During World War II, US Navy submarines helped supply Filipino and American guerrillas with arms, ammunition and supplies, also ferrying personnel in and out of the islands.
Known as the SPYRON (for Spy Squadron) Operation, it supported the Filipino and American Guerrillas resistance to the Japanese occupation after the Philippines fell to the Japanese Imperial Forces in early 1942.
The Spyron operation was key to the success of the resistance. Without the arms and supplies ferried by US submarines, the guerrillas would have been unable to sustain their intelligence gathering and sabotage operations against the Japanese Imperial Army.
Even before Corregidor surrendered, submarines were already playing a key role in the Battle for the Philippines supplying arms and ammunition to the beleaguered island, and ferrying people in and out the war zone.
The Quezon Mission
Notable among these missions was the USS Swordfish (SS-193) under Lt. Cmdr. Chester C. Smith which picked up President Manuel L. Quezon, his wife, two daughters, and son; Vice President Tomas Osmeña; Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos; and Philippine Army officers General Basilio J. Valdes, Colonel Nieto, and Chaplain Captain Ortiz from Corregidor on February 20, 1942 at 10:30 p.m.
Swordfish departed via a safety lane through the minefield in the harbor and headed for San Jose de Antique on Panay Island, where she arrived on February 22nd, and transferred President Quezon and his party to the inter-island vessel SS Princess of Negros. Quezon and his family proceeded overland to Iloilo and thence to Dumaguete from where they were ferried to Oroquieta, Misamis Occidental in two PT Boats of MTB Ron 3 led by Lt. John Bulkeley in PT-41, who would later successfully transfer General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff from Corregidor in their famous “Breakout” to Australia via Cagayan, Misamis and Bukidnon on March 11-13, 1942.
Hence, they motored via Jimenez and Dansalan to Del Monte Airfield in Bukidnon where they were subsequently flown to Australia aboard three B-17s on March 26.
The man mainly responsible for the SPYRON operations was U.S. Naval Commander Charles Parsons, Jr.
Better known by his nickname “Chick”, Parsons first came to Manila when he was five years old but later moved the U.S. with his uncle, before stowing away to the Philippines in the early 1920s at the age of 19.
As narrated by his son Peter in his published memoirs, Chick had been many things in the Philippines, and had traveled throughout the islands extensively.
He had been private secretary to Governor General Leonard Wood in the early 1920s; worked with the telephone company; the La Insular Tobacco company; a lumber yard near Zamboanga; and in 1931 became manager of Luzon Stevedoring. While in this capacity he began working with both the Mitsui and the Mitsubishi companies, sending them molasses. In 1932 he joined the US Navy Reserve, and was attached to submarines.
Because of his company’s mining interests, he had actually become president of a Japanese company. Some of his best friends before the war were Japanese.
One in particular was E. Namikawa of Pacific Mining Co. It is somewhat ironic that a man who had so much prewar workings with Japanese would end up being captured by them, questioned roughly by the Kempeitei in Fort Santiago; and then later to be a leading figure in the resistance against them.
Many Japanese knew of Parsons’ activities within the US Navy Reserve, including one “Pete” Yamanuchi, a photographer. Yet no one turned him in.
When World War II broke out, he and his family managed to return to the USA under a diplomatic exchange, ostensibly as the acting honorary consul of Panama, then a neutral country.
The night before he was to leave the Philippines on the Japanese vessel Ural Maru, Parsons was paid a visit by Yamanuchi, now a Japanese naval officer. He had a case of beer with him and apparently they put a good bit of it away. Yamanuchi wished his friend a safe trip.
The Japanese company Parsons was president of was the Nihon Kogyo Kapushiki Kaisha, literally Japanese mining Company. How this came about is that a foreign company needed to be 60% American or Filipino; and somehow Luzon Stevedoring made the necessary arrangements.
More ironies: when Parsons arrived in New York on the Swedish exchange ship, Gripsholm, he was sequestered by the FBI and questioned regarding his being freed by the Japanese. They felt he had no diplomatic privileges or rights, and he had been president of a Japanese company. In short they suspected him of being a Japanese spy.
Friends in Naval Intelligence and in the State Department came to his rescue. But before he went ashore to freedom, he remarked to his interrogators that they were nearly as bad as the Kempeitei!
However, Chick volunteered to return to the Philippines to organize secret submarine missions in support of the Philippine Guerrilla movement. His extensive knowledge of the country and his network of local contacts enabled him to communicate effectively with the guerrilla units.
By September of 1942 he was called to serve in General MacArthur’s GHQ in Brisbane as the person to establish and maintain contact with the resistance movement in the Philippines.
Chick initially worked out of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB), and later moved to the Philippine Regional Section, but his own inner group which he commanded was known as “SPYRON” and was a very independent bunch of characters. Parsons’ Navy boss was Capt. Arthur McCollum.
“Chick” worked in Heindorff House at 171 Queen Street, and lived in Lennon’s Hotel in George Street in Brisbane. Capt. McCollum reported to Admiral James Fife. While this was his official chain of command Parsons also reported to Courtney Whitney, Lt. Gen. Richard Sutherland and General Douglas MacArthur .
Parsons joined MacArthur in January 1943. He convinced the Navy that if they lent MacArthur “Special Mission” submarines, the guerrillas would establish coast watcher radio stations throughout the islands which would supply numerous targets for their submarines.
To that purpose Parsons “borrowed” from the Navy 20 boats, called Special Mission submarines; Parsons’ small group within the larger Philippine Regional Section was called Spyron (for Spy Squadron).
MacArthur sent Parsons on the USS Tambor in March, 1943, and this was the beginning of 49 special missions to supply the guerrilla movement and create coast watcher radio stations throughout the islands.
Parsons sailed to the Philippines on eight occasions on board a submarine to supply Filipino guerrillas in enemy occupied Mindanao. Amongst the submarines used for these missions were USS Narwhal and USS Nautilus, the two biggest submarines in the US Navy at the time each of which could carry up to 100 tons of supplies compared to 30 tons for the usual fleet submarines.
By June 1944, MacArthur’s Philippine Regional Section counted 169 radio stations, including coast-watcher, guerrilla net and control stations, and weather stations across all major islands in the Philippines. This made possible operational communication of Japanese ship movements, permitting more effective prosecution of the submarine guerre de course, along with regular detailed reports of Japanese land forces’ organization, strengths, and dispositions, and the presence of Japanese aircraft on the more than 100 military airfields in the Philippines.
By this time, Parson’s notoriety had grown so much Japanese authorities in Tokyo offered a “$50,000 Dead or Alive” reward for his capture.
According to Captain Bobb Glenn, Chief Supply Officer for the AIB who was deeply involved in supplying the guerrillas in the Philippines, once Col. Courtney Whitney (Sectional Officer, AIB) arrived in GHQ, the AIB was more or less out of the picture as the Philippine Regional Section was more favored by MacArthur for his special missions and the Philippine resupply effort.
Spyron in Northern Mindanao
The first Spyron operation in Northern Mindanao and seventh Spyron mission overall, involved the Bowfin (SS-287) under Cmdr. J. H. Willingham on Sept. 3, 1943 when it embarked nine persons and delivered seven tons of radio equipment and supplies at Iligan Bay, 1 ¼ mile east of Binuni Point (off present day Bacolod, Lanao del Norte).
Four weeks later on Sept. 29, 1943, at the same location, Bowfin evacuated nine guerrillas, selected by their superior officers, to be transported to Australia.
Among them were Luis Morgan, executive officer of Col. Wendell Fertig, who headed the organized Filipino-American Resistance in Mindanao ; Edward M. Kuder, a well-known superintendent of schools in Mindanao and Samuel C. Grashio, a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot prior to his capture on Bataan.
Grashio had survived the infamous ‘Death March’ to be confined in three different Japanese prison camps before finally escaping from the Davao Penal Colony with a group of 10 POWs and two Philippine convicts and then joining the guerrillas.
The Narwhal cometh
But perhaps the most famous submarine to figure in Spyron operations in Northern Mindanao was the USS Narwhal (SS-167), the lead ship of her class of submarine and one of the “V-boats”, the second ship of the United States Navy to be named for the narwhal. She was named V-5 (SC-1) when her keel was laid down on 10 May 1927 by the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine.
At 371 feet long and with a displacement of 4,000 tons submerged, Narwhal was one of the biggest US Navy submarines during WW2, but was not really suited for attack, thus was assigned to transport supplies and personnel to guerrillas in the Philippines especially, eventually became the leading submarine in supporting the Philippine guerrillas with nine secret transport missions to her credit, five of which were conducted in the Caraga and Northern Mindanao regions.
First Mission to Nasipit
On her seventh war patrol and ninth Spyron mission, Narwhal skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Frank D. Latta, entered Butuan Bay submerged at 0508 hrs on November 15, 1943.
At 1605 hours, she sighted a launch flying the proper security signal. She surfaced and Colonel Wendell W. Fertig, commander of the United States Forces in the Philippines (USFIP) and head of the organized resistance in Mindanao, came aboard. Narwhal then proceeded to Nasipit Harbor. On her way in she ran aground on hard sand in the channel’s west bank, but managed to free herself quickly.
At 1746 hours, Narwhal moored starboard side at the Nasipit dock as a Filipino band played “Anchors Away.” At 2330 hours, she completed offloading 46 tons of supplies.
Early the next day, she embarked 32 evacuees, including POW escapees Shofner, Hawkins and Dobervich, women, two children, and one baby, and got underway. As Spyron Operations Chief, Lt. Cmdr. Chick Parsons left Narwhal with the harbor pilot.
Remarks the Narwhal’s patrol report: “The very real need for any kind of stores in guerrilla occupied areas led us to transfer considerably more stores than were actually consigned as cargo. Additional arms and ammunition as well as foodstuffs were transferred to Col. [Wendell] Fertig.
An eyewitness account of this story is told in the book “My Faraway Home” by Mary Mackay Maynard, who was one of the two children evacuated. It is also related in John Keat’s book “They Fought Alone” which relates the guerrilla war in Mindanao under Fertig who was on hand to meet the submarine.
Seventeen days later, on Dec. 2, 1943, Narwhal entered Butuan Bay and surfaced at 1706 hours, some 1,000 yards off Cabadbaran. Shortly thereafter, a 150-ton barge came alongside. Fertig and Parsons came aboard.
Narwhal embarked seven evacuees – two soldiers, three civilian men, one woman, and one eight-year-old girl. She unloaded 92 tons of supplies, 300 gallons of lube oil, a small amount of hand tools, received three messages regarding the next phase of her mission, and used the portable radio station on the barge to send three messages. At 2205 hours, she got underway with Parsons aboard.
The Alubijid Mission
Narwhal then proceeded to Alubijid, Misamis Oriental on December 5, 1943 to pick up nine evacuees. The ship’s log dated December 5, 1943 War Patrol No. 8 Alubijid (a microfilm of the actual entry in the ship’s log) shows details of its rendezvous:
0148 hours, she sighted the proper security signal at Alubijid, Majacalar Bay. 2nd Lt Norberto Noble, PA, then attached to the Division Finance Office of the 109th Infantry Regiment, 109th Division (Guerrilla) came aboard to verify Narwhal was there to embark evacuees, then returned to shore. One boat load came alongside carrying the DeVries family. Other boats followed sometime later.
The 109th Infantry Regiment garrisoned that portion of the province of Misamis Oriental lying between the Cagayan River and Pangayawan River. It was activated on 14 March 1943 and at the time of the Narwhal’s visit was commanded by Maj. Fidencio M. Laplap.
Relatives of the Filipino guerrillas and residents who helped unload Narwhal recalled the tales told to them by their forebears of that memorable event.
Frank Galarrita relates how one of the teams that unloaded arms from the sub were his two grandfathers, the father of Virgilio Galarrita, and Ismael Labis, the Vice Mayor of Alubijid at that time, who was accompanied by his two teen-aged daughters.
“I think Lt. Noble was from Cebu,” he recalls. “They pronounced Noble as Noob-lee not in English as Noobol.”
“My aunt told me that they brought the precious goods to Barangay Lourdes, thereafter, probably some went to Bukidnon. But Barangay Lourdes at that time was still a town of Bukidnon.”
“So that was the name of the submarine that quietly docked in Moog to unload supplies for the Filipino guerillas,” recalls Virgilio Galarrita. “My father was one of those civilians recruited to carry all kinds of supplies from the sub.”
“He said there were all kinds and sizes of boxes to be carried. He said he regretted to have volunteered to carry a small box not knowing that it was heavy since it was one of the ammo boxes. He said he should have picked one of those big wooden boxes carried by two people and happened to be lighter since they were boxes of biscuits and cookies.”
“After that there were stories that went around that some of those volunteers ate some of those biscuits and cookies, others took some home to their families, after they cracked open the box. Mga abtik gyud kining uban nga mga Alubijidnon!”
“My grandfather Manuel Gapuz was one of them, I think,” said Manuel Abellanosa. “They used a gas lantern (known locally as Petromax) covered with a big tin can (taro) with a hole to communicate with the submarine at night via Morse Code. Supplies, guns and ammo were carried through a “back trail” up to Bukidnon. They would pass by Lunsi where Lola Doding, Mommy Ellen, Uncle Fred evacuated.”
Former Misamis Oriental Board Member Cromwell Galarrita Generalao shared his stories:
“The US submarine that docked in Moog, Alubijid in 1943 was among the many popular stories of the war in Alubijid. Unfortunately we have no documents, letters or records of the event. My father, Arturo Jamis Generalao, tirelessly and fondly told stories of the war, among which was a US submarine that docked in Moog.”
“The US submarine brought modern firearms and supplies for the Philippine Army and the local guerrillas. My father recalled that one evening, while at Guinotang, Alubijid, about 2 kilometers from the Poblacion where his family had a small farm, he noticed that some guerrillas, many of them his relatives, were walking briskly towards the Poblacion, Alubijid.”
“The guerrillas commandeered some carabaos. As a curious teenager and fascinated by the actions of war, he followed the guerrillas. On their way, he heard the guerrillas talking about receiving modern firearms from a US ship at Moog.”
“When he heard of a US ship at Moog, my father said he was very excited to follow the guerrillas, with the intention of boarding the US ship and go to the US. From Poblacion, the troops proceeded towards, Lanao, Molocboloc and finally Moog.”
“At Moog shore, he saw Philippine Army soldiers on the shore. He thought they were from the Philippine Army Camp at Kalabaylabay, El Salvador. The Army soldiers had a Petromax.”
“My father said he was so amazed at the sight of the US submarine that looked different from a ship. He tried to join the line of the guerrillas, pretending to help carry the firearms and supplies to shore, but actually intended to board the submarine and stow away. But the US sailors only allowed Filipino Army soldiers to board the submarine to haul the firearms and supplies.”
“The guerrillas stayed at the shore to receive the firearms and supplies and tied them to the carabaos. The firearms and supplies loaded on the carabaos were brought towards Lourdes, Alubijid.”
“The sight of the submarine for the first time and the new modern firearms with lots of ammunition fascinated my father, Philippine Army soldiers and the guerrillas. He identified the firearms as: Garand Rifles, Thompson Submachine guns, M-1 Carbine Rifles, and Browning Automatic Rifles.”
Narwhal embarked two men, three women, and four children then stood out of Majacalar Bay at 0446 hours.
Back to Cabadbaran
On March 3, 1944 Narwhal was back in Cabadbaran to deliver 70 tons of supplies but had to abort the mission when 3 IJN destroyers approached. She was able to meet with Capt. Hamner and pick up 9 evacuees including Hamner.
At 1000 hours, on March 2nd, the proper security signal was spotted on the beach at Cabadbaran. She surfaced and a boat came alongside. At 1850 a boat came alongside with Lt. Cmdr. Wilson, Lt. Col. Ernest McClish, and Maj. Clyde Childress aboard.
They said Fertig was waiting at the Agusan River mouth because it was too difficult to tow their barge into the bay. The night was murky, and too many unidentified peaks were around for good radar navigation.
Cmdr. Frank D. Latta brought Narwhal as near to the river mouth shoal as he dared and then laid to. Narwhal’s crew began rigging their two launches topside for delivery to Fertig. Fertig came aboard and asked Latta to move up the channel to the barge and to delay unloading until the next day. But Latta refused both requests. Instead, he sent one of Narwhal’s launches to have the barge towed alongside.
Then he ordered his own boats in the water for delivery to Col. Fertig. He sent the launch in to have the barge towed to Narwhal. Twenty minutes later the launch had the barge alongside and unloading began under extremely difficult conditions due to cargo for this spot having been loaded under other cargo.
By 0210 hours on March 3rd, seventy tons of cargo was unloaded and two 26-foot whale boats were delivered to Fertig. Narwhal also embarked twenty service men and eight civilians, including two women. At 0229 hours, Narwhal stood out of Butuan Bay.
Moving out into Butuan Bay, Narwhal passed several small sailboats abeam at 25 yards. One doused his sails at her approach. Five Filipinos stood lined up for inspection and with expressionless faces began solemn bowing. When the commanding officer waved and they saw white men on the bridge, all of them broke into smiles and cheers. Passing in an aura of good fellowship, cigarettes were tossed to them and they became boon companions.
Last Mission to Balingasag
On Sept 27, 1944 Narwhal was back under Cmdr. Jack C. Titus (who took command starting with her 11th War Patrol) in Northern Mindanao, to deliver 3 men and 20 tons of supplies to Balingasag, Misamis Oriental. This later proved to be the last Spyron mission to Northern Mindanao.
Balingasag was within the area of responsibility of the 110th Infantry Regiment, 110th Division (Guerrilla) which extended from the Tagoloan River, Misamis Oriental to the Eastern border of the province. At this time, it was led by Maj. Rosauro P. Dongallo, who took over from Capt. Francisco N. Luz on Feb. 1942, who succeeded the first commanding officer Capt. Pedro D. Collado.
The 110th Infantry Regiment was one of the organic regiments of the 110th Division which garrisoned that portion of Misamis Oriental East of the Tagoloan River, the province of Agusan, province of Surigao and that of Davao.
At the time of the SPYRON mission to Balingasag, the division was headed by Lt. Col. Ernest E. McClish. The 110th Division played a vital part in establishing supply lanes in Mindanao. Under its supervision, water by-ways were opened, sea-going vessels and fuel were procured for them, all of which activities markedly contributed to facilitating supply.
Narwhal surfaced on the night of Sept. 27, 1944 and sighted the proper signal from the shore of Balingasag. Some 45 minutes later, a heavy rain obscured all land and at 1744 hrs a small boat with a US Ensign was sighted. All cargo was unloaded by 2100 in spite of the bad weather and at 2103, Narwhal commenced clearing the coast.
By Sept. 28 she left the Mindanao Sea for Siari Bay where she embarked 81 liberated POWS and one doctor. The prisoners had been aboard Japanese transports sunk by the submarine USS Paddle (SS-263) off Sindangan Point on September 6.
In October 20, 1944 MacArthur fulfilled his vow to return to the Philippines with the invasion of Leyte and mopping up operations of isolated pockets of Japanese resistance started on April 17, 1945.
The last Spyron mission was conducted by Nautilus on January 3, 1945 at Baculin Bay, Davao Oriental, to offload 45 tons of supplies which were received by 2nd Lt. H. Artero in behalf of Fertig.
At 0503 on 22nd January 1945, the U.S. submarine Nautilus (SS-168) passed Palmas Island in the Philippines at a distance of 12 miles before submerging for the day.
Surfacing at 1907, it moved toward Baculin Bay on the east coast of Mindanao. At dawn on the 23rd it submerged five miles east of Baculin Bay to reconnoiter by periscope a pre-arranged landing spot. The proper security signal was observed on the beach at 0708.
At 1816, still submerged, commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Willard Michael saw a banca flying a U.S. flag headed toward his periscope, “having quite a time of it in this seaway.” He surfaced Nautilus 26 minutes later, boarded 2nd Lt. H. Antero, USFIP as a liaison, maneuvered into the bay, and at 1945 commenced unloading the first of 45 tons of supplies and equipment for the forces under command of Col. Fertig.
The shortage of local boats threatened to drag out the unloading process to a dangerous extent and so Michael broke out six inflatable rubber boats to assist.
The last of the cargo left the boat at 0106 the 24th and Nautilus was underway again in 15 minutes, arriving Darwin six days later, where she tied up against USS Cougal. Nautilus’s largely routine rendezvous at Baculin Bay was the very last of a series of submarine special missions in support of the guerrilla resistance in the Philippine Islands during their occupation by Japan.
On August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in Tokyo Bay.
About the author: Mike Baños is a freelance journalist and writer, who has been a long-time amateur World War II history buff, former commissioner of the Cagayan de Oro Historical & Cultural Commission, and at former Executive Director of the Cagayan de Oro World War II & Veterans Studies Committee)
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