WWII Museum looking for funds to repair 1 of 3 PT boats in world


by Bill Capo / Eyewitness News


Posted on March 1, 2010 at 11:51 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 2 at 12:07 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- The National World War II Museum warehouse is a noisy, dirty, busy place, and filling a large section is a large, dull gray shape. It is the PT-305, a Motor Torpedo Boat built during World War II at Higgins Industries in New Orleans.

Now volunteers swarm over the hull, inside and out, laughing as they sweat, for they are helping to save a piece of history.

"Oh, this is very exciting to see this. You know, this is one of only three combat veteran PT boats in the world,” said Tom Czekanski, collections director for the museum.

“There's one in Fredericksburg. It's been restored without its engines. There's one up in New York, it's wrapped up in plastic. This one is going to be done with its engines, all complete, back in the water," he said.

In recent months, the volunteers have removed pieces added to the boat by owners after World War II. They found the hull badly warped by time and hard use, so now they are involved in the delicate task of straightening PT-305's frame back into its original shape, and that takes experts.

When they started the project, organizers thought they would have to hire a series of professionals to do the work volunteers couldn't handle. But what happened is the experts began volunteering, in many cases, after they saw earlier Eyewitness News reports on the PT-305 restoration.

"I seen you on television. You had a show about putting the boat in the museum,” said engine mechanic Jim Bordelon, one of two mechanics who have signed on to rebuild four 12-cylinder, 1,500 horsepower high performance engines that pushed PT boats like the 305 through hostile waters at nearly sixty miles per hour during World War II.

"See the condition of the inside, it’s like it was last run, and I understand this was run somewhere around 1944,” Bordelon said.

"In the beginning I thought I was going to have to hire a minimum of about 15 or 20 experts,” said project manager George Benedetto. “It was going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars that I didn't exactly know where it was going to come from. However now I've got these experts."

There are about 70 volunteers working to restore PT-305 to mint condition for eventual display in the National World War II Museum.

"We're almost trying to do heart surgery while the patient is alive,” said marine designer Dave Carambat.

Carambat is spending his Saturdays restoring PT-305, finding many common points in boat-building 67 years apart, as he is currently designing high tech patrol boats for modern warfare.

"It's real exciting, because it's right on the edge, and it is using all the gadgets, and weaponry, just like when they had to turn out these PT boats,” Carambat said.

They need help from area machine shops to refurbish original parts removed from PT-305, and fabricate new pieces from detailed plans. Dale LeBrun's machine shop has projects including hardware for submarines, and he is making parts needed to restore the PT boat.

"You can feel the history there, and its just real exciting about seeing that, and kinda living it a little bit,” LeBrun said.

They are still estimating it will take about three years to complete the PT-305 restoration project. But they say there are still plenty of ways you can play a role in restoring the PT-305.

"As always we would love to find a corporate sponsor to pay the bill for the whole thing, but in these economic times it's probably not going to happen, and in World War II, you know, we all came together, all in this together, people pitching in what they could,” said Czekanski.

"I need mahogany, I need about 500 board feet of five-quarter mahogany,” said project coordinator Bruce Harris. “I need cypress, another 500-feet of eight-quarter cypress. And I'm also looking for old heart pine, and that I need in eight-quarter too."

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten is one of the volunteers -- sweaty, filthy, and happily reliving his youthful days as a steel worker.

"There's nothing better than going home after a long day's work covered in grease and sawdust and metal shavings,” he joked. "This crew is going to know how to build a PT boat. There aren't many crews that can do that."

The next steps include rebuilding 15 feet of the stern that was cut off years ago, completely refurbishing the interior, and restoring every piece of exterior planking.

For more on how you can help the restoration project, call the National WWII Museum at 504-528-1944, extension 243 or visit www.nationalww2museum.org/exhibitions/the-national-world-war-ii.html.