Photo of USS Canopus (AS-9).  Caption follows.
USS Canopus (AS-9), the only tender to remain behind when the Asiatic Fleet Submarine Force abandoned Manila at the end of 1941, had served there since 1924. Severely damaged in Mariveles Bay, she and her crew nonetheless played a heroic role in the final defense of Bataan and Corregidor until she was scuttled on 9 April 1942.

Submarines to Corregidor
by Edward C. Whitman

On a map of the Philippines, the fortress-island of Corregidor appears just inside the mouth of Manila Bay, which opens westerly to the South China Sea from central Luzon. To the north is the Bataan Peninsula, and to the south Cavite Province, with the city of Cavite itself some 25 miles to the east. Heavily armed and fortified prior to World War I, honey-combed with tunnels during the inter-war years, and supported by heavy coast artillery on nearby islets, Corregidor – “the Rock” – was intended to defeat any conceivable attack on Manila from the sea. Only three days after the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December 1941, the Japanese Army invaded northern Luzon, and on 22 December, they came ashore in force at the Lingayan Gulf, 300 miles northwest of Manila. Recognizing that his small U.S. Army garrison and the Philippine forces under his command were no match for the invaders, GEN Douglas MacArthur withdrew southward to defensive positions on the Bataan Peninsula and prepared for a holding action.

Retreat from Manila Bay 
At the outbreak of war, 29 Asiatic Fleet submarines had been stationed in Manila Bay, supported by two tenders – USS Holland (AS-3) and USS Canopus (AS-9) – and a converted merchant ship, USS Otus. On 10 December, the Japanese bombed Manila for the first time, destroying USS Sealion (SS-195), in overhaul at the Cavite Naval Station, and doing extensive damage to the submarine repair facilities and torpedo stocks there. The night before the air attack, ADM Thomas Hart, Commander of the Asiatic Fleet, had ordered Holland and Otus south of the Malay Barrier, and the two ships just barely escaped destruction. Canopus, still tied up on the Manila waterfront but also unscathed, was quickly covered with camouflage netting and detailed to sustain the remaining Manila-based submarines with whatever assistance was available at Cavite, Mariveles Bay (in southern Bataan), and Corregidor.

Canopus had been built as a Grace Line merchant ship in 1919 but taken over by the Navy for conversion to a submarine tender in 1921. Since November 1924, she had served with the Asiatic Fleet at Manila. Because of her continuing vulnerability to the Japanese air attacks now regularly punishing the Philippine capital, ADM Hart ordered CAPT John Wilkes, the Submarine Force commander, to move his headquarters off the ship and to transfer the Canopus torpedo overhaul shop and its store of torpedoes into one of the tunnels of Corregidor. Moreover, on Christmas Eve 1941, following the Japanese invasion at the Lingayan Gulf, Canopus was moved south to Mariveles Bay, and Wilkes transferred his headquarters to “the Rock” itself. The day after Christmas, GEN MacArthur, Philippine President Manuel Quezon, U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines Francis B. Sayre, and their staffs also retreated to the island, while ADM Hart and his staff were evacuated to Surabaja, Java on USS Shark (SS-174).

Canopus had left Manila just in time, since on Christmas Day, another Japanese attack demolished her former mooring there. Then, on 29 December, even her haven at Mariveles was reached by enemy bombers, and Canopus suffered a hit that wrecked her propeller shaft and started several fires. On New Year’s Day, 1942, she was hit again, leaving the ship with substantial topside damage and a significant list. By then, the ten Asiatic Fleet submarines still in port – and those at sea on patrol – had been ordered to abandon Manila for Surabaja, and on the 29th, CAPT Wilkes and his headquarters staff themselves left Corregidor in USS Swordfish (SS-193), the last of the Manila Bay submarines to pull out. All told, approximately 250 submarine personnel were evacuated on the withdrawing boats, but many more were left behind.

Image of map.  Caption follows. Major installations in Manila Bay included the Cavite Naval Station, the fortress-island of Corregidor, and substantial batteries of coast artillery. As the Japanese invaders pressed southward in late December 1942, American/ Filipino forces relinquished Manila and were driven into a futile last-ditch defense of the Bataan Peninsula and then “the Rock.” By mid-January, only U.S. submarines could breach the Japanese blockade.

Since Canopus’s injuries precluded her escaping southward, her Commanding Officer, CAPT Earl L. Sackett, made the best of his precarious situation by ringing her with smoke pots and eliminating any visible daylight activity, to give enemy air observers the impression of a derelict and abandoned ship, not worth an additional bomb. Overnight, however – even without any submarines left to service – the ship hummed with activity, providing all possible support to the beleaguered defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. Medical and messing facilities were made available; supply and machine shop services were provided to repair and improvise weapons; and the ship’s launches were even armored and pressed into service as impromptu gunboats for defending the shores of Bataan. 

Representative of the eight U.S. submarines that successfully ran the Japanese blockade of Corregidor, 
USS Swordfish (SS-193) had been built at Mare Island and commissioned in July 1939. On 29 December 
1941, Swordfish had been the last submarine to leave Manila Bay, but she returned to Corregidor twice 
in February 1942 to evacuate the American High Commissioner and Philippine President Quezon. 

First Submarines to Corregidor 
Having declared Manila an undefended, “open” city on 26 December 1941, GEN MacArthur relinquished the capital to the Japanese on 2 January 1942. During the first half of that month, with MacArthur bottled up on the Bataan Peninsula, and Mindinao in the southern Philippines – first invaded in mid-December – under steady pressure, the Japanese conquerors by-passed the remaining resistance and advanced relentlessly toward the Malay Barrier and the Netherlands East Indies. The Asiatic Fleet submarines, then operating largely from Surabaja, where Dutch naval facilities offered some support, attempted gamely to interdict Japanese invasion forces wherever they could be found, but in the face of the enemy’s irresistible momentum, they accomplished little, and by mid-March, all of Java would be lost.

Meanwhile, plagued by severe shortages of food and ammunition, GEN MacArthur requested that available U.S. submarines be tasked to run the tightening Japanese blockade of Manila Bay to bring in supplies for his faltering defense of Bataan and Corregidor. Despite the misgivings of both ADM Hart and CAPT Wilkes, for whom the highest priority remained stemming the Japanese advance southward, a number of submarine relief missions were agreed to, if only as a morale-boosting gesture. 

The first of these was undertaken by USS Seawolf (SS-197) under LCDR Freddie Warder. Carrying only eight torpedoes in the tubes, Seawolf left Darwin on 16 January, bearing nearly 700 boxes of 50-caliber machine-gun bullets and 72 3-inch anti-aircraft shells. After threading the Malay Barrier, the submarine headed north through the Molucca Passage and the Celebes and Sulu Seas toward Manila Bay, 1,800 nautical miles distant. After unsuccessfully pursuing a Japanese invasion force he spotted bound for eastern Borneo, Warder arrived at Corregidor on the 27th and upon being guided in through the defensive minefields by a PT boat, off-loaded his cargo of ammunition. For the return trip, he took onboard sixteen torpedoes and a quantity of submarine spare parts from Canopus, as well as 25 passengers slated for evacuation, equally divided between Navy and Army personnel. In returning, Seawolf retraced her course southward around Celebes but then headed west to Surabaja, where the torpedoes and spare parts were made available to the U.S. submarines that had found a temporary home there. 

The second submarine to reach Corregidor was USS Trout (SS-202), which had come all the way from Pearl Harbor with 3,500 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, arriving on 3 February. When the munitions had been unloaded and ten spare torpedoes taken onboard, the boat was still too light to be trimmed adequately, and the skipper, LCDR Frank Fenno, requested 25 tons of ballast. Expecting sandbags, he was instead offered two tons of gold bars and 18 tons of silver coins that had been removed from the bank vaults of Manila before the city surrendered. Working through the night of 4 February, this extraordinary horde was stowed below, and by the next morning, Trout was finding her way out through the minefields, en route to a short war patrol in the East China Sea. Five days out of Corregidor, Fenno came across a Japanese freighter north of Formosa, and sank Chuwa Maru (2,700 tons) before returning back across the Pacific to Hawaii, where his precious – and unprecedented – cargo was turned over to the appropriate authorities on 3 March 1942.

Evacuating the Fortunate Few
Before the war, one of the Navy’s three principal cryptologic facilities – code-named “Cast” – had been located at the Cavite Naval Station and provided with a “Purple” machine capable of deciphering the Japanese diplomatic code. Then in mid-1940, the Navy transferred the facility to a newly-constructed tunnel complex on the eastern end of Corregidor. Because of the danger of compromising this extraordinary intelligence source should the cryptologic unit be captured by the enemy, the U.S. high command placed top priority on evacuating Cast personnel from the Philippines when the loss of the islands became inevitable. Consequently, this was the primary mission of the next submarine to reach “the Rock,” USS Seadragon (SS-194). Operating out of Surabaja, Seadragon was redirected to Luzon from a patrol off Camranh Bay, Indochina, and after sinking a Japanese troopship in the Lingayan Gulf, made Corregidor the day after Trout. In the darkness, but under enemy artillery fire that night, working parties loaded two tons of spare parts, 1-1/2 tons of cryptographic equipment, and 23 torpedoes onboard. Then, 25 passengers – 17 of them Cast personnel – embarked, and Seadragon departed for Surabaja, arriving on 13 February. 

The next Corregidor mission – in fact, two visits in quick succession by Swordfish – was also primarily for evacuating personnel, but this time at the highest official level. Departing Surabaja on 16 January and tasked to intercept Japanese shipping staging from Davao in southern Mindinao, Swordfish sank Myoken Maru (4,100 tons) off northern Celebes on the 24th. Then, while completing an otherwise unsuccessful patrol off Davao in mid-February, she was ordered into Corregidor, picked her way through the minefields on the 19th of that month, and commenced loading 13 spare torpedoes. The next day, on short notice, Swordfish, under LCDR Chet Smith, was assigned the task of evacuating Philippine President Quezon, his family and staff, the Vice President, and the Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. Departing that night, the Quezon party was safely transferred to a motor launch on 22 February at the still-unoccupied island of Panay, 300 miles south, and they completed their escape. On the 24th, moreover, Smith returned to Corregidor and embarked High Commissioner Sayre and a party of 12, plus a handful of Navy codebreakers, and Swordfish successfully brought this second group south to Australia, arriving 9 March.

Image of map.  Caption preceded.
Japan invaded the Philippines only three days after Pearl Harbor, seized Manila at the beginning of January 1942, and in bypassing the remaining pockets of resistance at Bataan and Corregidor, was able to move into New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies by mid-February. Bataan fell on 9 April and Corregidor on 6 May, but U.S. submarines had withdrawn months earlier – first to Surabaja, Java; then to Fremantle, Australia.

Withdrawal to Australia 
By that time, following the catastrophic defeat of the allied “ABDA” (American-British-Dutch-Australian) fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea on the last day of February, all Java had been lost, and the remaining U.S. submarines withdrew to Fremantle, on the west coast of Australia, whence Holland and Otus had already fled. With nearly all the island territories north of Australia by then in enemy hands, the remaining pockets of allied resistance on Luzon and Mindinao were left completely isolated, and access by blockade-running submarines – through nearly 2,000 tortuous miles of enemy-held archipelagoes – became seriously problematic. But even then, four more managed to get through.

With the loss of the Netherlands East Indies, the U.S. high command ordered GEN MacArthur out of the Philippines, and the original plan to retrieve him assigned the mission to USS Permit (SS-178), commanded by LCDR “Moon” Chapple. Permit had left Surabaja on 22 February, one of the last boats to sortie from the doomed port, and she was patrolling the Java Sea, awaiting the Japanese invasion, when she was vectored north to Corregidor. At the last moment, however, the evacuation of MacArthur’s party was entrusted to four PT boats1, which left “the Rock” on 11 March. Chapple was ordered to rendezvous with the PT flotilla at Panay on the 13th, but found on arrival there that the general had already moved on to Mindinao, from whence he made his final escape to Australia by air. Nonetheless, Chapple brought Permit into Corregidor on the 15th, off-loaded all the spare ammunition he had on board, and embarked 47 passengers, including 36 cryptographers and linguists and seven survivors from one of the “MacArthur” PT boats, which had broken down at Panay. Including her own crew, Permit had 111 people on board the night after leaving Corregidor, when she was overtaken by a column of three Japanese destroyers that Chapple lost no time in attacking – unsuccessfully – with two torpedoes. To escape the resulting depth-charge attacks, Permit was forced to stay down for 22 hours – putting a severe strain on the boat’s oxygen supply – but on 7 April, Chapple brought the boat and his grateful passengers safely into Fremantle – where he was then roundly criticized for agreeing to take so many personnel onboard!

Last Access – and Final Defeat 
At the end of March, USS Snapper (SS-185) and Seadragon, both already on patrol from Fremantle, were ordered into Cebu – still uncaptured – to pick up loads of food and ammunition for Corregidor. When Snapper arrived at the fortress on the night of 6 April, however, the Japanese gains on Bataan were so threatening that the boat was ordered away after unloading less than a quarter of her cargo. Nonetheless, 23 personnel, including the last of the Cast cryptologic unit, were embarked before Snapper put back to sea. Similarly, when Seadragon arrived three days later, only half of her load could be transferred to a small boat, but 27 evacuees were crammed onboard when she departed. 

But on that same day, 9 April, following months of desperate resistance against mounting odds, the remaining American and Filipino forces on Bataan – a total of 75,000 personnel – surrendered to the Japanese. It was the greatest defeat yet suffered in U.S. military history. The night before, Canopus – under her own power – had been backed out into the deeper water of Mariveles Bay and scuttled, a fitting end to an extraordinary “non-combatant,” defiant to the end. When the last escapees had retreated across the 2-1/2 mile North Channel separating “the Rock” from the mainland, there were 15,000 U.S. and Filipino personnel, under the command of GEN Jonathon Wainright, to mount a final defense of the two square-mile island. They were almost entirely bereft of both food and ammunition.

Two additional submarine relief missions had already departed Fremantle when Bataan fell to the enemy – Swordfish on 1 April and USS Searaven (SS-196) on the 2nd – but because of the extraordinary risk involved in running the Japanese gauntlet and the relatively little benefit they could have provided, both attempts were aborted on the 10th.

Then, after another three weeks of relentless bombardment, the Japanese succeeded in landing 2,000 assault troops and several tanks on Corregidor near midnight on 5 May. 

Only two nights before, the last submarine to reach the island, USS Spearfish (SS-190), LCDR Jim Dempsey commanding, had surfaced in Mariveles Bay to be met by a small boat bearing the last to be evacuated – 25 personnel, including 12 Army nurses. In taking Spearfish back to sea through the approaches to Manila, Dempsey was forced to spend nearly a day submerged, dodging enemy ships. He arrived back in Fremantle on 20 May. When GEN Wainright finally surrendered Corregidor on 6 May 1942, 173 naval officers and 2,317 enlisted men – while escaping the atrocities of the Bataan Death March several weeks earlier – were left to face the horror of forced labor and Japanese prison camps for the duration of the war.

A Partial Consolation 
While acknowledging the humiliation – and the human cost – of losing the Philippines so precipitously at the beginning of World War II, subsequent analysts have nonetheless pointed to the heroic rearguard defense of Bataan and Corregidor as a key factor in slowing the momentum of the Japanese advance farther southward. This, in turn, was a significant contributor to the enemy setback at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the allies’ successful defense of Port Moresby and northern Australia. The submarines of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, themselves reeling backward under a series of hammer blows and sailing increasingly into harm’s way just to reach their objective, mounted an extraordinary effort to sustain the last defenders of the Philippines with food and ammunition – and then when defeat was inevitable, evacuated as many personnel as possible to fight again. That no U.S. submarines were lost in challenging the iron ring that tightened around Corregidor is a remarkable tribute to the courage, skill, and seamanship developed by U.S. submariners in the last years of peace. But as Winston Churchill had said in a similar context only two years earlier, “Wars are not won by evacuations,” and all told, it was a sorry beginning.



Photo of Corregidor Island.  Caption follows.

Tadpole-shaped Corregidor Island (then Fort Mills) extends roughly 4 miles in an east-west direction and is approximately 2-1/3 miles wide at its widest point. In this aerial photograph, the tip of the Bataan Peninsula is at the upper left, and heavily fortified Caballo Island (Fort Hughes) is at the lower right. The Malinta Tunnel complex was located just to the east of the central “neck” of the island.

Photo of Fort Drum.  Caption follows.

With a main armament of four 14-inch guns in super-firing twin turrets the “concrete battleship,” Fort Drum, was the most formidable of Manila’s harbor defenses. In this view, the lattice-work fire-control tower, much like those on contemporary warships, is clearly visible above the superstructure.

Photo of members of U.S. Army headquarters staff.  Caption follows.

This famous photograph, taken in the Malinta Tunnel only 12 days before Corregidor surrendered, shows members of the beleaguered U.S. Army headquarters staff. Since the negative was lost, the picture survived only in a print that was taken out by the last submarine to reach the island on 3 May 1942.

Photo of Corregidor surrender.  Caption follows.

In what appears to be a posed photograph, weary American defenders are shown surrendering to the Japanese at the mouth of one of the Corregidor tunnels, presumably on 6 May 1942.

Dr. Whitman is the Senior Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

1 The account of MacArthur’s evacuation by a PT boat flotilla commanded by the legendary VADM John D. Bulkeley, later the head of the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) through 1988, is well told in the classic 1942 war story, They Were Expendable, by William L. White, later made into a popular motion picture in 1945.

 Table of Contents