Briefing - PT-59’s First Victory
At about 5:30 on April 9, 1942, PT-59, Lt. Charles A. Mills, Jr., USNR, in command, departed Melville, Rhode Island, for a cruise around Narragansett Bay. The boat skirted Dyer Island, and them changed course southward for some practice torpedo runs. This entailed setting the keys into the firing switches and cranking the launchers so that they pointed a few degrees outboard. All seemed in order, and Mills ducked below for a few minutes to check his charts, to be sure he headed for the proper practice area in Rhode Island Sound, beyond the submarine nets that prevented Hitler’s u-boats from entering Narragansett Bay. He was below for hardly a minute or two when he heard a loud noise, felt the boat shudder, and through a porthole espied a trail of smoke and a spinning propeller vanishing over the rail. An officer-in-training on the bridge had turned the firing key for one of the torpedoes the full 90° necessary to fire a torpedo!
Mills ran the few steps up to the bridge, quickly determined the track of the torpedo, and gave chase. Although concerned, neither Mills nor any of his crew were overly worried. The torpedo was a 21-inch Mark 8. Although the World War I vintage 21-foot long Mark 8 carried 320 pounds of high explosives at 35 knots for as much as ten miles, it had a reputation for unreliability. At least half the time, the torpedo rolled erratically, nose dived, went off course, or even began turning in circles.
Alas, PT-59’s Mark 8 fired did none of these things. In fact, it ran proverbially "hot, straight, and true." Tension began to rise. One sailor called out, "Come on, screw up. Every other one does!" But the torpedo was a good one.
Mills followed the torpedo at some distance, fearful of getting too close, lest it explode prematurely. He also radioed the Harbor Defense Command, to warn them of the danger. Not surprisingly, personnel at that headquarters thought he was making a very bad joke, and it took several tries before Mills convinced them of the danger. Meanwhile the torpedo headed straight for the anchorage off Jamestown, across the bay from Newport Harbor.
With considerable good luck, the torpedo passed off the southeastern end of Prudence Island, just missing a pier loaded with depth charges. Three miles into its run the torpedo struck the USS Capella (AK-13), a 4,000-ton Navy supply ship that had just anchored off Jamestown on Conanicut Island. The resulting blast sent a column of water into the sky, as cargo and a floatplane were blown into the water. The stricken ship began listing to starboard and settling by the stern.
Reacting quickly, Mills brought his boat up alongside Capella’s port side, while his crew passed a 6-inch line over to the stricken vessel. Working together, the two crews fashioned a spring line. Once the two vessels were tied together, Mills revved his engines to 1,400 rpms. By maneuvering the spring lines, PT-59 managed to shift Capella to shoals, where she grounded.
PT-59 had scored her first “victory.”
Capella. Although there was considerable damage to the ship’s cargo, only eight men were injured, mostly by sprains and fractures. The ship was refloated a few days later, towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and repaired by mid-May. She continued in service, carrying supplies to installations up and down the East Coast, until the end of the war.
PT-59. Although Lt. Mills’s career did not prosper in the aftermath of the incident, PT-59 went on to render excellent service in the South Pacific. In mid-1943 she was converted into a motor gunboat. In that guise, on October 28, 1943, she helped evacuated wounded men from the Marine 1st Parachute Battalion, then engaged in a raid on Choiseul Island. Her commander at the time was LT John F. Kennedy.