Built to ferry dry goods, the schooner Lanikai was destined for a boring life. Instead it found itself in a Hollywood blockbuster and racing to evade the Japanese invasion.
Just after dawn on March 13, 1942, the harbor pilot in the western Australian port town of Geraldton noticed a small ship coming up over the horizon, sails billowing from her two tall masts. As the vessel got closer he saw she was a schooner of a type common in the South Seas, and that her hull and upper works were painted an odd shade of faded, splotchy green. A large American flag flew from the top of the ship’s forward mast, and a smaller Philippine ensign snapped in the breeze from her equally tall aft pole.
Intrigued by the mystery vessel’s unannounced appearance, the pilot boarded his motorboat and set out to meet the newcomer. As he approached the ship he saw men working to drop her well-worn sails, and was surprised to see that what he had taken to be a tramp cargo vessel was armed with at least two machine guns and what looked to be a small cannon. As he came alongside the pilot shouted through cupped hands, “What ship are you”? and was dumfounded when a bearded and deeply tanned man standing near the schooner’s wheel responded, “USS Lanikai, from Manila.” The pilot was equally surprised that the weather-beaten and somewhat dilapidated ship was apparently part of the U.S. Navy, and that she had safely navigated more than 3,000 miles of Japanese-dominated ocean.
With his motorboat tethered to the schooner’s stern, the pilot guided the American vessel toward a berth at Geralton’s main pier. As he did, the bearded man—Lieutenant Kemp Tolley, USN—recounted what would ultimately become known as one of the great sea adventures of World War II.
Lanikai’s voyage into the history books was a colorful passage that began long before that early morning arrival in Western Australia.
Built in 1914 in Oakland, California, the 90-foot-long wooden-hulled schooner initially bore the name Hermes and spent the first months of her existence carrying dried coconut meat and other cargo from the German-ruled islands of Micronesia to Hawaii. Two months after the outbreak of World War I the vessel managed to evade patrolling Japanese ships—Tokyo was on the Allied side in that conflict—and dash into still-neutral Honolulu harbor. Hermes was interned, and sat tied to a pier until the United States entered the war in April 1917. At that point the vessel was officially seized from her German owners, and on April 1, 1918, she was commissioned into the U.S. Navy as the auxiliary schooner USS Hermes and undertook general patrol and supply duties in the waters around the Hawaiian Islands until being decommissioned in January 1919. When the Hawaiian territorial government declined to accept ownership of the vessel she remained in Navy custody, acting as a stores ship.
Hermes was sold to Oahu’s Lanikai Fish Company in October 1926 and renamed Lanikai, and spent the following five years carrying seafood among the islands. In 1933 she was purchased by a member of Honolulu’s aristocratic Castle family, who refurbished the schooner and used her as a charter yacht. In 1936 Lanikai was sold to Captain Harry W. Crosby of Seattle, who put the schooner to work hauling salmon from Alaska to ports along the U.S. west coast. It was a task for which Lanikai was apparently not well suited, however, for in early 1937 Crosby sold her to Hollywood’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Later that year the photogenic ship went back to her island-hopping roots, portraying a South Seas tramp and nearly upstaging Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall in MGM’s pioneering disaster-pic-cum-island-romance The Hurricane. After location filming ended off California’s San Clemente Island the schooner stayed on as the movie studio’s yacht until April 1939, when she was bought by the American-owned Luzon Stevedoring Company and shifted to Manila.
Lanikai might well have spent the remainder of her days hauling guests and cargo among the Philippines’ many islands had it not been for the war clouds gathering on the Pacific’s western horizon. Though the increasingly tired schooner seemed an unlikely warship, in the fall of 1941 a man in faraway Washington, D.C., ensured that Lanikai would once again fly the Navy’s Union Jack.
His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The first few days of December 1941 were extremely busy ones for Manila-based Admiral Thomas C. Hart. The 64-year-old commander in chief of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet was certain that war with Japan was imminent, and he was hurriedly attempting to deploy his relatively modest forces to protect an operational area encompassing hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean from the Philippines to China to Southeast Asia.
Hart was therefore understandably puzzled when on December 3 he received a top-secret message directly from President Roosevelt ordering him to acquire, arm and crew three small civilian-looking ships and dispatch them as soon as possible to patrol off the harbors of Japanese-occupied French Indo-China. While the small ships’ official task was reconnaissance—their crews were to report by radio any “suspicious” activities—many historians have long asserted that their real mission was to get themselves attacked by the Japanese, thereby giving the United States a plausible reason to enter the war on the Allied side. Whatever the purpose of the small ships’ deployment, Roosevelt’s directive ensured that preparations moved ahead at flank speed. Indeed, the first vessel, the 710-ton patrol yacht USS Isabel, put to sea on December 3 bound for Cam Ranh Bay.
Even as Isabel headed west the ship tapped to relieve her was being inducted into service. That vessel was Lanikai, whose owner had agreed to lease the schooner to the Navy for $1 per year, asking only that she eventually be returned in good condition.
The man selected to command the schooner on her secret mission was Kemp Tolley. The 33-year-old Naval Academy graduate had arrived in the Philippines on December 4 from China, where he’d been executive officer on the river gunboat USS Tutulia. His assignment to what he later referred to as “the President’s secret project” came as something of a surprise—he’d envisioned serving aboard a destroyer or cruiser—but he assumed his first command with his usual enthusiasm. By the time Lanikai was commissioned early on December 5 at Cavite Navy Yard Tolley had assembled a crew of two Navy chief petty officers and 11 Filipino seamen, and had invoked Roosevelt’s orders to acquire food, fresh water, two World War I .30-caliber Lewis machine guns and a Spanish-American War-vintage 3-inch quick-firing cannon. All that was lacking was sailing orders, and those arrived late in the afternoon—along with three additional U.S. sailors.
Lanikai finally got underway from Cavite on the afternoon of December 7 (still the 6th in Hawaii), though she didn’t go far. In accordance with his orders Tolley dropped anchor just inside the entrance to Manila Bay; departing vessels were only allowed to navigate the channel through the offshore minefields during daylight. Everyone but those on lookout duty settled in for the night, unaware that events already transpiring in Hawaii would make their assigned mission irrelevant and change their lives forever.
Just before 5 a.m. on December 8 Lanikai’s radioman awakened Tolly with a short but startling message that had just arrived from Hart’s headquarters. The first sentence, “Orange War Plan in Effect,” informed the schooner’s skipper that the United States was at war with Japan, and a second line ordered Lanikai to return to Cavite. Once back at the Navy Yard Tolley learned the details of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He and other officers were also told that a Japanese assault on the Philippines could be expected at any moment, and that they should make themselves and their ships ready to undertake whatever missions Hart deemed necessary.
Lanikai spent the first weeks of World War II in the Pacific running errands in and just outside Manila Bay—moving equipment and personnel, patrolling, and attempting to avoid the Japanese air attacks that were systematically reducing American installations to smoking rubble. The steady southward advance of enemy ground troops from their landing beaches on Lingayen Gulf made it clear that the entire Manila area would soon come under direct attack, but on December 24 General Douglas MacArthur—commander of U.S. Army Forces Far East—declared Manila an open city, meaning that it would not be defended so that the Japanese would not destroy it. His pronouncement, made without prior consultation with Hart, completely undermined Navy plans for a prolonged defense of the installations surrounding the bay. The Asiatic Fleet commander had no choice but to order the destruction of all remaining facilities and the scuttling or dispersal of surviving vessels. Hart himself would eventually make his way by submarine to the relative—and temporary—safety of Dutch-controlled Java, but for many of those in his ravaged command the future held only capture, imprisonment and death.
Fate had something else in store for Lanikai and those aboard her, however. Tolley and his crew—now numbering seven Americans and 12 Filipinos—made a final sweep of abandoned storehouses for food, water, diesel fuel, an additional machine gun, ammunition and other essential gear. After being quickly camouflaged with salvaged green paint and taking aboard six additional men—two Navy officers, three enlisted men and a Dutch naval officer who were also seeking to escape the oncoming Japanese—under cover of darkness on December 26 Lanikai turned her bowsprit toward the open sea.
Tolley’s plan was to sail for Java, where he assumed British, Dutch and American naval forces would be massing. The most obvious danger during the nearly 2,000-mile passage was discovery by Japanese ships or aircraft—a threat the schooner’s skipper hoped to evade by sailing only at night and tying up in secluded anchorages during daylight. But there were other challenges as well. While he and several others aboard Lanikai were proficient in celestial navigation, Tolley had only a few basic charts and a library atlas to rely on. It would also be necessary to replenish the ship’s fresh water and food supplies; while the former could be supplemented by captured rainwater and the latter by fish hauled from the sea, it was more than likely that those aboard Lanikai would have to run the risk of bartering with local people encountered during the voyage—people whose loyalties couldn’t be known for certain. And there was one other serious problem: The military radios installed aboard the schooner for her aborted trip to Indo-China had failed even before the ship left Manila, so her only contact with the outside world would be Tolley’s personal and very temperamental commercial radio.
Despite a minor shipboard fire, sightings of unidentified warships on the horizon and several high-altitude overflights by Japanese aircraft, Lanikai’s first two weeks at sea went relatively well. Tolley and his shipmates stuck to their operational plan, sailing at night and laying up by day. Helpful civilians living near the temporary anchorages provided food and, equally important, intelligence about Japanese movements. A huge storm allowed the schooner to stop hugging the east coast of Palawan and during a tense and seasickness-inducing two-day voyage cross the entire Sulu Sea. After passing the Japanese-occupied island of Jolo and making a brief stop for provisions at a small Muslim village southwest of Zamboanga, Lanikai set out southward across the Celebes Sea, bound for Makassar on the island of Sulawesi. There were several tense minutes during the passage when three unidentified flying boats approached the schooner at low altitude, but the aircraft proved to be Dutch and after dipping their wings in greeting they departed in search of suitable prey.
On January 9, 1942, Lanikai dropped anchor in Makassar, the first real city Tolley and his crew had set foot in since leaving Manila. It was a significant waypoint on the voyage to Java, because it was still controlled by Dutch forces (though not for much longer) that were able to provide as much fuel, food and fresh water as the schooner could carry. Two days after her arrival Lanikai set out on what all aboard thought would be the final leg of their cruise—the 500-mile passage across the Flores and Bali seas to Java’s vast harbor at Surabaya, the largest naval base in the Netherlands East Indies and at that point headquarters for the senior Allied naval commanders in the western Pacific, including Hart.
The port initially seemed to be the haven Tolley and the others had hoped it would be. Lanikai went into drydock for long-overdue engine repairs and hull-scraping while her crew—after saying farewell to their passengers—enjoyed the city’s various entertainments. Things did not stay so peaceful, however, for the Japanese had continued their southward advance and on February 3 enemy aircraft bombed the city for the first time. This was the opening move in a campaign that would ultimately lead to the Allied defeat in the East Indies, though lucky Lanikai would not be present for that inevitable capitulation.
The final leg of the schooner’s epic voyage began early on February 17, when Tolley took the ship to sea in order to escape the rapidly advancing Japanese. All but one of the passengers who’d accompanied the vessel from Manila had gone ashore to take up other duties and remained behind, as did one of Lanikai’s original Filipino crewmen, who was too sick to travel.
Though the ship’s ultimate destination largely depended on the Japanese, Tolley’s initial objective was Tjilatjap, the only decent port on the south coast of Java and the designated rendezvous point for Allied ships vacating Surabaya. Lanikai’s course took her back toward Bali, which was already under attack by the Japanese, but she made it through the narrow Bali Strait undetected. The remainder of the 700-mile trip to Tjilatjap was made in the familiar “sail at night, hide during the day” manner, and the schooner reached its goal on the morning of February 25.
Unfortunately, Tjilatjap proved to be no more of a haven than Surabaya had been. There was an air raid warning within hours of Lanikai’s arrival, and though no enemy bombers appeared Tolley noted that the makeshift port headquarters building was pervaded by an air of quiet desperation brought about by news that two large Japanese invasion fleets had been spotted just off Java’s north coast. Fairly sure that Lanikai and the other vessels in port would not be staying long, Tolley talked the Dutch harbormaster into filling his ship’s fuel tanks, then took the schooner alongside the U.S. Navy tanker Pecos to take aboard fresh water.
Tolley’s intuition soon proved accurate: At 3 p.m. on February 26 Lanikai hoisted anchor and once again headed to sea, this time carrying two new passengers, both Navy enlisted men with no other way out of Java, as well as one of the American officers who had made the voyage south from Manila. All aboard the schooner realized that their only logical destination was Australia, and as soon as Java disappeared below the horizon Tolley set a course southeast across the Indian Ocean.
In many ways the last lap of Lanikai’s journey was the most challenging. Not only did the danger of discovery by Japanese ships and aircraft remain, the schooner had to contend with some of the worst weather she had encountered since leaving the Philippines. Within 24 hours of departing Tjilatjap the ship was firmly in the jaws of a major typhoon and for much of the 1,000-mile voyage south Tolley and his crew had to contend with mountainous seas, howling winds and, on more than one occasion, the near capsizing of their vessel.
Yet as drenched and miserable as all those aboard the schooner were, they took some solace in the fact that heaving ocean and terrible visibility would also keep potential enemies at bay. And the enemy threat in the waters around Java was all too real. The day after Lanikai’s departure from Tjilatjap Japanese ships and aircraft dealt Allied forces a crushing defeat in the Battle of the Java Sea, sinking several ships and killing more than 2,300 Allied sailors. And on the night of February 28/March 1 two cruisers attempting to reach Tjilatjap—USS Houston and Australia’s HMAS Perth—were also sunk by the Japanese.
The weather eventually began to moderate, and after a short stop at dry and inhospitable Montobello Island, off the coast of northern Western Australia, the schooner coasted south. Lanikai briefly grounded on a sandbank but floated off with the rising tide, and on the night of March 12 dropped anchor off Geraldton. The following morning the surprised Australian pilot guided the schooner to her berth. After a few days enjoying Australian hospitality Lanikai moved on, reaching Freemantle—and the official end of her epic voyage—on March 18, 82 days and nearly 4,000 miles out from Manila.
Following her arrival in Freemantle Lanikai was refurbished and put to use patrolling just offshore. Tolley remained in command until the ship was passed to the Royal Australian Navy in August 1942. A fluent Russian speaker, the schooner’s former captain spent much of the war in Moscow as an assistant U.S. naval attaché before returning to combat duty in the Pacific as navigator aboard the battleship North Carolina. He ultimately retired from the Navy in 1959 with the rank of rear admiral, and died in 2000 at the age of 98.
Lanikai remained in Australian service until the Pacific war ended in 1945. She was then returned to the Luzon Stevedoring Company in Manila, but the firm refused to accept her on the grounds that she was no longer in the shape in which she had entered service in 1941. The schooner lay abandoned in an arm of Subic Bay until February 1946, when a storm sank her in 100 feet of water. Her remains were rediscovered by sport divers in 2003, and artifacts from the history-making vessel are now on display under the auspices of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.
Stephen Harding, editor of Military History magazine, is the author of the New York Times best seller The Last Battle and the forthcoming The Castaway’s War.
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