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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
Admiral Hart testified also. In July, 1967, he wrote me: “I was a full day on the stand before that Committee. In a long forenoon of it, Ferguson, Brewster and Keefe took a lot of time shooting questions at me. All were pretty clumsy, not having much in their minds to go on.” This was unfortunate, as in October, 1970, Admiral Hart wrote me that “only Admiral Stark could have known anything more of the inception—the whys and wherefores—of the picket ship idea [than I].”
Sumner Welles, F.D.R.’s Undersecretary of State, in 1950 pointed up Roosevelt’s agonizing dilemma: He did, however make it very plain to me that he thought the immediate danger was an attack by Japan upon some British possession in the Far East, or even more probably upon the Netherlands East Indies. What worried him deeply was that, though it might be impossible to persuade either the Congress or the American people … it was tantamount to an attack on our own frontiers and justified military measures in self defense. He felt, however, that Japan would not attack the United States directly until and unless we found ourselves in the European war.
Roosevelt was equally unsure of the Philippines and their mercurial president, Manuel Quezon. So on November 26, 1941, he directed U.S. High Commissioner Francis B. Sayre to consult Quezon “in great confidence” to try to determine if the Philippines would support the United States in the event she found herself at war with Japan. Those Filipino crewmen aboard the “three small ships” might just help Quezon and his countrymen make up their minds in case of any Japanese attack.
Would Roosevelt have gone for an incident? In December, 1971, the British released the minutes of an August 19, 1941, cabinet meeting, indirectly quoting Churchill’s remarks covering his Argentia conference with Roosevelt a week earlier: He [Roosevelt) obviously was determined that they should come in. … If they were to put up the issue of peace or war to Congress, they would debate it for months. … The President had said that he would wage war but not declare it and that he would become more provocative. If the Germans did not like it, they could attack American forces. … The President’s orders to these [convoy] escorts were to attack any German U-boat which showed itself even if it were 200 to 300 miles away from the convoy. Everything was to be done to force an incident [Italics supplied].
There seems to be no reason to suppose that after Hull’s tough message to the Japanese on November 26 Roosevelt’s idea of forcing an incident was not applicable to the Pacific and the Japanese as well as to the Atlantic and the Germans.
Some respected historians, such as Samuel Eliot Morison, have seized on Roosevelt’s proclivity for dabbling in Naval affairs as an explanation of his “three small ships” directive. Morison, using as an example the cruisers that F.D.R. earlier had proposed “to keep popping up here and there, and keep the Japs guessing,” brushes off the “picket boats” episode with a footnote: The President’s later proposal to Admiral Hart to operate river gunboats [sic] as picket boats in the South China Sea does not stem from the same idea, but from a desire to supplement the work of our patrol planes in reporting Japanese ship move- ments. The suggestion made at the Pearl Harbor Inquiry that this was an international provocation was disingenuous; the United States Navy has a right to send its ships anywhere on the high seas.
Why then “ ISABEL … BUT NOT OTHER NAVAL VESSELS ”—Only ships that did not look like Naval vessels? Why those “ MINIMUM ” tokens of a Naval vessel that “ WOULD SUFFICE ”? Why Filipino crewmen when F.D.R. knew that Hart had seven thousand U.S. seamen to draw on? Neither Morison nor any of the many witnesses questioned on the subject before the congressional investigating committee provided any satisfactory answers. And as for silence, it is far more eloquent than words.
In May, 1952, Rear Admiral John B. Heffernan, director of Naval History, asked Admiral Hart to review Morison’s book and offer corrections. Included in the latter was one on the footnote covering the “three small ships” episode: “Footnote 20 should be rewritten to accord with facts or be entirely omitted; it is not a piece of history of which to be proud.”
One spring day in 1970 I was having a prelunch sherry with Admirals Harry Hill and Thomas Hart. “I once had the unpleasant requirement to send this young man on what looked like a one-way mission,” Hart told Hill in explanation of our past association. Then he recounted Lanikai’s narrow escape from the dragon’s mouth. “Would you tell Admiral Hill if you think we were set up to bait an incident, a casus belli?” I asked him.
“Yes, I think you were bait!” said Admiral Hart. “And I could prove it. But I won’t. And don’t you try it, either!”
We are trying, Admiral Hart. And in remembrance of your near clairvoyance in foreseeing the shape of coming events in the Far East, we can only hope that in looking down from an old sailor's snug retreat you will approve of setting the record straight.