New book details ‘top secret’ history of patrol boats on Puget Sound

This new book chronicles an important but little-known facet of Puget Sound’s maritime history. Photos courtesy of Chuck Fowler and Dan Withers

Update 1.20.12: Fowler and Withers’ presentation at the Puget Sound Navy Museum on Saturday, Jan. 21 has been canceled due to weather. It is expected to be rescheduled at a later date.

Mention U.S. Navy patrol boats during World War II and people are likely to think of Pearl Harbor, maybe the waters of Europe or the South Pacific.

But few may realize the role that Puget Sound has played in the evolution of the patrol and rescue boats that have operated on local waters since the mid-1800s, says maritime historian Chuck Fowler.

“Pacific Northwest boat builders have had such a large role in the nation’s patrol and rescue boat history,” says Fowler, an Air Force veteran who lives in Olympia.

“I think it’s really a tribute to our craftsmanship and the skills and abilities of the people who build them, as well as the people who serve on them.”

CG-38745, an 38-foot Coast Guard patrol boat built in 1944, shortly before her launch on the shores of Lake Washington.

Those boats are the subject of “Patrol and Rescue Boats on Puget Sound,” a new book co-authored by Fowler and Port Ludlow resident Dan Withers. The authors will be giving a presentation about the book this Saturday, Jan. 21 at the Puget Sound Navy Bremerton in Bremerton (see below for details).

Released in December, the book covers more than a century of fast patrol vessels on Puget Sound, from the 1898 construction of the Seattle-built Navy torpedo boat U.S.S. Rowan to the post-9/11 boats built by local companies.

It contains some 200 rare images, such as a previously unpublished image of a 78-foot PT boat zooming past the ferry Kalakala near Seattle and a photo of a Prohibition-era patrol boat tied up along the largely undeveloped Port Townsend waterfront.

One chapter of the book is devoted to the 83-foot Coast Guard patrol boat that Withers, a Vietnam Navy vet, and his wife, Roxane, discovered in the San Francisco area. The couple restored the boat and brought it back to Puget Sound, where it had served for more than 15 years in the 1940s and ‘50s.

This rare photo shows a patrol boat during a stopover in Puget Sound before being reassigned to Alaska in the summer of 1942. Such images were typically censored and not released publicly due to military security restrictions.

Puget Sound’s history of patrol and rescue boats dates back to 1854, when the 94-foot schooner Jefferson Davis was dispatched to fight the smuggling of goods into the newly formed territory. Patrol boats were used to protect Puget Sound residents from attacks from Indian tribes, during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and through World War I.

Use of the boats surged again during Prohibition, when rumrunners smuggled liquor into Washington from British Columbia. Prohibition “did more to accelerate the design and construction of fast patrol boats than any war or other military conflict,” Fowler and Withers write.

And Puget Sound boatbuilders were major players in that evolution. More than 60 of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 38-foot “picket boats” were built in the Seattle area and local boatbuilders continued to figure prominently in the following decades.

In 1966, Bellingham company Uniflite secured a contract of $11.5 million to build Patrol River Boats, one of the largest boatbuilding contracts in the state’s history. After 9/11, the Coast Guard decided to standardize its fleet of small patrol boats and chose SAFE Boats International in Port Orchard to build up to 700 of 25-foot response boats, in what was then one of the largest boat purchases in the world.

‘This was top secret’

As a child growing up during World War II, Fowler was fascinated by patrol boats and the exploits of U.S. Navy lieutenant and future president John F. Kennedy. The heroic travails of those boats and the crews who served on them seemed a world away to a boy growing up on Puget Sound.

During the 1958 Gold Cup Race on Lake Washington, the superfast hydroplane Miss Thriftway, right, collided with a 40-foot Coast Guard vessel.

But in the late 1990s, Fowler began driving from his home in Olympia down to Portland, Oregon to watch the restoration of an old World War II patrol boat. There, he met a veteran named John Akin who told him that he’d been part of a flotilla in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked in 1943.

Four boats in the flotilla were subsequently sent to Puget Sound and on to Alaska to guard against a possible Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, Akin said. He told Fowler stories about being a crew member during torpedo training runs on Puget Sound, during which patrol boats would zip back and forth across the path of ferries traveling between Bremerton and Seattle, to the delight of ferry passengers.

The ferry captain apparently wasn’t so amused — after a few weeks of that, Akin told Fowler, his crew received a memo from a Navy commander advising them to knock it off.

Fowler was riveted by Akin’s tales. Though long interested in maritime history, he was unaware that military patrol boats had routinely plied the waters in his own backyard and were built and repaired in local boatyards.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorst attacks, the protection of Washington State ferries became a key mission of the Coast Guard.

But if the region’s history of patrol and rescue boats is obscure, Fowler learned, there’s a good reason for it.

“This was top secret – nobody was supposed to know that there were PT boats in Puget Sound,” he says. “There was a prohibition on the media publicizing that fact. Nobody let the cat out of the bag.”

Fowler, who has also written books on tugboats and tall ships on Puget Sound, began digging deeper. He visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and PT Boats, Inc., a veterans association in Tennessee, collecting photos and stories from war vets he met who had served on patrol boats.

The process led to some intriguing connections. For one, Fowler discovered that the Coast Guard patrol boat Withers and his wife had brought to Puget Sound had been stationed in Tacoma during the late 1950s, when Fowler was attending the University of Puget Sound just a few miles away. Fowler tracked down some of the men who had served on the boat during that time and met them.

Six Bitter Station, a75-foot Coast Guard patrol boat built in the mid-1920s, stationed along the waterfront in Port Townsend. At the far right is the Cupola House, which was later moved to nearby Point Hudson Marina. Photo courtesy of the Jefferson Historical Society

Then he found out that another 83-foot Coast Guard patrol boat like Withers’ was moored at Lake Union Drydock in Seattle. The boat, Tiburon, had been part of a flotilla that served during the U.S. invasion at Normandy. And two of its crew members were still alive.

With the help of the two men’s family members, Withers and Fowler arranged to reunite them with the ship. The two veterans traveled to Seattle in 2007 from their homes in Illinois and Missouri, stepping onto the vessel they’d once served on that had since become a part of fabled maritime history.

One of the men, Bud Eberhardt, “knelt down and kissed the boat,” Fowler recalls. Eberhardt died a year later at age 85.

It’s those connections, Fowler says, that were the most rewarding aspect of writing the book.

“It brings the history to life if you focus not just on the boats, but the people who made that history as well,” he says. “They deserve the recognition. They deserve to be honored.

“They feel that they’re not heroes. But in this particular area I love so much, maritime history, I can help highlight what they did and honor them.”

Fowler and Withers will give a presentation on their book at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21 at the Puget Sound Navy Museum, 251 1st St., Bremerton. They will also be speaking at noon on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St., Port Townsend.

“Patrol and Rescue Boats on Puget Sound” is available at local bookstores, through Amazon and from Arcadia Publishing.

2 Responses to New book details ‘top secret’ history of patrol boats on Puget Sound

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  2. Molly Klupfell January 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Hi Deborah,
    I am the Manager at the Wooden Boat Chandlery, the store in the Northwest Maritime Center that carries the new title “Patrol and Rescue Boats on Puget Sound” and also the location mentioned above that will host Chuck and Dan during an event. The time of the event is wrong. It will be from 12 noon until 1:30 and it is an event that is part of an ongoing series called “Wooden Boat Wednesdays”. I hold these maritime – themed events approximately twice a month, always on a Wednesday and always at lunchtime. Could you please post a correction?
    Molly Klupfell
    Wooden Boat Chandlery

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