The 36th Division Archive
SC1c Lawrence B. Crenshaw
PT-542, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 37
Born in Edmonson County, Kentucky into a farming family near the infamous Mammoth Cave, Lawrence Crenshaw moved to Louisville right before the war where he began life as a house painter. Crenshaw was in Louisville when he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but was too committed with work and a stressful marriage to do much about it. In 1942 the marriage ended with a divorce and not long afterward he decided to join the Navy in November. Before shipping off for the Great Lakes training center Crenshaw met the woman who would become his lifelong love, Alline, to whom he would become engaged and marry almost exactly one year after he joined the Navy. For specialized training after boot he traveled to the University of Chicago to become a cook, graduating at the top of his class. It was here that he first heard about the exciting renewal of the Navy’s PT Boat fleet after MacArthur’s rescue in the Philippines and, excited by the prospect of the “Mosquito” ships, immediately wrote his letter for voluntary service in the Motor Torpedo Boat squadrons on 9 June 1943.
Crenshaw was accepted no less than 10 days later and was told to immediately report to the infamous home of the PTs, Melville, Rhode Island. Now an SC3c, Crenshaw worked extremely hard to complete the entirely new and unique training required for operations in a PT Boat. With a small crew, each man had to be extremely focused in his area and often trained in other areas as well. Performing exceptionally, he was promoted to SC2c and slated to join the commissioning crew of MTB RON 33 on PT-495 “Gentleman Jim” in December of 1943. Crenshaw got to know his boat and crew extremely well and made a lot of lifelong friends. Unfortunately for his early shipping prospects while out on shakedown he suffered a bad leg injury which left him hospitalized. Despite spending several months finally getting his first boat and getting to know his crew as family, he was relinquished from the commissioning and returned to Melville for recovery. In spite of his separation, Crenshaw remained friends with his first crew for his entire adult life and corresponded with them while in the service.
Not letting his injury deter him, Crenshaw became one of the first slated for the next available squadron commission which came through in March of 1944. With the option of RON 32 using 77’ Higgins or RON 37 with 80’ Elcos, he decided to pursue the model of his first ship and joined MTB RON 37 (note, the type of boats used by a squadron largely determined how a sailor picked, everyone had their preference and it was often a source of fierce debate which was better.) Crenshaw transferred to the heart of Brooklyn and waited eagerly for his new boat, eventually delivered as PT-542. Named “Margie,” after a crewman’s sweetheart, Crenshaw performed a successful shakedown and was designated not only as the ship's cook but as a deck gunner, likely on one of the twin-mounted .50 caliber machine gun turrets. While never told their destination, the camouflage color scheme painted on the ships told these men they were going to the pacific and the excitement for launch only grew (ETO PTs had a flat gray scheme). The boats finally mounted the second squadron tender and made their way to the PT Base at Taboga, Panama.
While in Panama the crews got their first real taste of open water. Besides enjoying the local nightlife, the men were able to really take their boats out for a spin and customize them how they wanted. It was here that Crenshaw and the crew of 542 were able to outfit their deck with additional armaments such as a 37mm forward gun and additional starboard 20mm MK14 cannon. Told they were going to be operating against barges in the South Pacific, the men removed one set of torpedoes to give extra deck space, leaving them the two-minimum required. While in Panama PTs 542 and 541 were chosen to perform a series of combat demonstrations for Admiral Fithian Kingman and a large delegation of Latin American governmental representatives on 15 November 1944. Crenshaw was selected to participate in the .50 machine gun firing, demonstrating how the guns work as well as their effectiveness while on the move. Other tests included the firing of depth charges, races, and cannon fire. With the taste of gunpowder on their tongues, the men excitedly boarded their vessels and began the long trek to Stirling Island in the Solomons.
While on their way the squadron held their own version of the traditional Navy line-crossing ceremony. While the squadron was composed of many veterans, Crenshaw and about half the men were to be the “pollywags” initiated to become official “shellbacks” after crossing the equator. Woken up by the “Royal Police” beating them with wettened pieces of cotton waste wrapped in hard canvas, Crenshaw and the other pollywags were frightened to see their squadron commander Lt. Charles Faulkner adorned in the foursome garb of Davy Jones. The day consisted of a variety of activities ranging from finger exercises to being lashed to the railing and doused with fire hoses. The antics bonded the men to a true brotherhood that day and by its conclusion, Crenshaw was admitted into the Ancient Order of the Deep.
The rest of the ride was fairly smooth and the squadron reached their new home of Stirling in the Treasury Islands on 1 December 1944. The boats were soon unloaded, and the men began to settle into their quite isolated home. Designated MTB Base 9, the camp was settled soundly in the “Iron Bottom Sound,” the underwater home of many US ships and several PT Boats sunk in the fighting of 1942-43. Despite the always ominous presence of remaining scraps and scars, the men of RON 37 began to perform their first combat patrols around the islands still held under Japanese control.
On 26 December 1944 the PT boats of MTB RON 37 in joint operation with many other gunboats and 12 F4U Corsairs bombed, strafed, and shelled a number of Japanese bivouac and supply areas on the Southwest Coast of Bougainville to disrupt supply flow to the Japanese Army currently engaged with Australian troops nearby. On his own boat, Crenshaw handled a set of machine guns and watched as their boats lit up the targeted areas. An interesting note, his boat was one of the few in the squadron outfitted with an additional 60mm mortar which was operated by the crew, allowing for indirect and more explosive fire on the beachheads. Several boats received returning small arms fire as they made their numerous runs but no casualties or serious damage was reported. For the next week the squadron conducted patrols along the shoreline and rivers of the area strafing and mortaring enemy positions to support the ongoing operations.
The next month consisted of similar operations throughout the Solomon Islands and around 35 combat patrols were completed by the men of the squadron. On 27 January Crenshaw’s ship, along with PTs 541, 543, and 544 used a native guide to make a heavy coordinated strike on a Japanese position on Nabaponga. Concluding their night patrols, the boats met up in the early dawn where the native took them into the position under the quiet and dark of the dawn. Once the position was spotted, the force let loose. The area was described as “covered by shelling and strafing of all calibers” and several of the Japanese buildings were ravaged by the fire. Before an effective counterattack could be mounted, the boats left as quick as they came and returned home within a few hours.
February was 37's final month of operations in the Treasury Islands where patrols and raids continued as they had before. Another enemy commonly encountered by the “Mosquito men” at this time were leftover mines as countless remained from the fighting years earlier would bob on the surface awaiting detonation or defusal. In performing these protective measures and offensives on the Japanese, one Australian officer estimated that of the 800-1000 Japanese stationed on the islands in and around Bougainville, around 200 had been killed by the strafing and shelling of MTB RON 37.
After these months of duty RON 37 was sent to MTB Base 2, Espiritu Santo with MTB RON 32 and the USS SILENUS, conducting regular tests and drills as well as exploring new pastimes like island-picnicking, knife-making, and souvenir-picking while awaiting further orders. Life here was relaxed and the island afforded many new amenities to the men, including stores, showers, hospitals, proper facilities, and occasionally, women. RONs 32 and 37 both undertook control of the PT Base there and trained in tandem for several months, with sailors sometimes getting into drunken brawls over which type of boat was better, the Elco or the Higgins. As the war began to draw to a close and the islands of Okinawa were finally captured, RON 37 was ordered to proceed for Air-Sea rescue operations under Fleet Air Wing One and was to be stationed at Okinawa itself. While the boats had been primed and readied during the months of lax duty on Espiritu Santo, the men would never really see much action as their arrival would not come until the end of July.
The squadron was still packed and resting on the decks of their transports watching the busyness of the Okinawa harbor when on the evening of August 10, 1945 dozens of ships began to open fire at random. Concerned for a possible air raid, the men began to duck and cover before the radio operator ran to the deck and informed the boaters that the war was finally slated to come to an end and that the Japanese had finally surrendered. The relief of the men was tangible, and all thoughts immediately went towards home. Before long the men would be parsed out and the PTs disassembled. PT 542’s final decommissioning occurred on November 18, 1945, and Crenshaw would be mustered out of the service only 10 days later, rejoining his wife in Louisville, and finding himself oddly missing the many men he had come to love aboard those small crafts in the south pacific. He went on to undergo a successful career at LG&E and retired after 18 years. For the entirety of his life, however, he was heavily involved in the veteran organizations and meetings of the PT Boats, keeping up with many of his former shipmates and keeping the memory of the Mosquito fleet alive.