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.

 

The Biggest Passenger-Cargo Ship in the Philippines in the 1930s

The 1930s was a golden era for Philippine passenger shipping. There were a lot of passenger-cargo ships that came and local shipbuilding was also in its peak. We benefited from World War I when demand for abaca, copra and coal went through the roof and it spurred shipbuilding and trading. The development of the internal-combustion engine also greatly helped that.

The Great Depression of 1929 of the US came but did not affect our shipping and shipbuilding, in the main. What were affected were the US producers being competed by our duty-free copra and abaca and so they were in favor of letting the Philippine Islands (that was what our country was called then) go. That was why our “independence missions” then were successful. However, their industrialists continued to covet our mineral resources and protect their industries here.

SS Mayon, Pier 3, Manila, Philippines, preparing to leave for Mindanao and way ports south, August 22, 1933

Copyright: Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Posted by John Tewell.

From small liners with just a few hundred gross register tons and whom about half were wooden-hulled, in the years leading to 1930 many steel-hulled liners of nearly a thousand gross register tons or more came. And for the first time, new-builds became commonplace and it was the La Naviera Filipina (the merged shipping company of the Escanos and the Aboitizes) and De la Rama Steamship that led this charge assisted by the independent Aboitiz & Company, Inc.

For the first time, the highest of the totem pole of local shipping being held by Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima was being challenged. It was De la Rama Steamship that had the big ships that could challenge the Top Two. La Naviera, meanwhile, have smaller ships but more numerous and the size was understandable because their route is primarily the Central Visayas and they do not do the southern Mindanao route which needs bigger ships.

However, the biggest passenger-cargo ship in the local routes then did not belong to any of the four if our oceangoing liners which are mainly cargo ships with a few passengers are excluded (those were Madrigal & Co. ships). The honor belonged to the Philippine Interisland Steamship Co. with its liner SS Mayon which was acquired in 1930.  The Dollar Steamship Co. of the US was the leader in bringing about this great liner to our waters.

SS Mayon, loading an automobile for a trip to Mindanao and way ports south, Manila, Philippines, August 22, 1933

Copyright: Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Posted by John Tewell.

The SS Mayon, a brand-new ship was considered the most luxurious of its time that President Quezon even sails with it. Now, I will let the Philippines Herald tell her story:

“Known as the most luxurious ship in the interisland service, the Mayon was built in 1930 by Vickers-Armstrong, Ltd., In Barrow, Great Britain, for the Philippine Interisland Steamship company. She is classified as 100-A1 by Lloyd’s, the highest classification for ships.

A twin-screw turbine ship, she is of 3,371 gross and 1,529 net tons. She is 347.5 feet long, 50.4 feet wide and 16.3 feet deep. She is capable of a speed of 21 knots, and is equipped with refrigerating machinery.

The Mayon arrived from Glasgow on October 28, 1930, and left on her maiden voyage in Philippine waters six days later. The late Captain Robert Dollar, known as the Grand Old Man of the Pacific, came to the Philippines with Mrs. Dollar to inaugurate the service. Captain and Mrs. Dollar were among the passengers on the maiden voyage of the Mayon to the southern islands.

The Mayon has been used on the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cebu run on a weekly schedule, sailing from Manila on Tuesday afternoon and returning on Sunday morning.”

In metric measure, SS Mayon is 105.9 meters in Length Over-all and 15.4 meters in Breadth.

However, the SS Mayon was not making that much money and Dollar Steamship also has its problems including the death of its founder. To save the ship which was the pride of the Philippine merchant marine, the Philippine Government acquired the ship and assigned it to the Manila Railroad Company and one would ask what is a railroad company doing in shipping.

S. S. Princes of Negros and S. S. Mayon at wharf, Iloilo, Philippines, Aug. 23, 1933

Copyright: Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Well, the Manila Railroad Company, the predecessor of Philippine National Railways operated ferries to connect the passengers of their Bicol Line to their South (Luzon) Line. The government especially President Quezon has long been beneficent to the Manila Railroad Co. that they and he also allowed it to operate liners. Well, that service was needed also by the people.

In 1940, the nascent Manila Steamship Co. Inc. acquired the SS Mayon. During that time Manila Railroad Company was already beginning to divest from shipping especially since the South Line and Bicol Line of the company was already connected. It is to the Manila Steamship Co. of the Elizaldes that the Ynchaustis transferred their shipping company to fight in the Spanish Civil War as a matter of principle.

I was in wonder retrospectively how come the Philippines was still investing heavily in shipping when World War II was already raging in Europe. We thought that the Japan Empire will be intimidated by the combined American, British and Dutch forces?

And so war came in December of 1941 and we were immediately in crisis especially after the US Asiatic Fleet abandoned us and hied off to Australia. With that the US Army Transport (USAT) otherwise known as the PI Support Fleet was formed with 25 ships, almost all of whom were passenger-cargo ships and they ferried troops, materiel, government personnel, government records, currency, gold, silver and many other things.

The ship Mayon used as Sinulog prop

A drawing of SS Mayon used as prop in Sinulog. Photo b Mike Baylon of PSSS.

This fleet had no air support as US aircraft was also withdrawn from the Philippines and the Japanese invaders had complete control of the sky. SS Mayon’s luck ran out on February 2, 1942 when Japanese warplanes caught her in Butuan Bay. She was strafed and bombed and she sank, a piteous fate for one who was formerly the Queen of our seas.

After the war, in 1946, the Manila Steamship acquired a ferry to replace her with the same name SS Mayon. She was almost as big as the original and had a certain resemblance to her. However, she was not a new ship and was even older than the ship she replaced. But I will stop here now as that ship deserves a separate story.