PT boats on the Hudson
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
ALBANY, N.Y. — What could be the world's largest collection of World War II-era PT boats — made famous in the popular imagination by John F. Kennedy's exploits in PT-109 — rests ashore at a marina in Kingston, where a real estate developer hopes his flotilla, if it can be restored, might help draw attention to the city's resurgent waterfront.
Rob Iannucci is a 68-year-old self-proclaimed "motorhead" who spent most of his life making a living from racing teams for classic motorcycles. But he never forgot his first love — a U.S. Navy rescue boat that he worked aboard as a Sea Scout (the nautical arm of the Boy Scouts) during his teenage years in Hackensack, N.J.
Now, in an 1820s brick warehouse on the shore of the Rondout Creek, Iannucci is the proud owner of four PT boats in various stages of seaworthiness — including a boat that never saw combat but after the war was the personal yacht of movie idol Clark Cable, and another with a distinguished wartime history that included having been sunk twice and salvaged each time by its crew to get back into the fight.
Wrapped in plastic covers, the four boats sit outside the warehouse, where inside are seven massive PT boat engines — each with 12 cylinders capable of 1,500 horsepower. Wooden-hulled PT boats had three such engines, marking the light craft extremely fast, which was their best chance of survival, given their lack of armor.
It was 2006 when Iannucci got his first PT boat, the PT-728, which had been working as a charter boat in Key West and was in dry dock after a collision left its hull breached. Iannucci got the boat for $125,000, and sent his engineer, Tim Ivory, to Key West to oversees repairs. While his first trial run was dicey — the boat "almost sank" outside of Fort Myers, Fla. — the repaired warship ultimately made its way north to Kingston, where it was rented out, making an appearance in a Julia Roberts movie, "Sleeping with the Enemy." In its earlier life, Iannucci added, the boat had also been a regular in the old TV sitcom "McHale's Navy."
Iannucci sold the restored boat in 2012 after the recession hit his real estate holdings, and now faces doing the same restoration again, with the boats and engines that he has accumulated over the last several years. Two of the boats, including Gable's former craft, the PT-615, came from owners in New Jersey, and were seaworthy enough to be towed to Kingston.
But the other two — from Florida and Long Island — were decaying derelicts by the time Iannucci got them. They had be brought north on flatbed trucks, which was no easy feat. The Florida boat had been sitting in a field for more than decade and was a haven for spiders, snakes, and other wildlife, said Ivory, Iannucci's boatwright. "I was underneath it, and there was spiders the size of saucers inside," he said.
There are just seven other PT boats known to exist, aside from those that Iannucci owns, said Ivory. More than 500 were built during the war.
It will take a lot of money to perform the restorations, said Iannucci, who created a not-for-profit group called Fleet Obsolete whose mission it will be to tackle the problem and find needed resources, as in cash.
"I had to back off this project after the recession started in 2008," said Iannucci, who is heavily invested in Kingston real estate around the waterfront. "We now have a couple of good hulls, and some good engines. I now need an executive director for the group. At my age, I don't know think I can do this again."
The vessels represent a time when "made in America was the ultimate ... and these are things that we need to hold onto in this country. The kids that served aboard these were real heroes.," he said. "There is something sexy and charismatic about the PT boat, which are very much like a racing bike. They are instant attention-getters."