When the Pacific War (this is what World War II was known in our hemisphere) erupted, our biggest and best ships were immediately requisitioned by the US to serve as transports and that is normal procedure in a war. And then when it looked like the United States will not be able to hold the Philippines and Washington. D.C. has already decided to concentrate first in the European theater of war, the oceangoing ships of the Philippines were sent to the Western hemisphere to be used there. Then our other big ships which were capable of the distance were ordered to evacuate to Australia to serve as supply ships from that country to Bataan by running the Japanese sea blockade. However, the old, big ships were left in the country and these were already near 60 years old with a few even older than that (that was how tough the steam ships then). New, medium-sized passenger-cargo ships were also left behind in the country together with the smaller ones.
However, to still connect to the islands and the disparate forces, the United States command in the Philippines created the US Army Transport (USAT) which was otherwise known as the PI Support Fleet (“PI” stands for Philippine Islands, the name of the country before the war). This was a motley collection of 25 ships which were mostly liners before the war. The fleet was mainly drawn from the shipping company La Naviera Filipina of the Escano and Aboitiz families and its sister company Cebu-Bohol Ferry Company (this company existed after the war for a time too). From those two shipping companies were drawn the passenger-cargo ships Bohol II (91.5m x 12.5m, b. 1906), Agustina (41.0m x 8.2m, b. 1929), Elcano (66.7m x 11.8m, b. 1939), Kolambugan (55.2m x 9.2m, b. 1929), Legaspi, Princess of Cebu which is the former Marapara (47.2m x 9.2m, b. 1931) and Surigao (53.0m x 9.1m, b. 1938).
From big shipping firm Madrigal & Co., the Lepus (81.0m x 11.5m, b. 1906) and Regulus (69.9m x 10.9m, b. 1911) were requisitioned and from Tabacalera (Compania General de Tobacos de Filipinas) came the Compania de Filipinas (54.9m x 9.1m, b. 1890) and Emilia (43.5m x 7.8m, b. 1931). The passenger-cargo ships Governor Smith and Governor Taft (42.5m x 8.2m, b. 1930) were drawn from the Visayan Transportation Co. and from Insular Navigation Co., another Cebu ferry company, came the Katipunan (41.4m x 5.7m, b. 1875) and Princesa (46.9m x 8.5m, 1930). From the new Manila Steamship Co., successor of Ynchausti y Compania, the biggest inter-island ferry then, the Mayon (105.9m x 15.4m, b. 1930) was also requisitioned along with the Luzon (79.5m x 11.3m, b. 1905) of Compania Maritima. The De La Rama Steamship Co. sent their Kanlaon (53.7m x 9.2m, b. 1931) and Y. Yamane contributed their ship Bacolod . Other requisitioned ships were the Yusang, Hai Kwang, Condensa, Talisay and Dumaguete along with the La Estrella Caltex (44.2m x 8.6m, b. 1931) of The Texas Co. (Philippines) which was a tanker.
The PI Support Fleet, lacking warship support because the US Asiatic Fleet retreated very early to Australia just became a “Suicide Fleet”. None of them survived the war. The ships that were ordered to Darwin, Australia were another “Suicide Fleet” as many of them were caught when they were hiding in Paluan Bay, Mindoro after a delivery to Bataan. Aside from Japanese shelling or aircraft bombing, these fleets had instructions to scuttle if caught by the Japanese or if they can’t retreat to Australia. The US decided to just sacrifice our merchant fleet and its crews rather than risk their warships. The defense of Australia was their priority and not their colony, the Philippine Islands.
With the ships brought to Australia, from the port of Darwin in Northern Territory, Australia, these made supply runs to Bataan where General Douglas MacArthur concentrated his forces hoping they can hold out until supplies and reinforcements arrive (a false hope it turned out). But not being a shipping person, he may have failed to understand that that was an almost impossible expectation because of convoys will be sitting ducks if the rest of the islands are controlled by the Japanese and at that time the Imperial Japanese Navy was stronger than the US Asiatic Fleet (wasn’t there a lesson in the difficulties of the Malta and Northern convoys then?).
The loss of our passenger shipping fleet started in the very early days of the Pacific War on December 1941 during the air attacks of the Japanese especially in Manila and Manila Bay. Some of those lost passenger-cargo liners in the attacks there were the big Corregidor (96.3m x 12.5m, b. 1911), the medium-sized Samal (71.7m x 10.5m, b. 1897) and the small Romblon which was the former Montanes (45.6m x 7.6m, b. 1889), all of Compania Maritima. Also lost were the oceangoing Sagoland (131.1m x 16.5m, b. 1913) of Madrigal & Co., the smaller ships Ethel Edwards (42.1m x 7.7m, b. 1919) of Smith Navigation Co., the Governor Wright (48.1m x 8.6m, b. 1938) of the Visayan Transportation Co, Inc. and the Surigao of La Naviera Filipina (53.0m x 9.1m, b. 1938).
When it became clear that Manila would soon fall to the Japanese since General Douglas MacArthur declared it as an “open city” which means it would not be defended (this is to lessen the destruction and loss of lives since it was not militarily defensible anymore already), more ships were scuttled in Manila Bay because it was thought it was already too dangerous to flee south to the Visayas and Mindanao. Sank intentionally to prevent them from falling into enemy hands and hence be used by them were the brand-new Antonia of Aboitiz & Co. Inc. (48.0m x 8.6m, b. 1939), the big Bohol (91.5m x 12.5m, b. 1906) of Compania Maritima, the Vizcaya (66.1m x 9.0m, b. 1890) of Manila Steamship Inc., the Magallanes (74.5m x 10.1m, b. 1880),of Gutierrez Hermanos, the Montanes (64.1m x 9.1m, b. 1889) of J. Garcia Alonso, the Churruca (57.9m x 8.0m, b. 1879) of the United Navigation Inc., and the Bicol (45.8m x 7.9m, b. 1901) of the Manila Railroad Co., a government-owned company.
In the first three months of the war, there were also ship losses in the Japanese air attacks in the provinces. That casualties included the Cebu (76.4m x 10.4m, b. 1900) which was lost on New Year’s Day off Mindoro, the Luzon (79.5m x 11.3m, b. 1905), the Islas Filipinas (64.0m x 9.3m, b. 1886) and the Leyte which was the former Romulus (64.0m x 8.9m, b. 1879), all of Compania Maritima. Also sank were the brand-new Surigao (53.0m x 9.1m, b. 1938) of La Naviera Filipina, the big Bisayas (86.9m x 13.7m, b. 1912), the Lanao (90.6m x 14.1m, b. 1896) and the Mayon (105.9m x 15.4m, b. 1930) of Manila Steamship Co. which was one of the biggest liners in the country then.
From the supply runs from Australia to Bataan that sailed mainly in the night, these ships tried to hide in Paluan Bay in northwestern Mindoro as Manila Bay was already controlled then by the Japanese. However, in not a long time, they were discovered by the Japanese and bombed by aircraft and a few were lost or damaged in February and March of 1942. Among them was the new and beautiful liner Don Esteban (81.4m x 11.4m, b. 1936) of the De la Rama Steamship Co.
Some others were lost by surface action on local supply runs like what happened to the brand-new Legaspi and Elcano of La Naviera Filipina which were intercepted by Japanese destroyers in the Verde Island Passage on separate occasions then shelled and sunk or beached on different occasions when they refused to stop. Piteous as actually there is really no way a slow passenger-cargo vessel can outrun a fast destroyer which has three times its speed. Well, maybe that was the reason why two of the ships ordered from Japan by Everett Steamship for Philippine Steam Navigation Company or PSNC in 1955 were named after them as they were heroic ships in the war.
In April 1942, when Bataan fell and the military situation looked hopeless more ships were scuttled and this included the bulk of our smaller ships that were based mainly in the provinces and doing overnight routes and other short-distance routes. Among them were the first ship of Sweet Lines (Central Shipping Corporation then), the Masayon (32.4m x 6.1m, b. 1936) and the first ship of Go Thong, the LUX (24.0m x 4.5m, b. Cebu as home port of many short-distance and overnight ferries led the scuttling of ships and that also included the overnight ferries of the Escano and Aboitiz families that were not part of La Naviera Filipina.
In ordering the scuttling and commandeering of ships, the US promised that the ships will be replaced by them after the war. Almost all complied with that order except for Vicente Madrigal (and Tabacalera or Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas, the leading tobacco firm then) and so many of his ships were captured by the Japanese and used by them in the war as their transports. The Americans were furious with Vicente Madrigal and maybe that was one the reason why after the war he was tried as a “collaborator” of the Japanese. Actually, when Manila fell to the Japanese on February 1942, these liners that cannot make it to Australia have nowhere to go as Manila port was the home port of the bulk of the liners. Fuel, parts and personnel almost immediately became a problem, too.
The biggest of our liners including our oceangoing liners were commandeered by the Americans to the US and pressed into their convoys to Europe or used as their transports in the Western hemisphere and some were lost in the war in this duty. Meanwhile, the ships that were captured by the Japanese and used by them in the war were mostly sunk in the US counter-attack and only about two survived the war and returned to their owners. These were the Argus of Madrigal & Co. which was seized by the Japanese in a Hongkong shipyard and the Anakan of Manila Steamship Co. Inc. And of the three big, brand-new ships of the De la Rama Steamship commandeered by the US to their country, two survived and was later returned to them after the war and these were the Dona Aniceta and Dona Nati. However the Dona Aurora (133.9m x 17.0m, b. 1939) was lost together with their beautiful liners the Don Isidro (97.8m x 14.0m, b. 1939) and the Don Esteban .
With the war the Philippine merchant marine fleet including about 70 liners and oceangoing ships (compare it to the 60 liners of the late 1990s for perspective) practically sank because mainly it has nowhere to go and war forbids it fall into enemy hands. These also include the so-many overnight ships and short-distance ships connecting near islands where ships run during the day. But still many of the latter survived especially the small wooden-hulled ones because they have limited use in a war effort.
What will come next, of course, are shortages and that is most felt in the cities (and that is one reason why some people moved back to the provinces during the war). With the lack of ships and fuel during the war, traders again used wooden hulls and sails and among the users of it then was the young John Gokongwei, later a leading industrialist and tycoon who traded between Manila and Cebu during the war. But like in all wars, travel and movement of goods suffered a lot along with the people.
The Pacific War was a dark era in Philippine shipping history.