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Chester’s Jeff Ridgway, a boatbuilder turned homebuilder, will draw on his family’s storied history to present, alongside Deep River’s John Cunningham, a program on PT Boats and Local History on Tuesday, June 19. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Jeff Ridgway of Chester has a story to tell, and quite a story it is.
Jeff’s story covers a lot of ground: internationally, from Great Britain and Washington, D.C. to the Pacific Theater in World War II and finally, to Chester and Deep River; historically, the story runs from 20th century pioneers of aviation and maritime design to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Jeff will talk on Tuesday, June 19 at the Deep River Historical Society, 245 Main Street, at 7 p.m., along with John Cunningham of Deep River, whose family also played a key part in the narrative. The Deep River and Chester historical societies are sponsoring the program.
The story involves an iconic bit of American history, the boat that helped elect a president: PT109, and the young Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy who managed to save his entire crew after his patrol torpedo (PT) boat had been cut in half by a Japanese destroyer.
There is another American icon in the PT boat story: General Douglas MacArthur. He escaped from the Philippine Island of Corregidor in 1942 in a PT boat. American forces had retreated to Corregidor as the Japanese Army overran the Philippines. PT boats carried MacArthur, his family, and staff off Corregidor to the Philippine Island of Mindanao, from where they flew to Australia.
But how did Jeff get involved? It was his grandfather, Hubert Scott-Paine, who pioneered the design of the boats that became the famous PT boats. And it was the Cunningham’s grandfather, Irwin Chase, Sr., the chief marine engineer and architect for Electric Launch Corporation (ELCO), who adapted Scott-Paine’s original design as the model for most of the PT boats used in the war’s Pacific Theater.
Cunningham will also participate in the upcoming program, moderated by Deep River resident Frank Santoro, who has told of the unlikely connection between World War II naval exploits and local history in his recently published book, Deep River Stories. Though he grew up in Michigan, Cunningham and his family came to Deep River every summer and stayed in a small house on his grandfather’s property that was filled with PT boat mementos.
“I was surrounded by PT boat memorabilia,” he recollects.
There were hundreds of pictures of PT boats and their crews, a weather vane decorated with an image of a PT boat,and wooden insignias from PT squadrons—and that was not all. The stove his mother cooked on was a stove that had come from a PT boat and the walls of the house were lined with the metal that had been used on the inside of the boats.
“Sort of unusual to have metal on inside walls,” Cunningham says.
British–born Hubert Scott-Paine, usually called Scotty, was, according to Jeff, a “mechanical genius.”
“He didn’t go beyond high school, but at 22 he built a car himself from scratch,” Jeff says.
Also in his 20s, Scott-Paine started building planes, again with innate engineering skill but no formal training. In 1913, he formed Supermarine Aviation with another early flight enthusiast, Noel Pemberton-Billing, and they designed what were then known as flying boats, early seaplanes, first for use in World War I, and then after adapted to passenger flight.
From planes, Scott-Paine focused on ships, buying British Power Boat Company in 1927 and becoming involved in early powerboat speed challenges. He designed Miss Britain III, the first powerboat to travel at more than 100 miles an hour. One of the employees at British Power Boat was an employee who called himself T.E. Shaw, an alias for the man known worldwide as T.E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia.
As World War II loomed, Scott-Paine, according to Jeff, began to wonder about the utility of huge battleships that could be sunk by a well-placed torpedo. He thought it would be more efficient to have small, maneuverable boats that could launch torpedoes and do the damage. He already had experience designing fast boats with planning hulls, though he had trouble convincing the British Admiralty of their worth. Franklin Roosevelt, however, had a similar idea about the utility of small boats and dispatched Irwin Chase. Sr., and Henry Sutphen, the president of ELCO, to look at a number of British craft, one of them designed by Scott-Paine, that fit the purpose.
Sutphen and Chase chose Scott-Paine’s boat, signing an agreement to produce the boats in the United States in 1939. With some modifications, Scott-Paine’s boat became the PT that ELCO manufactured throughout World War II.
“My feeling is his design showed what he had learned from the hulls of flying boats—light, strong, and a hull that planed on water,” Jeff says.
Scott Paine himself came to the United States the following year, built a factory in Canada, and produced both PTs and motor torpedo boats (MTBs), which were used in sea search and rescue operations. Scott-Paine became a naturalized American citizen in 1946.
Jeff is very glad those rescue boats were constructed.
“They saved over 11,000 airmen, including my father, who was saved by the Air Sea Rescue Service,” Jeff says. “If he hadn’t been saved, I wouldn’t be here telling this story.”
Jeff’s father was a bomber pilot in World War II, who flew the Vickers Wellington, an airplane used extensively in the early years of the World War II for night bombing
Jeff, who was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and moved to England at the age of 5, met his grandfather only once as a youngster at the age of two. The meeting was the culmination of a long journey, which involved a four-day train ride from Rhodesia through South Africa, and a cross-Atlantic voyage. Though it was only a single meeting, Jeff has read widely on the details of his grandfather’s aviation and power boat adventures, demonstrating his grasp of detail to a recent visitor.
Jeff trained as boat builder and studied boatyard management in England. With a friend, also an enthusiastic sailor, he decided to sail across the Atlantic to attend Carnival in Rio de Janeiro in January 1976. The pair ran out of cash and enthusiasm before they got to Brazil, but there was a closer solution.
“We learned there was a carnival in Trinidad,” Jeff says.
But it was not back to England when Carnival was over.
“We found out that there were people in America who paid you to sail yachts,” he recalls.
Jeff ended up in Newport, Rhode Island, at the Tall Ships bicentennial celebration in 1976.
Jeff worked as manager at Essex Boat Works for more than a decade until his daughter Kate was born.
“A lot of the business was on weekends and I would never see my baby daughter, so it was time to leave,” he says.
Still, he used his building skills in a different way.
“If I could build boats, I could build houses,” he says.
With Chris Caulfield, he founded Caulfield and Ridgway, a custom home construction firm. Though Jeff has now retired, the firm still is active.
Jeff looks forward to the program with Cunningham at the Deep River Historical Society about the work that their respective grandfathers did at a critical time in American history. Scott-Paine died in l954 at the age of 63, and Chase in l974 at the age of 90.
“They were both extraordinary men,” Jeff says.
PT Boats and Local History
The historical societies of Deep River and Chester present PT Boats and Local History on Tuesday, June 19 at 7 p.m. at the Deep River Historical Society headquarters, the Carriage House, 245 Main Street, Deep River. The program is free and open to the public.
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