The Great Escape of the S.S. Mactan: December 31, 1941

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Photo above: recently offered for sale on eBay, a Baltimore Sun wirephoto of wounded soldiers aboard the S.S. Mactan.

Late at night, on December 31, 1941, an old ship prepared to weigh anchor to escape Manila. Its destination was Sydney, Australia. On board, were 224 wounded USAFFE soldiers (134 of them Americans and 90 of whom were Filipinos); 67 crew members, all Filipino, and 25 medical and Red Cross personnel, all Filipino except for one American nurse, and some others.

The ship was the S.S. Mactan. Its journey represents one of the great escapes of World War 2.

In the book At His Side: The Story of the American Red Cross Overseas in World War 2, by George Korson, chronicles the story of the S.S. Mactan.

Page 22 of the book contains this scene:

On the morning of December 24, some twenty Red Cross volunteer women were in the official residence of Francis B. Sayre, High Commissioner to the Philippines, packing Christmas gifts for soldiers and sailors in hospitals in and around Manila. Mrs. Sayre was in charge of the group.

Suddenly, at eleven o’clock, Mrs. Sayre looked up from her task at the tables to see her husband standing in the patio doorway beck- oning to her. She slipped quietly out of the room and stood in the patio. “I have an urgent message from General MacArthur,” said Mr. Sayre in a low voice. “The city may fall, and we must be ready to leave for Corregidor at one-thirty!”

Mrs. Sayre was stunned. “But we must finish these bags. They’re the only Christmas our boys will have.”

“Pack as quickly as you can,” he said and left hurriedly. Mrs. Sayre went back to the tables. The women worked quickly,  and in silence, to complete their task before the daily noon Japanese air raid over Manila.

The treasure bags, as they were called, made hundreds of American and Filipino soldiers and sailors happier in their hospital wards that dark Christmas Day. Irving Williams helped Gray Ladies make the distribution in the Sternberg General Hospital. The work was under the direction of Miss Catherine L. Nau, of Pittsburgh assistant field director at the hospital, who later was to distinguish herself for her work among the troops on Bataan and Corregidor, before the Japanese interned her.

Of the gift distribution at Sternberg General Hospital, Irving Williams said, “I shall never forget the boys’ beaming faces and delighted eyes as we went from ward to ward. The simple comfort articles meant so much to these boys, who had lost all of their possessions on the field of battle.”

The Philippine Diary Project contains General Basilio J. Valdes’ diary entry for December 24, 1941, giving the Filipino side of that day’s hectic events.

The Red Cross book continues with Gen. Valdes returning to Manila to contact the Red Cross:

Not until three days later December 28 did Williams know that these same boys would be entrusted to his care on one of the most hazardous missions of the war. Major General Basilio Valdes, then commanding general of the Filipino Army, came straight from MacArthur’s headquarters on Corregidor with the urgent request that the American Red Cross undertake to transport all serious casualties from the Sternberg General Hospital to Australia. President Manuel Quezon of the Philippine Commonwealth helped the Red Cross locate the Mactan.

The Commonwealth Government had, of course, by this time, withdrawn to Corregidor, and Manila had been declared an Open City. Sending Gen. Valdes to Manila was therefore rather risky.

The Philippine Diary Project contains Gen. Valdes’ entries about this mission, which began on December 28, 1941:

We left Corregidor on a Q Boat. It took us 45 minutes to negotiate the distance. The picture of Manila Bay with all the ships either sunk or in flames was one of horror and desolation. We landed at the Army and Navy Club.

I rushed immediately to Red Cross Headquarters. I informed Mr. Forster, Manager Philippine Red Cross, and Mr. Wolff, Chairman of the Executive Board of my mission. I then called the Collector of Customs Mr. de Leon and I asked him what ships were still available for my purpose. He offered the government cutter Apo. I accepted. He told me that it was hiding somewhere in Bataan and that he expected to hear from the Captain at 6 p.m.

From his house, I rushed to Sternberg General Hospital where I conferred with Colonel Carroll regarding my plans. Then I returned to the Red Cross Headquarters and arranged for 100 painters and sufficient paint to change its present color to white, with a huge Red Cross in the center of the sides and on the funnel.

At 3 p.m. I again called Collector de Leon and inquired if he would try to contact the Apo. He assured me that he would endeavor to contact the Captain (Panopio). At 11 p.m. Mr. De Leon phoned me that he had not yet received any reply to his radio call. I could not sleep. I was worried.

There’s an extensive chronicle in his diary entries for December 29, 1941:

At 6:30 a.m. I called up Mr. Jose (Peping) Fernandez one of the managers of Compania Maritima and told him that I had to see him with an important problem. I rushed to his house. He realized my predicament. “I can offer you ships, but they are not here,” he said. After studying my needs from all angles we decided that the best thing to do would be to ask the U.S. Army to release the SS Mactan.

We contacted Colonel George, in charge of water transportation, and asked him to meet us at USAFFE Headquarters so that we could discuss the matter with General Marshall. We met at 8 a.m. and it was decided that the U.S. Army would release the Mactan to me to convert it into a hospital ship. I was told the SS Mactan, was in Corregidor and it would not be in Manila until after dark. I rushed to the Red Cross Headquarters and asked Mr. Forster to have the painters in readiness to start the painting without delay, as soon as the ship docked at Pier N-1.

Last night Mr. Forster sent a telegram to the American Red Cross in Washington informing them of our plan.

At 11 a.m. Collector de Leon phoned me that the Apo was sailing for Manila that evening. I thanked him and informed him that it was too late.

At 5 p.m. Mr. Wolff phoned me that they have received an important radiogram from the Secretary of State, Hull, and that my presence in the Red Cross was urgent to discuss the contents of this radiogram. I rushed there. Mr. Wolff, Mr. Forster, Judge Dewitt and Dr. Buss of the High Commissioner’s Office were already busy studying the contents of Mr. Hull’s radiogram. It was specified in it that the sending out of Red Cross hospital Ship was approved; that the Japanese government had been advised of its sailing through the Swiss Ambassador and that it was necessary that we radio rush the name of the ship and the route that would be followed. Moreover, we were told to comply strictly with the articles of the Hague convention of 1907. These articles define what is meant by Red Cross Hospital Ship, how it must be painted and what personnel it must carry. It clearly specifies that no civilian can be on the boat.

I left Red Cross Headquarters at 6:30 p.m. No news of the SS Mactan had been received. At 9 p.m. I called Dr. Canuto of the Red Cross, and I was advised that the ship had not yet arrived.

At 11 p.m. I went to Pier N-1 to inquire. No one could give me any information about the Mactan

And December 30, 1941:

At 5 a.m. Mr. Williams of the Red Cross phoned me that the ship had arrived but that he was not willing to put the painters on because there was still some cargo of rifles and ammunition left. He informed me that the Captain (Tamayo) and the Chief Officers were in his office. I asked him to hold them. I dressed hurriedly and rushed to the Red Cross Headquarters. They repeated the information given to Mr. Williams. Believing that this cargo belonged to the U.S. Army I asked them to come with me to the USAFFE Headquarters. I had to awake General Marshall. Pressing our inquiry we found out that this cargo consisted only of 3 or 4 boxes of rifles (Enfield) and 2 boxes of 30 caliber ammunition belonging to Philippine Army. It had been left as they were forced to leave Corregidor before everything had been unloaded. We explained to them that there was no danger and with my assurance that these boxes would be unloaded early in the morning, they returned to the ship, took on the painters and left for Malabon for the painting job.

From the USAFFE Headquarters, I rushed to the house of Colonel Miguel Aguilar, Chief of Finance. I found him in bed. He got up, and I asked him to see that the remaining cargo there be removed without delay. He assured me that he would contact the Chief of Quartermaster Service and direct him accordingly. My order was complied with during the course of the day.

At 9 a.m. I contacted Mr. Forster. He informed me that the painters were on the job and that in accordance with my instructions, two launches were tied close to the ship to transport the painters to the river of Malabon in case of a raid. I then went to Colonel Aguilar’s office at the Far Eastern University to discuss with him some matters regarding finance of the Army. From there I went to Malacañan to see Sec. Vargas, and from there to the office of the Sec. of National Defense, to inquire for correspondence for me.

At noon, I called Mr. Jose (Peping) Fernandez to inquire where the ship was. He asked me to have luncheon with him and to go afterwards to Malabon. After lunch we went by car to Malabon. I saw the ship being painted white. It already had a large Red Cross on the sides and on the funnel.

I returned to the Red Cross Headquarters to ascertain if all plans had been properly carried out. Mr. Forster was worried as he did not know whether the provisions and food supplies carried by his personnel would be sufficient. I then contacted Colonel Ward by phone, and later Colonel Carroll. Both assured me that there would be enough food and medical supplies for the trip.

With that assurance, and the promise of Mr. Forster that his doctors and nurses were all ready to go and of Colonel Carroll that as soon as the boat docked at Pier 1, he would begin to load his equipment, beds, etc. and transport his patients, I felt that my mission had been successfully accomplished.

Here, the Red Cross book continues the story on page 16:

Late in the afternoon of December 31, 1941, Army ambulances came clanging down Manila’s Pier 1 and halted alongside the American Red Cross hospital ship Mactan moored there.

They were followed by others, and for three hours an unending line of stretchers bearing seriously wounded American and Filipino soldiers streamed up the Mactan’s gangplank. Men with bandaged heads, with legs in casts, with arms in slings, and with hidden shrapnel wounds were borne aloft by Filipino doctors, nurses, and crew.

Their faces pallid and eyes expressionless, they had no idea where they were being taken. They did not seem to care, except that the large red crosses on the ship’s sides were a reassuring sign that they were in friendly hands.

There were 224 officers and enlisted men in the group of wounded young boys of the new Philippine Army, youthful American airmen, grizzled veterans of the Philippine Scouts (an arm of the United States Army), and gray-haired American soldiers with many years’ service in the Far East. All had been wounded fighting the Japanese invaders during the bloody weeks preceding the historic stand on Bataan.

These casualties had been left behind in the Sternberg General Hospital when General Douglas MacArthur withdrew his forces to Bataan. Anxious, however, to save them from the rapidly advancing Japanese armies, he had requested the American Red Cross to transport them to Darwin, Australia, in a ship chartered, controlled, staffed, and fully equipped by the Red Cross. The only military personnel aboard, apart from the patients, would be an Army surgeon, Colonel Percy J. Carroll, of St. Louis, Missouri, and an Army nurse, Lieutenant Floramund Ann Fellmeth, of Chicago.

Aboard the Mactan, berthed at Manila’s only pier to survive constant Japanese air attacks, Irving Williams, of Patchogue, Long Island, lanky Red Cross field director, observed the three-hour procession of wounded up the gangplank. From now on until the ship reached Australia an estimated ten-day passage if things went well responsibility for them was in his hands.

The book on page 16 continues by explaining how the Mactan ended up the chosen ship for this mission:

Only forty-eight hours had elapsed since the Mactan had been brought from Corregidor where she was unloading military stores for the United States Army. A 2,000-ton, decrepit old Philippine inter-island steamer, she was the only ship available at the time when everything in Manila Bay had been sunk or scuttled or had scampered off to sea.

Working under threat of Manila’s imminent occupation by Japanese troops, Williams and his Red Cross associates, and the crews under them, performed a miracle of speed in outfitting the Mactan as a hospital ship. Simultaneously, steps were taken to fulfill the obligations of international law governing hospital ships: The Mactan was painted white with a red band around the vessel and large red crosses on her sides and top decks; a charter agreement was made between the American Red Cross and the ship’s owners; the ship was commissioned in the name of the President of the United States; in accordance with cabled instructions from Chairman Norman H. Davis in the name of the American Red Cross, the Japanese Government was apprized of the ship’s description and course; all contraband was dumped overboard; and the Swiss Consul, after a diligent inspection as the representative of United States interests, gave his official blessings.

The Mactan, lacking charts to navigate the mine-infested waters of Manila Bay, set steam late in the evening of December 31, 1941. The Philippine Diary Project has Gen. Basilio J. Valdes solving the problem of the charts (involving the charts of the presidential yacht, Casiana, recently sunk off Corregidor), in his entry for December 31, 1941:

At 5 p.m. while I was at Cottage 605, the telephone rang. It was a long distance from Manila. I rushed to answer. It was my aide Lieutenant Gonzalez informing that the ship would be ready to sail, but the Captain refused to leave unless he had the charts for trip, and same could not be had in Manila. I told Lieutenant Gonzalez to hold the line and I asked Colonel Huff who was at General MacArthur’s Quarters next door, and he told me that the charts of the Casiana could be given. I informed Lieutenant Gonzalez. Half an hour later Lieutenant Gonzales again called me and told me that the boat would leave at 6:30 p.m.

I was tired. After dinner I retired. At 10:30 p.m. a U.S. Army Colonel woke me up to inform me that the ship was still in Pier N-1 and that the Captain refused to sail unless he had the charts. We contacted USAFFE Headquarters. We were informed that the Don Esteban was within the breakwater. We gave instructions that the charts of the Don Esteban be given to the Captain of the SS Mactan and that those of the Casiana would be given to the SS Don Esteban.

I then called Collector of Customs Mr. de Leon, and asked him to see that the ship sails even if he had to put soldiers on board and place the Captain under arrest.

At 11:40 p.m. we were advised by phone that the SS Mactan, the hospital ship had left the Pier at 11:30 p.m. We all gave a sigh of relief.

The Red Cross book describes the ship’s departure as follows om p. 19:

Off the breakwater, the Mactan dropped anchor to await the Don Esteban.

As the hours passed, a little group joined Julian C. Tamayo, the Mactan’s skipper, on the bridge for a last look at Manila’s skyline. Besides Williams, there were Father Shanahan, Colonel Carroll, and Chief Nurse Ann Fellmeth.

Having been declared an open city, Manila once again was ablaze. The incandescent lights, however, were dimmed by the curtains of bright flame hanging over the city. The Army was dynamiting gasoline storage tanks at its base in Pandacan and its installations on Engineer Island to prevent their use by the enemy. The docks were burning, and over smoldering Cavite Navy Yard, devastated by heavy Japanese air attacks, intermittent flashes of fire reddened the sky.

As if by design, promptly at midnight the last of the Pandacen gasoline tanks blew up with a terrific explosion, throwing up masses of flame which seemed to envelop the whole city. A new year was ushered in, but the little group on the Mactan’s bridge was in no mood for celebration.

The charts brought by the Don Estebarfs master were not the ones Captain Tamayo had asked for. They were too general.

“Do you think you can sail without detailed charts?” askedWilliams.

“I think so,” replied the swarthy, pug-nosed little skipper with characteristic confidence.Once again, the Mactan weighed anchor. The moon was high in the sky as the ship approached Corregidor for a last-minute rendezvous with a United States naval vessel. From the shadow of The Rock sped a corvette, a gray wraith floodlighted by the moon, to lead the Mactan through the maze of mine fields. The corvette led the lumbering Mactan a merry chase; highly maneuverable, the former made the various turns at sharp angles, while the latter would reach the apex of a triangle and extend beyond it before making a turn.

A 26 year old American nurse, Floramund Fellmeth Difford, who ended up on board after being given a daring assignment, has her own version of events:

While the other nurses stationed in Manila were evacuated to Bataan and Corregidor, Difford was chosen for a special assignment because of her surgical nurse experience. A plan was devised to evacuate as many of the hospitalized soldiers as possible to Australia aboard an inter-island coconut husk steamer called the Mactan, under the auspices of the International Red Cross. It would be the largest single humanitarian evacuation of military personnel to date. And it was a suicide mission.

Col. Percy J. Carroll, the commanding officer of the Manila Hospital Center, told Difford the secret assignment was voluntary and risky. There was no guarantee the ship, which was barely seaworthy, would make it to its destination, but for the wounded, staying in Manila meant certain death. “It never really entered my mind to refuse, as we were accustomed to following orders,” Difford related in her book.

While the Japanese were on the outskirts of Manila, Difford awaited word to board the Mactan. She carried with her a note that explained that she was a noncombatant, but with the Japanese closing in, she prepared herself to become a prisoner. On Dec. 31, 1941, the order finally came. The Mactan, newly painted white with red crosses on its sides and decks so planes would recognize it as a “mercy ship,” was loaded with 224 wounded soldiers (134 Americans and 90 Filipinos); 67 crew members, all Filipino; and 25 medical and Red Cross personnel, all Filipino except Difford, who was the chief nurse, Col. Carroll, and a Catholic priest from Connecticut, the Rev. Thomas Shanahan, the ship’s chaplain.

Although the Red Cross was given clearance for the ship to leave by a Japanese commander, this was the first hospital ship to transport wounded soldiers in a war that the United States had just entered. There was great concern that the ship would be attacked by air or torpedo. Those aboard the ship rang in New Year’s Day 1942 to the sight of Manila in flames as the Americans blew up gasoline storage tanks to keep the supplies out of enemy hands.

The journey was fraught with peril. The ship had to zigzag through a maze of mines just to leave Manila Bay, following a Navy ship for guidance, and had a close call when it made a wrong turn in the darkness. The ship was infested with cockroaches, red ants, and copra beetles. Violent storms tossed the ship and drenched the patients on their cots on the decks, sheltered only by canvas. There was a fire in the engine room, and for a time those aboard prepared to abandon ship. Two wounded soldiers died from their injuries during the crossing, and a depressed Filipino soldier committed suicide by jumping overboard.

On Jan. 27, 1942, the Mactan arrived in Sydney Harbor to much fanfare, especially after newspapers had falsely reported that the ship had been attacked multiple times. Despite the primitive conditions aboard the vessel, the wounded soldiers arrived in very good condition and were quickly taken to a hospital on land. The Mactan’s voyage made headlines in the United States. Difford was cited for bravery by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1942, among other awards. She and other military nurses were belatedly awarded the Bronze Star Medal for their service in 1993.

On board the ship, Major William A. Fairfield, kept a diary –he called it a “log”– from January 1, 1942, when the S.S. Mactan left Manila, to January 27, 1942, when they entered Sydney Harbor. You can read his diary and his recollections of the opening weeks of the war in the Philippines.

At the end of the voyage, the soldiers who’d been saved, all signed the document:

S. S. Mactan, Red Cross Hospital Ship
At Sea, January 12, 1942

National Headquarters

American Red Cross

Washington, D. C.

We, the undersigned officers and enlisted men of the USAFFE, in grateful appreciation of the services rendered by the Philippine Chapter of the American Red Cross under the supervision of Mr. Irving Williams, Field Director, wish by this letter to express our gratitude.

The evacuation of the wounded soldiers from Manila by the Red Cross prior to its occupation by the enemy was instrumental in preserving the lives and health of the undersigned.

The document bore the signatures, rank, and home addresses of 210 of the Mactan’s patients all of them except those who had died or were too sick even to write their names. The addresses represented almost every state in the Union and every province in the Philippines.

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