NEW ORLEANS - The National World War II Museum has nearly finished restoration of a patrol torpedo boat that sank two armored German supply barges and carried U.S. commandos to French shores. Officials hope to have PT-305 back on the water in about a year, carrying tourists and history buffs on the lake where it was first tested in 1944.
"There's quite a bit of difference in understanding an artifact when it's sitting and when it's operating,'' said Tom Czekanski, the museum's senior curator and restoration manager.
After World War II, PT-305 was cut down to 60 feet and spent decades as a tour boat and a Chesapeake Bay oyster boat. Much of the remaining hull and deck were warped or rotted when the museum bought it to restore for eventual tours on Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans.
Now it's back to its original 78-foot length. Two engines have been put in and a third is to be installed along with plumbing, electrical and detail work that will keep volunteers busy into summer, Czekanski said. Most of the ship's railings are finished, though a "do not lean on railing'' sign is posted on some temporary bow railings.
Czekanski said only about 10 PT boats still exist. PT-305 is one of four that saw combat and the only one of those to be fully restored and launchable, he added.
The museum may charge $250 or $300 for 45-minute boat rides, and $5 to $15 for tours of the boat when docked, said Stephen Watson, the museum's executive vice president and chief operating officer.
However, officials said, PT-305 can't be moved to Lake Pontchartrain until a boathouse with exhibit space is ready. The museum also must raise an estimated $500,000 for the move, conduct months of "sea trials,'' crew training and make the final move to the boathouse, Watson said in an interview Monday.
The boathouse will include displays about PT-305 and its crew, researched by a historian who has worked on PT-305 since its arrival in 2007. Historian Josh Schick said the boat has a unique detail: portholes. Those weren't a feature of PT boats, but one of two surviving crew members said he had found them on a wrecked yacht and installed them, Schick said.
In 2003 Schick began volunteering at the museum as a teenager, fascinated by restoration work on the Higgins landing craft now displayed in the museum's original building. Andrew Higgins' boat yard in New Orleans built that craft and the PT-305.
Now 29, Schick wrote his master's thesis about the role of PT boats in World War II and is one of two PT-305 project historians. He said the vessel spent World War II in the Mediterranean.
"Her primary role in the Med was to attack German convoys running the coast,'' he said. "She has three kills'' - the armored barges and an Italian torpedo boat. The crew conducted 77 offensive patrols and saw action in invasions of southern France.
About 15 men usually served on a PT boat, and over the course of the war, 44 served on PT-305, Schick said. He said he's tracked down relatives of about a dozen crewmen and two members who are still alive.
Joseph Brannan, a gunner's mate on PT-305, told of a near miss by a British bomber who thought he'd hit a German torpedo boat.
Brannan said his friend, motor machinist mate Alexis Charles Kupetz, had just stuck his head out of a hatch when shrapnel tore his cheek open. Kupetz was laid on the captain's bunk and Brannan held the wound closed while the PT crew sought a doctor, finally finding one on a French destroyer, Schick said.
Schick said the crewmen he's had the least success finding information about were Lt. j.g. Richard A. Hamilton of Rugby, North Dakota, possibly born in 1915; torpedo man Wilfred E. "Red'' Horwarth, who died in February 1974 in Cincinnati, Ohio; and motor machinist mate 1st Class William Herman Minnick, who was born in Logansport, Indiana, and died in May 2004.
"Each one that I haven't found relatives for, I want to get in touch with,'' he said.