Around 9:45 a.m. on 20 March 1944, on the north side of Panay, in the Philippines, a small party of refugees arrived at the edge of the woods and peered out onto the beach. One of the party was Louise Spencer, nearly eight months pregnant and who had been hiding from the Japanese for the previous two years. In rags and tennis shoes, she took stock of a scene she would recount in her memoir Guerrilla Wife, which came out the following year.[footnote:footnote0] The memoir and the U.S. Navy documents that confirm many of its details provide an invaluable means of reconstructing the story of how the Gato-class submarine Angler (SS-240) came to the rescue of Louise Spencer and 57 other people in desperate need of a way out of the Philippines.
Soon Spencer and her party spotted a few more refugees in the woods near the beach, then a dozen, then a score, then more. Everyone strained to see evidence of the submarine — a periscope, perhaps, or a shadow in the water.[footnote:footnote1]
Their hopes high, the evacuees made their way to small houses on the beach, where they would remain out of sight until the appointed time. Little did Spencer and the others know, but Angler was only a mile away, just under the surface. Its crew had already observed the “large crowd of people walking behind the tree line on the beach,” according to the commanding officer’s report.[footnote:footnote2]
The evacuees came outside again at about 5:45 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, Spencer caught sight of Angler, which rose from the water only 1,000 yards away.[footnote:footnote3] Spencer and the others boarded small sailboats, which took them to the sub. By 7:10, all had descended into the relative safety of Angler’s decks.[footnote:footnote4]
The chief petty officers’ cabin accommodated the female passengers in greatest medical need. That included Spencer, the only pregnant woman aboard; four other women; a boy of three; a baby of 11 weeks; and a 13-year-old girl named Gwendolyn Whitney. Spencer describes her as having been “at death’s door…, in a sort of delirium, with a high fever.” The pharmacist’s report confirms these details.[footnote:footnote5]
Gwendolyn Whitney’s experience of the preceding several weeks was typical of many of the refugees aboard Angler. She had been on the run with her Filipina mother, American father, and five younger siblings. All had made it to Angler, where one of them recounted Gwendolyn’s recent misfortunes to a member of the crew.
On 21 February 1944, the Whitney family had received word that a Japanese killing squad was on its way, so they hid in the nearest bamboo thicket. That very night, Japanese soldiers found the camp and murdered Gwendolyn’s great-grandmother. Narrowly escaping gunfire, the rest of the family fled to the mountains, but Gwendolyn, in a state of shock and already feverish, only got sicker. By 27 February, as the Whitneys began their journey on foot to Angler, Gwendolyn had to be carried in a hammock. At one point, they found treatment for her at a field hospital but to no avail. On the move again, her fever rose. It continued to rise, even on Angler, to 104 degrees by the second day of the voyage.[footnote:footnote6]
Trapped on Panay
The Whitneys, the Spencers, and the rest of the American expatriate community were trapped on Panay after it fell to the Japanese on 20 April 1942. Their choices were to stay put — and face imprisonment, brutalization, execution, or some combination the three — or to head for the hills of central Panay.
Panay, a 4,448-square-mile, triangle-shaped island, is the Philippines’ sixth largest. The island’s central valley stretches about 95 miles from the city of Capiz, on the north coast, to the city of Iloilo, in the south. East and west of the valley rise several series of hills and mountains, the highest reaching 6,726 feet.[footnote:footnote7] It was to these hills and mountains that American and Filipino soldiers and civilians fled after the Japanese conquest of Panay.
There, in central Panay, Americans already in the U.S. Army sprung to action as advisers and liaisons among rival guerrilla groups.[footnote:footnote8] In some cases, Americans not yet enlisted managed effectively to join the U.S. Army remotely. Homer Mann, who would be with the Spencers throughout the ordeal, joined on 21 April 1943. Carlos Fernandez Antikoll enlisted on 6 August 1943, and so did Louise Spencer’s husband Cyril the following month. Several more U.S. Army men served with the guerrillas, too, and survived to give account of themselves aboard Angler in March 1944.[footnote:footnote9]
General Douglas MacArthur was aware of these American guerrillas as early as May 1942. A naval intelligence report composed shortly after the war recounts his decision to “test the feasibility of making landings by submarine [in order to] supply small communication and coast watcher units in the Philippines.” Throughout the Philippines, the United States counted on 120 secret radio stations, which helped with the coordination of transports and the transmission of important information. In this way, American guerrillas kept in regular contact with MacArthur, now the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area.[footnote:footnote10] The Spencers and their party relied on such news, arrivals, and supplies in order to survive and, ultimately, in order to escape.
The first of these submarine missions occurred in January 1943 at Negros island, just across the Guimaras Strait from Panay. Sailors aboard Gudgeon (SS-211) unloaded 200 pounds of equipment and supplies, mostly for coast-watcher units, who provided the link between the guerrilla activity inland and the Southwest Pacific Area command in Australia.[footnote:footnote11] From then on and almost once a month, a submarine would carry about 2 tons of supplies from Australia — usually Freemantle — to the Philippines.[footnote:footnote12]
As time went on and Americans’ existence in the Philippines grew more precarious, submariners became accustomed to cargoes like Angler’s. These rescues were part of a wider practice of using Navy submarines to rescue downed airmen, shipwreck survivors, and escaped or unsurrendered U.S. and Allied personnel.[footnote:footnote13] Yet Angler’s cargo in March 1944 was record-breaking in its challenges and in its scale — a full 58 evacuees who were relieved, to be sure, but also in physical and psychological pain.
Guerrilla Life (and Death)
In the wilds of central Panay, according to Spencer, “everyone suffered from diarrhea at one time or another….[and] almost all of us had worms.”[footnote:footnote14] Although they often relied on indigenous remedies, Spencer’s memoir is shot through with examples of people taking medications that could only have arrived by way of the submarine transports conducted by the U.S. Navy.
Spencer describes “hill life” as having “taken its toll” not only on people’s physical health but on their mental health as well — what she refers to as “nerves.”[footnote:footnote15] Life in the hills was as grueling as it was terrifying. “We were never free of the feeling that the [Japanese] might descend at any moment,” Spencer remembers, and this constant fear produced a good number of false alarms. One night, for example, her husband Cyril thought he heard a motor approaching, and they both jumped out of bed and bolted. This midnight sprint took them nearly 2 miles into the jungle before they felt safe enough to slow down.[footnote:footnote16]
The threat of capture and then imprisonment or murder was real. The Spencers and their friends survived only with the help of Filipino guerrillas, their families, and other inhabitants of the interior. “They ran terrible risks in helping us,” Spencer acknowledged, but under torture, which the Japanese applied liberally along with threats to whole families and villages, the Filipinos’ help could only go so far.[footnote:footnote17] Louise, Cyril, their friends, the guerrillas — indeed, everyone — had to operate in this atmosphere of absolute peril and all-out violence. In fact, the guerrillas themselves, including Americans, took part in some of the most appalling atrocities.[footnote:footnote18] Excess was the order of the day.
And then, in December 1943, things got worse. In that month, the Japanese occupiers announced that “any American found in the [Philippine] Islands, whether unsurrendered soldier or civilian, will be summarily executed.”[footnote:footnote19] The Americans on Panay were unaware of the new directive as such, but rumors indicated that something terrible was about to happen. The Spencers and their friends took to the hills again.
Regarding the friends who decided not to hide this time, the Spencers received news just before New Year’s Day 1944 — “horribly butchered,” “our missionary friends and the Clardy family… Solomon, too... Frederico, Catalina,” and a “darling little…. boy of twelve.”[footnote:footnote20]
Stories like these and news of the Japanese proclamation itself caused MacArthur to intensify the rescue efforts.[footnote:footnote22] The Spencers received word in late February that the U.S. Navy in Australia would send a submarine to rescue all Americans now on Panay. They would have three weeks and six days to get to the rendezvous point without Japanese patrols finding them first. “Once or twice we worked ourselves into cold terror,” Spencer remembers, “lest the [Japanese] should get wind of the project.”[footnote:footnote23]
Angler to the Rescue
Angler, based at Freemantle, was on its second patrol of the war in March 1944 when her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Roger I. Olsen, received orders to pick up “about 20” people from a rendezvous point on Panay’s northern coast.[footnote:footnote24] But then, just two days before pickup, Command Task Force 71 alerted Olsen to a change: Instead of 20, there would be “about 50” people to rescue, half of them children. Olsen set about making detailed plans for how to safeguard this precious cargo.[footnote:footnote25]
Olsen’s “General Plan for Embarkation” had the crew go to “battle stations submerged” in time for sunset, 6:03, when Angler would assume a position 1,000 yards from the beach. As soon as the ship surfaced, three Sailors were to man the guns, in case of a Japanese ambush.
Passengers would then arrive, and they would leave their luggage on the deck, which Sailors were to pass below only after everyone had embarked. Another Sailor would direct passengers through the conning tower and into the ship, where they would be directed to different rooms depending on gender, age, and medical needs. The pharmacist’s mate would see the most pressing cases first.
The entire process worked exactly according to plan on the day and, by 7:30 p.m., Angler turned and headed for open water.[footnote:footnote26] At 7:45, she was in a trim dive. Forty minutes after that, she was back to the surface and steaming toward Darwin, Australia.[footnote:footnote27]
After tending to the most pressing cases, the pharmacist’s mate did a survey of the passengers and then “ministered to all of us, it seemed,” according to Spencer.[footnote:footnote28] In fact, according to his report, he ministered to all but 16 of the 58 evacuees on board.[footnote:footnote29]
The pharmacist’s mate observed that “all passengers showed signs of prolonged undernourishment,” and “they had all lost weight.” At least seven people showed signs of what we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder. One little boy could not stand loud noises. An older man kept losing sense of where and who he was, his dementia having set in only recently while on the run. The pharmacist’s mate labeled him “temporarily insane, requiring a twenty-four-hour watch.” Still, the medic conceded, “while some of the party was very nervous, they were all in very good spirits,” elated at the reality of rescue.[footnote:footnote30]
But the passengers must also have been miserable, not least of all because of their emotional and physical ailments. Immediately, according the Angler’s crew, the ship itself was “infested with cockroaches, body lice and hair lice.” At one point, two children could be seen on an upper bunk in the process of “picking lice out of each other’s hair and cracking same with their finger nails.” The pharmacist’s mate was able to take the situation in hand by distributing large quantities—3 pints in total—of camphor, phenol, and alcohol. These chemicals brought the lice under control, if not the roaches.[footnote:footnote31]
Still, if conditions on deck bothered the Sailors at all, it appears as if none of them let on. They approached their charges with compassion and understanding. “Everyone was kindness itself in every way. We were full of gratitude… [and] could scarcely express how much we felt,” Spencer remembers.[footnote:footnote32]
The Sailors played excellent hosts, and the first meal on deck set the tone for the rest of the trip. In the small dining room and spread out on four tables lay platters of bread, cheese, meat, pickles, potato salad, and mustard. “We exclaimed over it like children, and ate until not a crumb was left,” according to Spencer.[footnote:footnote33] “Ravenous” was a word the crew used.[footnote:footnote34] The feasting caused two problems, however — one logistical and the other gastrointestinal.
At this rate, the ship would run out of food, so Lieutenant Commander Olsen enacted a carefully planned system of rationing. Everyone would have two meals during the day and a serving of soup at midnight. The other logistical issue — space — the crew solved by instituting dining shifts.[footnote:footnote36]
The gastrointestinal problems were harder to solve. People accustomed for the better part of two years to a diet of rice and fish had trouble adapting to the starchy foods, dairy, and tinned meat available on board Angler. Small children, especially, had trouble and required steamed rice for several days, until the ship’s supply finally ran out. Many of the adults, too, got sick from the richness of the bounty.[footnote:footnote37]
It did not help matters that water was in short supply, especially ice water, which people wanted on account of the heat.[footnote:footnote38]
Both the Sailors and passengers attest to the overwhelming heat inside Angler. The situation only worsened as the ship neared and crossed the equator, of course. “We streamed with perspiration,” Spencer recalls, “and at the end of the day under water our breathing became quite heavy.”[footnote:footnote39] The presence of 58 extra bodies exacerbated the carbon-dioxide problem. In her pregnant state, Spencer became so sick from lack of breathable air that she required oxygen daily for the second half of the trip.[footnote:footnote40] She remembers the wonderful feeling it gave her to breathe fresh air again at night, when, finally, upon surfacing, the conning tower’s hatch would be thrown open in order to let in gusts of fresh sea air. [footnote:footnote42] Indeed, three times per night, the crew pulled a suction tube through the boat in order to jettison the “heavily laden air.”[footnote:footnote43]
The air might also have been hard to breathe on account of “the stench, unique in its intensity,” according to the crew. Olsen noted that the worst areas were the front torpedo room and vicinity, where smaller children could be observed “urinating…on the deck.” The crowding alone must have been trying, the area forward of the control room having to accommodate more than three dozen women and children.[footnote:footnote44]
It could not have helped matters that Sailors and passengers were allowed to smoke at certain times. Even a little boy named Earl, aged two years and nine months, enjoyed “big black cigars,” according to eyewitnesses.[footnote:footnote45] Scenes like these might show just how hard it had been to parent a child in the wilderness while on the run from the Japanese and in the company of battle-hardened guerrilla fighters. Although the official reports referred to Angler’s charges as “evacuees” and “passengers,” they were also desperate and traumatized refugees in need of medical and psychological care.
The pharmacist’s mate went a long way toward providing the care so many of these people needed. Gwendolyn Whitney, deathly ill when she embarked, was up and walking a week into the trip, and her appetite had fully returned by the refugees’ last meal at sea, when Lieutenant Commander Olsen offered up a kind of Thanksgiving feast of the remaining store of food.
At 8:00 a.m. on 1 April, twelve days after departure from Panay, Angler dropped anchor at Dudley Point, Darwin, Australia.[footnote:footnote46] The refugees climbed into the sun and boarded the tender that would take them to shore. Louise Spencer was shocked at the appearance of the Red Cross nurses there to help her — the starched cotton and dazzling whiteness of their uniforms, the deep redness of their lipstick. After triage, the Spencers flew to Brisbane just in time for the birth of their first child, a healthy boy.
In the nine months after the Angler rescue, the U.S. Navy conducted at least 11 submarine rescue missions to the Philippines. Some vessels carried only a few passengers. Others carried dozens.[footnote:footnote47]
The Angler mission was remarkable for a few reasons. Of all the rescue missions to the Philippines, only one exceeded Angler’s passenger count of 58. None had as many women and children, and none was so well documented. Louise Spencer’s memoir presents the most extensive account we have of the refugee experience and of the Philippines rescue operations of 1943 to 1945.
Refugees trapped on Panay after Angler’s departure got their second chance on 30 September 1944, when Nautilus (SS-168) surfaced exactly where Angler had lain waiting for the Spencers and their friends just six months prior.[footnote:footnote48] And now, at the same shore stood 47 more men, women, and children awaiting their rescue by a U.S. Navy submarine.
—Adam Bisno, Ph.D., NHHC Communication and Outreach Division, March 2019
For more information on submarines in the Navy, visit the Submarines: The Silent Service webpage.