Warship Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022: Spyron

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022: Spyron

Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum Photo.

Above we see the Tambor-class fleet submarine USS Gudgeon (SS-211), her glad rags flying, in the Mare Island Channel after her launching at Mare Island on 25 January 1941. Commissioned just three months later, her peacetime service would soon be over and she would be in the thick of the upcoming war with the Japanese, sinking the first of the Empire’s warships to be claimed by the U.S. Navy. However, the 307-foot boat would also kick off the American equivalent of the Tokyo Express, leaving Freemantle some 80 years ago this week, bound for the Japanese-occupied Philipines with a very important cargo.

As detailed in Edward Dissette’s Guerrilla Submarines:

Two days earlier the sub had taken aboard a ton of special gear for a landing party to be transported under secret orders to Mindanao and Panay, two major islands in the Philipines. All gear, except gasoline in 5-gallon cans, had been stowed under the floor plates in the forward torpedo room. The gasoline was stored in the escape trunk, where it was safely sealed off from the rest of the ship.

The cargo was pecuilar. Besides the obvious radio equipment, small arms, ammo, and medical equipment, there were also supplies of paper matchbooks and bags of wheat flour– the latter to be used to make communion wafers. To this was added three inflatable boats, stowed deflated below deck, and an 18-foot wooden dingy, strapped– to the skipper’s great frustration– to the top of the hull by her aft 3″/50 deck gun.

After an inspection by RADM Charles A. Lockwood (COMSUBSOWESPAC), a group of seven men arrived:

“Filipino mess boys, neatly attired in clean, faded dungarees, white mess jackets, and white hats, filed aboard and saluted smartly. Ashore a kookaburra bird brayed its raucous jackass laugh as if it found seven mess boys boarding a submarine a funny sight, which it would have been under normal circumstances.”

Rather than common Philipino stewards, a familiar sight on the old Asiatic Fleet’s destroyers and cruisers, the seven men were hastily trained commandos returning to their homeland under the command of Maj. Jesús Antonio Villamor, late of the Philippine Army Air Corps and, following his epic escape from the islands after the fall of Manila, now an intelligence officer tasked with contacting the scattered resistance groups in the Philippines and making them a cohesive force that could help retake the islands.

Villamor, 28, was already a bonafide hero, having flown his obsolete P-26 Peashooter against Japanese Zeroes in December 1941, reportedly downing two of the fighters, and making his way to Australia after the Allied collapse. He was decorated by Dugout Dug with the Distinguished Service Cross– right before he donned a mess boy’s uniform and set sail to return back home.

Using Spanish charts last updated in 1829, Gudgeon crept in close enough for Villamor and his commandos to make for shore at Catmon Point on the late night of 14 January 1943, ultimately just taking two rafts and electing to leave behind the dingy and the cranky third raft along with the gear they could not carry.

A second such mission was carried out by sistership USS Tambor (SS 198) on 5 March at Mindanao.

Gudgeon would return in April, landing 6,000 pounds of equipment and a four-man team commanded by 2LT Torribio Crespo, a U.S. Army officer of Philipino descent. The gear and commandos arrived in Panay to support Lt. Col. Peralta’s growing battalion-sized guerilla band.

And so began the long-running submarine resupply effort in the Philipines.

Instead of the airdrops frequently seen in Europe from SOE and OSS, the Navy organized an effort by Tagalog-speaking LCDR Charles “Chick” Parsons, an officer well aware of the PI coastal waters, to supply the insurgents with vital material. Parsons’s “Spy Squadron” of 19 submarines delivered 1,325 tons of supplies in at least 41 missions to the guerrillas between Gudgeon’s initial sortie in December 1942 and when USS Stingray (SS-186) landed 35 tons of supplies off Tongehatan Point on New Years Day 1945, with an emphasis on medicine, weapons, ammunition, and radio gear.

Salmon class subs USS Stingray (SS-186), foreground Operating in formation with other submarines, during Battle Force exercises, circa 1939. The other three submarines are (from left to right): Seal (SS-183); Salmon (SS-182) and Sturgeon (SS-187). Collection of Vice-Admiral George C. Dyer, USN (Retired). NH 77086

The cargo got weirder and weirder, including propaganda items such as cigarettes, chocolates, and gum whose packages were stamped with big “Made in USA” and “I Shall Return” logos, with the concept that they would unnerve the Japanese to find such trash blowing down the streets in front of their barracks.

5-gallon cans of MacArthur swag, ranging from hotel soaps to pencils, matchbooks, and playing cards, all with “I Shall Return” were landed along with the commando training teams

Added to this were clothing and shoes to outfit ragged guerillas. Flashlights, batteries, binoculars, magazines, books, playing cards, typewriter ribbon, sewing needles– just about everything you could think of to win hearts and minds in remote areas under occupations and cut off from consumer goods.

Guerilla Situation Southeast Luzon, as of March 15, 1945, as reported by U.S. Sixth Army. Notes include Philippine-led units and their U.S.-supplied weapons. They detail at least four battalion-sized elements and eight company-sized groups. (“Maj. Barros 400 rifles 30 MGS, Faustino 400 rifles, Sandico 10 rifles 2 mortars 2 bazookas, Monella 80 rifles, Gov Escudero 300 rifles 19 bazookas 10 pistols, et. al”). Note that these are just the ones the HQ was aware of and in contact with, as there were certainly dozens of smaller partisan groups floating around outside of the communication chain.

“Padre kits,” consisting of five-gallon kerosene tins filled with wheat flour and several small bottles of Mass wine with eyedroppers attached– to be delivered to parishes across the islands to help maintain morale– were also smuggled in.

Each bundle had to be sealed in waterproof boxes and cans, no larger than 23 inches at any point so they could fit through the sub’s hatches. Radio kits took up four boxes and included not only the transmitter/receiver but also a 40-foot antenna in sections, batteries, and enough spare parts to keep everything glowing for at least a year.

The Philippine General Radio Net was Developed during the Japanese Occupation, as of 9 October 1944. Most of these radio kits had been brought into the islands via submarines from Australia

They also delivered 331 agents and officers of all sorts– including Parsons who spend most of 1943 in and out of the islands, piecing together the resistance network.

The subs also exfiltrated 472 individuals, including downed aircrews, American civilians trapped in the islands during the 1942 withdrawal, and key personnel. This included at least one German and three Japanese POWs. USS Angler (SS-240), in March 1944, evacuated a record 58 U.S. citizens, including women and children from Panay back to Darwin– talk about cramped for a 311-foot submarine!

While the fleet boats could only carry a few tons of cargo and a 6-7 person team, the two huge V-class cruising subs, USS Nautilus (SS-168) and USS Narwhal (SS-167), stripped to the bone and only armed with the 10 torpedoes in their tubes for self-defense, could carry a whopping 92 tons of cargo and 25 or more men, earning them the nicknames of “Percherons of the deep.” 

To get a feel for how big these subs were, here we see the Nautilus (SS-168) photographed from her sister ship, the Narwhal (SS-167). Photo credit; Navsource.

In all, by the time MacArthur finally “returned” in October 1944, the Philippine insurgency had grown to an estimated 255,000 guerillas in the field, organized in 10 military districts, who controlled 800 of 1,000 municipalities in the country as well as the lion’s share of the countryside. It was an effort every bit as large and complex as that shown by the Partisans in Yugoslavia or the French Resistance.

Shortly after MacArthur started operations in Leyte, the Navy was able to land supplies directly via amphibious assault ships and flying boats while the Army was able to begin airdrops from cargo planes and bombers. 

Nonetheless, it was the submarine delivery service of Chick Parsons and company that got to that point. 

The breakdown of the 41 supply runs by boat:

USS Bowfin (SS-287) (Balao class): 9 runs
USS Narwhal: 9 runs
USS Nautilus: 6 runs
USS Stingray (SS-186) (Salmon class): 5 runs
*USS Trout (SS-202) (Tambor class): 2 runs
USS Redfin (SS-272) (Gato class): 2 runs
USS Gar (SS-206) (Tambor class): 2 runs
USS Gudgeon: 2 runs
*USS Seawolf (SS 197) (Sargo class): 2 runs
One each: USS Angler, USS Crevalle, USS Harder, USS Cero, USS Blackfin, USS Gunnell, USS Hake, USS Ray, USS Grayling, USS Tambor.

These *subs had seen the Philippines in a previous effort, the submerged blockade run into besieged Corregidor between January and May 1942. Carrying 144 tons of antimalarial drugs, small arms and anti-aircraft ammunition, and diesel for the island fortresses generators, they unloaded these under cover of night and then evacuated the Philippines national treasury, 185 key personnel, codes, and vital records that could not fall into Japanese hands– along with 58 torpedos and four tons of submarine spare parts to continue operations from Java and Australia. On both the entry and exit they had to evade destroyer and aerial patrols, weave through minefields and navigate using primitive tools and often inaccurate charts, typically just surfacing at night.

It was hazardous work.

Seawolf did not make her planned 6 October 1944 landing on her second trip under Spyron taskings and was listed overdue as of that date– the only submarine lost during the operations. Likewise, Gudgeon would be lost at sea on or around 18 April 1944 while Trout and Harder would also be lost that year while on patrol. Grayling (SS-209) was lost on patrol off Manila in 1943.

Their names here are inscribed on a memorial at the USS Albacore Museum in New Hampshire. (Photo: Chris Eger)

Epilogue

Today, Bowfin, which conducted no less than nine runs to support the partisan archipelago of the Pacific– tying for first place– is preserved as a museum in Hawaii, and recently just completed a dry dock period to keep her around for future generations.


Ships are more than steel
and wood
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
them know
That some ships have a
soul.


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