After 74 Years And A Restoration PT 305 Is Once Again Headed To Lake Pontchartrain
The PT 305 negotiates an intersection on its way to the water.Credit William Widmer for The New York Times
NEW ORLEANS — There was one hairy moment during PT 305’s slow-motion jaunt through downtown here on Saturday morning.
It came as that restored World War II patrol torpedo boat dangled over the edge of the Mississippi River from the arm of a huge floating crane. A brisk wind swung the boat’s nose landward, causing the men below to strain at their yellow ropes as if they were reining in a wayward balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Minutes later, PT 305 was resting on a barge in the river, ready for the next leg of its tortuous journey from naval warship to fully interactive museum exhibit. By April, the National WWII Museum here hopes to offer the only opportunity to ride a PT boat that survived combat in the war.
“There’s nothing like this anywhere,” said Stephen Watson, the museum’s chief operating officer. “We’ve always tried to do things here that bring history to life in an unexpected way.”
The maneuver on Saturday, with the 50-ton boat riding on a 64-wheeled, remote-controlled crawler, certainly caught some pedestrians by surprise. Others just had to see it with their own eyes.
Jerry Lousteau’s standard poodle, Satchmo, barked at the boat as it deftly navigated the right turn off Magazine Street onto St. Joseph Street a little after 7:30 a.m. Mr. Lousteau said that his father-in-law was wounded on Iwo Jima during the war, but he confessed he had come out because he “just was fascinated by a giant moving” operation.
“There’s always some kind of parade in New Orleans,” he said. “I’ve seen whole houses going down the street. But never a big boat like this.”
Some traffic signals along the route from the museum to the river had to be moved out of the boat’s way. The 78-foot-long boat needed a clearance of 22 feet, both vertical and horizontal, said Brett Berard, whose family-owned company, Berard Transportation, donated its equipment and services.
A small entourage followed along, most from the ranks of dedicated volunteers who had spent many Saturdays during the past nine years restoring the boat in a building across the street from the museum.
“It’s like watching your child go off to school for the first time,” said Karen Kersting, an interior designer who said she had painted every square inch of the boat at least once.
The scope of the task was daunting. When the restorers found PT 305 in Galveston, Tex., it was a sawed-off wreck. After returning from duty in the Mediterranean, it had served as a tour boat in New York City and later as an oyster boat in the Chesapeake Bay.
PT-305 at the end of her oyster-boat career. After several decades operating as a tour boat, scalloping boat, and fishing boat, she served the Crow Brothers seeding oyster beds in Chesapeake Bay until 2001.
Like some other revamped PT boats, it had suffered the indignity of having 13 feet of its hull chopped off so that it did not need a licensed captain under Coast Guard regulations, said George Benedetto, one leader of the restoration team. Mr. Benedetto, who owns a chain of pet food stores, obtained his master license from the Coast Guard so that he could captain PT 305.
The volunteers brought it back to New Orleans, where it was built by Higgins Industries, famous for making the boats that ran up onto Normandy Beach on D-Day. They extended the wooden hull to its original size, repaired the mahogany decks and made the boat seaworthy again. No detail was overlooked, Mr. Benedetto said, pointing out the two decals bearing swastikas that signify that the boat sank two Nazi ships
One of the final touches was to paint the nickname U.S.S. Sudden Jerk on the bow. Josh Schick, a curator at the museum, said one of the boat’s two surviving crew members told him that the name was earned in a hard landing at a dock in 1944.
Among the special guests on Saturday was Donald Rursch, a corn and soybean farmer from western Illinois. Mr. Rursch made a critical contribution of three V-12 Packard engines that had been designed to power the PT boats. He was no sailor, but he had started collecting the surplus engines in the 1960s to use in tractor-pulling competitions, he said.
Mr. Rursch, an Army veteran, said he was persuaded when he saw how determined the volunteers were to an authentic restoration. “I just kind of got sold on it,” he said.Having a hand in the restoration had that seductive effect on people, said Jim Letten, a former chief federal prosecutor in New Orleans whose father served in World War II.
“This is really the jewel in the crown of this entire city,” Mr. Letten said, referring to the museum.
The sprawling museum, founded by the historian Stephen E. Ambrose as the National D-Day Museum, is thriving now. But a decade ago, it was struggling to survive, Mr. Watson said.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the flow of visitors slowed to a trickle and the museum had to lay off 60 percent of its staff, he said.
“It was a tough slog,” Mr. Watson said of the four years it took to build back attendance to its pre-Katrina level of 350,000 annual visitors. “It forced us to think differently about what it means to be a museum. We sort of had to wake up and take some risks to economically survive.”
One big decision was to offer more experiences outside the walls of the museum, which he said would draw about 700,000 visitors in 2016
In early November, the museum teamed up with the Commemorative Air Force, an organization that tours the country with a fleet of World War II aircraft. At each stop, including the latest one at Lakefront Airport in New Orleans, it sells rides on all sorts of military planes, from a nifty P-51 Mustang fighter to a massive B-29 bomber. Enthusiasts pay as much as $1,800 for the thrill.
Mr. Watson has a similar model in mind for PT 305. The museum is building a boathouse for it near the airport on Lake Pontchartrain, the eventual endpoint of the barge trip that began on Saturday. Visitors will be able to board the boat and go below to see the cramped quarters that had been occupied by its crew, including the “motor macs” who manipulated long levers to shift the gears.
For those who want the full experience, the museum has begun selling rides on PT 305 for $350. The first ride is scheduled for April 1, nearly 74 years after the boat first splashed into the lake.
Mr. Watson said he was pleased that 10 rides had been purchased in the first few hours of the initial offering on Friday. He said that the boat was cleared to travel as far as Boston, more than 1,500 miles away.
PT 305’s appeal was evident Saturday morning on the faces of Greg White and Courtney Jackson, a married couple visiting from Sugar Land, Tex. Ms. Jackson’s voice cracked as she spoke about the sacrifices the boat’s crew had made for their country.
Mr. White nodded supportively as he watched the boat roll down the wharf toward the barge that would take it down the wind-whipped Mississippi. “We’ll be back in April,” he said.
Author: Steve Coale
December 1st 2016
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