MILT RACKHAM COLUMN: PT night patrol in the company of unexpected guests

Milt Rackham is an 86-year-old World War II veteran who was born in Drigs, Idaho, and raised in Lorenzo, Idaho. He joined the U.S. Navy when he was 17 years old, within weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Milt served on an 80-foot Navy Patrol Torpedo boat as an engine machine mechanic 2nd Class. He fought the Japanese first in the U.S. Aleutian Islands for 12 months, and then in the South Pacific for five and a half years. Milt and his wife of 61 years, Carol, live in Belding. This is a continuation of a series about his time in the service.


Milt Rackham

By Milton Rackham

Special to the Pioneer


We are on night patrol in this column, looking for Japanese supply barges sometime after our arrival in the South Pacific. The Japanese had been using larger ships to transport supplies, but losses of both supplies and expensive ships became so high that they eventually began to use the smaller cargo barges and even Japanese sampans to minimize the loss per sinking. With our PT boat speed and heavy armament, we had the advantage of speed, ability to maneuver and armament regardless of the size of the vessel. The shipping lanes between the islands of the South Pacific became known as “Tin Can Alley” as the bottom of the ocean along the shipping lanes became covered with Japanese ships of all sizes, not to mention too many of our own ships and boats as well.

Looking for Japanese supply barges actually meant to sit and wait for them to use the narrow shipping channels between the islands. That was our job when we were assigned to intercept the supply ships. Hours of waiting and then a burst of activity to sink a supply ship and any escorts, and then a move to a new location back to waiting. You never stayed put after having indicated your location unless you wanted to be there when the Japanese bombers came by to take you out of action. There were some times, of course, when you ended up having to go back to base camp for repairs or to get a wounded crewman help in a hurry, or those rare occasions when you sent a mayday for a tow rope. PT-81 had its full share of all of the above.

On this particular night, we had quietly entered a bay that had an open view of the supply lanes that ran past the island. I had been below with the engines, checking the mufflers that were extended over the exhaust pipes and into the water to silence the three 16-cylinder Packard engines that idled in constant readiness. All was well as I walked quietly toward the chart house and listened to the slow, muffled, barely audible “uba … uba … uba … uba” sound of the idling engines that blended so easily into the natural sounds of the night.

As I neared the chart house, I suddenly paused as I felt the hair on the back of my neck stiffen — something that might happen if you were suddenly startled by a sound or if there was a sudden cold draft. But the south Pacific night had only its natural sounds and the air was warm and comfortable. I stopped and tried to put my finger on what was bothering me. You soon learned to do that when you live in the constant danger within a war zone, and often carried it with you the rest of the war; or for some, for the rest of their life even when they went home and were no longer in a “war zone.” More about that later.

I stopped and began to wonder if we were alone out here on the open water. I stood quietly to let my eyes get used to the darkness and then slowly scanned the water around PT-81 looking for any sign of the long, low outline of a Japanese supply barge. There was nothing but black water against a black sky. I began a second, even slower scan and then had the thought that asked why I was looking only for the smaller, low outline of a Japanese barge? Almost immediately I began to slowly see the outline of a large ship some 500 yards away. A very, very large ship 10 or more times longer than our 80-foot PT boat sitting parallel to us. Was my mind playing tricks on me?

I didn’t wait for an answer and continued my now very quiet steps toward the chart house where I found the skipper sitting not so patiently staring into the darkness. He looked up when I came in and I pointed and whispered, “Look.” He raised his binoculars in the direction of my pointing finger and slowly scanned the darkness. I heard a faint whispered, “Uh-oh,” and then, as he continued his binocular probe in a 360-degree sweep, I saw him stiffen.

He leaned toward me and whispered, “Two Jap destroyers. One each side. 500 yards. Get crew on guns. Tell torpedo guys to stand by just in case we get a chance. Also, tell them to hang on to their shorts ’cause when we leave it’ll be in a big hurry.”

In the moments that followed, there were muffled footsteps on our wooden deck.

Just as I got behind my 37 mm at bow position, the silence of the night was ripped wide open. The sound of ringing bells and sirens on first one and then both Japanese ships signaled “general quarters” as all hands rushed to battle-ready positions. A spotlight on the bow side destroyer flashed on and locked a glaring beam of light on us for targeting purposes. It glared at us for just an instant before one of our crack shot 50 mm machine gunners squeezed a round that shattered the light 500 yards away and darkened the night. The 50 mms were effective up to a mile, and at 500 yards they were deadly in the hands of a crack shot.

Both destroyers now flashed spotlights in our direction as our machine gunners took turns popping out spotlights as fast as they came on. It was as if they were at the turkey shoot booth at the Idaho State Fair, showing off for their girlfriends! All of our guns now arched tracer bullets into the sky as we poured everything we had toward both Japanese destroyers to keep the enemy as occupied and as distracted as possible from their goal to sink us. We could make out the ships big guns being spun in our direction on both of the Japanese ships. I heard skipper say, “I can hardly believe this. It looks like those two ships are going to take a shot at us. Don’t they realize that they will be shooting at each other?”

Everything happened at once just as skipper hammered the throttle and 3600 horsepower threw us forward, up and out of the water, both Japanese ships flashed fire, smoke and live ammo from their guns. We all hung on to the still accelerating PT boat as we strained to look back to see if any of the Japanese shells actually did hit the opposite ship, but all we could see was the black sea against a black moonless sky. The Japanese destroyers no doubt thought that they had caught us in the process of “sneaking up on them.” Little did they know that we were just as surprised as they were that we were both sharing the same lagoon as a parking lot while we both waited for targets to pass by in the dark of the night.

As this column took shape, I again recognized something that caught my attention as I read: The hair on the back of my neck stiffen(ed) (and) I stopped to put my finger on what was bothering me. It occurred to me that when you live in constant danger, your built in “alert system” might become damaged and affect your normal nighttime process of sorting and filing daytime activities. What if, when your brain was performing its nighttime sorting process, it came upon an item that triggered an action instead of routine process of neatly storing it away for future use. Sounds like a nightmare to me just thinking about it.

It also sounds like self diagnosis in an area where I should stick to untangling thread in my upholstering shop and not try to untangle “damaged” thought processes in my brain. For those of you who have just finished reading this column, thank you for sticking with me. As I said before, I need all the help I can get.

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