The Strange Mission of the Lanikai


“Departed Corregidor 1940 [7:40 P.M.], destination unknown”— Lanikai ’s log entry for December 26—gave her crew of eighteen and six passengers not the mildest clue that during the next three months four thousand perilous miles would pass under the keel while all hands labored under the well-founded suspicion that the Japanese navy might be expected behind the next island.

It had been a grueling day, rounding up supplies and swabbing on green paint, but there was no lack of eager lookouts straining all senses to catch a whiff of smoke, spot a feather of bow wave, hear the clang of a slammed hatch or a dropped tool. Sounds carry far on a still night at sea, and there was the certain prospect that anything afloat or aloft would have to be enemy. Aboard Lanikai there was only the creaking and groaning of the hull, the slap of blocks and rigging, and the gentle pffut-pffut-pffut of the auxiliary.

So began Lanikai ’s hegira, beating her five- or six-knot way south, sailing by night and holing up by day as close to island greenery as depth of water allowed. Her fresh meat was the scrawny chickens bartered for shotgun shells and the fish caught alongside, all washed down with rainwater and coconut milk.

One remembers with a little chill the might-have-beens: the near-miss bullets and bombs—fire on board—passing almost under the Japanese guns at JoIo—groundings that could have been the end of the road—sighting enemy warships against the sunset sky—near-disaster south of Java when a great Japanese carrier force swept around Lanikai, which was saved by her own insignificance, just another slightly larger whitecap on a typhoon-tortured sea.

There had been good moments too. “Dot Nederlander of yourss hass got a zuspicious aggzent!” bellowed the skipper of a small Dutch warship, her guns trained out, when Lieutenant Paul Nygh, Royal Netherlands Navy, a Lanikai passenger, answered his hail. “Doc” Cossette, pharmacist’s mate, slacked fire during a Surabaja air raid long enough to shake his fist at the Dutch cruiser Tromp alongside. “You squarehead bastards!” he cried, “you’ve cut our foresail halyards with your goddamn popguns!” To engineer Crispin Tipay, a near-miss meant only one thing: “Queek, boyss! Get the dinghy. Thot bomb just keel a lot of feesh!” There was a pleasant interlude on the island of BaIi. Then, at last, Australia, with its hospitality and rough humor. Baskets of groceries came aboard without bills, sometimes with a forbidden bottle of brandy hidden beneath. “Year foitin’ fer us, airen’t ye now, mite? There’s nao price tag to that !” they said.

Over the decades that followed, my suspicions first aroused by Commander Slocum’s apparent cynicism- his suggestion about asking the Japanese for water—continued to grow. A clue here, a conversation there, gleanings from the archives declassified bit by bit, brought into clearer focus the intent that lay behind the President’s message. Over thirty years later SIocum, now a rear admiral, wrote: “I feel sure you realise that when you were ready to sail … most of us understood time had almost run out, and that whatever ‘FDR had in mind’ could in all probability never be carried off.” What indeed did “FDR have in mind?”

It seems clear that the part of the message beginning with “AT THE SAME TIME” was Stark’s addition, conveying to his close friend and frequent correspondent Hart that he was innocent of any complicity in the actual as opposed to the stated purpose of ’s assignment. On his own, Hart had commenced overflights of Camranh Bay on about November 23, and on November 30 Ingersoll sent him a dispatch “legalizing” this. His hand-written rough draft bears an “OK, Stark” and “Read to the President and he approved.” The resulting information was flowing in, and it was in fact the abundance of intelligence on Japanese movements that caused Hull’s urgent call to Roosevelt at Warm Springs to hurry back to face the obvious crisis. There was no need for a “defensive information patrol” —but at the same time the almost constant American reconnaissance of the waters in which the patrol was to operate would have produced a quick report if Lanikai (for example) had been attacked by the Japanese.

One of the first in whom suspicions were aroused was Representative Frank B. Keefe, of Wisconsin, who told the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack in 1945: … Admiral Hart was already conducting reconnaissance off that coast by planes from Manila. So far as the Navy was concerned, sufficient information was being received from this air reconnaissance. Had the Japanese fired on any of these small vessels, it would have constituted an overt act on the part of Japan.

Grilled by Michigan’s Senator Homer Ferguson before the same body, Admiral Ingersoll repeatedly testified that the message was wholly the President’s idea; that Admiral Stark would not have initiated such a movement and was satisfied with the information Hart already was furnishing; that if the President gave Stark any reasons, including for the “suggested” use of Filipino crewmen, Stark did not pass them on to him. Ferguson’s final question was “Could you tell us whether or not these were really men-of-war, so that if they had been fired on it would have been an overt act against the United States?” “It would have been,” replied Ingersoll.