In the fateful first week in December, the Canopus had just finished an extensive overhaul at Cavite Navy Yard, and emerged looking more like a war vessel than ever before. Many anti-aircraft machine guns had been added to her armament, and light armor had been fitted around exposed positions, which later proved of immense value in warding off bomb fragments.
The submarines were considered in the first line of defense for the Philippines, and were expected to operated from bases as far advanced in the field as possible in order to utilize their maximum effectiveness. But submarines cannot operate long without supplies and repairs, and a surface tender had to be available for these services, even though her eventual loss by air attack would be almost a foregone conclusion if she stayed within aircraft range. The Canopus was chosen for this sacrifice, probably because the other tenders were newer and faster, and thus better able to avoid damage or loss in the open sea. But also involved in the decision was no doubt the fact that the Canopus had already demonstrated her ability to care for many submarines of various types and could handle the job alone, as long as she lasted.
When the news of the treacherous blow at Pearl Harbor was flashed at 3:30 a.m. (Manila Time) on December eighth, we knew we had a job to do. There was no further sleep that night. Little knots of men were gathered all over the ship discussing the new situation. The comments heard most frequently were -- "Well, this is why the Navy hired us", "Now at last we know it was best that our families were sent back to the States", but most urgent of all, "How long will it take the Big Fleet to get here?"
That the Fleet would get there in time we did not doubt then: it was only later when the full story of the loss of planes and ships at Pearl Harbor became known, that officers of the Navy familiar with strategic problems involved began to have grave misgivings.
The first day was one of intense activity. "Strip ship" was no longer a practice evolution -- it was the real thing now. The guns had been manned constantly for days, for the Asiatic Fleet was aware of something in the air, and was prepared. But now the gun crews felt something of the tenseness of the hunter, with his finger on the trigger when he hears a rustle in the bushes. Evidently this excitement was general because our own planes were fired upon by some of the other ships in the harbor, fortunately without damage.
No enemy planes appeared over Manila the first day, but they did strike with deadly effect at Clark airfield, about sixty miles further north. There they caught on the ground nearly all the Army's heavy bomber strength in the Philippines, already loaded with bombs which only awaited the order for the high command to deliver on Japanese air fields in Formosa. Who can say what the war might have been if that order had not been fatally delayed? We know what telling blows even a few Flying Fortresses can deliver, and here were squadrons of them, their wings clipped before they were allowed to strike one blow for freedom! Even the protecting fighter planes, which had been circling the airfield all morning in anticipation of just such an attack, had been called in at the same time for fuel and lunch -- just in time to suffer the same fate as their big sisters lined up on the field. The crowning irony of that disastrous day was the fact that the field's radio station was hit by the first salvo of bombs, preventing them from summoning help from the fighters circling over Nichols Field, barely thirty miles away.
It was a perfect example of the advantage an aggressor gains by his treachery -- he knows what he is going to do, and how to do it -- whereas a paralysis seems to grip his victim with the first numbing blows. He must improvise his plans to meet the surprise onslaught, and lose vital time and material before his plans will fit the situation, which is seldom quite what he had visualized.
At midnight of the first day another air attack on Nichols Field brought the war to a spot where we on the Canopus had a grand stand seat for the spectacle, which looked for all the world like a good old Fourth of July display. From our anchorage off Cavite, just far enough away to muffle the noise, the shower of red and yellow tracer bullets, the sparklers of anti-aircraft bursts followed by the bonfire glare of burning hangers and planes had an unreal quality which made it hard to realize that this was war, and our own countrymen were fighting and dying amidst the conflagration. We learned later that fifth columnists had led the bombers unerringly to the target by bracketing the field with flares, and with the help of a brilliant moon, the raiders could hardly miss.
However unreal it seemed, we had no desire to become a pretty bonfire ourselves, so we got underway and steamed around the harbor all night, so as not to be caught napping in the event of an attack. It is wonderful solace to the nerves to be doing something, no matter how ineffectual, rather than to be a sitting duck, waiting for the hunter to let fly. Unfortunately, even the poor comfort of mobility was to be denied us from that time on.
At dawn the Canopus was ordered alongside the docks in the Port Area of Manila. This was chosen for the base of operations because when and if the expected sinking occurred, the depth under our keel would be shallow enough so that the ship would rest mostly above water, and valuable stores, torpedoes, and equipment would be salvaged. Headquarters for the submarine "Commodore" (Captain John Wikes, U.S.N.), and his staff were set up nearby in the newly built Navy Enlisted Men's Club. Several Canopus officers were incorporated into this staff to build it up to wartime proportions. After all, if the ship was not expected to leave port, why waste their services?
Torpedoes and spare parts were hurriedly unloaded, and lightered out to Corregidor, where less vulnerable shops were put into operation. Other stores and provisions were divided up, and one part stowed in a small inter-island ship in the hope that all would not be lost in one attack.
The superstructure of the Canopus was painted to match the color of the docks alongside, and camouflage nets spread overhead in an effort to deceive the Japs as long as possible as to our identity. The more exposed fuel tanks were emptied and filled with water to reduce the danger of a disastrous fire which might make it impossible to save the ship if the oil were touched off by a bomb. With the ship as ready as the men could make her, the grim question as to whether the value of her services in the time left to her would be worth the expected sacrifice was all that remained to be decided.
However, the Japanese had their own schedule, and the Canopus apparently was well down on the list of objectives. The main air fields had been first, then came Cavite, with again that weird, unreal feeling, because the splashes, fire, and smoke were only too evident a few miles away, while the detonations could not be heard. It hardly seemed possible that those swarms of silver winged insects so high in the sky could be responsible for that holocaust across the bay. Now at last our gunners had a chance to express their defiance by firing at the groups which passed overhead. Unfortunately, it was little more than a gesture of defiance -- for their guns were too small and ancient to have a chance of reaching the bombers at the extreme altitudes they habitually used.
There is a certain empty feeling which attacks the pit of the stomach with the realization that the order "Commence Firing" will not be the usual directive to see how much canvas and wood can be demolished in the shortest space of time, but instead, an order to blast as many human beings as possible into eternity. When guns start barking, however, the feeling passes, and a fierce exhilaration takes it's place, entirely apart from whatever results may be achieved. A man who has been wondering during the approach of the enemy whether after all he may be a coward, and secretly speculating on a hiding place, forgets all about his fears with the first kick of his gun, and becomes for a moment a killer.
Bomb damaged ships straggled out of Cavite Navy Yard following the attack, and the Canopus repair force slaved night and day getting them ready for sea, as well as equipping their regular brood of submarines for offensive patrols. Daily alarms sent the "pig-boats" to safety on the bottom of Manila Bay, but as soon as the marauding planes had left, the "Business as Usual" sign would be hung out again.
This sort of life did not lack for excitement, but was far from being the peace and rest which submarine crews must have to prepare them physically and mentally for the strain of their war patrols. There was every indication that conditions would get no better, and with the Army falling back on Manila, word came that the city would soon be abandoned to avoid complete destruction. Although the Canopus was still intact, the harbor could no longer be used for a submarine base. The circle of bombing attacks was drawing tighter each day, and on Christmas Eve our headquarters was hit, and the spent bomb fragments landed on our decks.
During the night we got underway for what proved to be our last journey, and steamed out of the Bay toward Corregidor, with great fires and towering columns of smoke astern of us as evidence that the Army was scorching the earth as they prepared to withdraw into Bataan.
We were to set up shop again in Mariveles Bay, on the southern tip of Bataan peninsula. Some of the submarines were still with us, but now we had no source from which our supplies could be replenished, and it was obvious that the best we could hope to do would be to equip this last group for war patrol, and then "turn in our suits" as far as submarines were concerned.