When World War II came to the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, the U.S./Philippine forces under Gen. MacArthur (land and air) and the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet under ADM Thomas C. Hart seemed mighty enough for regional defense. Hart’s fleet, however, was a paper tiger, consisting of a couple dozen seaplanes, two cruisers, 13 destroyers, and a number of gunboats and auxiliaries.
What Hart did have was 29 submarines–, which would have been deadly effective had their torpedoes actually run straight at the correct depths and detonated on impact.
As McArthur’s land and air forces were overwhelmed and pushed back, Hart was directed to fall back with the fleet to the comparatively safer waters of Australia and the Dutch East Indies. With the Japanese largely controlling the sea lanes around Luzon and the skies above it, it was suicide to maintain surface ships in those waters.
Yet, with MacArthur’s troops cut off, Hart endeavored to attempt a force of blockade-runners to bring in vital food, ammunition, and medicine to the PI. While huge cash bounties offered to civilian sailors brought a few desperate souls to attempt the voyage in small freighters and coasters, these attempts inevitably either ended with mutinous mariners turning around short of the islands or with burnt-out hulks adrift and riddled with Japanese shrapnel.
But what about those 29 submarines?
Well, a lot of these were small, cramped old boats including a half-dozen aging S-boats, slow 800-ton submersibles that dated to the First World War and were arguably obsolete even then. However, there were also a number of large and comparatively modern fleet boats of the Sargo, Salmon, and Porpoise classes. These went some 2,000 tons and could range up to 10,000 nautical miles on their economical diesels.
USS_Seawolf; Portside view of the Seawolf (SS-197) underway off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 7 March 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. US Navy photo # NH 99549.
It was with this in mind that the Asiatic Fleet’s subs started to run the Japanese gauntlet from Australia and Java into the Philippine archipelago. Over a 45-day period, at least nine made it all the way to Manila and the last U.S. stronghold in Luzon at the “Rock” of Corregidor.
Carrying antimalarial drugs, small arms and anti-aircraft ammunition, diesel for the island fortresses generators, and tons of all-important food, 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. 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.
Here is a brief rundown of those missions:
USS Seawolf (SS-197) a Sargo-class submarine, left Australia with 40 tons of ammo that consisted of 700 boxes of 50-caliber machine-gun bullets and 72 3-inch anti-aircraft shells. Arriving at Corregidor on January 17, she left with a cargo of submarine spare parts along with 25 Navy and Army evacuees.
USS Trout (SS-202) a Tambor-class submarine barely in service a year before the war started, left Pearl for Manila with 3500 rounds of 3″ AAA ammunition for the Army gunners and unloaded them in Manila in early February. She then took on 20 tons of gold bars and silver pesos (all the paper money in the islands had already been burned), securities, mail, and United States Department of State dispatches, which she brought back to Pearl.
USS Trout (SS-202) unloads gold to USS Detroit (CL-8), March 1942 Photo #: 80-G-45971 USS Trout (SS-202) At Pearl Harbor in early March 1942, unloading gold bars which she had evacuated from Corregidor. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
USS Sargo (SS-188), head of her class, offloaded her torpedoes (keeping only the war shots in her tubes) and took on 1 million rounds of .30 caliber ammunition which she landed in Polloc Harbor on Valentine’s Day 1942. On her return trip, she evacuated 24 B-17 specialists from Clark Field.
Swordfish (SS-193), entering Pearl Harbor prior to WW II. USN photo by Tai Sing Loo, courtesy of Scott Koen & ussnewyork.com.
USS Swordfish (SS-193), this Sargo-class sub took the Submarine Asiatic Command Staff at Manila and headed for Soerabaja, Java, at the end of December, the last submarine to evacuate the Philippines with the fleet. She then returned to the islands with supplies and evacuated the President of the Philippines, his family, and select high-ranking officers as well as some Navy codebreakers in late February. She was on her way back with 40 tons of food crammed into every space when Manila fell and was ordered to abort.
USS Permit (SS-178), a Porpoise-class submarine, in December, embarked members of Hart’s staff at Mariveles Harbor and brought them to Java. On a blockade run return trip, she surfaced off Corregidor on the night of 15–16 March, took on board 40 officers and enlisted men (including 36 precious code breakers from the vital cryptanalysts and traffic analysts intelligence station, CAST), and landed her cargo of ammunition. She endured a 22-hour depth-charge attack from three Japanese destroyers on her way back.
USS Seadragon (SS-194), a Sargo, on the night of 4/5 Feb in Manila Bay offloaded her cargo of vital radio gear and spare parts, as well as a portion of 34 tons of rations and almost 12,000 gallons of petroleum, then settled on the harbor floor during the day, then surfaced the next night and took aboard 25 high-value passengers including 17 CAST members, as well as 3,000 pounds of crypto gear to include a vital “Purple” machine capable of deciphering the Japanese diplomatic code and made her getaway.
USS Sailfish (formerly the lost submarine USS Squalus) (SS-192), another Sargo-class boat, landed 1,856 rounds of 3-inch anti-aircraft ammunition while taking a moment out to pump four torpedoes into the 6,440-ton Japanese aircraft ferry Kamogawa Maru, who she mistook for the carrier Kaga.
USS Snapper (SS-185), a Salmon-class boat, brought 46 tons of food and 29,000 gallons of diesel oil into Corregidor on April 4, evacuated 27 personnel, and weaved her way back through the blockade, the last successful cargo landed on the besieged fort.
USS Spearfish (SS-190) another Sargo-class boat, unable to reach Corregidor proper to offload anything, surfaced in Mariveles Bay on May 3, just two days before the Rock fell. She took on the last Americans evacuated from that doomed fortress: 25 personnel, including 12 Army nurses. She was the last U.S. ship out of the Bay.
As an honorable mention, USS Searaven (SS-196), a Sargo-class boat, left Fremantle in Australia on 2 April with 1,500 rounds of 3-inch antiaircraft ammunition but was also diverted and failed to deliver any of the shells to Corregidor.
For more detail on this chapter in U.S. military history, try the U.S. Naval Historical Center and the U.S. Army Center for Military History.