Restored World War II torpedo boat could offer rides on Lake Pontchartrain next year

A wooden Navy patrol torpedo boat that helped win World War II could be giving people rides on Lake Pontchartrain by this time next year, the National World War II Museum said Tuesday. The only catch: The museum needs to raise another $500,000 in the coming months.

The boat, known as PT-305, was originally built in New Orleans, and it’s been undergoing a restoration in the city for nearly a decade.

Standing on the boat’s deck Tuesday, museum Chief Operating Officer Stephen Watson invited the public to chip in by purchasing tickets to a “Drafts for Crafts” open bar, food and live music event beginning at 7 p.m. Friday in the museum’s U.S. Freedom Pavilion.

Tickets are $75 and $85.

Watson also asked would-be donors to consider contributing to a Kickstarter campaign that is accessible online at pt305.org and that had more than $30,000 pledged by Tuesday afternoon.

Tom Czekanski, manager of the PT-305 restoration project, said bringing the boat back into operation would give the public one more chance to thank those who defeated America’s World War II enemies “before they’re all gone.”

“This boat’s going to be a way for us to shine a new light on PT sailors — and through them all our World War II vets,” Czekanski said.

The New Orleans-based company owned by renowned boat-builder Andrew Jackson Higgins completed PT-305 in 1943.

Designed to carry three officers and about 14 enlisted men, the 78-foot-long, 20-foot-wide vessel sank two armored Nazi transport barges off the coast of Italy eight weeks apart in 1944. In between, PT-305 landed commandos prior to the invasion of southern France, and it later sank an Italian torpedo boat in April 1945, the museum said.

PT-305 was eventually shipped back to the U.S. to prepare it for service in the Pacific Theater, but then the war ended. It was sold in 1948 — for $10.

However, it managed to avoid the fate that many other surplus PTs met: being stripped of anything valuable and then destroyed.

PT-305 was retrofitted for use as a tour boat, fishing charter and oyster vessel in places such as New York City and the Chesapeake Bay until the Defenders of America Naval Museum in Galveston, Texas, acquired it in 2001 and transferred it to New Orleans’ National World War II Museum in 2007 for restoration.

Since then, 200 volunteers have spent their free time fitting PT-305 with period-appropriate parts acquired through Craigslist, eBay, museums and collectors, with the goal of returning the boat as close to its original state as possible.

Among those parts: rivets, screws, bolts, original and replica guns, and three Packard engines that run on aviation fuel.

Much of the work has been done at the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion at Magazine Street and Andrew Higgins Drive, led by a core group of about 40 volunteers who include doctors, lawyers, electrical engineers, naval architects, furniture makers and World War II veterans, according to museum research assistant Kali Martin, who has dedicated five years to the project.

Officials hope the restoration will be complete this summer, and the plan is to display PT-305 at the museum through the fall.

Then, assuming the necessary money has been raised, the immense glass wall at the restoration pavilion will be removed, PT-305 will be placed on a barge on the Mississippi River and moved to the Industrial Canal for three months of sea trials and crew training.

Following that, the plan is for PT-305 to be housed in a custom-built boathouse at South Shore Harbor as part of a development that Tipitina’s Foundation founders Mary and Roland von Kurnatowski are pursuing near Lakefront Airport.

Starting in March, the boat would be open for tours at the boathouse and rides on the lake — culminating a project that when done will have cost more than $3.3 million in cash and in-kind donations.

Watson said he hopes the first two people to ride the restored PT-305 on the lake will be its two surviving crew members: James Nerison, of Oceanside, California, and Joseph Brannan, of Aurora, Colorado.

The museum believes PT-305 will be the only such vessel to be both fully restored and operational, setting it apart from three other combat-veteran PTs still in existence, Watson said.

Museum board member Paul Hilliard said the museum’s and the volunteers’ dedication to PT-305 reminds him of the spirit he saw from his colleagues while serving with the Marine Corps as a radioman-gunner during the battles for the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.

“It’s great to see that ... they haven’t stopped making great Americans,” Hilliard said.

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