This account of several submariners ‘ heroic efforts to survive the sinking of FLIER in the Japanese-held Philippines 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 1997 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 tire REVIEW 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 Palawan Island in the Philippines to attack a Japanese convoy on the surface at night with the Captain.four officers and four lookouts on tire bridge. At about 2200 the ship hit a mine and started to go under. Only those on the bridge and a few from the conning tower were able to get off the ship. They were in the water for about 17 hours before the eight 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.
In Part II the survivors made preparations for the swim to island #2, in the direction away from a known Japanese town. They rafted and swam over 4 hours to get there. not finding any edibles. The next day they went 011 to island #3. On the sixth day they went to island #4 where they had seen houses. There they made contact with friendly guerillas, who started them on the road to rescue.
That day we spent inspecting the outpost and talking with the guerrillas. We had a real treat for dinner: caribou meat, cut so thin it was like paper. Even then you could just barely chew it. They had also fixed coconut in a new form; they made a spread out of coconut and honey that was great.
The outpost was made up of one bamboo building about forty by fifty feet, built on stilts and six feet off the ground. Below and around the edge of this house were a series of trenches. The guerrillas could drop from the house into these trenches and repel any attack from the beach. Other things around the house were items we were later to find around all the settlements; a big pot to boil down salt water to get salt, a small clearing to raise sugar cane, a few skinny chickens and a cistern to collect rain water from the roof.
It was now the 10th day of our journey. The wind was favorable, so it would be safe to start sailing after the scheduled 1500 Japanese Patrol. So shortly after 1500 we set sail. The Sergeant, the sailor, Kim Jon, and the new member of our party, Kong, were with us. Kong helped Kim Jon do the rowing. Pedro departed to organize a search of the surrounding islands to see if anyone else had gotten off the submarine. He had previously sent people to all the islands but wanted to check again.
The wind and sea were favorable when we left and our hopes were so high that we thought we could make the seventy miles by next morning. It was about 1730, when we had settled down to a comfortable pace that the Sailor, without much warning, started to head for the beach and spoke to the Sergeant in their native tongue. This aroused our suspicion, and after quizzing the Sergeant, he pointed out towards the sea and told us, as we could see, that a Japanese patrol was passing by. We dropped our sail, which cut down our silhouette, so they could not see us. By this time the boat had gone by, it had become dark and the wind had died down. For the next few hours, the Sergeant, the Sailor, Kim Jon and Kong took turns rowing. Later the wind came up again and the sailing became very pleasant. For supper that night, the Sailor had cooked us rice in his improvised galley. This galley consisted of a two-foot square sheet of steel, which he laid on the deck. On this steel he built an open fire. Then from a tripod arrangement he hung a pot to cook the rice.
About 0300 it was decided that we couldn’t make the headquarters without traveling too much in daylight. So they rowed us about two miles up the Tuba River to the homes of natives. He and his wife and family accepted us very graciously and made room for us in their house. We slept there until the morning, and found when we awoke that our host had killed one of his pet chickens and was cooking it for our dinner. This met with great approval, but we were sorry to see that they had made such a sacrifice.
After the 1500 patrol we continued our journey. This time our party had grown. Our host’s daughter had just married and he asked if it would be possible for the bride and groom to travel with us. Of course, after his hospitality, we had no choice. However, the party did not stop with just the newlyweds, they brought chicken, rice, and many other articles with them; so now our boat was loaded until it had about two inches of freeboard. In fact there was only sitting room for us with no room to move or stretch.
The Sailor did not leave with us, but instead ran ahead, and we were told he would join us later. We had become so fond of him that we were sorry to see him go. After a couple of hours, when we were a few miles off shore, we saw a man swimming in the water out to us. It turned out to be the Sailor, who, we were told, had stopped off to see his family. He brought back with him a new way of fixing rice in the form of pancakes. Shortly after joining us again, he cooked our evening meal and resumed his duties. The Sailor’s duties included about everything in the book and he would do them all at the same time. For example, he would be handling the tiller with one foot, rowing with the other foot, handling the sheet with his teeth, sewing up a hole in Baumgart’s pants and cooking our meal, all at the same time.
At 0600 we noticed several boats ahead of us, and as we approached we saw that they were boncas with natives diving for fish and spearing them under water. A bonca is basically an outrigger type of canoe with a sail. They turned out to be friends of the Sailor’s and they gave us some fish. Later on the Sailor cooked an eel and two other types of fish. The eel, after it was skinned, was very tasty. The wind was favorable but not very strong. We were sailing along when there began a lot of shouting. Our sails were immediately dropped, and we were amazed when another boat came alongside. It seems that this boat belonged to a friend of the Sergeant and the Sailor, who had just come from where we were heading. The Sergeant was anxious to know if there were any signs of the enemy ahead. They reported that there were none and departed.
While we were sailing, Kong would roll a cigarette and smoke it. Russo and Baumgart decided that they would like a smoke, so Kong rolled them one out of native tobacco and split Napa leaf for the paper. They claimed the cigarette was so strong it felt like hot tar going down the throat. It gave them a tobacco cure for a while.
The whole time we were sailing, we were going among reefs and hidden rocks, and it was very satisfying to see the way the Sailor seemed to know where each one was located. About 0530 we rounded the point that formed the bay where the headquarters stood. After much shouting by the Sergeant the guerilla lookout was awakened, and told to notify their captain that we were coming. About 0800 we landed the boat and were greeted by an army of guerrillas and their captain. Their Captain identified himself as Captain Nazario B Mayor USA FFE, Acting Commanding Officer of Section D of Sixth Military District, and invited us to his home, which was about two blocks off the beach.
Captain Mayor was a native Filipino who had graduated from the University of Kansas where he had received a commission in the U.S. Army through the R.O.T.C. We later found out that the house on Bugsuk Island, where we had first landed, was his home. He had been running a profitable lumbering business when the war started. When the Japanese came, he had to hide his tractors and equipment in the jungle, abandon his home, and destroy all his records and escape to the jungle.
We were still unable to walk very well and must have appeared a very disappointing sight to the guerrillas as examples of American soldiers. It was not only our sores that disabled us but also we had been so crowded together and unable to move while we sat on the hard wood deck of the sailboat that we were stiff.
On the way to Captain Mayor’s home, we met Mr. T. H. Edwards, whom we were later to know as a great friend. Mr. T. H. Edwards, an American citizen, was in business at Brook’s Point before the war and now in evacuation. We reached the house and met Mrs. Mayor and the rest of the family, plus many natives. They invited us to wash up and started to prepare a good meal. The Captain’s wife spoke English and had a formal education.
We were not at their home very long when Sergeant Amado S. Corpus, who was in charge of the U.S. Anny Signal Corps Coast Watcher Unit stationed there, introduced himself. He was a great sight for he was an American born Filipino and this was the first time that we could feel completely relaxed. No matter how assuring the natives were, “you still had a doubt about where their loyalties lay”.
We now found out that there would be a chance to contact Australia and ask for help. Our first worry was to get news to ComTask Force Seventy-One to warn him not to send any more ships through Balabac Strait.
Mrs. Mayor now had dinner ready and we sat down to a meal that was served in a crude form but showed signs of fashion.
It was decided that because of our poor physical condition and the fact that is would be unsafe for us should the Japanese come around that we were to go to the home of Mr. Edwards, which was about three miles inland. The Coastwatcher had a radio there to contact Australia. After dinner Captain Mayor arranged for two caribou carts to carry us back to the home of Mr. Edwards.
This trip proved very amusing. The caribou that was hitched to the cart that drew the Captain and four of us was an older bull. It was during the hot afternoon that we made the trip and unfortunately it had rained the day before. So about every hundred yards there was a mud wallow in which the caribou would lie down. The native boy would hit him and kick him as much as he could but the bull would not move until he wanted to do so. Thus, the trip took us all afternoon and we didn’t reach Mr. Edward’s house until 1700.
As we came up to a stream, we saw the house, and saw Mr. Edwards working on the rice mill. He greeted us very cheerfully and sent his native boy to the house to make it ready for us. When we arrived, we were greeted by Mrs. Edwards and the rest of the Signal Corps Group, plus Bill Wigfield and George Marquez of the U.S. Army, Chuck Watkins SIC U.S. Navy Air (they were Japanese prisoners that had escaped and now lived in the area), as well as Henry Garretson, a U.S. Citizen. The house was made of bamboo and built on stilts and as native as almost any of the houses we had been in, except that it was larger and had chairs and other indications of civilization.
Next to the house was a house built by Captain Mayor as a retreat for his family in case the Japanese landed. However, due to the Malaria around there, Captain Mayor kept his family down at the beach.
There was room for only three of us in Mr. Edward’s home so the officers stayed there and the other men stayed with the Coastwatcher Group in Captain Mayor’s home.
The Coastwatcher Group brought out their medicine kit and we were finally able to get sulfa and other medicine on our cuts. We also received cigarettes, soap and some clothes. In fact, we even had some coffee, and cheese and crackers. These were the emergency rations of the Coastwatchers.
Our first task was to send a message back to Australia, so the Captain made out a message and gave it to the Coastwatchers to send.
We were fed a good meal of coconut sprouts, rice, kalamayhatii, and a fruit similar to grapefruit. After dinner, Mr. Edwards brought out the news reports for the last few days, the reports being those that the Coastwatchers received over the radio every night and typed up for the people around the area. This brought us up to date with the outside world. We also realized what an important factor these news reports were for the guerrillas. That night we slept as peacefully as any person could.
The next few days were spent lying around and recuperating, talking to the natives, the Coastwatchers, and Charlie, Bill, and George. Of course, our main project was communicating with Australia and arranging to be picked up.
Our first day there, Mr. A.M. Sutherland, A Scottish Missionary, came to visit us. He was a fine person. At the Captain’s request, the next morning we held a church service, which was very impressive. The Edward’s, being very religious people, further helped to make this service as fine as could be Shortly after we had arrived, Mr. Edwards had dispatched a native to get a native doctor who was a short ways away. The following day he came with what little medicine he had. However, we had more faith in our medical care; but, to humor him, we let him change our dressings. The primary medical care that we had was attabrine, from the Coastwatchers’ supplies and we started taking it faithfully every day.
It was decided that haircuts would improve our appearance, so the Coastwatchers got the native lady that they had trained to give us all haircuts.
It had been arranged before we arrived that the native girls from the village would give the Coastwatcher boys a party. This meant tuba for all of them. Tuba is a white sap that they drain from coconut blossoms and is about as strong as beer. So the boys dressed up in their best suits of coveralls and started out for the party.
Sergeant Corpus, however, did not leave at the same time as the rest of the boys, and before they had gotten a half-mile away, they heard a shot; and when they returned to investigate, they found that Sergeant Corpus had shot himself. Immediately we called off the party. They managed to scrape together enough boards to make a coffin, but the wood was so scarce that they made a close fitting box. It was later revealed that Sergeant Corpus felt it was his fault that we were sunk. He felt that he should have known that Balabac Strait was mined and reported the fact to Australia.
At a later date we did get a chance to taste the ‘tuba’. I wouldn’t want it as my choice for a drink.
We had one scare while waiting around. One afternoon we heard an explosion that sounded like gunfire down on the beach. This brought us all to our feet and we ran to the top of the nearby hill to see if any landing boats had come into the bay. To our delight there was nothing around to cause alarm. We didn’t find out what it was. It must have been some native activity.
From the house we were in, we could see Japanese coastal boats sail by all day long, which was the only indication that there was still an enemy around.
I amused myself during this time by reading six-year-old copies of Reader’s Digest, and making cribbage boards and other things out of bamboo. I was not, however successful in making a comfortable pair of sandals that did not rub on some of the sores on my feet; so I was stilt bare footed. One of the days when I was tired of sitting around, I decided to go hunting wild boar with George Marquez. We borrowed a carbine from the Coastwatchers, but, though we saw several boars, we were unable to hit one. They moved so fast and the underbrush was so thick. We did, however, get one bird.
The only thing of merit that I really accomplished during our stay at the Edwards’ place was to fix a belt for Mr. Edwards’ rice mill. Mr. Edwards was very grateful. This rice mill was driven by a diesel engine, which Mr. Edwards had managed to salvage from his previous home. The fuel for it was furnished by the Japanese through barrels of oil that had drifted up on the beach from sunken ships.
The arrangements for being picked up were made by Captain Crowley. After finding out that the District Dato had two large kumpits and an outboard motor, we sent a message to request the use of them. This would give us means of reaching any submarine that might come in.
We next had to decide where would be the best place to be picked up. We consulted some Japanese charts that had been taken from a Japanese supply boat that had run aground at the other end of the island. The charts were used by the people as paper for printing money, because there was no other paper like it here. The place we decided upon was right off where we were located. We also arranged a series of signal lights whereby the arriving submarine would know approximately where we would be. We arranged to have three large lanterns hung in a row on an abandoned radio tower down on the point. When all the arrangements were made, we were sent a message saying that USS REDFIN would be there to meet us about 2000 the following night.
Ever since we arrived at Mr. Edwards’ place, we had heard about Mr. Vans Trivo Kierson, a citizen of Finland who was a seaman, diver, and engineer. They hoped he would be back in time to leave with us. The night before we were to leave he arrived and we met him. He is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. He had just returned from visiting the native villages on the island to get enough rice to feed the guerrillas. This was a tough job, because most of the natives did not have enough rice for themselves. However, he came back with several kilos of rice and promises for enough to supply the guerrillas for the next six months. One of his approaches was to swap with the chiefs of the village’s rice for some beer or whiskey that he had managed to salvage from a Japanese supply ship that had run aground on one part of the island. When the day for us to leave was finally known, we notified the non-native people in the area that we would be leaving the next day, and for them to dispose of their personal belongings in less than twelve hours. We arose early and started our walk back to Captain Mayor’s at the beach. We were in much better shape by now and some of us were able to walk a good share of the distance.
On our way down to the Coast we were not able to see the bay, and when we arrived at the Captain’s, we had a great surprise waiting for us. For the first time since the beginning of the war a Japanese Maru (coastal ship) had anchored off the spot where we were to be picked up. We immediately assumed that the Japanese knew we were there and were just waiting for the submarine to come in. Our spirits hit low ebb. However, we continued our plans and organized the party that was to leave with us. This party consisted of Mr. and Mrs. A.M. Sutherland (British Missionaries) and their two children who were six and three years old, Mr. Kierson (The Finnish Engineer), George Marquez, William Wigfield (U.S. Army), Charles 0. Watkins (U.S. Navy), and Henry Garretson (a U.S. citizen). This made for a total of eight FLIER survivors and nine others for a total of seventeen people.
Chief Howell had not gone back to the Edwards’ with us, but, rather stayed down on the Coast to repair one of the Coastwatchers’ radios that was broken; he joined us at this time and reported that the transmitter radio was in working order now.
That afternoon, the Captain and Jim Liddell went along the beach to investigate the Japanese coastal ship that was anchored. They decided that we wouldn’t be able to show our signal lights, but we would try to go around the anchored ship and meet REDFIN. The Coastwatchers had two portable transmitter radios, one to be on the beach, and the other to go in the kumpit with us. Thus, we would be able to communicate between the beach, the kumpit and REDFIN.
After dusk, at 2000 we began sending out our call to RED FIN. We found out that the unit we had on the beach wouldn’t work, so we started calling REDFIN with the unit we had in the kumpit, but we did not get any reply from them. After trying for quite some time with no luck, we became discouraged because none of the plans we had made were working. We had no signal lights on the beach and after two hours of trying we were receiving no signals from the REDFIN. We started out with the kumpit, which had the outboard motor towing the other kumpit. We went down the coast about three or four miles and made a big circle around the anchored Japanese ship. All this time we were turning the generator crank on the radio and calling the REDFIN in every way we could, but we will had no reply.
After another hour and a half, at around 2330 we finally heard what we thought was a reply by RED FIN. This boosted our hopes, but we could not locate them. They told us to use C.W. Keying because the voice was too weak. We told REDFIN that we would flash a light and ask them if they could see us. We did this several times, but still did not hear from them again or see them anywhere. We repeated this flashing several more times and by this time there were several people claiming that they could hear the submarine engines, but we thought this was only imagination as we couldn’t see the sub. Then at 0053 we received the word to stop the flashing because they had spotted us. Soon after that we saw them!
At 0100 REDFIN passed close and its skipper recognized Commander Crowley’s voice, so they came along side of us. When somebody reached out their hand to pull me aboard, I didn’t hesitate or ask permission to come aboard!
After much handshaking and other means of expression, we told the skipper of REDFIN what we thought the guerrillas needed most, and he really gave them about everything he could spare aboard the submarine. This consisted of guns, ammunition, food, medicine, and clothing. A special item was a pair of size 9 1/2 shoes for Mr. Edwards. When the two kumpits left the side of the submarine they were loaded to the gunnels and the only worry was to keep them from capsizing.
As a parting gesture to the natives and Coastwatchers we were to sink the Japanese ship and they could get the salvage supplies. Unfortunately we were unable to sink it.
The trip back to Australia was spent having the pharmacists’s mate doctor our cuts and feed us quinine and attabrine. Tremaine started to get his attacks of malaria during the trip but the rest of us were quickly getting well.
The morning of September 6, 1944 we saw the port of Darwin, Australia and then realized it was all over. We stayed in Darwin that day and night where we received some clothes from the Army. The clothes were some that were to be sent to the guerrillas in the islands, so they told us to help ourselves.
The next day Admiral Christy’s private plane flew up from Perth and flew us back to Perth. This was a twelve-hour flight so we arrived there about 2300. Lt. Bob Hanson was the pilot and a very good one, too. We were met at the airport by the Chief of Staff and two Captains. They personally drove us into town and there we split up. The Captain went to the Admiral’s home to stay; Jim and I had a suite of rooms in a B.O.Q.; and the rest of the men went to quarters in another part of town.
We were given two days to draw some pay, obtain a clothing allowance, purchase daily clothing and order uniforms. All of us, except the Captain, were flown 300 miles inland to the town of Kalgoorlie. The Admiral did not think it was a good idea for us to be around sailors who were going back out to sea.
Kalgoorlie was the gold mining town where President Herbert Hoover made his money and they were still mining gold. Jim and I stayed in the home of the mine manager. One day the manager suggested to me that 1 go to the mine at 0600 to witness the strength of the unions in Australia. At 0600 the union leader shouted “Are we going to work today?” A loud “no” was the response. The manager turned to me and said that his orders were to run the mine to full capacity. This same routine happened each morning for the remainder of the week. This was their annual race week with horse races every day.
After ten days we were flown back to Perth. My uniforms were finished and pay records were completed. In two days I had my new orders so I was flown to the states in a China Clipper plane for a two-week vacation at home. I reported to Boston Navy Yard for a new construction on the submarine USS LING. I do not know where the other seven men reported. P.S. USS LING was in the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific when the war ended.