The Destruction of the Philippine Merchant Marine Fleet In World War II

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.

Don_Isidro_beached_and_abandoned

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.

 

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Philippine Passenger-Cargo Shipping During The Commonwealth Era And On The Eve Of The Pacific War

Even before the advent of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, the Filipino ship owners (this the more proper term as there are American shipping companies operating in the Philippines then as they are free to do so as we are a colony of the US and thus part of their territory) began gearing up for the time when the American steamers will be supplanted by them. It is always the hope of top local businessmen and industrialists of colonies that when independence came that they will replace on top the businessmen and industrialists of their former masters. This was actually their hope also when we were still under Spanish rule, one of the reasons why many of the elite favored the Revolution against Spain. As they say, it is but just natural. And that is one reason why they were for independence for they expect to benefit.

Before the Commonwealth Era began, the biggest shipping companies were Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima, the latter with Spanish origins and connections. The two were mainly based in Manila and were about equal in size but direct comparison is not easy as Madrigal & Co. had pure cargo ships in the foreign trade whereas Compania Maritima concentrated on the inter-island passenger-cargo shipping. Compania Maritima was the biggest at the start of the American time but Vicente Madrigal, who has a reputation for Midas touch caught up starting in the time of World War I as the coal and vegetable oil market boomed because of the war and Vicente Madrigal had heavily invested in both. He had the country’s biggest coal mine then in Batan island in Albay. Besides, he was also in the primary export commodity then which was abaca and which also boomed during the war.

Madrigal & Co. had five ships over 110 meters in length (and those will not look small even today) and such size was few in those times. Their biggest, the Don Jose measured 159.6 meters x 20.0 meters and had a GRT (Gross Register Tonnage) of 10,893 tons (and this is in SuperFerry range). The fleet of Madrigal & Co. was even bigger before the Commonwealth era as Vicente Madrigal was forced to send big ships to the breakers and also sell a few to other shipping companies in the aftermath of the economic downturn  and its effect on shipping during the Great Depression of 1929 in the US. That provoked a protectionism in that US that also made easier the passage of the independence acts sought by Filipinos as the US farmers were feeling the effect of tariff-free imports from the colonies. The claim of the Madrigal scions that once they were the biggest in shipping in the country is certainly true because their big businesses boosted their shipping. Many shipping owners then ventured into shipping because they have goods to move and they want certainty in bottoms and preferential rates, of course. And moreover, ships are also big status symbols.

Compania Maritima grew big right at the start of the American period by buying out Spanish-era shipping companies especially Reyes y Cia (this is pronounced as “Compania”) and the MacLeod & Co. which divested from shipping but retained their business interests in the country which centered on trade distribution. After that, its next period of growth started in the mid-1920s and continued up to 1935 when its ship acquisitions stopped suddenly. Being Spanish citizens also then they might still have been observing how they will be affected by the coming independence of the country that will happen after ten years of a Commonwealth period which is the preparatory and training period for independence and where Filipinos will hold high places in government already. But then also they might have been affected by the looming Spanish Civil War and the unrest before that. The ships of Compania Maritima from 1924 to 1935 formed the big part of their fleet which was overtaken by the Pacific War which commenced on December 7, 1941.

The most notable of the other fleets then in the Commonwealth Era were the related shipping companies La Naviera Filipina Inc. and the Aboitiz & Co. Inc. The first was actually a partnership of the Spanish-derived Escano and Aboitiz families which were both in the primary export crop then that was abaca which has great use then in shipping. It was the Escano family which sponsored the coming of the Aboitiz family to the Philippines from Spain, according to their history and both were based in Leyte and Cebu and also spanning those two important islands. The sizes of the two fleets were about equal in number to Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima but their ships were were a little smaller. However, nearly all of their ships were brand-new. If their ships were not that big, the reason was they were not doing the long Southern Mindanao route that needed big liners.1938 0416 mv Don Esteban_De la Rama Steamship Co ad
Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

Next with about half of the ships of the “Big Three” came next the De la Rama Steamship Co. Inc. which was owned by a leading businessman of Iloilo and a Senator of the Commonwealth at that. Browsing over its ads, one might have the impression that it was the leading shipping company of its time. However, the maritime databases do not support that as their fleet was not that big although they have regional operations (but then Escano and Aboitiz also had ships connecting Cebu and Leyte that are not in the maritime databases). It had five brand-new ships and some were big, ocean-going liners. Their inter-island ferries were luxurious, it was promoted well and was touted to be the best in their class (and maybe that is where the impression “leading” came from).

De la Rama Shipping, like the La Naviera Filipina is a shipping concern that bet big in the Commonwealth Era and in the coming independence and that was shown by their acquisitions of brand-new ships like what La Naviera and Aboitiz & Co. did. From basically being regional shipping companies of a decade before, the two had ambitions of being leading national liner shipping companies and that was good then for Philippine shipping. And wouldn’t it be good if the two leading shipping companies had competition including in the oceangoing routes? Truly the anticipated coming of independence perked up the shipping sector then

Next in rank came the Manila Steamship Co. Inc. of the Elizalde y Cia which had about the same number of ships as De la Rama Steamship. However, their ships were not new. Like Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima, they have ships in the 60- to 90-meter range because like the two just-mentioned companies, they have long routes and that means up to Kingking which is the modern Pantukan in Davao del Norte located at the apex of Davao Gulf and that is about 850 nautical miles in distance from Manila. Travel to Davao Gulf takes up to two weeks, one-way, as there are many ports of call in a voyage. Woe to the passengers if the accommodations are “cattle class” but I wonder if the tale is true or if it is a joke that at the end of the voyage they say many of the male passengers are already on the last hole of their belts. But in truth, many of these ships were already luxurious for their time in terms of accommodations, amenities and service and were divided into different passage classes as in those were not all-economy ships (a note to put it in context, the last liner of that type was the Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines Inc. which was also in the 80-meter class and was actually popular with the passengers in most of her career here). The Elizalde y Cia shipping company actually originated with the Ynchausti & Co. shipping concern which divested when they got heavily involved in the Spanish Civil War and the unrest before that.

After those majors come a slew of small liner companies with one or a few vessels and maybe the most notable among them with more vessels were Rio y Olabarrieta, a shipping company which connects Palawan and Mindoro to Manila and the government-owned Manila Railroad Co. (MRC), the forerunner of the Philippine National Railways (PNR) of today which had to operate ferries to connect its Bicol Line to their South (Luzon) Line but ended up operating liners as well (and the reason was President Quezon loved the MRC very much). These small liner shipping companies were about twelve or so in number and among them were Tabacalera (the short name of the Compania General de  Tabacos de Filipinas, a Spanish-derived company) which was once a big shipping company (and was still a leading tobacco company then), the Gutierrez Hermanos of Bicol (and supposedly related to the Gutierrezes of movie fame), Negros Navigation Co. Inc., Smith Navigation Co., the J. Garcia Alonso of Bicol, m/s Palawan Inc., United Navigation Inc., Visayan Transportation Co. Inc., E. Lopez (which was in Southern Lines Inc. after the war) and even the Philippine Government (yes, the government was also in shipping then).

1924 Mulle de la Industira

A 1924 photo but Muelle de la Industria, the primary local port then would still look similar to that in 1935. Credits to the photo owner.

A digression. If Bicol was well-represented in the shipping companies before the war (Madrigal & Co. among them), the reason was the primacy of the abaca (also called as “Manila hemp”) then as the leading export crop and Bicol dominates in the production of that crop plus the fact that Legaspi Oil, the leading exporter of copra then was based in Bicol (this was before Lu Do, Lu Ym of Cebu grabbed that distinction with the help of Carlos A. Gothong & Co.). The main source of coal then was Batan island and that is just a few nautical miles from Legazpi. As the saying goes, there are ships when there is cargo and it is not the other way around. Moreover, Legazpi  port (incorrectly spelled as “Legaspi” then) was supported in the movement of goods from the Bicol Valley (read: copra and abaca) because of the localized Bicol Line there of the Manila Railroad Co. which extended for most part from Pamplona town (later in Sipocot) to Legazpi and from Tabaco town (where the abaca of Catanduanes lands and Tabaco is the trading center of copra of the neighboring areas – Tabaco’s product then was abaca and not tobacco) to Legazpi. The Manila Railroad Co. has a spur line to Legaspi port and Legaspi Oil which had a separate port. [In this paragraph is the reason why my father volunteered to transfer to Legazpi. But he did not anticipate that soon abaca and coal will fade into insignificance.]

This liners list does not include the regional shipping companies and among those the most numerous were in Cebu connecting the other Visayas islands and Mindanao (the northern part). Where before in the early American period when Iloilo was bigger than Cebu and held the title “Queen City of the South” because of sugar and its connection to Singapore and when Cebu was considered “insignificant” for shipping by a 1908 almanac (that was when Legaspi port was as prominent as Cebu). The opening of northern Mindanao enabled Cebu to overtake Iloilo not only in shipping but in over-all prominence thereby grabbing the title “Queen City of the South” from Iloilo to the eternal consternation of the Ilonggos).

The ships of the regional shipping companies were small compared to the multi-day liners as those were basically overnight ships and the most numerous were actually the wooden-hulled motor boats which are called as lancha in various parts of the country. Most of the bigger regional ships were just in the 30-meter class in length and most were below 200 gross register tons. Among the most prominent Cebu-based regional shipping companies were Eutiquio Uy Godinez, the Cebu Navigation Co, the Visayan Stevedore Transportation Co., the Insular Navigation Co. and Maria P. Asuncion Garianda. In Iloilo, probably the most prominent were the two Lizarraga shipping concerns. In Zamboanga, it was the Francisco Barrios Jr. shipping company. In Manila, the big equivalent of them was the Teodoro R. Yangco shipping company which dominated Manila Bay and beyond and once claimed to be the biggest shipping company in the Philippines.

Amazingly, the progenitor of the postwar dominant Go Thong and Sweet Lines shipping lines after the war were still not prominent then. Well, in war some rise and some fall and some never even came back.

In our book, I will be more detailed. This is just an introduction.