Guerrilla Submarines in Northern Mindanao during World War II

USS Bowfin SS-287 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is now a museum. It was the first sub to visit Northern Mindanao in WWII on Sept. 2, 1943 just 1.25 miles east of Binuni Point, Iligan Bay.

Guerrilla Submarines in Northern Mindanao during World War II

By Mike Baños

(We are bringing back this story in commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Cagayan, Misamis (now Cagayan de Oro) from the Japanese during World War II.)

During World War II, US Navy submarines helped supply Filipino and American guerrillas with arms, ammunition and supplies, also ferrying personnel in and out of the islands.

Known as the SPYRON (for Spy Squadron) Operation, it supported the Filipino and American Guerrillas resistance to the Japanese occupation after the Philippines fell to the Japanese Imperial Forces in early 1942.

The Spyron operation was key to the success of the resistance. Without the arms and supplies ferried by US submarines, the guerrillas would have been unable to sustain their intelligence gathering and sabotage operations against the Japanese forces.

Even before Corregidor surrendered, submarines were already playing a key role in the Battle for the Philippines supplying arms and ammunition to the beleaguered island, and ferrying people in and out the war zone.

The Quezon Mission

Notable among these missions was the USS Swordfish (SS-193) under Lt. Cmdr. C.C. Smith which picked up President Manuel L. Quezon, his wife, two daughters, and son; Vice President Tomas Osmeña; Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos; and Philippine Army officers General Valdes, Colonel Nieto, and Chaplain Captain Ortiz from Corregidor on February 19, 1942.

Swordfish then departed via a safety lane through the minefield in the harbor and headed for San Jose on Panay Island, where she arrived on February 22nd, and transferred President Quezon and his party to a motor tender. Quezon and his family proceeded to Iloilo and were ferried to Oroquieta, Misamis Occidental by PT-41 of MTB Ron 3 skippered by Lt. John Bulkeley, who would later successfully transfer General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff from Corregidor in their famous “Breakout” to Australia via Cagayan, Misamis and Bukidnon on March 11-13, 1942.

Hence, they motored to Del Monte Airfield in Bukidnon where they were subsequently flown to Australia by B-17. (Source: John Clear’s collection of more than 63,000 pages of U. S. submarine World War II patrol reports, compiled from original U. S. Government microfilms.

Cmdr. Chick Parsons during a mission in the Philippines stands beside a typical guerrilla hut in his typical outfit for getting around in the jungle. He often used sneakers  to be able to run fast when needed as he was a champion miler in high school in Tennessee and never carried a weapon. (photo: ozatwar.com)

Chick Parsons

The man responsible for the SPYRON operations was U.S. Naval Commander Charles Parsons, Jr.

Better known by his nickname “Chick”, Parsons first came to Manila when he was five years old. When World War II broke out, he and his family managed to return to the USA under a diplomatic exchange.

However, Chick volunteered to return to the Philippines  to organize secret submarine missions in support of the Philippine Guerrilla movement. His extensive knowledge of the country and his network of local contacts enabled him to communicate effectively with the guerrilla units.

“Chick” initially worked out of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB), and later moved to the Philippine Regional Section, but his own inner group which he commanded was known as “SPYRON” and was a very independent bunch of characters. Parsons’ Navy boss was Capt. Arthur McCollum.

SPYRON was essentially a warehousing operation used to accumulate equipment to be sent up by submarine to the Guerrillas in the Philippines.

“Chick” worked in Heindorff House at 171 Queen Street, and lived in Lennon’s Hotel in George Street in Brisbane. Capt. McCollum reported to Admiral James Fife. While this was his official chain of command Parsons also reported to Courtney Whitney, Lt. Gen. Richard Sutherland and General Douglas MacArthur /

US Navy Cmdr Chick Parsons with General Douglas MacArthur possibly taken at GHQ SWPA in the AMP building in Brisbane, Australia.  (photo:ozatwar.com)

Parsons had joined MacArthur in January 1943. He convinced the Navy that if they lent MacArthur “Special Mission” submarines, the guerrillas would establish coast watcher radio stations throughout the islands which would supply numerous targets for their submarines.

Parsons sailed to the Philippines on eight occasions on board a submarine to supply Filipino guerrillas in enemy occupied Mindanao. Amongst the submarines used for these missions were USS Narwhal and USS Nautilus, the two biggest submarines in the US Navy at the time each of which could carry up to 100 tons of supplies compared to 30 tons for the usual fleet submarines.

By 1944, his notoriety had grown so much Japanese authorities in Tokyo offered a “$50,000 Dead or Alive” reward for Parsons.  But the effect of the Spyron missions to the guerrillas and civil populace was electric.

“The effect upon the guerrillas (also upon the civilians) was miraculous,” Parsons wrote in a letter to the Philippine president-in-exile, Manuel L. Quezón. “It was touching to observe the gratitude of the men for the supplies. It showed them they were not abandoned, that their efforts were known to and appreciated by General MacArthur—it gave them new life.”

According to Captain Bobb Glenn, Chief Supply Officer for the AIB who was deeply involved in supplying the  guerrillas in the Philippines, once Col. Courtney Whitney (Sectional Officer, AIB) arrived in GHQ, the AIB was more or less out of the picture as the Philippine Regional Section was more favored by MacArthur for his special missions and the Philippine resupply effort. (source: https://www.ozatwar.com/sigint/prs.htm)

Spyron in Northern Mindanao

The first Spyron operation in Northern Mindanao and seventh Spyron mission overall,  involved the Bowfin (SS-287) under Cmdr. J. H. Willingham on Sept. 3, 1943 when it embarked nine persons and  delivered seven tons of radio equipment and supplies at Iligan Bay, 1 ¼ mile east of Binuni Point (off present day Bacolod, Lanao del Norte).

Four weeks later on Sept. 29, 1943, at the same location, Bowfin evacuated nine guerrillas, selected by their superior officers, to be transported to Australia.

Among them were Luis Morgan, executive officer of Col. Wendell Fertig, who headed the organized Filipino-American Resistance in Mindanao ; Edward M. Kuder, a well-known superintendent of schools in Mindanao and Samuel C. Grashio, a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot prior to his capture on Bataan.

Grashio had survived the infamous ‘Death March’ to be confined in three different Japanese prison camps before finally escaping from the Davao Penal Colony with a group of 10 POWs and two Philippine convicts and then joining the guerrillas.

USS Narwhal (SS-167)

The Narwhal cometh

But perhaps the most famous submarine to figure in Spyron operations in Northern Mindanao was the USS Narwhal (SS-167), the lead ship of her class of submarine and one of the “V-boats”, the second ship of the United States Navy to be named for the narwhal. She was named V-5 (SC-1) when her keel was laid down on 10 May 1927 by the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine.

At 371 feet long and with a displacement of 4,000 tons submerged, Narwhal was one of the biggest US Navy submarines during WW2, but was not really suited for attack, thus was assigned to transport supplies and personnel to guerrillas in the Philippines especially, eventually became the leading submarine in supporting the Philippine guerrillas with nine secret transport missions to her credit, five of which were conducted in the Caraga and Northern Mindanao regions.

 First Mission to Nasipit

On her seventh war patrol and ninth Spyron mission, Narwhal skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Frank D. Latta, entered Butuan Bay submerged at 0508 hrs on November 15, 1943.

At 1605 hours, she sighted a launch flying the proper security signal. She surfaced and Colonel Wendell W. Fertig, commander of the United States Forces in the Philippines (USFIP) and head of the organized resistance in Mindanao, came aboard. Narwhal then proceeded to Nasipit Harbor. On her way in she ran aground on hard sand in the channel’s west bank, but managed to free herself quickly.

At 1746 hours, Narwhal moored starboard side at the Nasipit dock as a Filipino band played “Anchors Away.” At 2330 hours, she completed offloading 46 tons of supplies.

Early the next day, she embarked 32 evacuees, including POW escapees Shofner, Hawkins and Dobervich, women, two children, and one baby, and got underway. Spyron Operations Chief Lt. Cmdr. Chick Parsons left Narwhal with the harbor pilot.

Remarks the Narwhal’s patrol report: “The very real need for any kind of stores in guerrilla occupied areas led us to transfer considerably more stores than were actually consigned as cargo. Additional arms and ammunition as well as foodstuffs were transferred to Col. [Wendell] Fertig.

An eyewitness account of this story is told in the book “My Faraway Home” by Mary Mackay Maynard, who was one of the two children evacuated. It is also related in John Keat’s book “They Fought Alone” which relates the guerrilla war in Mindanao under Fertig who was on hand to meet the submarine.

Seventeen days later, on Dec. 2, 1943,  Narwhal entered Butuan Bay and surfaced at 1706 hours, some 1,000 yards off Cabadbaran. Shortly thereafter, a 150-ton barge came alongside. Fertig and Parsons came aboard.

Narwhal embarked seven evacuees – two soldiers, three civilian men, one woman, and one eight-year-old girl. She unloaded 92 tons of supplies, 300 gallons of lube oil, a small amount of hand tools, received three messages regarding the next phase of her mission, and used the portable radio station on the barge to send three messages. At 2205 hours, she got underway with Parsons aboard.

The Alubijid Mission

Narwhal then proceeded to Alubijid, Misamis Oriental on December 5, 1943 to pick up nine evacuees. The ship’s log dated December 5, 1943 War Patrol No. 8 Alubijid (a microfilm of the actual entry in the ship’s log) shows details of its rendezvous:

0148 hours, she sighted the proper security signal at Alubijid, Majacalar Bay. 2nd Lt Noble, PA, came aboard to verify Narwhal was there to embark evacuees, then returned to shore. One boat load came alongside carrying the DeVries family. Other boats followed sometime later.

Relatives of the Filipino guerrillas and residents who helped unload Narwhal recalled the tales told to them by their forebears of that memorable event.

Frank Galarrita relates how one of the teams that unloaded arms from the sub were his two grandfathers, the father of Virgilio Galarrita, and  Ismael Labis, the Vice Mayor of Alubijid at that time, who was accompanied by his two teen-aged daughters.

“I think Lt. Noble was from Cebu,” he recalls. “They pronounced Noble as Noob-lee not in English as Noobol.”

“My aunt told me that they brought the precious goods to Barangay Lourdes, thereafter, probably some went to Bukidnon. But Barangay Lourdes at that time was still a town of Bukidnon,.”

“So that was the name of the submarine that quietly docked in Moog to unload supplies for the Filipino guerillas,” recalls Virgilio Galarrita. “My father was one of those civilians recruited to carry all kinds of supplies from the sub.”

“He said there were all kinds and sizes of boxes to be carried. He said he regretted to have volunteered to carry a small box not knowing that it was heavy since it was one of the ammo boxes. He said he should have picked one of those big wooden boxes carried by two people and happened to be lighter since they were boxes of biscuits and cookies.”

“After that there were stories that went around that some of those volunteers ate some of those biscuits and cookies, others took some home to their families, after they cracked open the box. Mga abtik gyud kining uban nga mga Alubijidnon!”

“My grandfather Manuel Gapuz was one of them, I think,” said Manuel Abellanosa. “They used a gas lantern (known locally as Petromax) covered with a big tin can (taro) with a hole to communicate with the submarine at night via Morse Code. Supplies, guns and ammo were carried through a “back trail” up to Bukidnon. They would pass by Lunsi where Lola Doding, Mommy Ellen, Uncle Fred evacuated.”

Former Misamis Oriental Board Member Cromwell Galarrita Generalao shared his stories:

“The US submarine that docked in Moog, Alubijid in 1943 was among the many popular stories of the war in Alubijid. Unfortunately we have no documents, letters or records of the event. My father, Arturo Jamis Generalao, tirelessly and fondly told stories of the war, among which was a US submarine that docked in Moog.”

“The US submarine brought modern firearms and supplies for the Philippine Army and the local guerrillas. My father recalled that one evening, while at Guinotang, Alubijid, about 2 kilometers from the Poblacion where his family had a small farm, he noticed that some guerrillas, many of them his relatives, were walking briskly towards the Poblacion, Alubijid.”

“The guerrillas commandeered some carabaos. As a curious teenager and fascinated by the actions of war, he followed the guerrillas. On their way, he heard the guerrillas talking about receiving modern firearms from a US ship at Moog.”

“When he heard of a US ship at Moog, my father said he was very excited to follow the guerrillas, with the intention of boarding the US ship and go to the US. From Poblacion, the troops proceeded towards, Lanao, Molocboloc and finally Moog.”

“At Moog shore, he saw Philippine Army soldiers on the shore. He thought they were from the Philippine Army Camp at Kalabaylabay, El Salvador. The Army soldiers had a Petromax.”

“My father said he was so amazed at the sight of the US submarine that looked different from a ship. He tried to join the line of the guerrillas, pretending to help carry the firearms and supplies to shore, but actually intended to board the submarine and stow away. But the US sailors only allowed Filipino Army soldiers to board the submarine to haul the firearms and supplies.”

“The guerrillas stayed at the shore to receive the firearms and supplies and tied them to the carabaos. The firearms and supplies loaded on the carabaos were brought towards Lourdes, Alubijid.”

“The sight of the submarine for the first time and the new modern firearms with lots of ammunition fascinated my father, Philippine Army soldiers and the guerrillas. He identified the firearms as: Garand Rifles, Thompson Submachine guns, M-1 Carbine Rifles, and Browning Automatic Rifles.”

Narwhal embarked two men, three women, and four children then stood out of Majacalar Bay at 0446 hours.

Back to Cabadbaran

On March 3, 1944 Narwhal was back in Cabadbaran to deliver 70 tons of supplies but had to abort the mission when 3 IJN destroyers approached. She was able to meet with Capt. Hamner and pick up 9 evacuees including Hamner.

At 1000 hours, on March 2nd, the proper security signal was spotted on the beach at Cabadbaran. She surfaced and a boat came alongside. Three representatives of Fertig came aboard.

They said Fertig was waiting at the Agusan River mouth because it was too difficult to tow their barge into the bay. Latta brought Narwhal as near to the river shoal as he dared and then laid to.

Narwhal’s crew began rigging their two launches topside for delivery to Fertig. Fertig came aboard and asked Latta to move up the channel to the barge and to delay unloading until the next day. But Latta refused both requests. Instead, he sent one of Narwhal’s launches to have the barge towed alongside.

By 0210 hours on March 3rd, seventy tons of cargo was unloaded and two 26-foot whale boats were delivered to Fertig. Narwhal also embarked twenty service men and eight civilians, including two women. At 0229 hours, Narwhal stood out of Butuan Bay.

Last Mission to Balingasag

On Sept 27, 1944 Narwhal was back under Cmdr. Jack C. Titus (who took command starting with her 11th War Patrol) in Northern Mindanao, to deliver 3 men and 20 tons of supplies to Balingasag, Misamis Oriental, This later proved to be the last Spyron mission to Northern Mindanao.

Narwhal surfaced on the night of Sept. 27, 1944 and sighted the proper signal from the shore of Balingasag. Some 45 minutes later, a heavy rain obscured all land and at 1744 hrs a small boat with a US Ensign was sighted. All cargo was unloaded by 2100 in spite of the bad weather and at 2103, Narwhal commenced clearing the coast.

By Sept. 28 she left the Mindanao Sea for Siari Bay where she embarked 31 liberated POWS. The prisoners had been aboard Japanese transports sunk by Paddle (SS-263) off Sindagan Point on September 6.

In October 20, 1944 MacArthur fulfilled his vow to return to the Philippines with the invasion of Leyte and mopping up operations of isolated pockets of Japanese resistance started on April 17, 1945

The last Spyron mission was conducted by Nautilus on January 3, 1945 at Baculin Bay, Davao Oriental, to offload 45 tons of supplies which were received by 2nd Lt. N. Artero in behalf of Fertig.

On August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in Tokyo Bay. (Photos courtesy of ozatwar.com & MacArthur Memorial)

About the author: Mike Baños is an amateur World War II history buff, a former commissioner of the Cagayan de Oro Historical & Cultural Commission and at present Executive Director of the Cagayan de Oro World War II & Veterans Studies Committee)

Map of Iligan Bay showing Binuni Point off Bacolod, present day Lanao del Norte (courtesy of Nole C. Nusog

Lt. Colonel Hedges and his Maranao force of Lanao brandishing new weapons received from a submarine most probably the USS Bowfin, sometime 1943.

Left to right- Thomas Cabili, Robert Bowler, Salipida Pendatuan, Charles (Chick) Parsons, unknown, Manuel Fortich & Edwin Andrews in Malaybal

The Busran Kalaw Guerrilla of Mumongan, Lanao during World War II (photo MacArthur Memorial Archives)