Chapter X

Our ship was gone, and our "Dunkirk" was over, but no welcoming homeland was waiting to solace our battered warriors, nor would any but the most incurable optimist see rosy prospects for the future. The channel through Corregidor's northern mine fields, through which boats must pass to meet rescue submarines, could no longer be used because of the Jap gun batteries now lining the shores of Bataan. There had never been a channel through the southern mine fields, which made it look as if we were bottled up by our own deadly obstructions.

There were mine sweepers among the Navy ships huddled in Corregidor's South Harbor, but no one had ever devised a sweep wire that could be pushed ahead of the ship, and if it were towed astern in the usual manner, the sweeping vessel would inevitably be blown up by the thickly planted mines. There was only one glimmer of hope. If small boats, starting close inshore, could sweep a narrow channel without chancing on mines near the surface, the big sweepers could follow behind and widen the breach -- provided they were lucky enough not to stray a few feet off the straight and narrow path. All this work would have to be done at night, making accurate navigation almost impossible.

No matter how dangerous the job, there were always enthusiastic navy men to undertake it. The versatile motor launches of the Canopus were turned over to experienced Mine Force sailors, and became miniature sweepers. Navigational lights were rigged on shore, hooded to screen their purpose from watchful Japanese eyes. Night after night, for two weeks, the daring crews gambled their lives against their skill -- and luck -- until success finally crowned their efforts. Many mines had exploded near venturesome boats, but never quite close enough to destroy them. Again a path to the sea was open, making it possible for submarines to come in and rescue a few chosen passengers.

In the meantime, the defenses of Corregidor and nearby fortified islands were gradually being blasted to bits. There were now not nearly so many objectives to distribute the enemy's bombing raids, which made destruction that much more concentrated on the ones still unconquered. The shores of Bataan were within easy artillery range, and batteries lining the beaches pounded day and night against every exposed position on the islands. Observation balloons were even sent up in Bataan to make it easier for artillery shells to be spotted into every nook and cranny.

Huge two hundred and forty millimeter shells soon began to search out the deeply buried powder magazines under Corregidor's mortar batteries, causing terrific explosions which wiped out several of the guns and their unfortunate crews.

All the Canopus crew and officers who were fit for such arduous duty had been sent into beach defenses with the Marines immediately on arrival at Corregidor. This duty involved a precarious existence in fox holes and caves which they dug for themselves in the cliffs. They slept under the stars at night, and dodged shells and bombs by day. Casualties were surprisingly low, probably because these men had learned by bitter experience how best to take care of themselves.

Artillery shells were conceded to be worse than bombs, because the latter, at least, "rattled before they struck." Planes were always seen overhead before bombs could possibly arrive, and the swish could be heard in time to duck into whatever shelter was handy. But high velocity artillery shells strike before the sound is heard, and no one could tell where or when the next blast would erupt. The guns also could, and frequently did, concentrate their pounding on a small area until everything in it was demolished.

In the face of everything that kept their tenure of life uncertain most of the open-air dwellers had the spirit to be sorry for the less active men, who were condemned to breathe the foul air of the comparatively sheltered tunnels! Obviously, the outdoor contingent wore the free, upstanding air of men who have met the acid test of danger, and are masters of their own souls.

Flesh and blood, however, could not endure the merciless pounding indefinitely, or could the concrete and steel of the forts stand forever. One by one the pill boxes and gun emplacements were knocked out, leaving little to resist when the yellow horde should finally pour from boats in the final assault. The war will probably be over before we know the full details of those last desperate hours, when valiant men, equipped with little more than courage, were pitted against well-armed invaders.

Two nights before the landing, a submarine slipped through the screen of Jap destroyers clustered around the entrance to Manila Bay, and the last group of passengers race out the new channel to meet their rescue ship. Six Naval officers, six Army officers, eleven Army nurses, one Navy nurse and the wife of a Naval officer had found their names on the list which represented a last chance for freedom. As their little boat bobbed its way through the darkness, they found it almost impossible to convince themselves that the long months of trial were actually nearing an end. Suppose something had happened to keep the submarine from reaching the appointed spot? Could she get through the cordon of enemy destroyers searching only a few miles outside? What a wonderful relief was the sight of that low black hull looming through the darkness, waiting exactly on her station!

In final testimony of the hell left behind, the dark bulk of Corregidor suddenly blazed with fires and bursting shells, just as the favored group climbed on board the submarine. The Japs were starting to lay down a terrific, continuous barrage that was to mean the end of Corregidor before many more hours had passed.

Within the throbbing steel hull of the submarine, sympathetic crew members served up such food as the hungry refugees had not seen for months. Bunks were already at a premium, but the choicest ones were unselfishly given up to the passengers, with all hands put on a strict schedule for sleeping at different times during the day and night.

Danger was by no means past. The gauntlet of Japanese patrolled sea lanes still had to be run, and for weeks the only sight of the sun would be through a periscope. But the passengers had placed their destinies in competent hands, and they had no need to worry over such trifles.

When news of the fall of Corregidor came through the radio two days later, faces were grim and grief stricken. We had hoped that there might be time for more submarines to be sent in, and more of our shipmates rescued. Now that last hope for our friends were gone. They had joined the "Missing in Action" roll call.

For them it would always be a roll of honor. Far from being an implication that they might have shirked their duty or fled from the battle, in their case it could only mean death or imprisonment after the most devoted service any nation could ask of its loyal subjects.

Just before the Navy radio station on Corregidor was destroyed to keep it out of alien hands, the Commandant had flashed a final message which well expresses the code by which those sailors lived and fought. Not for themselves were the thoughts of twenty five hundred men and officers of the Navy in that last desperate hour -- instead they "reaffirmed their loyalty and devotion of country, families and friends."


Capt. Sackett's History