Himugso Heritage Feature: Guerrilla Submarines in Northern Mindanao during World War II (Part 1)

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By Mike Baños
June 12, 2019

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During World War II, US Navy submarines helped supply the Filipino and American guerrillas with arms, ammunition and supplies, also ferrying personnel in and out of the islands.

Known as the Spyron Operation, it supported the Filipino and American Guerrillas resistance to the Japanese occupation after the Philippines fell to the Japanese Imperial Forces in early 1942.

The Spyron operation was key to the success of the resistance. Without the arms and supplies ferried by US submarines, the guerrillas would have been unable to sustain their intelligence gathering and sabotage operations against the Japanese forces.

Even before Corregidor surrendered, submarines were already playing a key role in the Battle for the Philippines supplying arms and ammunition to the beleaguered island, and ferrying people in and out the war zone.

The Quezon Mission

Notable among these missions was the USS Swordfish (SS-193) under Lt. Cmdr. C.C. Smith which picked up President Manuel L. Quezon, his wife, two daughters, and son; Vice President Tomas Osmeña; Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos; and Philippine Army officers General Valdes, Colonel Nieto, and Chaplain Captain Ortiz from Corregidor on February 19, 1942.

 Swordfish then departed via a safety lane through the minefield in the harbor and headed for San Jose on Panay Island, where she arrived on February 22nd, and transferred President Quezon and his party to a motor tender. Quezon and his family proceeded to Iloilo and were ferried to Oroquieta, Misamis Occidental by PT-41 and from there motored to Del Monte Airfield in Bukidnon where they were subsequently flown to Australia by B-17.(Source: John Clear's collection of more than 63,000 pages of U. S. submarine World War II patrol reports, compiled from original U. S. Government microfilms. 

Spyron in Normin

The first Spyron operation in Northern Mindanao and seventh Spyron mission overall,  involved the Bowfin (SS-287) under Cmdr. J. H. Willingham on Sept. 3, 1943 when it embarked nine persons and  delivered seven tons of radio equipment and supplies at Iligan Bay, 1 ¼ mile east of Binuni Point (off present day Bacolod, Lanao del Norte).

Four weeks later on Sept. 29, 1943, at the same location, Bowfin evacuated nine guerrillas, selected by their superior officers, to be transported to Australia.

Among them were Luis Morgan, executive officer of Col. Wendell Fertig, who headed the organized Filipino-American Resistance in Mindanao ; Edward M. Kuder, a well-known superintendent of schools in Mindanao and Samuel C. Grashio, a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot prior to his capture on Bataan. Grashio had survived the infamous 'Death March' to be confined in three different Japanese prison camps before finally escaping from the Davao Penal Colony with a group of 10 POWs and two Philippine convicts and then joining the guerrillas.

The Narwhal Cometh

But perhaps the most famous submarine to figure in Spyron operations in Northern Mindanao was the  USS Narwhal (SS-167), the lead ship of her class of submarine and one of the "V-boats", the second ship of the United States Navy to be named for the narwhal. She was named V-5 (SC-1) when her keel was laid down on 10 May 1927 by the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine.

At 371 feet long and with a displacement of 4,000 tons submerged, Narwhal was one of the biggest US Navy submarines during WW2, but was not really suited for attack, thus was assigned to transport supplies and personnel to guerrillas in the Philippines especially, eventually became the leading submarine in supporting the Philippine guerrillas with nine secret transport missions to her credit, five of which were conducted in the Caraga and Northern Mindanao regions.

First Mission to Nasipit

On her seventh war patrol and ninth Spyron mission, Narwhal skippered by Lt. Cmdr.Frank D. Latta, entered Butuan Bay submerged at 0508 hrs on November 15, 1943. At 1605 hours, she sighted a launch flying the proper security signal. She surfaced and Colonel Wendell W. Fertig, commander of the United States Forces in the Philippines (USFIP) and head of the organized resistance in Mindanao, came aboard. Narwhal then proceeded to Nasipit Harbor. On her way in she ran aground on hard sand in the channel's west bank, but managed to free herself quickly.

At 1746 hours, Narwhal moored starboard side at the Nasipit dock as a Filipino band played “Anchors Away.” At 2330 hours, she completed offloading 46 tons of supplies.

Early the next day, she embarked 32 evacuees, including POW escapees Shofner, Hawkins and Dobervich, women, two children, and one baby, and got underway. Spyron Operations Chief Lt. Cmdr. Chick Parsons left Narwhal with the harbor pilot.

Remarks in Narwhal's patrol report: "The very real need for any kind of stores in guerrilla occupied areas led us to transfer considerably more stores than were actually consigned as cargo. Additional arms and ammunition as well as foodstuffs were transferred to Col. [Wendell] Fertig.

An eyewitness account of this story is told in the book “My Faraway Home” by Mary Mackay Maynard, who was one of the two children evacuated. It is also related in John Keat’s book “They Fought Alone” which relates the guerrilla war in Mindanao under Fertig who was on hand to meet the submarine.

Seventeen days later, on Dec. 2, 1943,  Narwhal entered Butuan Bay and surfaced at 1706 hours, some 1,000 yards off Cabadbaran. Shortly thereafter, a 150-ton barge came alongside. Fertig and Parsons came aboard. 

Narwhal embarked seven evacuees - two soldiers, three civilian men, one woman, and one eight-year-old girl. She unloaded 92 tons of supplies, 300 gallons of lube oil, a small amount of hand tools, received three messages regarding the next phase of her mission, and used the portable radio station on the barge to send three messages. At 2205 hours, she got underway with Parsons aboard.  (Guerrilla photos courtesy of MacArthur Memorial) (to be continued)

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