This accourzt of several submariners· heroic efforts to survive the sinking of FLIER in the Japanese-held Philip-pines came to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW through the courtesy of Captain Herb Mandell. a WW II submariner and author of Submarine Captain and Command at Sea. This account was self-published in I997 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 in other venues. Captain Mandell 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.
On her second war patrol, in August of 1944, USS FLIER (SS 250) was directed through Balabac Straits south of Pala wan Island in the Philippines, to attack a Japanese convoy on the surface at night with the Captain, four officers and four lookouts on the bridge. At about 2200 the ship hit a mine and started to go under. Only those 011 the bridge and a few jiom the conning tower were able to get off the ship. They were in the water for about 17 hours before the seven survivors of the sinking and the swim got to an island. Part I described the sinking. the swim. the island and the decision to swim to another island.
The men who stayed at the camp had noticed water dripping from the coral and thought that it was fresh. It was only seawater that had splashed up there at high tide. But, as they had gathered about two shells full, we were satisfied to believe that it was fresh, and so each took about three teaspoonfuls. We used a little shell about the size of a teaspoon to dish it out to each of us.
At about 1815, as we were sitting and looking out to where the ship had gone down, we noticed a large geyser of water come up. Shortly afterwards we heard an explosion. We have no idea what caused the explosion. It may have been a mine going off, or something from the ship. Another plane had passed over in the afternoon without deviating from its course.
Before lying down at night we laid out about 20 large shells to collect rainwater if it rained. You could possibly trace our path through the island by just looking where we had laid out shells. The sleep that night for me was not better than the first night-we again rose at sunrise.
The Captain and Jim had worked out the plan that was agreed upon. There were only two courses open for us to follow-one was to follow the chain of islands that led toward the Japanese town, which was the only sign of civilization; and the other was to follow the chain of islands in the opposite direction. That would lead to another main island where we didn’t know what to expect. The latter course was chosen, because we did not want to tum ourselves over to the Japanese at this stage of the game.
We started to walk around the end of the island so we could find the closest place from which to start swimming to the next island. We knew that we could not start to the next island until late afternoon, because of the Japanese air patrol that came over at 9:00 in the morning and 1500 in the afternoon. Also, the Jap launch patrol might come by and spot us. Another reason was that we had to wait until slack tide. There was about a six knot current that flowed between the islands and we could not hope to buck that. While walking around the end of the island I found a small piece of canvas, which I thought would work well for a pair of shoes. However, I couldn’t find anyway to wrap the cloth around my feet without it rubbing on the sores and make it more painful than being bare foot.
We spent the day building a raft and resting, also keeping out of the sun. The raft was constructed out of bamboo about 4 inches in diameter, which we picked up on the beach and tied together with vines that we pulled off the trees. The Captain made two paddles by splitting a bamboo pole part way up and then putting small pieces in crossway, then tying it with vines. We also found two long sticks for polling. The raft was big enough to hold two people. We did not dare build it any larger because it would be too easy to see.
At about 1430 we started to swim to the island #2, now known as Ga bung. About half way across it started to rain. However, we could not catch any of it. We just hoped that someone had left a lot of shells spread out on the island to which we were going as we had done on the island we just left.
We were able to pole about a quarter of the way across. The rest of the way we had to swim and tow the raft. The Captain rode on the raft and paddled. The rest of us took turns riding the raft and paddling. When we were about one-third of the way a patrol plane came over and we all ducked under the raft. When we were about 3/4 of the way across, the tide started to change and the current started to get strong. There were several times that we dido ‘t think that we were making progress. Finally, we were carried into the lee of the island. From here we were able to swim to the island.
We reached the island about I 900 or 4Yi hours later, which was after dark. We found a sandy beach and all were satisfied to lie down wherever there was room. Again we became very cold, and so to keep warm, we buried ourselves in the sand. This however, was of little use, because after about ten minutes, we would start to get the shakes and shake all the sand off. What I did was to lie down for about half to three quarters of an hour and then when I started shaking too much, I would get up and walk around until I settled down. Jim and I even tried burying ourselves together but we just couldn’t shake in unison so that the sand came off twice as fast.
I believe there is nothing that I have ever wished for or ever hope to wish for, more than I did hope for daylight at this time. Daylight meant warmth.
The first thing we did after sunrise was to plan our next move. We decided to take the long way around the island, because we couldn’t start for the next island until about 1500, after Japanese patrol and the tide current was lowest and we could more likely find some coconuts or something to drink that way.
By now, our feet were pretty well cut up by the coral and so walking was getting harder all the time. We walked in the shallow water because the coral was grown over with weeds and was easier on our feet. The disadvantage of walking in the shallow water, however, was that you were in the sun, and we were already more sunburned than we wanted to be.
We reached the far side of the island about 1330 and did not find any edible coconuts, food, or water of any kind. Again we opened several coconuts by hand, only to find that they were no good.
After the 1500 air patrol passed, we again started for the island number 3. The water here was a little shallower in places and we were able to wade part of the way. This greatly eased the strain.
It was between these islands that we saw the fins of a couple of sharks. These were the only ones we saw during our entire trip-something for which we were very thankful. By this time, we had assumed the attitude, that let come what may-what comes just comes and what doesn’t O.K.
We arrived at island number 3, now known as APO, about 1800, only about a three-hour swim and were again able to find a sandy beach. We spent the night there in the same manner as we did the previous nights, that is spending most of the night wishing for daylight.
It was the fifth day and the 3111 island. We started about 8:00 to circle the island to the seaward which was the long way again and pushing the raft ahead of us. This island was the same in form as the other islands, except that it was a little more round. We found on this island an abandoned dugout, but it proved of no use to us, because it was full of holes.
Baumgard and I became inquisitive about one of the trails leading in to the center of the island; but, after walking on the customary hard coral for about three blocks, our curiosity was satisfied that there were only monkeys on the island.
About 1100 we found a coconut, making the second one we had found so far that was edible.
Upon rounding the furthest point, we saw on the next island, island number 4, now known as Bugsuk Island, what we thought to be houses. Naturally, our hopes reached an all time high. It was agreed that we would eat our coconut and then start for the next island, planning to get there just before sunset. We found that eating the coconut was harder then it was worth. We could down only about a square inch of the meat and there was no milk in it.
At 1400 we started for the island number 4, Bugsuk. The water was fairly shallow, so we could pole a lot of the way and we were able to hang on to the raft. As planned, we were there just before sunset and also to come on to the island about a mile and one-half down from the houses. This was around a point, which should have blocked the view of anybody who might be in the houses. We reached the shore about 1730 and landed where we wanted to land. We rounded the point very cautiously and saw that the houses were abandoned. On the way to the houses, we passed a coconut grove, plus indications of a small native village, so Baumgard and 1 stayed and rounded up about twelve good coconuts. Upon reaching the house, we found in the rear a cistern that was filled with rainwater. Needless to say, we wanted a feast that night, eating fresh coconut and drinking fresh water, this being the first food and water we had for five days.
We found that the work of getting one coconut open with our bare hands was enough to discourage us from eating any more. We found a sharp rock and by pounding the coconut on it we could gradually work the outer shell off. Once this was off, it was easy to pound out the eye and drain the milk out of the coconut and then crush the hard shell. All of us, except Howell, drank sparingly of the water, as the captain had advised us to do.
By this time it was dark and we proceeded to find places to lie down and rest. I found a bamboo door that made a very good mattress and so slept comparatively well that night. Before going to bed, we had looked around the house and decided that at onetime it had belonged to a wealthy landowner. However, someone had attempted to wreck the house.
There were several discarded receipts for the purchase of cattle and the sale of lumber, indicating that the owner had a prosperous business.
In the front of the house was a launch about 38 feet in length, heavily constructed, which showed signs of having been purposely destroyed. There was another launch of about the same size that had apparently been in the process of being built. There were several large clearings around the house, which indicated that they had been used for vegetable gardens. Also, there was a stream in which we could see many fish that could easily be caught or netted. Thus, plans for the next day were very cheerful.
During the night, Howell became very sick, and we believed that it was due to the fact that he drank so much water.
We arose at sunrise and had another coconut for breakfast. We were just getting organized as to who would build the fire; do the fishing; go on the scouting trips, and gather coconuts; for we were getting set to spend several days here and recuperate a little. Then, from the jungle, came what appeared to be two small native boys. Knowing that they had, undoubtedly, seen us already, we did not try to avoid them, but rather went down to meet them. The Captain spoke to them and asked them, “Americans or Japanese?” One boy said, “Americanos” and smiled; “Japanese” and motioned as though he was cutting his throat. This relieved us considerably. Next, the boy pointed to the cistern and said, “Don’t drink water.” This puzzled us, but remembering our policy of letting come and go what may, we disregarded his statement, and asked him if he had any food. He patted his stomach and said, “Rice.” He then motioned for us to follow him back along the path into the woods.
This we did, and shortly after we started along the path, the native boys ran ahead and picked up their poles and the small packs on poles in which they carried their food. As we walked along, we passed an abandoned sugar cane field. They took us into it and motioned for us to sit down while they cut each of us a piece of sugar cane about three feet long. We spent at least a half-hour chewing on this. The only reason we did not eat more of it was because we were too tired to chew anymore.
We then continued along this path about two blocks and came to a clearing where we found a deserted schoolhouse. It consisted of a raised platform with a roof over it and had several school benches on it. There was about a hundred yard clearing around it.
They motioned to us to sit down and faster than I could start a fire using matches, they had whittled themselves a spindle and had started a fire by spinning the spindle in a notched block. It was like we did in Boy Scouts, except that they did not use the draw bow, but rather spun the spindle by rubbing it between their hands. As soon as they had this fire going, they brought out a small pan about five inches round and deep. They filled this with water from a nearby stream and poured some rice into it. While the rice was boiling, they cut down some banana leaves and laid them out to make plates for us. They then brought us some water, which we were to drink. It was as muddy and dirty as you could find. However, they assured us it was all right by drinking some of it themselves. We were not in a position to seriously doubt it.
As soon as the rice was cooked, they laid it on the banana leaf plates and also laid out some dried fish, which they had brought along with them. There were about three fish and they looked like bluegills.
We had no more than started to dig into the rice when from across the clearing we saw ten men; three armed with guns and six with blowguns and bolos. Our spirits naturally dropped to the lowest ebb, until one man who seemed to be leading the group hollered out, “Hello.” He spoke very good English and ran up to us, grasping our hands and introducing himself. He was Mr. Pedro Sarmiento, leader of the Bolo Battalion of the Bugsuk Island and a fomrer school teacher who had been educated in Manila and was overseer of the abandoned plantation during peacetime. The other men who were with him, he explained were the natives of the island who had organized into the local Bolo Battalion.
After identifying himself, we asked him what the native boys meant when they told us not to drink the water back at the house. He told us that the man who owned the house had, when the Japanese at the beginning of the war chased him out of it, filled the cistern with arsenic, to kill any Japanese that might drink the water. We believe that this is the reason why Howell became ill that night. We were very fortunate that more of us did not become ill.
We asked him how he knew we were in the house. He said that at all times they had several points around the island, where native look-outs watched for Japanese coming to make an inspection of their island. It was one of these lookouts that had spotted us swimming to the island. He immediately notified Pedro about the swimmers.
As Pedro did not know whether we were Japanese or Allies, he sent out word during the night to the several surrounding islands to bring in guerrillas. They then had the house surrounded in the morning, and were going to attack us if we were Japanese, or to help us out if we were Allies. The native boys were sent in as scouts to find out whom we were. If we had been Japanese, they were to pretend that they were going to the coconut grove, and if we were Allies, we were to be brought back to the schoolhouse.
Pedro then explained his plan. He had been instructed that any Allied survivors found were to be sent to the main guerilla headquarters on the southern coast of Palawan at Cape Ballilugan. We were to walk across Bugsuk Island, which was eight kilometers, or about five miles. There he had a native boat called a kumpit. He said that it was very important that we get started walking right away, because the routine Japanese patrol was to land at the house either that morning or by the afternoon. They would make their formal inspection and spend the night in the house. He said that if we could get a mile back into the island, we would be safe, because the Japanese were afraid to go that far into the island. With this in mind, we accepted his plan without any hesitation.
In fact, we were willing to start before eating, but he said that he wanted to send the boys back to the house and see that we did not leave anything indicating that we had been there. The only thing that we could have left, which was all we had, was the magnifying glass we had taken from my binoculars. This turned out to be a very welcome gift for Pedro as he used it to light his pipe. We ate while the natives went back. Then after finishing the dinner we started marching.
The ground was made up of coral. Up until now, we had not realized the extent of our fatigue, or the condition of our feet. There is no doubt that there has seldom been a sorrier looking bunch of hikers starting a walk.
They stationed native guerrillas ahead and behind us, and the rest cut the path for us. We had hoped to make it to the other side of the island by nightfall, but after walking for about an hour and a half, it became quite apparent that this was an idle dream. So, it was agreed that we would go half way that day and continue the trip the next day.
It wasn’t until 1700 that afternoon that we reached the native village at the center of the island. It meant that we had walked for eight hours to gain a total of two and half miles, which was certainly a good day’s work.
Upon reaching the village, we were taken to the leading man’s hut, and he had bamboo mats laid out for us. We were there probably only fifteen minutes before we were all asleep.
While we were asleep, the Captain had brought to his attention the fact that as long as you are in the Navy, you can never be free from paperwork; for while he was sleeping he was awakened by Pedro who wanted to have all our names and where we were stationed, so he could make his formal report. Writing paper was one of the scarcest items on the island, but, still, he had to make a formal report to his guerilla leader
We were awakened about 1830 to find that they had killed one of their very few chickens to make a chicken broth for us. The chicken was so thin and run-down that in the United States, you probably couldn’t have even given it away. However, here it was a great sacrifice to kill it. Thus, we felt very honored and were glad to taste something besides rice and coconut. We had wild honey for dessert, which was good.
After eating, we went back to sleep again. Pedro had assured us that there were guards posted all around us to warn if any Japanese should come. The next thing I knew, it was morning and we were told we would have to get started. Water here was taken from a stream that was about four inches deep and ten inches wide, also very muddy. The water was carried in hollowed out bamboo poles about five inches in diameter and five feet long. However, it was the only water around and the natives drank it all the time, so we assumed it was all right.
Our next objective was the next village, which was half way to the other side of the island. The plan was to have a noon meal. We started out and after walking for about three hours we began to wonder how much further it was to this native village. It was then that Pedro started to tell us that it was just another kilometer. I believe that about every twenty minutes somebody would ask him how much further it was and he would say, “Just another kilometer.” Pretty soon this got to be a joke.
We reached the hut at about noon and were glad to get a chance to rest and eat. Here we were introduced to something new: blue rice. Even though it was all we ate, we were beginning to learn to enjoy rice. Again our dessert was more rice with wild honey, very tasty .
After resting for about an hour, we started our march again. The native owner of this hut donated a large basket of rice, which was all he could give and was a great sacrifice. This was to be brought to the guerilla headquarters as a donation to the guerrillas. That is an example of how the guerrillas were supplied with food.
Our pace was not improving very much. About 1530 we came across another native hut. As yet we were not very hungry, however, the native insisted that we stop and have something to eat with him. So we ate more rice. Again we started walking, and again we started asking how much farther it was, and again it was, “just another kilometer.”
We finally reached the Bugsuk River and our boat (kumpit). This was timed very well, for it just gave us time to get aboard the boat and have enough daylight to navigate down the river before sunset. Here we bade goodbye to the major part of our guard, but met one of the most interesting people we were to meet. His name was La Hud but we called him “The Sailor” because he very capably did all the sailing and navigating from here to Brooks Point, and was very capable at handling both.
We asked Pedro to come along with us to the next island because he was the only one who could speak English.
We also met TomPong who was to be with us for the remainder of our trip. The sailboat or kumpit as the natives call them was typical of the type used by the Moro tribe of natives. The Sailor was a Moro trader and they were the type of people who we were told to avoid meeting if we were ever shipwrecked.
This kumpit had a wooden hull about sixteen feet long, a six-foot beam, pointed bow, a four-foot wide square stern, and a smooth round bottom. The hull was flush decked over from the stern to the mast. Forward of the mast was just enough space for a jug of water and two native boys. It was from here that the native boys did the rowing. A split bamboo mat could be stretched overhead to give shade and hold off the rain. It had a large oversize gaff rig with a tiller and a detachable rudder. We sat on the decking. Below this was the cargo area of the sailboat where everything was carried: bags of rice, cooking utensils, a gun and everything else a person needed to live. For more storage space they had racks built out on both sides of the kumpit, which ran about three quarters of the length of the boat. It was surprising that the kumpit would even float when we had twelve people and all the stores in it, let alone make any speed under sail. However, with hardly any wind, we moved along at a fair speed.
About 1800 we shoved off and started down the river. The river was so narrow and sheltered that we were not able to sail. Therefore we took along two small boys who would do the rowing. We rowed down the river for about three miles and reached the mouth of the river just before dark. As we were leaving the river, the guide who was acting as lookout started to make a lot of noise and pointed towards the beach. They turned the kumpit towards the beach and we naturally began to worry. However, we were glad to find out that all he was pointing at was some kind of seaweed that a doctor had told them was a good medicine. So, whenever they found it, they would eat it. It tasted like a bitter sweet pickle and contained a form of iodine.
By now it was dark, which was what we wanted. It was only safe to sail at night and the next island was about twenty miles away. To get to it, we needed to pass through several reefs. The night was pitch black; but the sailor and Kim-Jon knew the waters so well that they sailed in and out of the hidden reefs with very little strain, having to pole themselves away from the coral only a few times. The wind died down when we were about halfway across, which made it necessary to row the rest of the way.
We arrived at Cape Ballilugan on the southern end of Palawan Island at about 0300. The members of the regular organized guerilla outpost greeted us. They had received word that we were coming, and were down in full force to greet us. They then took us to their hut and introduced themselves by showing us their official papers. This outpost was made up of Filipinos, all of whom had some kind of formal education. They were schoolteachers or the equivalent. They were full time guerrillas, and devoted their whole time to this outpost.
It was here that we met Sergeant Pasqual de la Cruz USA FFE, who was in charge of this outpost. Pedro turned us over to him. We then went to their barracks, and were given bunks, which were merely tables and were fed more rice and sugar cane.
The Captain asked if they had any medicine. Sergeant Cruz went to the shelf and brought down ajar of white salve, full of bugs and dirt, so the Captain politely refused the offer. The Sergeant said that he was sorry, but that was all they had. So we continued to let Mother Nature heal our sores.
We talked for quite a while for these were the first people who understood English and could explain the situation to us. We now found out that we would have to go about seventy miles up the island to the main guerilla headquarters. It was also decided that we could sail only during the night, but we would leave that night, so we were to spend the day around there. We went to sleep, awakening at about 0930.
The guerillas rounded up enough clothing so that each of us had a pair of pants and some of the luckier ones were able to get a shirt. My shirt was about three sizes too small, but was very much welcomed.
Sergeant Cruz told the Captain that about two weeks before the Japanese were transporting four prisoners from Balabac City to Puerto Princessa prison camp on Palawan. They were on a subma-rine that was sunk near Camiran island, six got off and two were killed on the island. Sergeant Cruz wondered if we were off the same submarine. The Captain told him we were sunk nine days ago, so they were not from our submarine.
Part III will appear in the January 2008 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW It will conclude with the rest of the story about the survivors’ time with the Philippine guerillas and their ensuing rescue by a US submarine.