Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

They Were Expendable


PT boats weren’t very sexy until JFK’s wartime service on one became a big story during the 1960 election. PT duty wasn’t a glamorous assignment in the Navy, though it sure was dangerous. The boats were fast and agile, but they were made out of plywood and it didn’t take many hits from a Japanese vessel or airplane to blow them apart. But the men who served on them believed in them, and before the war was over they had proved their worth in jungle fighting in the Philippines and the Solomons and other places, even the beaches of Normandy.

This movie was made by John Ford in the Florida Keys with John Wayne, Robert Montgomery, and Donna Reed in the final days of WWII, released in December of 1945. It’s quite a good production, with harrowing scenes of PT boats being driven through huge underwater explosions that look pretty dangerous to me, alternating with sequences of what life was like ashore trying to keep the boats supplied and afloat. It was based on the wartime exploits of two real men, one a medal of honor recipient.

There’s a story that I find fascinating, though I can’t guarantee its accuracy. Montgomery actually did command a PT boat. John Ford was a war photographer, wounded in action, under fire at Midway and Normandy. John Wayne, super-patriot, dodged the draft. Like Dick Cheney, he had “other priorities,” namely his career. Ford hated that, and put Wayne down every chance he got. According to the IMDb: “After months of heaping insults on Wayne’s head, costar Robert Montgomery finally approached the director and told him that if he was putting Wayne down for Montgomery’s benefit, that he needed to stop immediately. This brought the tough-as-nails director to tears and he stopped abusing Wayne.” Who knows? It’s a good story, anyway.

Near the middle of the movie four PT boats are told to evacuate some high-ranking officers from Corregidor. One boat is taking an admiral, another “Army personnel.” If you know any history, you won’t be surprised to see General Douglas MacArthur’s trademark corncob pipe as the patriotic music swells and he boards the boat with his family, though the name is never spoken. It didn’t have to be, in 1945. I almost puked. I know Doug is held in esteem by many people, but not by me. His defense of the Philippines was inept and cost thousands of American lives. He was an egomaniac, and I’m glad Truman fired his sorry ass. He was given a medal of honor for his “defense of the Philippines,” the biggest travesty on that sacred honor since Lindbergh got it. (To his credit, he acknowledged that he hadn’t actually done anything heroic … but he accepted it, “in recognition of the indomitable courage of the gallant army which it was my honor to command.” Command badly, but who’s counting, right?)

Later in the movie John Wayne’s sweetheart, Army nurse Donna Reed, is left behind on Bataan. That’s the last we hear of her. I don’t know if the Japanese forced women on the infamous Bataan Death March, but even if she was taken prisoner her fate was certainly not a good one. The Imperial Army treated all prisoners, military and civilian, in a manner that would be illegal for farm animals in a civilized society.