The Strange Mission of the Lanikai


On March 18, 1941, eighty-two days out of Manila, all sails set, rigging taut, a small, green, weathered schooner entered the port of Fremantle, Western Australia. Atop her afterdeck house a small-caliber, slim-barrelled cannon sat on a brass pedestal. Faded, tattered Philippine and United States flags whipped from her spanker gaff. Above them, at the main peak, floated a wisp of bunting that the intrigued onlookers aboard the Allied warships present thought might be a man-o-warsman’s commission pennant.

The windjammer’s name, U.S.S. Lanikai, sparked instant recognition at headquarters—twice during the last three months she had been reported overdue and presumed lost. Chief of staff Rear Admiral William R. Purnell met her skipper with appropriate astonishment: “My God! What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!”

My introduction to Lanikai took place on December 4, 1941, when as a young lieutenant I was called into U.S. Asiatic Fleet headquarters on the Manila waterfront and told I was her commanding officer. Orders were oral, informal, and brief. “Commission her as a U.S. man-of-war, get a part-Filipino crew aboard, arm her with a cannon of some sort and one machine gun,” said Fleet operations officer Commander Harry Slocum, adding that she was to be ready for sea in forty-eight hours, provisioned for a two-week cruise.

Having been brought up in a Navy where one planned in detail and requisitioned in quintuplicate after many conferences and much coffee, I was relieved to be set straight on the new, streamlined procedure. “The rules do not apply here,” Slocum explained. “The Navy Yard has been directed to give you highest priority—anything you ask for within reason—without paperwork of any kind. Of this you can rest absolutely assured; the President himself has directed it.” Proof that the White House had spoken was soon evident. “Sign this receipt for ‘one schooner’ and tell me what you want,” said Commander R. T. Whitney, captain of the Yard. There was no time for the usual small talk or coffee. Telephone calls to ordnance, supply, hospital, communications, and personnel mobilized the Yard’s resources. A Spanish-American War three-pounder “quick firer” already was being bolted to the afterdeck-house roof, the biggest cannon it was felt could safely be fired without collapsing the twenty-seven-year-old ship’s structure. A half dozen Filipino-American seamen were on their way to the dock. The native crewmen who had come in a package with the ship had just been sworn into the Navy. Speaking little English, they were at a loss to understand what it was all about, but they cheerfully accepted the bags of uniforms, proudly donned the little round white sailor hats, and turned to, loading stores, ammunition, and the bags of rice and cases of salmon that were their bread and meat.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Charlie Kinsey arrived at the dock with his jaw dropped down. He walked forward and squinted at the ship’s nameplate, then called down to Chief Gunner’s Mate Merle Picking, who already was checking out his “main battery,” the three-pounder.

“I’ve got orders to the Lanikai ,” said Kinsey in a thick Georgia drawl, “but this cain’t be it!

The President’s message, carrying highest-secrecy classification and precedence, had said his order was to be executed “as soon as possible and in two days if possible.” So ready or not, on the forenoon of December 7—still December 6 in the United States—I reported for final instructions. “Open these orders when you are clear of Manila Bay,” said Slocum. “I can say for your ears only that you are headed for Indochina. If you are queried by the Japanese, tell them you’re looking for the crew of a downed plane.”

Lanikai’s radio receiver worked, I reported, but the transmitter did not. The water supply concerned me, too. Aboard a ship designed for a crew of five there were nineteen. “You have a set of international signal flags, don’t you?” said Slocum ironically. “If you run short of water, signal any passing Japanese man-of-war for some.” Lanikai sailed the fifteen miles out to Manila Bay’s entrance that afternoon and anchored, awaiting dawn to transit the minefield channel. Her crew, worn out from frantic last-minute preparations for sea, found their bunks early. Topside, in the soft tropical night, I watched the hundreds of lights twinkling in the clear air over the great fortress of Corregidor, “The Rock,” bulking huge and black nearby. Tomorrow those sealed orders would be torn open and the great adventure revealed.