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The Strange Mission of the Lanikai
“My God! What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!” the Admiral told Lanikai's skipper when she finally sailed into port
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
Slocum had confided that Lanikai would relieve the U.S.S. Isabel on station; she had left on December 3 for Camranh Bay’s entrance. “Izzy” was a trim, white, nine-hundred-ton yacht taken into the Navy during World War I. For the last decade she had served as holiday flagship for the commander in chief of the Asiatic Fleet. Her age and flyweight military muscle clearly made her the most easily expendable unit in the Fleet, but she possessed in addition a striking attribute for this mission: as a Navy buff Roosevelt could plainly see, in the copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships he kept handy, that Isabel’s white hull and buff upperworks, configuration, and wholly inconspicuous little battery of four 3-inch guns made her look like any typical small merchantman that used the China coast. So F.D.R. had designated Isabel as one of the “three small ships” that were to be used—the others to be chartered locally. And, as the President had “suggested,” a token five Filipino seamen were put aboard before her precipitous departure. She was to remain painted white, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commander in chief, Asiatic Fleet, directed her skipper in a personal briefing. Her running lights were to be dimmed at night to give the appearance of a fishing craft.
At 7 A.M. on the fifth Isabel was forty miles from Camranh Bay and its big concentration of Japanese warships when a Japanese plane closed her. Isabel was shadowed the remainder of the day, planes sometimes coming so close that their identification numbers could be made out. At 7:10 P.M., on Hart’s urgent orders, she reversed course and headed back to Manila Bay.
Replying to the President’s message, Hart radioed: “ HAVE OBTAINED TWO VESSELS. ONE NOW ENROUTE INDOCHINA COAST. SECOND ONE SAILING SOON AS READY. AM CERTAIN SHOULD NOT OPERATE THEM SOUTH OF PADARAN. ISABEL RETURNING. WAS SPOTTED AND IDENTIFIED WELL OFF COAST HENCE POTENTIAL UTILITY OF HER MISSION PROBLEMATICAL. HAVE NOT YET FOUND THIRD VESSEL FOR CHARTER .”
The “one now enroule” was Lanikai; the second was never commissioned, the plan having been overtaken by events at Pearl Harbor.
The eighth of December, 1941, was only three hours old when a radioman nudged me awake from fitful slumber on a rubber mat atop the afterdeck house. The message he carried read “ ORANGE WAR PLAN IN EFFECT. RETURN TO MANILA ,” the “orange” being a supposedly secret euphemism for “Japanese” that was recognized Navywide. But there was no need to awaken the crew until daybreak.
In today’s frame of reference, which tolerates the Korean and Vietnam wars having been fought without constitutional legitimacy, it is difficult to appreciate F.D.R.’s dilemma in 1941. He was sentimentally attached to China, whence Grandpa Warren Delano, a traditional Old China hand, had thrilled the young Franklin with tall tales of clipper ships, pirates, mandarins, and perhaps even something of the opium operations that had contributed a million dollars to the family fortune. The powerful China lobby, plus Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, a lifetime Japanophobe, reinforced the Rooseveltian leanings. And with advisers like Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and man for all seasons Harry Hopkins to encourage the President’s liberal tendencies, he naturally felt deeply opposed to the Nazi-Fascists.
But the President found himself mired in a swamp of national apathy. Army draftees drilled with wooden rifles, stovepipe “cannon,” and “tanks” improvised from trucks. Their typical view of Army life was made clear in messages chalked on the fences and in the latrines: “ OHIO ”—over the hill in October (i.e., desertion). The general beer-hall and back-yard bull session attitude was “Let those European bastards beat each others’ brains out!”- sentiments strongly reinforced when Germany fell on the U.S.S.R. in June. What ordinary American wanted to die defending Singapore? or Surabaja (if he had ever heard of it), or blitzed London? or even Manila? But Roosevelt was a determined man as well as a consummate political strategist; despite public unconcern he had aligned the nation against Hitler by means of heavy congressional approval of the Lend-Lease Act on March 11, 1941.
On August 3, 1941, F.D.R. left New London, Connecticut, aboard his yacht U.S.S. Potomac, taking great pains to give the appearance of a fishing holiday. Transferred secretly at sea to the cruiser U.S.S. Augusta, he arrived at Argentia, Newfoundland, on August S for a four-day initial face-to-face meeting with Winston Churchill, also on a fishing expedition and a desperately urgent one. Britain was broke. Her lone ally, Russia, was reeling backward. It was 1917 all over again.
What F.D.R. promised Churchill over the nuts and wine perhaps never will be fully known, but a reference Churchill made in the House of Commons in January, 1942, gives a clue: ”… the probability, since the Atlantic Conference, at which I discussed these matters with Mr. Roosevelt, that the United States, even if not herself attacked, would come into the war in the Far East. …”