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Operation Flier: a sub, a crew, a rescue

Eight men lived when the USS Flier struck a mine during World War II. Douglas A. Campbell retraces their path as they evaded enemy capture

Seven of the eight survivors of the Flier (right) on the deck of the submarine Redfin soon after their rescue. One crewman was absent due to an illness.

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In simple terms, the goal of the trip was a boat ride in one of the most remote corners of the vast, 7,000-island Philippine archipelago. My timing for the voyage, however, was poor. It was February 2003, a month before the United States invaded Iraq.

Sabers were rattling in Washington, D.C. The captions on the airport television monitors in Philadelphia referred to the "terrorist threat" and an Osama bin Laden tape urging Muslims to attack the American "crusaders" and "War with Iraq: How to invest."

In the Philippines, Muslim militants had been roaming across that land of ragged jungle mountains, sprawling coral reefs, swaying palms and blindingly white sand beaches to kidnap people who resemble me - Western travelers. Occasionally, they had executed their captives by beheading them.

Indeed, one Filipino woman aboard my flight, when she learned my specific destination, let out an "ooooo" and then advised me that Abu Sayyaf - a Muslim guerrilla organization - "is there. Be careful!"

Yet despite the potentially hostile political climate, I had decided I must fly halfway around the world, to Manila, and then another 300 miles to Puerto Princesa on the long, slender western island of Palawan to take that boat ride. It was part of my duty if I were to accurately tell the story of the USS Flier, a submarine that sank in these waters after striking a mine Aug. 13, 1944, during World War II.

My book, "Eight Survived - The Harrowing Story of the USS Flier and the Only Downed World War II Submariners to Survive and Evade Enemy Capture," has just been published by Lyons Press ($24.95 in hardback, available online and in bookstores).

On the day of my arrival in 2003, the jet flew down the spine of Palawan, a series of pyramid-shaped mountain peaks, their deep creases draped in a dark green jungle velvet, their foothills touching the bright blue Sulu Sea on the east and, visible to the west, the South China Sea. The plane landed in Puerto Princesa, where I met my first host, Col. Elpidio Loleng.

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Our van rocketed along the coastal plain on the island's sole north-south highway, where the pavement ended abruptly here and was cratered with huge potholes there - the result of political corruption, the colonel explained. We shot past rice paddies and water buffalo, my door flashing inches away from the elbows of schoolchildren gathered in each village on the narrow shoulder beside the pavement. Our driver operated impartially in the left and right lanes to maintain his speed until we reached Brooke's Point, the most important settlement in the story I was preparing to write.

At sunset that night, I got my first look at the local watercraft. Tied to the dock in Brooke's Point were a number of brightly painted commercial craft, perhaps cargo or fishing vessels. Other boats were on moorings out on Ipolote Bay. They were what I would call outriggers - craft of varying sizes that looked much like trimarans, with an ama, or pontoon, on each side for stability.

All of these exotic vessels looked seaworthy. I was ready for an adventure. But there was another long van ride before we would reach the boat that had been chartered for me. Brooke's Point was, in 1944, the final destination in the live-or-die island-hopping the eight Flier survivors did before they were finally rescued.

A picturesque seaport, the town is in the eastern shadow of a needle-like mountain, Addison Peak. During the war, Brooke's Point was the home base of the local guerrilla force, an organization of Philippine soldiers who, after the fall of Manila in 1941, operated in the jungles throughout the archipelago and attacked the Japanese invaders whenever they could. Though most guerrillas were Christians, their tactics were rather close to those of modern-day radical Muslims, their executions similarly brutal.

I would return to Brooke's Point after my voyage, but the boat ride was next on the itinerary. In effect, I wanted to sail to points along the course that the Flier survivors had taken in the hope of eventually reaching the spot on the Sulu Sea above the sunken submarine. I felt that I needed, as much as possible, to see each of the places the submarine survivors had reached, to feel - as keenly as the separation of nearly 60 years would allow - the world through which they traveled in order to understand their ordeal. My boat ride would start about 30 miles farther south along the coast, in the port town of Rio Tuba.

The next morning, we piled into the van and once more sped along the dusty gravel highway through the Third World landscape, slowing only when we reached the Tuba River. Be inconspicuous, urged Loleng, a Christian. We are in Muslim territory.

The van turned right into the village of Rio Tuba, built on the side of a steep hill that descends into the river. The driver edged up a street crowded with pedestrians, where rustic wooden buildings leaned close on both sides.

It being February and skiing season back home, I had forgotten to bring a hat to protect me from the sun on the open sea. The colonel knew I needed to buy one, but when we stopped in the business district he told me to stay in the car. "No need to attract attention," he said. As I waited, he and the driver got out and, a few minutes later, returned with a brimmed cloth hat with a chin string - a bit small but the best they could manage.

We drove down the hillside to the waterfront, where the colonel did all the talking. My ride was a white and red boat of about 35 to 40 feet, made of wood with a narrow hull - the beam may have been a maximum of 8 feet - a deck forward above a small cabin and a cockpit aft. On both sides were amas, each one the trunk of a bamboo tree, the small end forward and lashed fore and aft to crossbeams. I would learn that this was a banca, a generic boat in these islands.

The colonel introduced me to a man who he said would take over as my guide. His name was Domingo Dela Torre Jr. He was of modest stature, with a wiry build and an expression that suggested he had doubts about his assignment.

Dela Torre, a Christian who had attended San Francisco Javier College on Palawan, was an employee of the family whose patriarch had been the guerrilla leader during World War II. He said very little to me at first, and when he spoke later, it was in very broken English. I had no complaint. I spoke absolutely no Tagalog, the local language. As the banca pulled away from the dock and motored east on the Tuba River toward the sea, Dela Torre moved to the foredeck, where he sat cross-legged, facing forward, scowling.

It was warm and sunny when the banca reached the Sulu Sea and turned south, near an anchored Japanese freighter loading mangroves. I approached Dela Torre and asked whether the captain and crew - there were three of them back in the cockpit - were his friends. In some combination of Tagalog and broken English, he let me know why he was scowling. They were Muslims, he indicated, and he didn't trust them.

I had arrived in the Philippines with some knowledge of the dynamics between Muslims and Christians here. Even before I had a chance to read accounts of guerrilla conflicts in the Manila newspapers, I had read about the abduction of Martin and Gracie Burnham.

The two Christian missionaries had been relaxing in a resort near Puerto Princesa in May 2001 when an Abu Sayyaf contingent crossed the 300-mile-wide Sulu Sea in a speedboat and kidnapped them and 18 others. Martin Burnham had, after a year of captivity, been killed during an unsuccessful rescue attempt. Gracie had been freed but not before Abu Sayyaf beheaded three of the other captives.

Until then, Palawan had been considered a safe island, its Muslims docile. But the Burnham case changed that perception. Still, I had no reason to believe that the captain and crew of the banca, now speeding along the southern coast of Palawan, were unfriendly. The captain was a striking man, perhaps 6 feet tall with very dark skin and coal-black hair. He spoke little as he stood in the cockpit, steering.

We had left Rio Tuba about 8 a.m., and within two hours we passed the southern tip of Palawan - Cape Buliluyan - where stilted houses are built out over the blue water. In 1944, the Flier survivors had stopped here briefly, having their first encounter with the local guerrilla forces. Forty minutes later, the banca stopped 200 yards off Bancalaan Island, a wafer of white sand topped with tall palm trees, a tiny speck of land that seemed to float between the waters of the Sulu and South China seas. One of the crewmen dove overboard and, without explanation from anyone, swam ashore.

By now, the air was hot and rather still. We were moored near a monohull planked with dark wood. It looked like some sort of commercial boat, perhaps one of the boats that take divers out in these waters.

I'd heard that these divers descend to depths of 200 feet, carrying with them only the end of a long air hose, from which they could breathe. Sometimes they dove to harvest fish killed after a stick of explosive had been dropped into the water.

This all had a connection to the story of Flier. One of two living survivors of the submarine, Alvin E. Jacobson Jr., a Michigan industrialist, had financed my trip and had told me he was informed that native divers had walked on Flier. He gave me coordinates for what he believed was the submarine's location. Although I had no hope of actually seeing Flier, I planned at least to visit the ocean above it to gain more perspective for the story I would be telling.

Anchored off Bancalaan Island, I tried to ask the banca captain about the nearby boat, hoping he would tell me about the divers and, perhaps, about those who had visited Flier. Although he was pleasant and tried to respond, our mutual language barrier got in the way.

In about a half-hour, the crewman who had dived overboard appeared in the water near shore, swimming with a steel drum. In time, the explanation oozed out: We had made a refueling stop. The drum contained diesel fuel. The drum was hoisted aboard, and the banca turned south, weaving around coral reefs, heading generally toward Borneo, just south of the Philippines, the third-largest island in the world, bisected by the equator.

Our next stop was Ramos Island, much closer than Borneo, just across a strait from Bancalaan. This largely uninhabited spit of land had played an integral role in the survival tale I was researching for my book. Ramos was the first stop of six U.S. Army spies, men of Filipino heritage recruited to infiltrate these islands and report to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters about passing Japanese ships. Ramos is just north of Balabac Island, a mountainous last stop before Borneo, a place where in 1944 the Japanese army had a garrison.

Our captain pulled the banca to a stop offshore from a reef that parallels the northern coast of Ramos. I took notes and then asked whether I could explore the boat below deck. I knew we were being moved by something powerful, and when the captain gestured for me to go below, I found a big, yellow V-8 diesel. "Mitsubishi!" the captain said, grinning proudly.

The boat was of simple construction - heavy frames and plywood sheathing. The hull was flat-sided, tapering from the 8-foot beam on deck to perhaps 2 feet at the keel, a nice shape to slice through the water and, I thought, ruggedly built.

Now we headed east, toward the open Sulu Sea. Dela Torre had been instructed by the colonel to tell the captain that we wanted to search out the spot above Flier. I had brought along Jacobson's coordinates and my personal GPS, so there would be no problem finding the location.

But as we reached the darker blue water of the sea, the surface was choppy - perhaps 3-footers - and the captain told Dela Torre it was too rough for the banca. I had seen how the boat was built. I would have been comfortable heading the 20 or so miles offshore that it would take to reach Flier's grave. But a captain should know his boat better than anyone. If our man was concerned for his banca, so was I.

And so we circled to the north, passing along the western shore of Byan Island, where the submarine survivors had first touched land after 17 hours in the water, then Gabung Island, their next stop as - shoeless, nearly naked and sunburned - they hobbled, waded and swam away from the enemy threat on Balabac Island.

The banca stopped again at Apo Island, the survivors' third stop, so that Dela Torre and I could go ashore. We prowled under the sheltering branches of mangroves and saw the dense thicket that makes these out islands suitable only for monkey habitat. Then we returned to the boat for the last leg of the survivors'  unaided evasion - the short trip to Bugsuk Island.

In the afternoon sun, the captain beached the banca on pure white sand where tall coconut palms, standing in line and arched like ballerinas, shaded a small settlement of houses - the property where Dela Torre was the caretaker, the home during World War II of the local guerrilla leader, Nazario Mayor. The captain and crew stayed aboard while Dela Torre led me ashore to the place where the Flier survivors finally met friendly natives - four days after the submarine sank. From the beach, we looked south over the sky-blue water to the purple peaks of Balabac's mountains. Then we settled in for the night, just as the submariners had done almost 59 years before.

During our stay at Bugsuk in Dela Torre's home, I was introduced to an elderly man from the local aboriginal tribe, Oros Bogota, a fellow who had been a teenager in 1944. I was stunned. Jacobson had told me of meeting the same man when the submarine survivors awoke their first morning on this island.

From the Mayor compound, the Flier survivors had been led to the north, across the full length of Bugsuk Island. It was a trek that I hoped to duplicate. But Dela Torre said it was impossible. The land now was owned by a lumber company, and it was fenced and patrolled. So we walked a few hundred yards into the jungle before turning back to the compound.

By now, it was time to board the banca once again. Our captain steered a course through shoal waters and around a maze of coral outcroppings until, north of Bugsuk, we reached the open Sulu Sea once again.

I had gathered all of the information that I could in the outlying islands. Now we motored directly back to Rio Tuba, where I said goodbye to our captain and Dela Torre and once again boarded the van for the ride back to Brooke's Point. If the boat ride had provided me with an understanding of the physical landscape in the Flier story, Brooke's Point would offer me the human element, for in this community of about 50,000 there still lived members of the families that had sheltered and aided the Flier survivors during the war.

In 1944, Brooke's Point harbored a diverse, though much smaller, population. The native Filipinos were found in three communities - the Muslims, overseen by a chief who was well-regarded by all; the Christians, descendants of those who had been converted centuries before by missionaries; and the aborigines. But there also were expatriate Americans and Europeans, among others.

The major property owner at the time was an American who had arrived in the Philippines as a schoolteacher. There was a Finnish engineer who had been trapped by the war and then aided the guerrillas. There were fugitive American soldiers who had escaped from Japanese prison camps during the fall of Manila and had been on the roam ever since. And there was a Scottish missionary couple and their two toddlers. The grandson of the missionaries and his wife were back in Brooke's Point in 2003, continuing their family's work. Dana and Kelly Danielson welcomed me into their home and aboard their motorcycles.

Kelly led me around town to the homes of now-elderly residents who had been teens and young adults during the war. I heard from them a love story and a tale of wartime hoodlums who preyed on local residents. I heard of everyday life and commerce in the town, and of survival in the malaria-plagued mountain retreats to which families fled when they feared invasions.

Dana took me on a motorcycle trek into the foothills of the mountains that rise sharply in the west, to the hillside where the Flier survivors were sheltered until their final, dramatic rescue. There, where the dark foliage of a coconut plantation sweeps down toward the brilliant blue sea, I met an aboriginal family and their patriarch, a man who still used a blowgun to hunt wild boar, as he did during the war, and who remembered the American sailors who had stayed for a while. I saw how some things had changed in the past 60 years, but how some, like the water buffalo - or carabao - working in the rice paddies and fields, had not.

I was there when Dana shopped for a hacksaw blade in a small hardware store. I visited the hospital where a surgeon was about to use the blade to amputate the infected foot of an aborigine whom Dana had transported to town from a mountain jungle. And I witnessed the burial of the man's foot in the Danielsons' backyard, an aboriginal ritual that the missionaries performed at the man's request.

My stay ended in Brooke's Point, and Loleng returned with the van driver to shuttle me back to Puerto Princesa. There I was given a tour of a notorious World War II prisoner-of-war camp, where scores of American soldiers were burned to death by an irate camp commandant.

The next day, I flew home, prepared to write my book. My mind was filled with images of an incredibly beautiful land and an impossibly brutal conflict; of a band of courageous and lucky sailors and a community of strangers who gave them comfort and protection. Then, less than three weeks after my trip ended, another war - the Iraq War - began. n

Editor's note: Last year the late Al Jacobson's family financed an expedition whose divers found and photographed the Flier, the grave of 78 sailors since 1944. Doug Campbell is a former senior writer for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.