NEW ORLEANS – After all these years, she still hasn’t lost a step.
Senior Captain George Benedetto pushes the throttle forward, and PT-305 – the only combat-hardened World War II boat of its kind to be sailing today – rumbles even faster through the waters of Louisiana’s Lake Ponchartrain, bobbing up and down as wind hits the captain’s helm with an intensity enough to make one’s eyes squint.
“We’re setting a speed record for this millennium!” gushes Mark Masor, a naval architect, holding up a phone app indicating that the 73-year-old boat is pushing 30 knots (around 34 mph), the fastest it has gone since the completion of its restoration.
The exhilarating moment onboard the Higgins Industries Patrol-Torpedo boat was just one of many as Fox News got an early ride on the finished product of a multi-year project at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
“It’s going to be a fabulous ambassador for the museum. It’s going to give kids and people a chance to actually feel and be on a World War II vessel and feel in a sense what the servicemen felt at that time riding on the same type of boat,” Jerry Strahan, a volunteer and author, told Fox News. “Seldom do you get a chance to really ride or take a vessel like this.”
The boat operated in the Mediterranean along the coasts of southern France and Northern Italy during World War II, conducting more than 77 offensive patrols and operations. PT-305 fought in 11 separate actions and sank three German ships during its 14-month deployment.
After WWII, PT-305 acted as a civilian tour boat in New York Harbor and a fishing charter, while falling into disrepair. The New Orleans museum purchased the boat in 2007 and since then, a volunteer team of 202 people worked 105,000 hours at its restoration pavilion to get PT-305 back up and running.
“I’m real anxious to get aboard and hear those engines start up and feel the vibrations under my feet again,” James Nerison, a U.S. Navy Torpedoman 1st Class on PT-305, told Fox News.
Nerison, now 92, said he plans to travel from his home in California to New Orleans at the end of March to take a ride on the boat with his son.
“I’m tickled pink. I’ve been following the progress of the restoration since it started,” he said. “It’s been quite a long time.”
And Nerison’s description of being onboard PT-305 is exactly the same experience today. From the moment the 39-ton, 78-foot long boat starts up, the roar coming from inside the ship can be felt through one’s body as the smell of engines fills the air.
After the executive officer yells an “all clear!” through a megaphone, the boat then backs up from the facility where it is docked, an American flag is raised up the radar tower and PT-305 is on its way in the waters of the lake where it began its journey more than 70 years ago.
On the early ride that Fox News was given before members of the public can ride the boat in April, Benedetto said he was impressed with how well PT-305 handled. The boat was placed in the lake in December, and its volunteer crew has been conducting daily tests and trials after first setting out on the water three weeks ago.
“We’ll get her up to speed and do a nice turn with her to see what she can do,” Benedetto said, before spinning the wheel and launching the boat into a graceful maneuver as it glides across the lake’s surface.
“Imagine doing this, being shot at and shooting back,” he adds. The boats were designed to shoot torpedoes at enemy ships and flee, with maneuverability and speed being its greatest defense.
To provide the most authentic experience possible, volunteers at the National World War II Museum outfitted the boat with weaponry – with three of the guns actually being originals from the time period – and a paint scheme PT-305 used in combat during the war.
Using 300 gallons of paint, volunteers back then coated the boat with its “Measure 32 modified” camouflage, which gave it a tactical advantage when making torpedo attacks in the cover of darkness, according to the museum.
A “Thayer blue” layer was applied to the front of the boat, which made it difficult to see at night from a distance when it was approaching an enemy ship head-on. In the back, PT-305 was painted with a “deck blue” color that reduces shadows from light sources and made it harder for ships to spot as it retreated from an attack, according to the museum.
The deck of the boat also has red and yellow colorations in the bow and stern, along with a large red and yellow star intended to make it identifiable to Allied aircraft. Researchers combed over photographs and written reports from the ship’s original crew to get the markings right, said Tom Czekanski, a senior museum curator and restoration manager.
Among the photos given to the museum to help with the restoration project were ones taken from the personal collection of Joseph Brannon, a former 1st class gunner’s mate on PT-305 who said it felt “real good” the boat is running again.
“I gave them 100 [photos] I took when we were riding the boat over there,” Brannon told Fox News, explaining how he brought a 35 millimeter camera overseas and developed images at a photography shop across the street from his base in the Mediterranean.
Brannon said he returned to New York harbor in June 1945, and that was the last time he ever saw the boat. The war ended before it could be overhauled for deployment to the Pacific.
“We never saw the boat again after we went home because they had disbanded and were disposing the boats,” he told Fox News.
Everything else about the restoration fell into place, as needed parts were donated and purchased from all over, including eBay.
“The amazing thing to me about this project is that every time we came up with something – we were like ‘Where are we going to do this? Where were we going to get that?’ Czekanski told Fox News. “And then something would come up.”
Those looking to get a 90-minute ride on the boat will be able to do so starting April 1. Tickets already being sold on the museum’s website cost $350, with a $45 discount for members, seniors, children or veterans.
Deck tours that last 45 minutes also are available for $12 to $15.