The surfaced World War II submarine USS FLIER (SS 250) picked her way on the dark moonless night of August 13, 1944 through Balabac Strait in the Philippine Islands with a combination of SJ radar ranges and visual fixes on Comiran and Balabac Islands. The crew on the bridge were anticipating their upcoming engagement with a Japanese convoy-but this was not to be. Off Comiran Island, at approximately 2200, FLIER struck a mine somewhere forward on the starboard side. Diesel fuel, water and debris rained down on the bridge while yells and screams came from below. Air rushed out of the conning tower hatch (propelling some crewmen through the hatch) and in 20-30 seconds, with FLIER still making 15 knots, she sank in water approximately 180 to 600 feet deep. At least 15 men of her 86 man crew now found themselves in the water without life jackets and far from land and facing a swim for their lives.
USS FLIER was a Gato class fleet submarine commissioned at Electric Boat, New London, Connecticut, in October 1943. Her first and only Commanding Officer was Commander John D. Crowley who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1931 and had previously commanded the S-28.
FLIER sailed to Pearl Harbor via the Panama Canal and enroute dodged a friendly merchant ship that fired 13 shells at her. 2 She departed Hawaii on January 12, 1944 for her first war patrol. Arriving at Midway to top off her fuel tanks, she ran aground while negotiating a treacherous channel and fighting an 8 knot cross current. With the submarine hard aground and damaged, the submarine rescue ship USS MACAW (ASR 11) attempted salvage but it too ran aground. FLIBR crewmen Waite Daggy and James Cahl went topside to secure some lines only to have waves throw and injure Daggy against the four-inch gun and sweep Cahl overboard and drown him. Cahl’s body was recovered the following day and be was buried at sea.. FLIBR was later hauled off and towed to Hawaii and later proceeded back to Mare Island for permanent repairs. MACAW was not so fortunate-she sank on February 13, 1944, taking her commanding officer and four of her crew with her.
The repaired FLIBR departed from Pearl Harbor for a patrol in Iwo Jima and Philippines waters and between June 4, 1944 and June 23, 1944 she attacked six ships in three different convoys.These attacks sank at least the 10,000 ton naval transport HAKUSAN MARU and the 5,838 ton cargo ship BELGIUM MARU FLIBR then proceeded to Fremande, Australia and Commander Crowley was awarded the Navy Cross for the first patrol.
FLIBR departed from Fremantle, Australia on August 2, 1944, for her second war patrol with orders to proceed via Balabac Strait to the South China Sea and Indochina. Enroute, an Ultra message on a southbound Japanese convoy in the South China Sea was received and as a result, speed was increased and the bridge watch doubled as the ship threaded its way through Balabac Strait. 1 After the mine strike and the submarine’s sinking, nearby Comiran beckoned to the desperate survivors as the closest island to swim to-but with a Japanese garrison believed to be on the island, Commander Crowley decided that the group should head north. Only 8 men survived the 12 mile swim to Byan Island (most of them in 17-1/2 hours) some with the assistance of a floating palm tree, currents and the moonrise. A lean-to was constructed on the island for temporary shelter. On August 15, 45 hours after the sinking, a mysterious explosion was observed in the direction of FLIER.
The group made a seven by four foot raft and despite the thirst, lack of food, blistering sunburn, insect bites, Japanese aircraft patrols, poor clothing and coral cuts, island hopped in search of food and water with the raft until reaching Bugsuk Island. On Bugsuk, the FLIER survivors found an abandoned village and quenched their thirst with water from a cistern and coconuts. Shortly thereafter, friendly guerrillas of the Bolo Battalion of Bugsuk Island appeared armed with a mixture of rifles, blow guns and bolos. They told the survivors not to drink water from the cistern since it had been poisoned. (One man did become ill for the night.)
These guerrillas later told the survivors of the loss on July 26, 1944, of USS ROBALO (SS 273).13 A post war account states she sank as a result of striking a mine ” … two miles off the western coast of Palawan Island … ,. while returning from a patrol in the South China Sea.. The guerrillas in fact told the FLIER survivors that the survivors of ROBALO landed on Comiran Island and were captured by the Japanese. These ROBALO survivors did not survive the war. (A total of 81 men were lost as a result of the sinking of ROBALO.)
The guerrillas and survivors left the area since Japanese troops were expected shortly. They hiked overland to a sailboat that took the party to Brookes Point, Palawan Island. Enroute, they had to evade a Japanese launch. The group was introduced to a team of U.S. Army coast watchers most likely part of the guerilla-trained 978tb Signal Service Company . 15 An Army radio was utilized to arrange evacuation by USS REDFIN (SS 272).
REDFIN evaded a small Japanese Maru and despite communications difficulties, rendezvoused on August 31, 1944 with the eight FLIER survivors along with nine other people in two small local boats provided by the guerrillas.16 REDFIN off-loaded guerilla supplies and with the survivors safely on board, attempted to attack with deck guns the small I apanese Maru but was thwarted by shallow water.
The survivors were taken to Australia where they eventually recuperated from their ordeal and went on to other assignments. An investigation was held on the loss of ROBALO and FLIER and Balabac Strait was declared to be off limits to future U.S. submarines during the war due to the danger of mines.
While post-war records show 1-123 mined Balabac Strait on December 6, 1941, it was most likely some of the 600 Type 93 Model l deep sea contact mines laid by UN TSUGARU in late March 1944 that sank FLIER and ROBAL0. 11 The mines were capable of being laid in water depths up to 3500 feet and with a case that could be set as deep as 230 feet. 19 It would appear that Japanese mines could be laid in water far deeper than the U.S. Navy estimated at the time, possibly explaining the losses of other U.S. fleet submarines during the war. (A similar analogy can be drawn from the underestimation of the range capabilities of the Japanese Long Lance torpedo that caused the loss of many U.S. Navy ships in the Solomons.) As an example, the description of the loss of USS ALBACORE to a mine states: ” … because of the danger of mineable water, she was ordered to stay outside of waters less than (600 feet) deep” . 21 In fact, Japanese mines could be laid in water 2900 feet deeper than that.
As a side note, DN TSUGARU was sunk by USS DARTER (SS 227) on June 29, 1944 off Morotai Island in the Molucca Sea-720 miles from Balabac Strait. 21 Hence, the DN TSUGARU was already sunk by the time her mines sank ROBALO and FLIER. (USS DARTER later came to grief on a charted reef off the western shore of Palawan.)