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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
The War Cabinet, totally unaware of the Pearl Harbor attack force, met at noon to discuss the major Japanese expedition now heading south off Indochina. As usual, Stimson recorded the gist of the proceedings; it was the opinion of everyone that “if this expedition was allowed to get around the southern point of Indochina and to go off and land in the Gulf of Siam … it would be a terrific blow at all of the three Powers, Britain at Singapore, the Netherlands, and ourselves in the Philippines. It was the consensus of everybody that this must not be allowed .… that if the Japanese got into the Isthmus of Kra, the British would fight. It was also agreed that if the British fought, we would have to fight.”
There was some chat about the U.S.S. Panay incident, and it may be assumed that the President’s elephantine memory gave him total recall of the worldwide furor provoked when this tiny Yangtze gunboat was sunk by trigger-happy Japanese aviators on December 12, 1937. There was not much hope of inflaming American public opinion or Congress sufficiently to support a declaration of war, judging from their apathetic reactions to the Atlantic incidents. But it was essential that Roosevelt have at the very least a legal reason to commit American forces. Perhaps pondering this, the President left to escape the pressure briefly at Warm Springs, Georgia. December 1. The Japanese cabinet secretly made the final decision for war. An intercepted Tokyo message told Japanese diplomats in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Manila to destroy their code machines.
The Japanese envoys in Washington, following their orders, made one more appeal to an unreceptive Hull, suggesting a second-level meeting at Hawaii—Wallace or Hopkins versus Prince Konoye or Viscount Ishii.
Having been urged by Hull to return from Warm Springs, Roosevelt arrived at the White House from Union Station about noon. Hull was already there. Stark arrived at 12:50 and left at 1:25, overstaying the President’s lunchtime by twenty-five minutes. Obviously what went on was too hot for the telephone, as Roosevelt’s alter ego and prime counsellor, Harry Hopkins, had to come from his U.S. Naval Hospital bed for a belated White House snack and a post-mortem on the conference. He tottered in just as Stark was leaving. There is no record of the proceedings. Roosevelt, Hopkins, Hull, and Stark are not known to have mentioned the matter afterward; Stark adroitly fielded questions in investigations or sat mute when interviewed on the issue.
Admiral Stark hurried back to his office and handed his assistant chief of Naval operations, Rear Admiral Royall E. Ingersoll, the bare, specific requirements laid down by F.D.R. that resulted in the commissioning of the Lanikai, but gave him no background information whatever. By about 7 P.M. the message Ingersoll had labored on and conferred over during the afternoon went to the code machine for transmission to Manila. The events of the week that followed soon became a page of history that closes with those well-remembered words- Pearl Harbor.
Following the unexpected outbreak of a very clearly expected war, Lanikai fell into a sort of limbo, her raison d’etre dissolved by the “incident” at Pearl Harbor. A heavy Japanese air raid on December 10 destroyed Manila’s Cavité Navy Yard and ended any possibility of Lanikai’s being fitted with submarine-listening gear. So for a week she patrolled under sail outside the harbor entrance. To everyone’s genuine surprise nothing collapsed when several test rounds were fired from the three-pounder. Monster cockroaches and ancient debris tumbled out of crannies, but if there were any rats aboard, no one saw them. More likely, in the wise ways of ships’ rats, they had got the gist of F.D.R.’s message and left Lanikai for better duty elsewhere.
Blundering through the minefield channel twice daily—even though the mines were “friendly”—clearly was a greater menace to Lanikai than her patrols might be to the Imperial Navy. So on December 24 she was called alongside the pier to help evacuate Navy headquarters.
With the Asiatic Fleet falling back on Java, there was no point in Hart’s remaining; he turned over local Naval command to Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, commandant i6th Naval District, and departed southward on December 26. The day before, a very unmerry Christmas, Hart’s flag lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Charles Adair, jumped down to Lanikai ’s deck and, without much trouble, located me.
“Skipper, I’ve got a proposition,” Adair told me without preamble. “How’d you like to take a crack at running the blockade to Java? The boss is leaving by submarine. No space for staff. It’s a long chance and your ship. What do you say?”
My reply was instant: “When do we start?”
Admiral Rockwell having reluctantly given permission, Lanikai hurriedly took in provisions, fuel, and water. “Go to sea in that thing?” goodnaturedly gibed a sailor who was not a member of the crew. “You gotta outboard motor?” There was assorted advice, including a reminder to blow up our water wings before starting.