Submarine From Corregidor: The Escape

by ELIZABETH E. SAYRE

6

EVERY incident of our last day on Corregidor stands out vividly in my memory. I talked with many old friends, knowing I should not see them again, yet unable to tell them so, as our departure was a military secret. The submarine which had evacuated President Quezon and his party was returning to pick us up that very night. Some of them knew, however, and pressed into my hand a watch, a note, a class ring, asking me to take it home, “Tell them I’m fine; they mustn’t worry; we’ll lick the Japs! This place is the safest spot in the Philippines.” they wouldn’t look at me when they talked: they knew that I knew what they meant.

It was dark when we walked to the entrance of Malinta Hospital tunnel. I saw several friends there whose hands 1 clasped as we were hurried into General MacArthur’s car. General Edward King’s heartwarming smile and soft Southern voice sending love to his wife; Colonel Arthur Parker, his pipe momentarily in his hand as he whispered, “Good luck. Here is my family’s address in San Antonio. Try to see them.” There was Major Sitter, Doctor Artman — our good friends and efficient physicians. Last of all there was Carlos, faithful Filipino servant to all the American Governor Generals and High Commissioners. Tears came into my eyes. He had left wife and home and children to come with us and we were compelled to leave him. “Sorry you go this dangerous way. Thank you, High Commissioner. Good-bye.” There must be some special place in Paradise for loyal Filipinos like Carlos.

Our car sped down the hill and we drew up on the North dock where many figures were quietly loading a small yacht which had been converted into a patrol boat. We were to get aboard quickly because the Japs had been shelling this particular “hot spot.” General MacArthur’s voice was reassuring when he said, “You will have a hard trip, but when you come up at the end you will he in a different world.” Admiral Rockwell’s hand was firm and warm. “Good luck. You are going out with our ace submarine skipper. He’ll get you through.”

We huddled on the afterdeck on top of our suitcases as the ropes were cast off and we moved away mysteriously into the blackness. We spoke in low voices; after the monotony of two months of siege on Corregidor, at last wc were moving into action. Our fifteen-year-old boy pressed against us in the dark. “Where are we going, Daddy? You said you would tell me as soon as we started off.” “We’re going home, Bill. We’re going home!” What a surge of emotion those words aroused in our hearts.

We looked back. In the dim light of a clouded half-moon we could see the hogback shape of Corregidor looming up behind us, and the occasional sweep of searchlights blazing forth. Near the shoreline of Bataan, we entered a little cove and tied up alongside a barge. The captain, Commander Neeler, came to us.

“Go below and try to get some sleep,” he urged. “We shall remain here until the moon goes down. We’re now out of reach of Jap shells from Cavite. But our rendezvous is not until 3.00 A.M.”

I tried to sleep in the cabin, but could not. I heard soft voices talking overhead; occasional splashes; there were distant guns from Bataan, their thrrrump! reminding us of our men holding Mariveles Mountain. How long could they endure the pounding and strafing from a constantly reinforced enemy? At two I got up, put on my dress, and smoothed my hair with a pocket comb. There was a tap on the cabin door and a low voice said, “We are moving off in a moment.”

Soon we were back again on the afterdeck. Our ship shoved off from the oil barge. The moon had set, and there was a cool freshness in the air. We circled slowly, smoothly, around the waters of North Channel, waiting for our submarine to appear. Our eyes were straining into the star-reflecting waters. “There she is! ” someone whispered. “Look! On our starboard!” From the darkness we saw emerging a slim black shadowy ship, much larger than I had expected. There were many figures on her deck as she drew alongside. Hands reached out to help us across and down a narrow wet gangplank. We stood for only a moment on the wet and glistening deck while our scanty baggage, some mail, and a few supplies were carried across. “Good-bye and good luck!” came across the water from the men on the Mary Ann. We said farewell to Commander Parker, the High Commissioner’s naval aide. He pressed his class ring into my hand. “Take this to Ruth for me,” he said, “and give my love to her and to Johnnie and Tommie.” lie had helped us through many dangers and had expected to return to his wife and young sons in January. Somewhere he is with our Navy now, fighting the Battle of the Pacific, for he got out later before Corregidor fell.

7

We went down two narrow round hatchways, through the conning tower and the control room. Now I knew what Admiral Rockwell had meant when he said, “Wear slacks if you have any!” Below, it was brightly lighted, but we were now in cramped quarters. We scarcely knew where to put ourselves in all the confusion of a sudden influx of ten people, ten suitcases, and three soldier locker trunks of official papers. Where could they stow us away?

We were moving! There was a slight motion. A young officer motioned our party down the narrow passage which ran about forty feet through the officers’ quarters, at either end of which were two watertight doors. Along each side of this passage were three tiny cabins, the largest of which was the wardroom, a compact little room which seated eight people at mealtimes, slept three people at night, and had two canvas folding chairs, a built-in library on one wall, a radio speaker and two wall fans on the other. This room was the only one in the sub which afforded the luxury of chairs and a table, but since it had now to be used to give two sittings of meals three times a day and sleeping space to some of our party, as well as to some of the junior officers, it could hardly be termed a recreation room! Next to this was a tiny galley which boasted the greatest boon of all — an electric refrigerator. Directly across from the galley was the submarine’s shower bathroom, which I called the “Execution Chamber.” A young officer escorted the four women of our party into this tiny cell of horrors and explained the intricate mechanism of its sanitary arrangements. “It is quite simple,” he assured us, “if you will remember that there are only seven operations to perform. But if you make a mistake there are dire consequences.” He proceeded to work the various levers, wheels, and pedals. We watched him with bated breath. “Now one of you try it,” he suggested encouragingly. One by one we brought our wits and our muscles into play. In the hot, moist air we were soon dripping with perspiration.

“Fine,”he said. “I believe you will not make any mistakes.” Poor deluded but hopeful instructor! We soon learned that there was more to it than first met the eye. We learned to avoid this room like the plague unless the ship was surfaced. We women were on our mettle in this man’s world, and we longed to cause no trouble, but there were times when both our minds and our bodies refused to sustain us in this ordeal, and we had to call the galley boy to the rescue with mop and bucket.

After this forthright introduction to the torture chamber, we were led down the passage toward the stern, past the Captain’s little cabin, where he shared his quarters with my husband, to the four-bunk cabin at the end, which was the petty officers’ cabin. Here there were two double-decker bunks, a washbasin, a mirror, and four drawers which somehow the officers had managed to empty for us, to hold our clothes and toilet articles. We were both surprised and delighted to find we had running water in our cabin, although we were cautioned to use it very sparingly. Also, we had a circulating wallfan, which we never turned off save when our ship made dives to get away from enemy ships.

“Try to get some sleep now,” suggested Lieutenant McCloskey. “We will submerge at 6.00 A.M.” We took off as much clothing as we could and stretched out on our bunks. “This was really not bad,” we thought. But at 5.55 A.M. came new and unaccountable noises — bangs and screwings. A quick knock and one of the crew stepped in, turned a valve, and, without even looking in our embarrassed direction, vanished. At 6.00 A.M. a harsh klaxon sounded three times; we felt a slight motion; our ears tightened up, and soon the air became so close and so hot we could not sleep. We were now deep under the surface at the usual cruising depth.

8

It seemed only a few minutes later when we were called in to breakfast with the Captain, a young, earnest, rather pale-looking man, whose quiet confidence soon gave us reassurance such as only masterful leadership can give. One look into those steady blue eyes made us realize that Admiral Rockwell was right — here was an “ace.” This young man already had eight scalps to his belt — eight Jap ships he had sent to the bottom.

The Captain explained our routine: “During these daylight hours we shall be running under water at a slow rate of speed — about 3 to 4 knots. At periodic intervals we rise to periscope depth and then dive again. If we sight a plane — enemy or doubtful — we dive much deeper and lie still because on a clear, calm day we can be seen from the air, even at considerable depth. At night we run on the surface and make much better speed. Immediately after breakfast you had better turn in and pretend it’s night. You’ll find it too hot to do anything but be still, and you’ll use up less oxygen that way.”

Following his advice, we went back to our cabins, where it was now 90°, took off all but the most scanty clothing, and lay down in our bunks. The air got hotter and more foul as those long hours dragged by. It was almost impossible to sleep longer than fifteen minutes at a stretch. We would lie in our bunks, which soon became pools of perspiration, getting up now and then to take a sponge bath to relieve our burning skin. During that interminable first “night” we wondered if one could get used to this. And how many of these “nights” — or was it days? — should we have to spend before the end? I learned to keep a wet towel hanging on the side rail of my bunk, and occasionally dampened my forehead, my arms, my legs. The relief was only momentary and the resurging burning heat worse than before.

Sometimes we would get up, put on a robe, and walk down the passage to the galley. The mess boy managed to keep cool water in the refrigerator, and it was heavenly to open the icebox door and feel a breath of coolness for a moment while we reached for the pitcher of water. As we turned to go back, we looked down the hatchway into the torpedo room. Always there were some men working on these torpedoes, for at any moment our ship might have to fire, in less than two minutes, eight torpedoes of 3000 pounds each, and we must be always primed for instant action.

In the torpedo room were a few “hot bunks” where someone was always taking his turn at sleep. Here was where our son, Bill, slept — when he slept! I never once saw him on a cot, but sometimes the men in our party would tell me Bill was asleep. He kept going until he was so exhausted sleep would descend upon him with a knockout blow. There were too many strange and interesting experiences for Bill to waste any time on sleep! The crew were most wonderfully kind to him — patient under the constant questioning, playfully joking, indulgent about sharing food, and showing him the intricate ways and means of torpedoes, periscope, batteries, control system. After this voyage home, Bill decided he wanted to enlist as a seaman.

Somehow the days passed by. We lived for that wonderful moment each evening when darkness settled down upon the waters above us and our ship dared to rise to the surface and the first sweet breath of fresh air swept through the passageway. When the sea was calm, the forward hatch was opened and then the air was immediately pure and fresh. The first half-hour was the best, for soon thereafter the heat was intensified by the charging batteries which began to store up their vitally needed power as soon as we had “surfaced.”

What a maze and labyrinth of twisted coils and machinery is built into a submarine! When the floor boards of the passageway were raised, we saw the compact mass of batteries and heard them clicking away like a million typewriters. The ceiling and walls of our cabin were checkerboarded with screws, valves, pipes, ventilators, and other such things.

Our admiration for Captain Smith and his men increased daily. In all the torrid days near the equator, when we suffered so that we could neither read, write, nor think, the men went about their jobs with concentrated effort. There could not be the same formality of discipline as on a large ship, but this very fact brought about an intimate contact between officers and men which made for superb teamwork. I never saw a man idle on the two weeks and 3000 miles of our trip, save when they took time for food and drink and a rare game of chess or cards. Some of the crew looked not a day older than seventeen. Many of them had not seen the sun for six or seven weeks, and they showed it. We all suffered from skin eruptions caused by excessive perspiration and lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the crew went about their tasks regardless of discomfort.

The Captain had been fifteen years in submarine service. One day we picked up a message saying Captain Chester C. Smith had been awarded the Navy’s Distinguished Service Cross for outstanding service in the Pacific. He had a larger number of Jap ships to his credit than any other submarine captain in the South Pacific. No wonder his officers and crew were proud of him.

9

The galley was operated by two Guamese—the cook and the mess boy, obliging Guerrero. They were quiet and efficient and did wonders with the materials at hand. At rare intervals they came into our cabin to “make a pass” at mopping up, but there was no place to which we women could go, unless we stood in the passage plastered flat against the wall to let the busy crew pass back and forth, or went to the wardroom, which was always full to capacity with officers decoding messages or with people eating, sleeping, or — occasionally — taking part in a bridge or chess game. In our cabin, we managed to do a little laundry and it seemed that our ceiling pipes and handles were always strung with intimate apparel drying — or trying to — in the breeze of our hard-working little fan. This did not help the condition of high humidity, but it was, nevertheless, a necessary evil. The women in our party wore shorts or slacks, and they managed somehow to keep up feminine traditions of dress under most difficult circumstances.

Submarine food was surprisingly good and there was plenty of it. It was wonderful to see a platter of sliced ham or of curried chicken brought in and passed around the wardroom table. We had got used to having a heavily loaded plate of sauerkraut and frankfurters placed in front of us on Corregidor. Now we had the meal served most appetizingly. True, the mashed potatoes were canned and of a beige-gray complexion; and our scrambled eggs were a weird mixture of powdered egg and canned milk; but our cook did work miracles with only a larder of canned or dehydrated foods to draw upon. We had pumpkin pie — we even had layer cake; and on special occasions he made a chocolate milk shake which was the nectar of the gods. We had linen on the table and damask napkins with our names written on them; the writing almost wore out toward the end of our trip. We had sheets and pillow cases on our bunks — but no changes, of course.

Making our toilet in the morning and evening was an affair of short order. We had to stagger the rising hour, for only one could operate at a time. A brief sponge bath and a change of garments did not require many minutes. There was no privacy about it — but then we were used to that in the tunnel at Corregidor. After we were dressed we were supposed to leave and make room for the next. When the wardroom was full or was being used temporarily by the men, we stood in the passageway.

Although smoking was taboo on the submarine, this rule was not strictly enforced except when batteries were being charged. But the air was so bad when we were submerged that it was real punishment to add tobacco smoke to it. Sometimes, in the wardroom, smoke was so thick one’s eyes smarted. But I suppose if you really crave a cigarette you don’t mind.

10

All this time our ship was heading south. About the fifth night, while we were going through Macassar Strait, where the big naval battle had occurred a short time before, we crossed the line of the equator. We were all dripping with perspiration from every pore and we could not seem to satisfy our thirst. We tried playing bridge in our cabin to keep our minds occupied, but even the cards were wet and sticky.

My husband had one constant anxiety. “I am more fearful of some of us getting sick,” he said, “than I am of any depth charges.” We had no doctor aboard and it was questionable if a forced landing would be possible. According to radio reports, a naval battle was developing in the Java Sea, through which we must pass. Our intended port was Soerabaja, but we did not feel certain we could land there. We were in enemy-infested waters and our ship had to proceed with great caution. At one time we sighted two large enemy ships and two destroyers. I suspect that the Captain longed to run off and take a shot at them, but we kept straight on our dangerous course.

Upon another occasion, we heard that the British cruiser Electro, had been torpedoed and that fifty-eight survivors, six badly wounded, had been taken aboard one of our near-by submarines. I could not imagine where they found space for them! On our sub we had sixty-seven crew and officers, and ten in our official group — and it was so crowded you could scarcely turn or move without treading on someone’s toes. As for water, we made it by condensation, and when it got low in the tank it was bitter and full of brown sediment. What would we have done if we had had fifty additional thirsty people put aboard?

One evening at about eight o’clock, while we were finishing our dinner in the wardroom, a coded message came from Admiral Glassford, telling the Captain to proceed to Perth on the southwest coast of Australia. We had expected to land in Soerabaja on the ninth sailing day, but now we knew we should have at least six or seven more days of underwater life. The Battle of the Java Sea was raging, and landing on Java would be like jumping out of a frying pan into the fire. We were told to proceed by Lambok and Flores Islands and to go through a very narrow and dangerous strait so as to avoid enemy ships. The radio told us the Japs were making landings on Timor, Java, Sumatra, and North Borneo. It looked too as though they were headed for Australia.

That evening, while the temperature was 96° in the wardroom and the humidity intense, we reviewed our knowledge of Australian geography. None of us knew anything about Perth, but the Captain’s atlas told us it had 86,000 people and its port city was Fremantle. We made up our minds we would go on a shopping expedition in Perth, for it would be fall weather there and we had only a scanty and much worn tropical outfit. Imagine the lift to our feminine morale!

11

The seventh night out we went through a terrifying experience while emerging from Macassar Strait. After being surfaced for two hours, we unexpectedly made a quick dive and went down deep. Amidst the bustle and hustle of such an occasion, with the men darting around the boat screwing bolts, closing valves, securing hatches, giving quick commands, the chief engineer put his head in our cabin and said, “Better stay in your bunks. Here’s some cotton for your ears. We’ve sighted a ship and we may get some depth charges.” He turned off our fan and the ship settled into a deathlike stillness. All ventilation (and breathing!) ceased and we dripped from every pore, suffering from both apprehension and terrific heat. Those minutes seemed like hours. During the time we were lying quiet and submerged, our men were listening with their sound detectors for any approaching screws — the only way they can tel! if the enemy ship is coming closer to us, when they dare not periscope. We tried to play a spelling game, but found we couldn’t concentrate.

After what seemed hours, the engineer put his head in again, reached to turn on our fan, and said, “It’s O.K. now. Danger’s past and we’re going ahead.” Blessed relief !

Once in the Indian Ocean, we began to feel a greater sense of safety. We were now running on the surface by day as well as at night, and the temperature was somewhat cooler. We began to run into rough seas and head winds, which usually prevail off Northwest Australia at that season, and now we learned that the sub has a peculiar motion in a heavy sea. Sometimes it seemed as though it were being hammered and tempered by the waves, like a bar of iron in a foundry. The sub quivered and rolled, shook and shivered, but no one seemed in the least concerned about it. We had to spend considerable time in our bunks, for we couldn’t stand on our feet or even sit erect! The officers came down from the bridge dripping wet, but with a fine color in their cheeks. Some of them got a rare burn, weathering the combination of spray and sun.

On March 4, the eleventh day at sea, the Captain said, “ You may go up on the bridge and look at the sun today — only two at a time, though!”

What a beautiful world it was when we climbed up the hatch and stepped out on the bridge. There was sun and blue sky and a marvelous whitecapped sea to feast our eyes upon. The light was blinding. When we stepped out on the narrow deck, we found ourselves in the midst of an alert watch —four men were standing with glasses glued upon the horizon, and another one was at the top of the conning tower. They had bared their chests and backs to the sun, but as some of them had not seen the sun for seven weeks they looked pale and were covered with heat rash and sores. It was wonderful to see how they picked up color and spirits in the next few days. The officers changed the crew watch at frequent intervals, so that all sixty-seven men got some sun and fresh air every morning and afternoon. They needed it.

After half an hour we reluctantly went down again, making way for two more of our party to go up. We “spelled each other” this way, as the Captain did not want more than two of us on the bridge at once. If an enemy plane was suddenly sighted, the ship could dive to safety in less than a minute, but if four or five green novices had to be hurried through the two hatchways, it might mean all the difference between a safe getaway and a disaster. The Captain was not gambling with his ship just because we longed for sunshine.

After dark we went up for a look at the stars. It wasn’t easy to climb the narrow hatch in the dark and to put one’s foot in the right spot where one stepped into the conning tower. Not a glimmer of a light showed — we were completely blacked out. Even so, there was a glow from the stars and we realized that our ship could be seen some distance away. While we were up top, one of the officers told us of a radio report saying that a Jap sub had fired two torpedoes at one of our subs traveling in the area where we had been that very afternoon. Luckily they missed.

Two days after we began our daylight runs, suddenly one morning we made a dive. The screws and the shafts spun around noisily, the klaxon sounded three times, and the ship made a sudden forward, downward movement. We went deep and remained submerged. An officer came through and said, “Plane overhead.” We stayed down for twenty minutes, came up to periscope, then went down again quickly. The plane was circling around, — a bomber, — but we could not discover whether it was ours or the enemy’s, and we were taking no chances.

Immediately after this we changed our course and then rose to periscope, took a look around, and were under way. Two hours lost, but no bombing!

The last two days aboard, we did not submerge at all. It was much cooler and, except, for the terrific rolling, much more comfortable. The day before we landed, Lieutenant Hyde, our navigating officer, took us on a tour of inspection. We learned that our ship was 310 feet long, had a tonnage of 15,000, and cost $5,000,000 in 1939. When we went aft through the control room into the torpedo room, we saw the rows of little lockers where the crew kept their belongings. There were a few photographs stuck up in unexpected niches, and there was one beautiful Javanese carving. Seeing the crowded conditions, we realized that the men on our ship had given up both comforts and convenience for us, and yet there was never the least sign given that we were resented as a nuisance. They not only showed us the kind of courtesy which springs from the heart, but they actually tried to fool us into thinking we made the days less dull! We shall never cease to feel proud of our Navy’s submarine personnel. Like the men on the batteries at Corregidor, like the nurses in the fields of Bataan, they can take it.

12

We went to bed early that last night aboard the submarine, for we wanted to be up on the bridge when our convoy appeared. At 3.00 A.M. I got up and dressed and went up the hatchway. The officers on the bridge were absorbed in their job as they peered out into a thick fog which was turning to light gray. We could hear the welcoming sounds of bell buoys, foghorns, and cawing gulls. Everything was dripping wet and we scarcely moved. There was a small patrol boat off our starboard bow, and our crew, using a megaphone, asked for our convoy. We were told to lie by for other subs. In time, three other submarines emerged out of the fog. We followed the patrol boat slowly in toward Fremantle, and as we moved along, the fog occasionally lifted and we saw the shoreline of Australia. All our crew came out on the deck below as we drifted in. They were as full of joyful antics as a litter of pups.

As we came into Fremantle, the sun burst out in full glory and we saw stretches of green hillside, pine trees, white sandy beaches. I suspect Paradise must look very much like that. A few moments later we caught sight of a small launch, buried in white spray, heading directly for us. It came alongside and Admiral Glassford climbed up onto the deck to greet us.

We were almost sorry to go. For two weeks we had been living with heroes. I wonder if we shall see them again.