The secrets to American greatness
AN OCCASIONAL SERIES OF SHORT ESSAYS
#1 - Extreme Volunteerism
The benefits of catching the Mahogany Virus
Exactly eighty years ago, a boat called PT-305 was launched from an industrial shipyard in New Orleans. The boat went on to have a storied career. Remarkably, the last chapter of that story is still being written, in the same town where it all began. After a major restoration, PT-305 now lives as a fully-functional waterborne installation at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum hangar where PT-305 was being restored. What I expected to see was a place where folks were preparing for an exhibit. But, as it turns out, what was going on in that room was itself an exhibition of something important.
It was after hours when we entered the cavernous metal-roofed building in NOLA's warehouse district, so I figured my host and I would be alone with the 78-foot-long watercraft. I was wrong. In one of the hangar's alcoves, nestled among pallets and scaffolding, we happened upon a cheerful fellow named Jim. Jim was hard at work on one of his many ongoing projects: a total re-build of the original DC switchboard that controlled all of the electrical apparatus on the boat. He looked up and greeted us with a big smile, which I took as in invitation to exchange pleasantries. So I asked him a quick question about what he was up to.
A lot, it turns out.
For the next 55 minutes, Jim provided a deep download on the passion project this boat had become for him and his fellow volunteers. That’s right, volunteers. 500 of them were driving the resurrection of PT-305. Most of the regulars came on Saturday, which Jim referred to as “our work day.” But Saturday clearly wasn’t the only work day, because this was a Wednesday, and here Jim was. Having finished his day job as an electrical engineer at 5 p.m., Jim had zipped over to the hangar to labor away.
After-hours sessions were something he’d obviously been doing a lot of, because over the previous eighteen months, Jim had tallied a total of 3,800 hours working on the boat. Unpaid. As a volunteer. I asked if I was hearing that number correctly—3,800—and he said, yes. They had to keep a log of hours worked, so the number was accurate.
Talk about unsung hero. Here he was, alone, unseen, tucked away with his work, doing his thing. Out of love. No press. No glory. Meticulously rebuilding a huge switchboard and other parts of the boat, by hand, so that it would be just as it was. Ensuring that this piece of history was literally ship-shape.
“Every piece of buss bar is original,” he explained, pointing to his switchboard. “The boat was all 24 volt DC. And we’re staying totally faithful to that.”
I learned that staying faithful to the boat’s original design was noble, but it also involved risks. The boat had to not only be fully-functional and sea-worthy, it also had to be Coast-Guard approved. “And that’s no small feat. This boat has three 1,500 horsepower V-12 Packard engines. And they run on aviation gas. That’s unusual. In fact, when it’s done, this will be the only operational Coast Guard-certified gasoline World War Two boat in the world. Which is great. But it’s also risky. With all this DC electrical work running through the boat, and with gas in the area, we cannot tolerate a fault. It makes this whole place a Class One, Division Two hazardous environment. Very explosive. So every part is certified. And every finished array is certified.”
That meant a lot of very meticulous work, requiring every bit of expertise that Jim had acquired over his 43 years in the electrical engineering business. “My wife is tolerant. One electrical panel that I was working on… I kept it on the kitchen table for three months. Wires everywhere. And she tolerated it.”
Perhaps it's no surprise that Americans find a way turn volunteering into an extreme sport. But why, exactly? What compels a man to log almost 4,000 hours as a volunteer re-building something that is, at the end of the day, not his?
“I caught the virus," he explained. "The minute I touched the mahogany of the hull, I was done.”
In order to test this theory—of the Mahogany Virus causing spontaneous and infectious passion—I walked up to the hull and touched the mahogany, too. And there was indeed something to the theory. Solidity and beauty. The planked lines of curvature pirouetting into a seamless prow. The boat was up in the air. Indoors. Nowhere near water. But even in its static and dry pose, it seemed to be flowing through something... maybe it was history.
During the war, this very boat sank three German warships in the Mediterranean. On deck, these many years later, Jim was now pointing out the torpedoes, which looked just like the ones that did the sinking. They were aft, resting in cradles near the edges of the decks. In wartime, they’d get deployed by simply being flipped over the side. A tug from an attached lanyard would arm the weapon (as it fell) and engage its engine, kind of like static-line parachuting, where your chute is auto-deployed simply by leaving the plane.
I asked how the heck one was supposed to point the torpedo using this “dump overboard” method. “You point with the boat,” answered Jim. “That's why it’s important to go straight.”
He was lively and upbeat, remarkably proficient in all things electrical, mechanical, and even nautical. Encyclopedic would be the right descriptor of his knowledge, if it didn’t fail to capture his ability to not only know, but also implement and build.
He was MacGyver, with an electrical engineering degree.
But part of the joy of the project was that even a wise expert like himself was learning new things every day. Jim was lucky enough to have been there when some of the World War Two veterans who’d been on the boat actually came for a visit. One of the questions Jim and the other volunteers asked was, “Hey, in this wooden battle boat, where was all the armor... did you guys even have any?” One of the veterans replied, “Yeah, we had some metal armor, and we put it around our refrigerator... so our beer wouldn't get hit.”
That’s one of the striking things about the boat. It’s all wood. Even the heavy gun mounts are wood. And 13% of its wood is original to the boat, preserved “mainly in the big members, like the keel and struts.” The rest—like the hull with its two layers of gorgeous mahogany—was lovingly inlaid and seam-fitted by the guys Jim affectionately called “the termites.” The wood guys. They, in turn, call Jim “the copper guy.”
But it was clear the copper guy had skills other than just engineering ability. The communicable disease that’s transmittable via mahogany was something that Jim was using (to great effect) in wrangling donations and collaboration from donors and suppliers, most of whom were friends of his. “I’ll ask a friend at a corporation for an expensive piece and they’ll say, ‘Gee, I would love to, but we already donate so much to X, Y and Z,’ and I’ll just say, ‘Look, guys, just come see the boat.’ And after they touch the mahogany, they’re yelling, ‘Oh man, we gotta help you!’ “
“I’ve gotten my pals at firms I work with to donate all of the electrical stuff. So far, the equipment and parts that we’ve received would cost $385,000 if a major company were to buy the same materials right now, today, even with their discounted pricing.” He pointed to two Dell computers. “We even got those donated, and it would have been $7,500 just for the two of them.”
Perhaps it’s not inappropriate, at this point, to say something about corporate generosity. I think a lot of us are a bit skeptical when we hear that term, because oftentimes the gift is made with much fanfare, so that it feels like a self-promoting marketing ploy or a not-so-subtle cry of “Hey, look at our virtue.” Which doesn’t make it evil, just not as pure. But there, in New Orleans, something else was happening. All of the donations that Jim was talking about were by companies whose equipment would literally be buried in the depths of the boat where almost nobody will ever see it. For example, after Jim used the mahogany Jedi mind trick on them, Eaton donated all the marine-grade transformers, one of which is 480 pounds. And they were mounted in a closed internal room, so folks on board the boat would never see it. And there will never be any “Eaton” sponsorship stickers on the boat. This ain’t NASCAR.
Even though the transformers were 21st-century models, they didn’t change the historic feel one jot. The DC switchboard was hand-built by Jim to original specs. He bent the copper mounts. As he wired the boat, sure, he used modern Cat7 cable, but he then wrapped it in aluminum mesh armor so that it’s just like it was in 1943, when the boat launched.
“You’ll walk the boat, and it will feel like it's 1943,” said Jim.
I did walk the boat. And it did feel like the 40’s.
Jim pointed out a coffee pot, which perfectly matched the coffee pot in a photo of the boat’s mess from the 40’s. The team’s volunteer historian had been walking down Royal Street in New Orleans, gazing in the windows of the antique shops, when she spotted this doppelganger antique coffee pot that she’d seen in the 1940’s photo. So she grabbed it for $25. Not just a replica. But the same period artifact.
Jim also pointed out the steering wheel, which is a wooden number that bears a striking resemblance to the steering implement we’re all familiar with from Gilligan’s Island. “It’s an original Higgins steering wheel. For years, it was hanging over the fireplace in a private home, and the family just recently donated it.”
This PT-305 is a Higgins boat. And there’s a lot of lore wrapped up in that. Higgins was a pugnacious, brilliant, and pioneering shipwright who made boats right there in New Orleans. The military had always favored Northeastern boat builders, but when a new kind of boat was required, at one point, some industry insiders told the military brass, Hey, you gotta see this guy in New Orleans, and see what he’s doing with boats. So they opened the contract to competitive bids, staging a field test where different boat builders competed to see how close to the seawall on Lake Pontchartrain they could get with their assault vessels. Some of the establishment boat builders ran their boats pretty close to the wall. But Higgins didn’t get close to the sea wall... he ran his boat up onto the terraced sea wall, and then back down. That’s how he got the contract.
He ended up making over 12,000 of his famous landing craft that, among other things, put Allied troops ashore on D-Day. He also made 200 PT boats. The U.S Patent and Trademark Office notes that "by 1943, an astounding nine out of ten vessels in the U.S. Navy were designed by Higgins Industries." But his factory output was only one of the things that distinguishes Higgins. He was also known for employing folks of all races, and paying them equally. It's not an overstatement to say that Higgins revolutionized both the ship-building industry and amphibious warfare itself. Eisenhower said Higgins was "the man who won the war for us." And an unhappy Hitler snarled that Higgins was "the new Noah."
To those plaudits, Jim added his own. “Higgins was a genius. Seriously. Higgins put the boat engine amidships over the center of gravity, and did other things that allowed him to hit 43 knots battle speed, or flank speed, which is epic, in and of itself. But then, at that speed, he could also get the boat to do a complete 180 while only covering a distance equivalent to the length of the boat. That’s basically Jet-ski maneuverability.”
Jim just shook his head in awe as he recounted other Higgins innovations. “I mean, in this boat, you have three V-12s all spinning shafts the same way, creating tons of torque. But Higgins designed a rudder to compensate for that torque, so you could let go of the wheel at flank speed, and the boat would go straight. Incredible.”
PT Boat Assembly line at Higgins Industries, New Orleans, La.
In addition, Higgins seems not to have been immune to the lures of a profitable side hustle. Notoriously forward-thinking when it came to supplies, he all but cornered the market on mahogany. After the war, he took the surplus wood scraps he had, cobbled them into square modular pieces, and voila... he’d invented parquet wood flooring.
Listening to Jim heap praise on Higgins, I couldn’t help but feel that an equal measure of praise deserved to be heaped on the volunteers who were logging all these thousands of hours rebuilding PT-305... and, by extension, all the other dedicated volunteers who pour time and treasure into altruistic ventures across the land. In America, 60 million people volunteer a total of 4.1 billion hours a year. Imagine how many community centers, non-profits, civic projects, mentorship programs, and soccer teams would perish without that epic, selfless contribution.
You could argue that a big chunk of America runs on volunteers. Consider that a large corporation like Ford Motor Company has 88,000 employees in the U.S., and a single full-time employee works 2,080 hours per year. If you do the math, you realize Ford runs on 183 million man-hours per year. That means American volunteers power the equivalent of roughly twenty-two Ford Motor Companies. For free. Every year.
So, when I look at PT-305, which is very clearly a monument to the people who served on it 80 years ago, I secretly know that, in a slightly quieter way, it’s also a monument to guys like Jim... and the American trait of extreme volunteerism.