Skip to main content

The Strange Mission of the Lanikai

June 2024
21min read

“My God! What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!” the Admiral told Lanikai's skipper when she finally sailed into port

On March 18, 1941, eighty-two days out of Manila, all sails set, rigging taut, a small, green, weathered schooner entered the port of Fremantle, Western Australia. Atop her afterdeck house a small-caliber, slim-barrelled cannon sat on a brass pedestal. Faded, tattered Philippine and United States flags whipped from her spanker gaff. Above them, at the main peak, floated a wisp of bunting that the intrigued onlookers aboard the Allied warships present thought might be a man-o-warsman’s commission pennant.

The windjammer’s name, U.S.S. Lanikai, sparked instant recognition at headquarters—twice during the last three months she had been reported overdue and presumed lost. Chief of staff Rear Admiral William R. Purnell met her skipper with appropriate astonishment: “My God! What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!”

My introduction to Lanikai took place on December 4, 1941, when as a young lieutenant I was called into U.S. Asiatic Fleet headquarters on the Manila waterfront and told I was her commanding officer. Orders were oral, informal, and brief. “Commission her as a U.S. man-of-war, get a part-Filipino crew aboard, arm her with a cannon of some sort and one machine gun,” said Fleet operations officer Commander Harry Slocum, adding that she was to be ready for sea in forty-eight hours, provisioned for a two-week cruise.

Having been brought up in a Navy where one planned in detail and requisitioned in quintuplicate after many conferences and much coffee, I was relieved to be set straight on the new, streamlined procedure. “The rules do not apply here,” Slocum explained. “The Navy Yard has been directed to give you highest priority—anything you ask for within reason—without paperwork of any kind. Of this you can rest absolutely assured; the President himself has directed it.” Proof that the White House had spoken was soon evident. “Sign this receipt for ‘one schooner’ and tell me what you want,” said Commander R. T. Whitney, captain of the Yard. There was no time for the usual small talk or coffee. Telephone calls to ordnance, supply, hospital, communications, and personnel mobilized the Yard’s resources. A Spanish-American War three-pounder “quick firer” already was being bolted to the afterdeck-house roof, the biggest cannon it was felt could safely be fired without collapsing the twenty-seven-year-old ship’s structure. A half dozen Filipino-American seamen were on their way to the dock. The native crewmen who had come in a package with the ship had just been sworn into the Navy. Speaking little English, they were at a loss to understand what it was all about, but they cheerfully accepted the bags of uniforms, proudly donned the little round white sailor hats, and turned to, loading stores, ammunition, and the bags of rice and cases of salmon that were their bread and meat.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Charlie Kinsey arrived at the dock with his jaw dropped down. He walked forward and squinted at the ship’s nameplate, then called down to Chief Gunner’s Mate Merle Picking, who already was checking out his “main battery,” the three-pounder.

“I’ve got orders to the Lanikai ,” said Kinsey in a thick Georgia drawl, “but this cain’t be it!

The President’s message, carrying highest-secrecy classification and precedence, had said his order was to be executed “as soon as possible and in two days if possible.” So ready or not, on the forenoon of December 7—still December 6 in the United States—I reported for final instructions. “Open these orders when you are clear of Manila Bay,” said Slocum. “I can say for your ears only that you are headed for Indochina. If you are queried by the Japanese, tell them you’re looking for the crew of a downed plane.”

Lanikai’s radio receiver worked, I reported, but the transmitter did not. The water supply concerned me, too. Aboard a ship designed for a crew of five there were nineteen. “You have a set of international signal flags, don’t you?” said Slocum ironically. “If you run short of water, signal any passing Japanese man-of-war for some.” Lanikai sailed the fifteen miles out to Manila Bay’s entrance that afternoon and anchored, awaiting dawn to transit the minefield channel. Her crew, worn out from frantic last-minute preparations for sea, found their bunks early. Topside, in the soft tropical night, I watched the hundreds of lights twinkling in the clear air over the great fortress of Corregidor, “The Rock,” bulking huge and black nearby. Tomorrow those sealed orders would be torn open and the great adventure revealed.

Slocum had confided that Lanikai would relieve the U.S.S. Isabel on station; she had left on December 3 for Camranh Bay’s entrance. “Izzy” was a trim, white, nine-hundred-ton yacht taken into the Navy during World War I. For the last decade she had served as holiday flagship for the commander in chief of the Asiatic Fleet. Her age and flyweight military muscle clearly made her the most easily expendable unit in the Fleet, but she possessed in addition a striking attribute for this mission: as a Navy buff Roosevelt could plainly see, in the copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships he kept handy, that Isabel’s white hull and buff upperworks, configuration, and wholly inconspicuous little battery of four 3-inch guns made her look like any typical small merchantman that used the China coast. So F.D.R. had designated Isabel as one of the “three small ships” that were to be used—the others to be chartered locally. And, as the President had “suggested,” a token five Filipino seamen were put aboard before her precipitous departure. She was to remain painted white, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commander in chief, Asiatic Fleet, directed her skipper in a personal briefing. Her running lights were to be dimmed at night to give the appearance of a fishing craft.

At 7 A.M. on the fifth Isabel was forty miles from Camranh Bay and its big concentration of Japanese warships when a Japanese plane closed her. Isabel was shadowed the remainder of the day, planes sometimes coming so close that their identification numbers could be made out. At 7:10 P.M., on Hart’s urgent orders, she reversed course and headed back to Manila Bay.


The “one now enroule” was Lanikai; the second was never commissioned, the plan having been overtaken by events at Pearl Harbor.

The eighth of December, 1941, was only three hours old when a radioman nudged me awake from fitful slumber on a rubber mat atop the afterdeck house. The message he carried read “ ORANGE WAR PLAN IN EFFECT. RETURN TO MANILA ,” the “orange” being a supposedly secret euphemism for “Japanese” that was recognized Navywide. But there was no need to awaken the crew until daybreak.

In today’s frame of reference, which tolerates the Korean and Vietnam wars having been fought without constitutional legitimacy, it is difficult to appreciate F.D.R.’s dilemma in 1941. He was sentimentally attached to China, whence Grandpa Warren Delano, a traditional Old China hand, had thrilled the young Franklin with tall tales of clipper ships, pirates, mandarins, and perhaps even something of the opium operations that had contributed a million dollars to the family fortune. The powerful China lobby, plus Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, a lifetime Japanophobe, reinforced the Rooseveltian leanings. And with advisers like Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and man for all seasons Harry Hopkins to encourage the President’s liberal tendencies, he naturally felt deeply opposed to the Nazi-Fascists.

But the President found himself mired in a swamp of national apathy. Army draftees drilled with wooden rifles, stovepipe “cannon,” and “tanks” improvised from trucks. Their typical view of Army life was made clear in messages chalked on the fences and in the latrines: “ OHIO ”—over the hill in October (i.e., desertion). The general beer-hall and back-yard bull session attitude was “Let those European bastards beat each others’ brains out!”- sentiments strongly reinforced when Germany fell on the U.S.S.R. in June. What ordinary American wanted to die defending Singapore? or Surabaja (if he had ever heard of it), or blitzed London? or even Manila? But Roosevelt was a determined man as well as a consummate political strategist; despite public unconcern he had aligned the nation against Hitler by means of heavy congressional approval of the Lend-Lease Act on March 11, 1941.

On August 3, 1941, F.D.R. left New London, Connecticut, aboard his yacht U.S.S. Potomac, taking great pains to give the appearance of a fishing holiday. Transferred secretly at sea to the cruiser U.S.S. Augusta, he arrived at Argentia, Newfoundland, on August S for a four-day initial face-to-face meeting with Winston Churchill, also on a fishing expedition and a desperately urgent one. Britain was broke. Her lone ally, Russia, was reeling backward. It was 1917 all over again.

What F.D.R. promised Churchill over the nuts and wine perhaps never will be fully known, but a reference Churchill made in the House of Commons in January, 1942, gives a clue: ”… the probability, since the Atlantic Conference, at which I discussed these matters with Mr. Roosevelt, that the United States, even if not herself attacked, would come into the war in the Far East. …”

Verbal promises to Churchill were one thing, but commitments in black and white were quite another. During mid-1941 the finishing touches were put on Rainbow 5, a world-encompassing war plan hammered out in Washington by American planners after a series of secret Anglo-American military consultations officially referred to as ABC-I (American-British Conversations). The U.S. Congress, which then still jealously guarded its treatyand war-making prerogatives, had no inkling of the plan’s existence, let alone the fact that it gave first priority to the survival of Great Britain rather than to the defense of U.S. territories in the Pacific.

Roosevelt had verbally approved Rainbow 5 for distribution to the major commands, but it was to be inoperative “until we get into the war,” as chief of Naval operations Admiral Harold “Betty” Stark later testified F.D.R. had said. Roosevelt also took the precaution, considerably to the disappointment of the British, of not officially approving the ABC reports in advance, instead making this contingent upon a United States declaration of war.

On July 7 the President made a more open move toward war; by executive order, and with the agreement of the Icelandic government, American forces occupied Iceland. Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, chief of the Navy War Plans Division, asked the President if this didn’t conflict with his October 30, 1940, speech in Boston, where he had ringingly proclaimed that “I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again, and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars!” According to Turner, the President answered not a word but leaned back, his long cigarette holder elevated at a jaunty angle, and gave vent to a hearty chuckle.


On September 4 the technically neutral U.S. destroyer Greer assisted a British patrol plane in a fight with a German submarine about 175 miles from Iceland. A week later the President issued his “shoot on sight” proclamation, authorizing and presumably legalizing American warships’ firing on German or Italian warcraft wherever met in the western Atlantic.

On October 17, in response to the new doctrine, the U.S. destroyer Kearny attacked a U-boat west of Iceland and managed to survive a German torpedo. Germany did not declare war but countered off Iceland: on October 31 the U.S. destroyer Reuben James was sunk, with the loss of most of her crew. But to F.D.R.’s discomfiture these events apparently did little to stir the American public out of its lack of interest in Europe’s war.

Before the shock of Pearl Harbor finally and dramatically reversed the course of U.S. opinion, before Congress became aroused enough or informed enough to ask embarrassing questions about commitments, much less become aware of such rather informal Naval operations as conducted by Isabel and Lanikai in the western Pacific, a sequence of events had with inexorable urgency filled the five weeks preceding December 7. In the lexicon of a later age the countdown approached zero in the following fashion: November 5 . Unknown, of course, to the Americans, a Japanese combined-fleet operation order directed that war preparations be completed by early December.


A memorandum from Army chief of staff General George Marshall and Admiral Stark warned the President that the U.S. Pacific Fleet was inferior to Japan’s fleet and could not take the offensive: November 7 . Stark wrote to Hart that although the Navy was already at war in the Atlantic, the country didn’t seem to realize it and was still apathetic. November 10. Churchill said in a public speech thai in case of war between Japan and the United States a British declaration would follow “within the hour.” November 17. United States Ambassador Joseph C. Grew, in Tokyo, warned Washington to guard against “the probability of the Japanese exploiting every possible tactical advantage, such as surprise.” November 19 . The State Department warned U.S. citizens in the Far East to get out. November 20 . Japanese envoys Nomura and kurusu conveyed to Secretary of State Hull Japan’s demands for the preservation of peace: the United States must keep hands off China, resume trade relations with Japan, help Japan get supplies from the Netherlands East Indies, and stop American Naval expansion in the western Pacific. November 21 . Things looked black to Hull, but the day was brightened somewhat by Kurusu’s telling him Japan would not necessarily be bound by the terms of its tripartite mutual assistance pact with Italy and Germany.

The Pearl Harbor attack force assembled at Hitokappu Bay, Kuriles. November 22 . Roosevelt suggested a modus vivendi with Japan to last six months, having already been sounded out by Ambassador Nomura on the subject on the tenth. This was to include among other things the resumption of economic relations between the two countries; a suspension of Japanese troop movements to Indochina, Malaya, and the Netherlands East Indies; and American encouragement of nonhostile conversations between Japan and China. Reactions to these suggestions from the Chinese, the British, the Australians, and the Dutch varied from bitter opposition to nervous skepticism.

An intercepted message to the Japanese envoys in Washington revealed that the previous deadline for meeting Japan’s demands, November a5, had been extended to midnight of the agth, after which there would be no possibility of an extension and “things are automatically going to happen.” November 24 . United States forces occupied Dutch Guiana. All top U.S. military commands were alerted that a “surprise aggressive movement in any direction including attack on the Philippines and Guam is a possibility.” November 25 The War Council—Roosevelt, Hull, Secretaries of War and the Navy Stimson and Knox, Marshall, and Stark—met for a long discussion. Stimson, the meticulous diarist, noted that Roosevelt felt the attack might come as soon as December 1, “for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position oj firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves” [italics supplied]. Nevertheless the modus vivendi’s final terms were smoothed out. The whole show left Stark up in the air. Somewhat distractedly he wrote to commander in chief U.S. Fleet Admiral Husband E. Kimmel at Pearl Harbor: “I won’t go into the pros and cons of what the United States may do. I will be damned if I know. I wish I did. The only thing I know is that we may do most anything and that’s the only thing I’m prepared for; or we may do nothing—I think it is more likely to be ‘anything.’ ”

A very large Japanese expedition was sighted at sea below Taiwan, moving south. November 26 . An intercept from Hanoi to Tokyo, dated the twenty-fifth, ominously noted that “no doubt the Cabinet will make a decision between peace and war within the next day or two.” There was a parade of worried diplomats in and out of the State Department and White House. The Chinese ambassador, along with Chiang Kai-shek’s influential, rich trouble-shooter, T. V. Soong (Chiang’s brother-in-law), called on Roosevelt, bitterly protesting the proposed modus vivendi and threatening that it would wreck the Chinese will to continue resistance. Ignoring all normal protocol and lines of diplomatic communication, the Chinese had been soliciting senators, bankers, and private citizens in their campaign to promote support of Chiang.

Secretary Stimson telephoned Roosevelt the news of the big Japanese force headed south and was nearly blasted loose from his handset. The President “fairly blew up,” Stimson recorded. “Utter lack of good faith. It changes the whole situation!” F.D.R. angrily shouted.

Kurusu and Nomura, invited over at teatime by Hull, no doubt happily anticipated good news on the modus vivendi. But the tea was bitter. Hull handed them what variously has been called a peace proposal, a modified modus vivendi, and an ultimatum. Far from acceding to Japan’s demands of November 20, it called for Japan to get out of China and Indochina and respect the status quo in the Pacific. There was a heated two-hour discussion during which the Japanese envoys said it would be useless to send such a thing to Tokyo. In their message doing just that, they expressed the view that negotiations were a closed issue and that the United States could be expected to occupy the Netherlands East Indies as they recently had Iceland and Dutch Guiana.


The Japanese carriers of the Pearl Harbor attack force were on their way from the Kuriles toward Hawaii. November 27 . Stimson had got wind of something big going on, so during the forenoon he telephoned Hull to find out what it was. “I have washed my hands of it!” said Hull testily. “It is now in the hands of you and Knox—the Army and the Navy.”

That same morning the war warnings that have been the subject of so much dispute went out to the major field commanders. The Army message contained a sentence missing from the Navy warning: “ IF HOSTILITIES CANNOT, REPEAT CANNOT, BE AVOIDED, THE UNITED STATES DESIRES THAT JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST OVERT ACT. ” This was inserted on direct order to Stimson by the President, whose sensitive political nerve ends reminded him that even after the recent destroyer incidents in the Atlantic, the American public was stone cold to the idea of going to war with anybody. November 28 . Having been handed the baton by Hull, Stimson was itching to crack somebody over the head with it and suggested to Roosevelt that MacArthur’s planes bomb the Japanese task forces passing by the Philippines. Stimson never had forgiven the Japanese for humiliating him in 1931, when as Hoover’s Secretary of State he had tried unsuccessfully to fling the Japanese out of Manchuria without the force to turn the trick.

The War Cabinet, totally unaware of the Pearl Harbor attack force, met at noon to discuss the major Japanese expedition now heading south off Indochina. As usual, Stimson recorded the gist of the proceedings; it was the opinion of everyone that “if this expedition was allowed to get around the southern point of Indochina and to go off and land in the Gulf of Siam … it would be a terrific blow at all of the three Powers, Britain at Singapore, the Netherlands, and ourselves in the Philippines. It was the consensus of everybody that this must not be allowed .… that if the Japanese got into the Isthmus of Kra, the British would fight. It was also agreed that if the British fought, we would have to fight.”

There was some chat about the U.S.S. Panay incident, and it may be assumed that the President’s elephantine memory gave him total recall of the worldwide furor provoked when this tiny Yangtze gunboat was sunk by trigger-happy Japanese aviators on December 12, 1937. There was not much hope of inflaming American public opinion or Congress sufficiently to support a declaration of war, judging from their apathetic reactions to the Atlantic incidents. But it was essential that Roosevelt have at the very least a legal reason to commit American forces. Perhaps pondering this, the President left to escape the pressure briefly at Warm Springs, Georgia. December 1. The Japanese cabinet secretly made the final decision for war. An intercepted Tokyo message told Japanese diplomats in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Manila to destroy their code machines.

The Japanese envoys in Washington, following their orders, made one more appeal to an unreceptive Hull, suggesting a second-level meeting at Hawaii—Wallace or Hopkins versus Prince Konoye or Viscount Ishii.

Having been urged by Hull to return from Warm Springs, Roosevelt arrived at the White House from Union Station about noon. Hull was already there. Stark arrived at 12:50 and left at 1:25, overstaying the President’s lunchtime by twenty-five minutes. Obviously what went on was too hot for the telephone, as Roosevelt’s alter ego and prime counsellor, Harry Hopkins, had to come from his U.S. Naval Hospital bed for a belated White House snack and a post-mortem on the conference. He tottered in just as Stark was leaving. There is no record of the proceedings. Roosevelt, Hopkins, Hull, and Stark are not known to have mentioned the matter afterward; Stark adroitly fielded questions in investigations or sat mute when interviewed on the issue.

Admiral Stark hurried back to his office and handed his assistant chief of Naval operations, Rear Admiral Royall E. Ingersoll, the bare, specific requirements laid down by F.D.R. that resulted in the commissioning of the Lanikai, but gave him no background information whatever. By about 7 P.M. the message Ingersoll had labored on and conferred over during the afternoon went to the code machine for transmission to Manila. The events of the week that followed soon became a page of history that closes with those well-remembered words- Pearl Harbor.

Following the unexpected outbreak of a very clearly expected war, Lanikai fell into a sort of limbo, her raison d’etre dissolved by the “incident” at Pearl Harbor. A heavy Japanese air raid on December 10 destroyed Manila’s Cavité Navy Yard and ended any possibility of Lanikai’s being fitted with submarine-listening gear. So for a week she patrolled under sail outside the harbor entrance. To everyone’s genuine surprise nothing collapsed when several test rounds were fired from the three-pounder. Monster cockroaches and ancient debris tumbled out of crannies, but if there were any rats aboard, no one saw them. More likely, in the wise ways of ships’ rats, they had got the gist of F.D.R.’s message and left Lanikai for better duty elsewhere.

Blundering through the minefield channel twice daily—even though the mines were “friendly”—clearly was a greater menace to Lanikai than her patrols might be to the Imperial Navy. So on December 24 she was called alongside the pier to help evacuate Navy headquarters.

With the Asiatic Fleet falling back on Java, there was no point in Hart’s remaining; he turned over local Naval command to Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, commandant i6th Naval District, and departed southward on December 26. The day before, a very unmerry Christmas, Hart’s flag lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Charles Adair, jumped down to Lanikai ’s deck and, without much trouble, located me.

“Skipper, I’ve got a proposition,” Adair told me without preamble. “How’d you like to take a crack at running the blockade to Java? The boss is leaving by submarine. No space for staff. It’s a long chance and your ship. What do you say?”

My reply was instant: “When do we start?”

Admiral Rockwell having reluctantly given permission, Lanikai hurriedly took in provisions, fuel, and water. “Go to sea in that thing?” goodnaturedly gibed a sailor who was not a member of the crew. “You gotta outboard motor?” There was assorted advice, including a reminder to blow up our water wings before starting.

“Departed Corregidor 1940 [7:40 P.M.], destination unknown”— Lanikai ’s log entry for December 26—gave her crew of eighteen and six passengers not the mildest clue that during the next three months four thousand perilous miles would pass under the keel while all hands labored under the well-founded suspicion that the Japanese navy might be expected behind the next island.

It had been a grueling day, rounding up supplies and swabbing on green paint, but there was no lack of eager lookouts straining all senses to catch a whiff of smoke, spot a feather of bow wave, hear the clang of a slammed hatch or a dropped tool. Sounds carry far on a still night at sea, and there was the certain prospect that anything afloat or aloft would have to be enemy. Aboard Lanikai there was only the creaking and groaning of the hull, the slap of blocks and rigging, and the gentle pffut-pffut-pffut of the auxiliary.

So began Lanikai ’s hegira, beating her five- or six-knot way south, sailing by night and holing up by day as close to island greenery as depth of water allowed. Her fresh meat was the scrawny chickens bartered for shotgun shells and the fish caught alongside, all washed down with rainwater and coconut milk.

One remembers with a little chill the might-have-beens: the near-miss bullets and bombs—fire on board—passing almost under the Japanese guns at JoIo—groundings that could have been the end of the road—sighting enemy warships against the sunset sky—near-disaster south of Java when a great Japanese carrier force swept around Lanikai, which was saved by her own insignificance, just another slightly larger whitecap on a typhoon-tortured sea.

There had been good moments too. “Dot Nederlander of yourss hass got a zuspicious aggzent!” bellowed the skipper of a small Dutch warship, her guns trained out, when Lieutenant Paul Nygh, Royal Netherlands Navy, a Lanikai passenger, answered his hail. “Doc” Cossette, pharmacist’s mate, slacked fire during a Surabaja air raid long enough to shake his fist at the Dutch cruiser Tromp alongside. “You squarehead bastards!” he cried, “you’ve cut our foresail halyards with your goddamn popguns!” To engineer Crispin Tipay, a near-miss meant only one thing: “Queek, boyss! Get the dinghy. Thot bomb just keel a lot of feesh!” There was a pleasant interlude on the island of BaIi. Then, at last, Australia, with its hospitality and rough humor. Baskets of groceries came aboard without bills, sometimes with a forbidden bottle of brandy hidden beneath. “Year foitin’ fer us, airen’t ye now, mite? There’s nao price tag to that !” they said.

Over the decades that followed, my suspicions first aroused by Commander Slocum’s apparent cynicism- his suggestion about asking the Japanese for water—continued to grow. A clue here, a conversation there, gleanings from the archives declassified bit by bit, brought into clearer focus the intent that lay behind the President’s message. Over thirty years later SIocum, now a rear admiral, wrote: “I feel sure you realise that when you were ready to sail … most of us understood time had almost run out, and that whatever ‘FDR had in mind’ could in all probability never be carried off.” What indeed did “FDR have in mind?”

It seems clear that the part of the message beginning with “AT THE SAME TIME” was Stark’s addition, conveying to his close friend and frequent correspondent Hart that he was innocent of any complicity in the actual as opposed to the stated purpose of ’s assignment. On his own, Hart had commenced overflights of Camranh Bay on about November 23, and on November 30 Ingersoll sent him a dispatch “legalizing” this. His hand-written rough draft bears an “OK, Stark” and “Read to the President and he approved.” The resulting information was flowing in, and it was in fact the abundance of intelligence on Japanese movements that caused Hull’s urgent call to Roosevelt at Warm Springs to hurry back to face the obvious crisis. There was no need for a “defensive information patrol” —but at the same time the almost constant American reconnaissance of the waters in which the patrol was to operate would have produced a quick report if Lanikai (for example) had been attacked by the Japanese.

One of the first in whom suspicions were aroused was Representative Frank B. Keefe, of Wisconsin, who told the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack in 1945: … Admiral Hart was already conducting reconnaissance off that coast by planes from Manila. So far as the Navy was concerned, sufficient information was being received from this air reconnaissance. Had the Japanese fired on any of these small vessels, it would have constituted an overt act on the part of Japan.

Grilled by Michigan’s Senator Homer Ferguson before the same body, Admiral Ingersoll repeatedly testified that the message was wholly the President’s idea; that Admiral Stark would not have initiated such a movement and was satisfied with the information Hart already was furnishing; that if the President gave Stark any reasons, including for the “suggested” use of Filipino crewmen, Stark did not pass them on to him. Ferguson’s final question was “Could you tell us whether or not these were really men-of-war, so that if they had been fired on it would have been an overt act against the United States?” “It would have been,” replied Ingersoll.

Admiral Hart testified also. In July, 1967, he wrote me: “I was a full day on the stand before that Committee. In a long forenoon of it, Ferguson, Brewster and Keefe took a lot of time shooting questions at me. All were pretty clumsy, not having much in their minds to go on.” This was unfortunate, as in October, 1970, Admiral Hart wrote me that “only Admiral Stark could have known anything more of the inception—the whys and wherefores—of the picket ship idea [than I].”

Sumner Welles, F.D.R.’s Undersecretary of State, in 1950 pointed up Roosevelt’s agonizing dilemma: He did, however make it very plain to me that he thought the immediate danger was an attack by Japan upon some British possession in the Far East, or even more probably upon the Netherlands East Indies. What worried him deeply was that, though it might be impossible to persuade either the Congress or the American people … it was tantamount to an attack on our own frontiers and justified military measures in self defense. He felt, however, that Japan would not attack the United States directly until and unless we found ourselves in the European war.

Roosevelt was equally unsure of the Philippines and their mercurial president, Manuel Quezon. So on November 26, 1941, he directed U.S. High Commissioner Francis B. Sayre to consult Quezon “in great confidence” to try to determine if the Philippines would support the United States in the event she found herself at war with Japan. Those Filipino crewmen aboard the “three small ships” might just help Quezon and his countrymen make up their minds in case of any Japanese attack.

Would Roosevelt have gone for an incident? In December, 1971, the British released the minutes of an August 19, 1941, cabinet meeting, indirectly quoting Churchill’s remarks covering his Argentia conference with Roosevelt a week earlier: He [Roosevelt) obviously was determined that they should come in. … If they were to put up the issue of peace or war to Congress, they would debate it for months. … The President had said that he would wage war but not declare it and that he would become more provocative. If the Germans did not like it, they could attack American forces. … The President’s orders to these [convoy] escorts were to attack any German U-boat which showed itself even if it were 200 to 300 miles away from the convoy. Everything was to be done to force an incident [Italics supplied].

There seems to be no reason to suppose that after Hull’s tough message to the Japanese on November 26 Roosevelt’s idea of forcing an incident was not applicable to the Pacific and the Japanese as well as to the Atlantic and the Germans.

Some respected historians, such as Samuel Eliot Morison, have seized on Roosevelt’s proclivity for dabbling in Naval affairs as an explanation of his “three small ships” directive. Morison, using as an example the cruisers that F.D.R. earlier had proposed “to keep popping up here and there, and keep the Japs guessing,” brushes off the “picket boats” episode with a footnote: The President’s later proposal to Admiral Hart to operate river gunboats [sic] as picket boats in the South China Sea does not stem from the same idea, but from a desire to supplement the work of our patrol planes in reporting Japanese ship move- ments. The suggestion made at the Pearl Harbor Inquiry that this was an international provocation was disingenuous; the United States Navy has a right to send its ships anywhere on the high seas.

Why then “ ISABEL … BUT NOT OTHER NAVAL VESSELS ”—Only ships that did not look like Naval vessels? Why those “ MINIMUM ” tokens of a Naval vessel that “ WOULD SUFFICE ”? Why Filipino crewmen when F.D.R. knew that Hart had seven thousand U.S. seamen to draw on? Neither Morison nor any of the many witnesses questioned on the subject before the congressional investigating committee provided any satisfactory answers. And as for silence, it is far more eloquent than words.

In May, 1952, Rear Admiral John B. Heffernan, director of Naval History, asked Admiral Hart to review Morison’s book and offer corrections. Included in the latter was one on the footnote covering the “three small ships” episode: “Footnote 20 should be rewritten to accord with facts or be entirely omitted; it is not a piece of history of which to be proud.”

One spring day in 1970 I was having a prelunch sherry with Admirals Harry Hill and Thomas Hart. “I once had the unpleasant requirement to send this young man on what looked like a one-way mission,” Hart told Hill in explanation of our past association. Then he recounted Lanikai’s narrow escape from the dragon’s mouth. “Would you tell Admiral Hill if you think we were set up to bait an incident, a casus belli?” I asked him.

“Yes, I think you were bait!” said Admiral Hart. “And I could prove it. But I won’t. And don’t you try it, either!”

We are trying, Admiral Hart. And in remembrance of your near clairvoyance in foreseeing the shape of coming events in the Far East, we can only hope that in looking down from an old sailor's snug retreat you will approve of setting the record straight.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.