-305 was out for 18 months of total deployment, and it changed crews three times. So one of the big strokes of luck for its survival was the likelihood this ship never went out to sea for very long at any one time. “You’d probably be at sea for two days,” Czekanski says, noting it only held an estimated 600 gallons of water. “[They’d] mostly sleep on the ship, but they’d have to have barracks somewhere because there’s no shower, not a lot of room to cook, no fresh water, etc.”
So how does a military boat go from wartime to a museum some 60-plus years later? PT-305’s journey included a stop in New York Harbor as a tour boat nicknamed Captain David Jones, a period of shepherding deep-sea fishermen, and ultimately a long career as an oyster boat in the Chesapeake. And during that final job, PT-305 underwent major modifications. To save on fuel, three Packard engines were removed and replaced with diesel engines. And to comply with Coast Guard regulations that required a licensed captain for boats more than 65 feet long (PT-305 measured 78 feet long initially), 13 feet of boat was removed from the stern. Considering the work life of PT-305 after the war, it’s amazing this boat now exists within the WWII museum’s collection at all.
Luckily for preservation purposes, PT-305 found a more caring home in 2001. That’s when the Defenders of America Naval Museum in Galveston, Texas, bought PT-305 with its own restoration aspirations. “But after about six years, they decide they’re in over their heads and contact us,” Czekanski says. PT-305 arrived at the museum campus in April 2007 to finally start its decade journey toward full restoration.
Listing image by Courtesy of The National WWII Museum.
More Info: arstechnica.com