This account of several submariners’ heroic efforts to survive the sillking of FLIER in the Japanese-held Philip-pines came to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW through the courtesy of Captain Herb Mandell, a WW JJ submariner and author of Submarine Captain and Command at Sea. This account was self-published ill I 997 by Mr. Jacobson, who had been a Junior Officer in FLIER, and was revised by him in 2002. Some draft copies had been circulated several years ago and it is possible that the article has been published or excerpted ill other palettes. Captain Mallde/l has arranged with Mr. Jacobson for permission to publish his story in these pages. It is with gratitude that the RE-VIEW can give wide distribution to this important piece of the World War II submarine story.
Mr. Jacobson included several addenda with his story and two regarding the mining of waters in which FLIER was lost arc republished here with Part I.
August 4, 1944, USS FLIER (250) left Fremantle, Australia to start its second patrol. The officers and crew were, with a few exceptions, the same as were on the first patrol. The officers were Commander J. C. Crowley, Captain; Lieutenant J. W. Liddell, Executive Officer; Lieutenant Paul Knappe, Engineering Officer, Lieutenant Edward Casey, Gunnery and Torpedo Officer; Lieutenant JG Bill Reynolds, Communication Officer; Ensign Herbert (Teddy) Baehr, Assistant Engineering Officer; Ensign Herb Monor, Communications Officer; Ensign Philip Mayer, Under Instruction, and myself with Commissary, Assistant Gunnery and Torpedo and Assistant Navigator.
After a night training period, we left Fremantle and late the next afternoon put in at Exmouth Gulf to refuel. We stayed there that night, leaving early the next morning. On our way out of the Gulf, we had target practice on a ship that had run aground several years before. This ship has the distinction of being shot at by more submarines than any other ship in the world. Every sub that passed it would fire at it.
We headed for Lombock Strait, which was our passage through the Indonesian chain of islands. When we were about twelve hours from Lombock Strait, we had an engine explosion, which we at first thought would force us to tum around and go back. However, Herb, the assistant engineering officer, said he thought he could and did fix everything.
Our passage through Lorn bock was the usual kind. This is where we were chased by two sub chasers but with our radar we were able to out·maneuver both of them.
We passed up through Makassar Strait, the Celebes Sea and the Sibutu Passage into the Sulu Sea. We would stay on the surface at night and during the day until a plane would drive us down.
On Sunday, August 13, we received a dispatch saying there was a Jap convoy going down the West Coast of Palawan. This meant that to catch it we would have to make the passage through Balabac Strait. Our assigned area was off the coast of French lndo China with the special assignment of trying to get four supply submarines that were operating out of Saigon and supplying Jap outposts. So, rather than going north of Palawan through Mindoro Strait, we started through the Balabac strait to try and intercept the convoy. The route through Balabac Strait was given in an annex to the operation order.
At 2045 I relieved Ensign “Teddy” Bear as Junior Officer of the Deck and he relieved me at plot in the control room. My station was on the after-cigarette deck. Lt. Ed Casey was the officer of the Deck. At 2130 the Captain called battle stations for the conning tower and also had Lt. Bill Reynolds and Ensign Phil Mayer come on the bridge as additional officer lookouts. Thus, we had four officers, four lookouts and the Captain on the bridge.
About 2150, radar reported Camiran Island 7 ,800 yards, bearing 174 true. At about 2200 with Camiran Island bearing I 90T and 6,700 yards, I was admiring the mountainous silhouettes on three sides of us, when suddenly a terrific gush of air came out of the conning tower hatch. Bill Reynolds was blown back to me and complained of a side ache.
I thought, at the time, that it was only an air bank that had let loose, so I told him to lie down; but before he had a chance, the boat started to go under. As I was talking to Bill, I remember seeing Phil dive over the side.
As we went under, I was sucked down about 15 to 20 feet. My first impulse was to struggle to the surface, because I could picture the screws coming by me. Upon reaching the surface, it dawned on me that I was shipwrecked. After looking around I had it impressed upon me that it was serious because I could not see any land or stars in any direction. The water was warm with about one-foot waves. There was an oil slick on the surface which made opening the eyes or mouth unpleasant. It wasn’t long before I heard some shouting; so I swam towards the noise and found the rest of the group.
At this time, remembering my lifesaving instructions about taking off your clothes in such an emergency, I did, all except for my trunks and t-shirt. This I later found out to be a very grave mistake. Before discarding my pants, I took out my knife. However, I had no way of carrying it, and soon lost it. I kept the binoculars I had while standing my watch. They were on a strap around my neck and almost floated, so they did not bother me much.
When I joined the group, the main topics of discussion were; what had happened, where we were, and how to get the rest of the fellows together. It wasn’t long before we were all in one group. As far as I can figure and know, there were fifteen people who got off the sub and started the swim.
The Chief of the watch was the only man who was able to get out from below the conning tower and he was in such bad shape that he was not able to stay afloat for any length of time. A quartermaster was not able to get out of the conning tower.
To give you an idea of the extent of the power of the explosion, Jim Liddell, who at the time was standing in the conning tower hatch talking to the Captain, had his shirt taken off by the gush of air and it lifted him up to the bridge. He weighed over two hundred pounds. The Captain said he was blown aft to the cigarette deck and before he could get back to sound the collision alarm, the boat went under. The men at the T.D.C. and sonar can only remember pulling for all they were worth on the periscopes to get in the gush of air from the control room, and the next thing they were out of the ship and in the water. Several of the people coming out of the conning tower were caught in the guardrail of the signal bridge.
After the group was assembled, the question naturally arose as to what to do next. Jim, being the navigator, told us that there was land around us on three sides, the distances varying from fourteen to thirty miles. He said we could possibly try to swim to Camiron Island, which was only about two miles away, but it was so small that the chance of missing it was too great. However, it made little difference if we tried to plan where to swim, because there were no stars and we could not see any land, therefore, we had no means for direction. About three or four times during the night, we saw flashes of lightening, which showed up a mountain peak that was about thirty miles away. We knew we didn’t want to swim in that direction. A few minutes after the lightening you completely lost your sense of direction again. Also, a couples of times you could see a group of stars which Jim said were the false cross. I’ll never forget swimming the side stroke and looking back at them.
We decided that we would try to keep swimming at least in some direction, because we would probably be a little better off that way than if we just stayed where we were. It was finally decided that we would, as nearly as possible, keep the waves slapping us on the left cheek. This, however was a problem, because you rolled up and down with the waves. During the night, we tried to keep together in a group as much as possible. I do not know what type of course we swam, and I will not say we swam n straight course either, because I remember crossing the oil streak at least three times. The only things that came up from the boat, other than the oil, were pieces of cork about the size of a baseball. These few pieces were of no value because no one had a way to use them.
After about two hours of swimming, Chief Pope called over to Jim and asked how far he thought we would have to swim. Jim, trying to be encouraging, said: “About nine miles.” Pope then said:”To hell with this,” and stopped swimming. This is the same man that when FLIER ran aground at Midway and the waves were breaking over the deck, they tied a line to him and he crawled out to the bow to fasten a tow line.
Jim was troubled several times with a cramp in his leg; but, by taking the muscle and pinching it as hard as we could, it seemed to go away. This is an extremely painful procedure but it must have worked.
I had a second chance to get a knife when I helped Ed Casey take his pants off and I got his knife out of his pocket. However, I also lost it, because there was not a way to carry it.
We all agreed upon the policy that it would have to be every man for himself. This was because the distance to swim was unknown and it would be unfair to anyone to ask assistance of them. This policy was willingly agreed upon by everyone, and to my knowledge was carried out by everyone. To give an example of how this was carried out, the explosion blinded Ed Casey so that he could not see the rest of us. At the same time, he, for some reason could not swim on his stomach. This made it hard for him to keep up with the group. He would often start swimming off to one side and we would have to call him back; once he went quite a way off and I went over to help him back. When I reached him and told him to rest a minute and I would push him back, he refused and said; “remember that we agreed that every man was for himself,” thus he would not let me help him. As we were swimming back, he would joke about the parties we had previously planned to have when we got back to Perth, Australia. It was not more than ten minutes later that we saw no more of Ed Casey.
This, to me, was one of the greatest signs of courage that any man could show. I remember when Paul Knappe, swam to one side and never came back to the group. I didn’t realize why he swam away until he didn’t return. This type of courage was also demonstrated by all seven fellows who were lost while swimming, because, to my knowledge, none of them in any way asked for help. When they figured that their time had come, and they could swim no more, they simply swam to one side without saying anything.
About 0300 the moon rose to help us hold a direction to an unknown destination. It was not until daylight, approximately 0500, that we were able to see any kind of land. At daylight, we picked out what we thought to be the closest island and agreed to swim to it at each person’s own pace. I stayed with Howell and Baumgart. Russo immediately swam ahead and was the first to hit the beach.
During the afternoon, about 1300, a Jap patrol plane passed over us, but the pilot did not change his course, so we felt he had not seen anything.
About two miles off the beach, we saw what we thought might possibly be a native boat, but, after trying to signal it, we decided it would be better to avoid it, and swim straight for our island. As we approached it, we found that it was only a floating palm tree; but we were thankful to find even that and climbed up on it to look around for the other fellows. We saw the Captain and Jim and waved to them to come over and join us. The Captain said he was just about ready to give up when he saw us but then decided to try to reach us. Later we saw Tremaine and hollered at him and he hollered and waved back at us but avoided us. This we couldn’t figure out until later when he told us he didn’t hear us and thought we were native fisherman. But if they weren’t friendly enough to pick him up he wasn’t going to chance coming to them. So, the five of us hung on to the palm tree the rest of the way in.
As we approached the island, we began to imagine seeing houses, etc., but, as we came closer, we could see that there was only one beach of about seventy-five yards that we would be able to lay down upon. Therefore, we headed for that. We were able to touch bottom about a block from the beach.
At 1530 in the afternoon, by the captain’s and my watch, we sat down on the good earth, which made about seventeen hours of swimming. This island was Byan Island, we did not know about it then, but I have checked the charts since coming home.
The strange thing I found about the swim was that I had to fight with myself to keep from going to sleep. Also, I found that the breaststroke was my best stroke. I could not use one stroke very Jong, because I would tire too much that way, so I used three different strokes, mainly the side stroke, back stroke, and breast stroke. I do not remember thinking about anything special except I do remember repeating the 23rd Psalm, which surprised me.
Also, I believe as a result of my experience anybody who can swim for a couple of hours should be able to swim for a good deal longer if they do not give up or get panicky.
All the fellows who went down did so in the first two or three hours, with the exception of one, who became panicky just before sunrise, and that was the last we saw of him.
We all stopped at the sandy beach, and Jim walked around the end of the island, to see if he could find any of the others fellows. He found Tremaine there. Russo had swum ahead and was waiting for us at the beach. He arrived ten minutes before we did. Thus, here were seven of us together at that time. They were: Com-mander J. D. Crowley, our Captain; Lieutenant J. W. Liddell, Executive Officer; Ensign A. E. Jacobson, Jr.; Chief Gibson Howell, CRT; D. P. Tremaine, FCR and; J. D. Russo, QM 3n1; and E. Baumgart, MOMM3C.
While walking toward the sandy beach, we found one drifted coconut that sounded as though it might be good, so, after making a poor excuse for a lean-to, we opened the coconut and got about two tablespoons of coconut milk and a piece of coconut about an inch and half square each for supper. However, none of us could hold it down and we lost it right away. We then layed down and tried to get some sleep.
After trying to build a lean-to and open the coconut with our hands, we realized how much we were going to miss a knife of some kind. I would like to make a recommendation to all wartime sailors-to always carry with them a large jack knife which has one 3″ blade on one side and a marlin spike on the other. This knife should then be carried in a sheath, which fits on to a belt, so that the clothes can be taken off and you can carry the knife on the belt around your waits or that has a loop that will fit around your neck.
We huddled together as we slept trying to keep a little warmer. We didn’t think it was wise to try to build a fire, because it might attract attention from the Japanese city, which we knew to be on another island. However, tired as we were, little sleep was gained, because of the sunburn we had, which gave us a fever. Every time we moved to try to get into a more comfortable position, the sand would rub against the sunburn and it would be mighty uncomfortable. I spent most of the night lying and wishing, more than anything, that daylight would come so that I could get warm and stop shaking.
We rose at sunrise and decided we had better look around the island for some food and water. By this time, we had made enough of a search of our end of the island to know that there was no water which we could drink around there. Jim and the Captain were to go around one way to the other side while Baumgard and I were to go around the other way. Howell, Tremaine and Russo were to stay and try to improve the lean-to and also watch the spot where the boat had gone down. Howell had wrenched his knee while leaving the boat, which made walking difficult.
The island was about three miles long and two blocks wide. It was made up of coral and was probably about fifteen feet high at its highest point. There were large trees, some one hundred feet high.
Walking, we found out now, was going to be one of our major problems, because all of us had made the mistake of discarding our shoes and the coral was very sharp and cut our feet. This discomfort of walking barefoot could have been avoided had we used our heads. If we had tied our shoes together and hung them around our necks, it would not have bothered our swimming too much, and we could have then kept them. That is the way I carried the binoculars and I had no trouble with them.
I walked down our side of the island and found plenty of coconuts, but they were all spoiled and rotted to the extent that they were not edible. We could not tell that they were spoiled until we opened them. I assure you that it was very discouraging to open an inviting looking coconut with your bare hands and then find nothing in it.
About 1630 we ran across Wesley Miller, MOMM 3/c. He swam to the other end of the island and had spent the night down there. He told us that there was nothing on that end of the island; so we turned around and started back, getting back to camp at about 1800. The Captain and Jim were there also and reported the same kind of luck as we had. Therefore, we turned in that night with nothing to eat and it was definitely agreed that we could not stay on this island.
(or what could have happened to the FLIER Survivors)
On July 2, 1944, 49 days before USS FLIER was sunk, the U.S. submarine ROBALO SS273 was going to the Balabac Straits heading West using the lumbucan Cha1111el which passes on the southern side of Comiran Island. This is known because native fishermen since the war have reported seeing a submarine resting on the bottom. Admiral Christie’s order gave them permission to use Balabac Straits even knowing it had been mined. Their orders stated to stay in deep water.
At 1940 (7:40 p.m.) July 2, 1944 while ROBALO was running on the surface, it hit a mine. The explosion was so great and the submarine sank so fast, no one in the conning tower or below got off. Thus, 73 men went down and were lost with the submarine. There were ten men topside, on the deck and lookout stations. All ten men were seen in the water. They had no life preserver equipment.
hree of the men disappeared right away. LCDR Mninish Kimmel, the captain, with the rest drifted toward Comiran Island. About midnight he became separated from Ens. Tucker due to darkness. About 0900 Laughton saw Captain Kimmel. He was exhausted and could only float on his back. About an hour later Kimmel disappeared. PO s/C Poston and PO 3/C Martin were the first survivors to reach Comiran Island. They landed approximately 1100 July 3, 1944, after 15 hours in the water and a distance of approximately I 0 miles. Ens. Tucker landed approximately 1300 or 17 hours and PO l /C Laughlin approximately 1400 or 18 hours in the water. They waited three hours to see if any more would come ashore before checking out the island.
They were able to collect some rainwater in shells but found no good coconuts or food. They build a raft and on July 6 about 1100, 3 days after arriving, they left Comiran Island for the large island Balabac, about 10 miles away. They could plainly see the island both day and night. They reached Balabac Island about 0900 on July 7, in the vicinity ofMaluguing Log River and a coconut grove. Two local natives reported them to the Japanese Naval Garrision Unit in Bnlabnc City and they were captured about 0900 on July 8 .
On July I o•h they were transported from Balabac Island to the prison camp at Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island a distance of approximately 175 miles for questioning by the Kempei Tai. It was during the transportation that the Guerilla outpost at Cape Baliluyan on the southern tip on Palawan Island heard about the survivors and sent word to Bugsuk and other islands to keep a lookout. That is why the guerillas were there to rescue us.
While the survivors of robalo were captives of the Kemp Tai in Puerto Princesa, they were beaten and tortured to get submarine information.
On August 19, 1944, the four submarine prisoners, Ens. Samuel Tucker, PO l/C Floyd Laughlin, PO 2/C Mason Poston, PO 3/C Wallace Martin were transferred to the Japanese freighter Takao Maru and signed for by its captain Aida Sakutaro. They were to be transferred to Manila.
There are no known records if the Takao Maru made it to Manila or transferred the prisoners to any other organizations. There is a record of a public execution held in Manila in August or September 1944 during which four submariners were executed. None of the four returned after the war.
Even if they were not transferred to Manila they would not have survived. When the American bombers appeared in the sky over the Kemp Tai prison camp in December 1944, the Japanese forced the prisoners into a pit, poured gasoline over the prisoners and ignited the pit and its contents. When the American forces liberated the island in February 1945, the charred bodies of 140 prisoners were found under three long mounds. These bodies were recovered and 123 were re-buried on February 14, 1953, in a mass grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.
Yes, that is what could have happened to the FLIER survivors if we had swam the I~ miles to Comiran Island but some unknown power had led us in a different direction.
Admiral Christie gave operating orders to use the Balabac Straits knowing they were mined. The Balabac Straits were first mined December 6, 1941 and by the mine layer IJN Tsugaru in March 1943. U.S. code breakers had given Admiral Christie at least four intercepted messages regarding the minefields, containing specific details, which waters in the straits were mined or were likely to be mined. Since the Japanese mined the straits in March of 1943 and the loss of FLIER and ROBALO, the straits have been used over 40 times, in fact, Captain Kimmel in RO BALO had made a passage, westbound in April of 1944, and again on July 3, 1944, going eastbound.
ROBALO was sunk going east on July 26, 1944. Both ROBALO and FLIER had detailed instructions on how to make the passage. It is believed that the U.S. did not realize that the Japanese, 600 Type 93 Model 1, Deep Sea Contact Mine, could be laid in the depth of the water of the main channel.
After Admiral Christie received the information on FLIER and ROBALO, he declared Balabac Straits off limits and routed his subs into the south China Sea by the way of Kannatz Straits southwest of Borneo. Because there were survivors from FLIER, there was an official investigation of FLIER and the use of Balabac Straits. Admiral Christie got a clean bill of health, as they found no fault with him.
I found it very interesting that the Japanese mine layer IJN Tsugaru, that laid the mines that probably sank FLIER and ROBALO, was sunk by the submarine DARTER on June 29, 1944, off Mortin Island in the Molucca Sea, 720 miles from Balabac Straits. Hence the minelayer was already sunk by the time her mines sank FLIER and ROBALO.
If you are interested, Mr. David McGee of Bridgewater, New Jersey, has received an estimate of the cost to salvage FLIER, $370,000 -$475,000 depending upon how fast it could be located.
The native fishermen have located the submarine FLIER sitting on the bottom in approximately 60 fathoms (360 feet). This is too deep to inspect the submarine without very special equipment. For approximately $90,000, you could hire a salvage ship with side scan sonar and take some pictures. I would like some pictures of the forward and after torpedo room hatches to see if they are open. If not open, we would know no one was alive after the explosion and tried to escape.