Architect J. Clifford Grout III has spent hundreds of hours volunteering with others on a project that’s dear to his heart: working on the restoration of a historic New Orleans-built wooden PT boat that helped win World War II.
It’s an effort with special meaning for Grout, who shared his account of the restoration work in a program at the Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
The restoration work is being done at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans by Grout and other volunteers. It’s a labor of love for the architect, whose grandfather worked for Higgins Industries in New Orleans, where hundreds of PT boats and other ships were built during the war.
“When my father was a boy, he would sometimes get to ride on one of the PT boats when they tested them on Lake Pontchartrain,” Grout said.
Grout, who emphasized he was speaking as a volunteer and not in an official capacity for the museum, presented a slideshow of the multiyear project to two dozen members and guests of the Baton Rouge Genealogical and Historical Society.
He related his own personal connection to the boat and the restoration project and displayed a small slab of the boat’s original two-layered wooden hull among other artifacts and photographs.
Grout, who grew up in New Orleans, said he often played as a youth in an empty, cavernous Higgins Industries building where, during World War II, thousands of people built 199 of the PT boats, patrol-torpedo boats, and thousands of the Higgins boats that transported hundreds of thousands of soldiers and equipment from ship to shore.
According to Grout and World War II Museum information, PT-305 served in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations and had several nicknames including The Sudden Jerk, The Bar Fly and The Half Hitch.
Its laminated wooden keel was laid down on March 30, 1943, at the City Park Plant, launched on May 27, 1943, and completed at the Industrial Canal Plant on Dec. 8, 1943.
Records show its crew of three officers and 14 enlisted men sank an armored German transport barge off the coast of France on June 18, 1944; landed French commandos prior to Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France, on Aug. 15, 1944; and sank an Italian barge during the night of April 24, 1945.
The Higgins-made PT boats were 78 feet long and 23 feet wide and powered by three 1,500-horsepower Packard engines. They were designed to outrun and outmaneuver enemy ships. They carried four torpedoes and a variety of machine guns, mortars and small cannons.
“You have to remember the crew was all young men — their captain was 22 years old,” Grout said. “These guys basically saved the planet.”
In 1945, the boat was shipped back to New York for fitting for the Pacific Theater, but the war ended. It was sold in 1948 — “I believe for $10,” Grout said.
Three of the Higgins-made PT boats survived, but all the rest, especially those used in the Pacific, were stripped of anything valuable and then burned or otherwise destroyed, according to Grout and other historical sources.
He showed slides of the PT-305 boat, refitted for commercial use as a tour boat around the Chesapeake Bay and then in sad condition as an oyster seed craft, with its mahogany deck covered in piles of mud and oyster shells.
In 2001, it was acquired by the Defenders of America Naval Museum in Galveston, Texas, which transferred it to the museum in New Orleans in 2007.
The museum’s website says, “It is anticipated that PT-305 will have at least one more run on Lake Pontchartrain before becoming a permanent part of the exhibits in the expanded museum.”
The boat has been completely rebuilt, all the way from new ribs and frame to the two-layer wooden hull and even electronic systems, Grout said. Rebuilding the deck with its 2-inch-by-70-foot strips of mahogany was a major undertaking.
“I spent a year and a half of my life each Saturday working on the deck,” Grout said. The decking eventually required 32,000 brass screws and 39,000 rivets, “and we couldn’t speak to each other because one person was on top and the other was below deck so we communicated with taps,” he said.
Grout closed his presentation with a story of when historian Stephen Ambrose interviewed former President Dwight D. Eisenhower about the role played by Higgins Industries and its owner in World War II.
Andrew Jackson Higgins, Eisenhower declared, “was the man who won World War II.”
Grout said it’s important to make sure that history is preserved.