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article number 688
article date 10-26-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (Book) - Part 1: No Surprise in the Philippines . . . The Japanese are Coming!
by W. L. White

EDITOR’S NOTE: As 4 or more [sailors] tell their story, the author switches between them, sometimes abruptly as needed. This editor repeats text regarding who is about to talk, before the switch, in the hope that it makes for an easier read.


THIS story was told me largely in the officers’ quarters of the Motor Torpedo Boat Station at Melville, Rhode Island, by four young officers of MTB Squadron , who were all that was left of the squadron which proudly sailed for the Philippines last summer. A fifth officer, Lieutenant Henry J. Brantingham, has since arrived from Australia.

These men had been singled out from the multitude for return to America because General MacArthur believed that the MTB’s had proved their worth in warfare, and hoped that these officers could bring back to America their actual battle experience, by which trainees could benefit.

Their Squadron Commander, Lieutenant John Bulkeley (now Lieutenant-Commander) of course needs no introduction, as he is already a national hero for his part in bringing MacArthur out of Bataan. But because the navy was then keeping him so busy fulfilling his obligations as a national hero, Bulkeley had to delegate to Lieutenant Robert Boiling Kelly a major part of the task of rounding out the narrative.

I think the reader will agree that the choice was wise, for Lieutenant Kelly, in addition to being a brave and competent naval officer, has a sense of narrative and a keen eye for significant detail, two attributes which may never help him in battle but which were of great value to this book.

Ensigns Anthony Akers and George E. Cox, Jr., also contributed much vivid detail.

As a result, I found when I had finished that I had not just the adventure story of a single squadron, but in the background the whole tragic panorama of the Philippine campaign—America’s little Dunkirk.

We are a democracy, running a war. If our mistakes are concealed from us, they can never be corrected. Facts are frequently and properly withheld in a war, because the enemy would take advantage of our weaknesses if he knew them.

But this story now can safely be told because the sad chapter is ended. The Japanese know just how inadequate our equipment was, because they destroyed or captured practically all of it.

I have been wandering in and out of wars since 1939, and many times before have I seen the sad young men come out of battle—come with the whistle of flying steel and the rumble of falling walls still in their ears, come out to the fat, well-fed cities behind the lines, where the complacent citizens always choose from the newsstands those papers whose headlines proclaim every skirmish as a magnificent victory.

And through those plump cities the sad young men back from battle wander as strangers in a strange land, talking a grim language of realism which the smug citizenry doesn’t understand, trying to tell of a tragedy which few enjoy hearing.

These four sad young men differ from those I have talked to in Europe only in that they are Americans, and the tragedy they bear witness to is our own failure, and the smugness they struggle against is our own complacency.


- said the young naval officer

“YOU don’t understand,” said the young naval officer, “we were expendable.” He was very earnest as he lolled on the bunk in the officers’ quarters of the torpedo station at Newport, along with the other three officers who had also just got out of the Philippines.
I admitted I didn’t understand.

“Well, it’s like this. Suppose you’re a sergeant machine-gunner, and your army is retreating and the enemy advancing. The captain takes you to a machine gun covering the road. ‘You’re to stay here and hold this position,’ he tells you.

‘For how long?’ you ask.

‘Never mind,’ he answers, ‘just hold it.’

"Then you know you’re expendable. In a war, anything can be expendable—money or gasoline or equipment or most usually men. They are expending you and that machine gun to get time.

"They don’t expect to see either one again. They expect you to stay there and spray that road with steel until you’re killed or captured, holding up the enemy for a few minutes or even a precious quarter of an hour.

“You know the situation—that those few minutes gained are worth the life of a man to your army. So you don’t mind it until you come back here where people waste hours and days and sometimes weeks, when you’ve seen your friends give their lives to save minutes—”

- said Lieutenant John Bulkeley

“Look, never mind about that,” said Lieutenant John Bulkeley, the senior officer. “People don’t like to hear about that. I’ve learned that in the week I’ve been back. Let’s start at the beginning. And first a word about us.

“We four are what is left of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three. Last fall there were six little boats—and about a dozen men to a boat. Each one is a plywood speedboat, seventy feet long and twenty feet wide, powered by three Packard motors which can send her roaring over the top of the water about as fast as a Packard automobile ever gets a chance to travel on a highway.

So fast, in fact, that those motors have to be changed every few hundred hours. They should be, but what happens to that pretty theory in a war is another story—we lost every spare motor when our bases were bombed, and some of those in the boats had to do quadruple their allotted term before the boats were lost—but that’s getting ahead of the story.

“Each boat is armed with four torpedo tubes, and four 50-caliber machine guns—firing in pairs from each side.

PT’s from Mios Woendi fire at beached barges in daylight strike on August 17. 1944. From ’At Close Quarters’ book, Part IV - Southwest Pacific - Conquest of New Guinea.

"As for armor, well, there’s a story on that. The first time we tangled with the Japs one of our machine-gunners kept crouching down behind the shield which rose just under the noses of his guns. When it was over we asked him why he hadn’t stood up to fire.

“‘Hell,’ he said, ‘I didn’t want to get nicked. I was crouching down behind that armor.’

Then we had to tell him that shield was 3/8-inch plywood—keeps spray out of your eyes, but it can’t stop anything the Japs might send. There isn’t an ounce of armor steel on the boat—we’re little eggshells, designed to roar in, let fly a Sunday punch, and then get the hell out, zigging to dodge the shells—but again I’m getting ahead.

“We went out to the islands last fall. I was commanding officer of the squadron—I’d picked every officer and man in the outfit from volunteers—told them we were heading for trouble. So they piled us and our six boats on a tanker. In late summer, we snuck through the Panama Canal one night, and were steaming up Manila Bay in the early fall.

“On my way back here last week, I had a few hours in Honolulu, and the boys were still talking about how they’d been surprised on December 7. I don’t know why they should have been, because they got the same warnings we did in Manila. That war was maybe days, perhaps even only hours, away.

"The only thing that surprised us was that it was Pearl Harbor that got the first attack, not us.

“We’d been following the negotiations. We knew we needed sixty more days to put the islands in shape for decent defense. We needed planes and tanks.

"Most important of all, at least half the Filipino army had never had a uniform on until a few weeks before the fighting started. They needed training, and Washington knew this just as well as we did, and of course didn’t want war.

“But now for a little geography. Here’s Manila Bay—a big beautiful harbor twenty miles across. At the far end is the city of Manila, and if you were suddenly put down there, you’d think you were in Los Angeles, until you noticed the faces of the people. At the mouth of Manila Bay, the upper lip is Bataan Peninsula and the lower one is Batangas, with the Rock—Corregidor Island—a hard little pill between the two lips.

"And we are stationed at Cavite, the big American naval base on the lower side of the bay, about halfway between Manila and the harbor’s mouth.

“We’re under orders of Admiral Hart, who is Commander in Chief of the Far Eastern fleet, based there.

"Only how long will we stay? Because as war drew close, rumors began to fly. If it came soon, we might be getting out because we didn’t have air superiority. The Japs could run down from Formosa and bag our little Asiatic fleet, so maybe we’d be pulling out for the southern islands, waiting for aircraft carriers which would bring fighters to protect us.

“The night of December 8 we were all asleep in the officers’ quarters at Cavite,” Bulkeley went on, “when my telephone rang about three in the morning and I first learned the Japs had struck at Pearl Harbor.”

- said Ensign Akers

“When they shook me, I didn’t believe it,” said Ensign Akers. He’s a tall, dark, silent Texan. “I was sure they were kidding. I just said, ‘It’s a hell of a time to declare war,’ and rolled over.”

- continued Bulkeley

“The message said I was to come on down to the Commandantia,” continued Bulkeley. “It’s an old thick-walled Spanish building, and when I got there, Admiral Rockwell, who was in command at Cavite, and Captain Ray, his chief of staff, were already dressed.

”Dawn was just beginning to break over Manila Bay, and the Admiral was watching the sky.

"‘They ought to be here any minute,’ he said. And then he told me to prepare my six boats for war stations. They were going to send us over to Bataan at the naval base in Mariveles Harbor, just opposite Corregidor.”

MAP: Southern Luzon. Corregidor in Mariveles Harbor.

- said Kelly

“I was prepared for the war,” said Kelly, the squadron’s second in command, a tall blond lieutenant with quick blue eyes. “I’d heard about the secret operation orders—what the fleet would do under any of three eventualities.

"So the night before I’d gone over to the Army and Navy Club at Manila and put aboard the thickest charcoal-broiled filet mignon I could buy there, plus French fries and a big tomato with Roquefort dressing, finishing off with brandy and a cigar. I figured I’d at least have them to remember.

“We spent that first day fully manned, anticipating a bombing attack. Five of the boats were dispersed along the shore about a hundred yards apart—the sixth was patrolling.

"All day we loaded them with food—cans of corned beef, Vienna sausage, vegetables, and canned potatoes—don’t laugh at that, it’s better than rice—canned fruit, fruit, coffee, whatever we could get our hands on.

“I saw the first planes about noon flying out over the bay. At first I thought they were ours, but after about a minute our shore batteries opened up. They were coming over at 20,000, and of course immediately we shoved all our boats off and out into the bay.

"But we heard nothing drop. It was probably just a reconnaissance raid—feeling us out.

“Of course there were all kinds of rumors—that Zamboanga and Davao, down in the southern archipelago, had been taken. Also that our navy patrol planes had gone up to Northern Luzon to intercept Jap transports gathering off Aparri there.

"We even heard our aircraft tenders had been surprised and taken, but that one proved false.

"Yet that morning, nothing was sure.

“About three o’clock orders came from Squadron Commander Bulkeley to send three boats, under my command, over to Mariveles on Bataan and report to the submarine tender there for food, water, and torpedoes, and to remain on the ready—available to go out and attack anything he ordered us to. By five o’clock we cast off.

"We had some passengers to deliver at Corregidor, so it was eight and plenty dark before we were outside the mine fields, feeling our way into Mariveles. We thought we knew those mine fields, but in pitch-darkness, with the mine-field lights turned off and of course no lights on our boats now, it was something else again.

“At this point the army took over. They heard the roar of our motors and thought it was Jap planes. Searchlights began winking on all over Bataan, feeling up into the sky for planes—our motors were echoing against the mountains on Bataan, so they couldn’t tell where the noise was coming from. Every artillery post for twenty-six kilometers around went on the alert, and for a few minutes it was a question whether we were going to be blown to hell by a mine or by one of our own shore batteries.

“But finally we snaked through, tied up alongside our sub tender, and then its skipper delivered a piece of nasty news. Told us he had orders to get under way just before daylight, out to sea—didn’t know just where they were sending him—maybe south, maybe the Dutch East Indies, anyway he wouldn’t be back.

“So then the fun began. There we were—no base, rations for only ten days, and a big problem in how we were to live ourselves and what in hell we would do with the boats when the planes came over.

"In addition to which, we were almost flat out of gas, and what would we do for fuel to fight this war?

“Pretty soon we began finding some of the answers. For instance, just around the coast from Mariveles in Sisiman Cove was a native village—practically abandoned except for a few families—about twenty nipa huts in all. We moved in and took over.

"A nipa hut is a little contraption—single room with thatched roof and sides—up off the ground four or five feet on bamboo stilts. Under it the natives keep their pigs and chickens. The floor is split bamboo, and never very tight, so the crumbs and small pieces of garbage dropped on it can sift down onto the pigs and chickens.

"In one corner of the hut is a sandbox, and on this sand they build a fire for cooking. There never is a chimney—the smoke just goes out the windows or through the floor cracks.

The Navy’s first PT boat, the Scott-Paine PT 9, is unloaded from SS President Roosevelt in New York, September 5, 1939.

“But for the most part we lived on our boats—had to, because we never knew when we would have to haul out into the bay in case of a dive-bomber attack. Anyway we had a base again.

“Next, we found our barges loaded with gasoline in drums which had been towed out into the bay for us by the navy—if they got smacked by bombs, they didn’t want them burning near the wharves. There was nobody in charge but a watchman.

"Each boat holds two thousand gallons, and of course it was a job pouring all that through a funnel. But in addition, it was dangerous, because our motors have to have 100 octane gasoline—airplane grade—and that volatile stuff is more ticklish than dynamite.

"A little bit of static can make a hell of an explosion, so usually the officers did the nasty jobs of fueling and cleaning gas tanks. No use to ask men to take risks when officers should lead.

“We noticed, as we poured, that this gas had both water and rust in it—yet there was no way to strain it out; we had no chamois. What we couldn’t then know was, this gas had been sabotaged. We’ll never find out when or where—the guy who did it is safe, if he’s alive.

"But someone had dissolved wax in it—wax which congealed inside our gas tanks in a coat half an inch thick—wax which clogged our filters so that sometimes we’d have to stop and clean them after an hour’s run.

"That’s the fuel we had to fight the war on, we were to find out.

“Then I went over to the section base to make arrangements for our food, and we got another bump. The navy already realized a food shortage was coming and cut us down to two rations a day—breakfast and supper. All you got for lunch was stomach cramps about noon. There were plenty of them.

“I also thought I’d better have the doctor look at my finger. I’d snagged it a few days before and hadn’t paid much attention, but now it was swollen about as thick as a walnut. I guessed maybe it was a minor strep infection. What I didn’t know was that out East the streptococci are bigger and meaner than bulldogs and not to be fooled with.

"He took one look and began to talk about the hospital, but I said the hell with that. I was the second officer of the squadron and badly needed. I couldn’t stop the war for a sore finger.

"Then he said I ought to go over to Corregidor, where they had some sulfa drugs. But that was out, too, because momentarily we expected to be sent out on a mission. Bulkeley had put me in charge of the three boats, and I couldn’t leave.

“We settled that I’d come over to see this doctor daily, and soak it an hour or so in hot Epsom salts. The soaks, as it turned out, had to be cold because we didn’t have the power for heating water, and although I saw him about every day, it so happened that whenever I got there an air-raid alarm would go off and the doctor would have to dive for a fox hole. But it was the best we could do.

“The big alarm came at noon on December 10—we’d pulled up alongside a mine sweeper for water when word came that a large flight of Jap planes was headed toward the Manila area, coming from the direction of Formosa. We pulled away from the tender, out into open water, and fifteen minutes later we saw them—several formations—I counted about twenty-seven to twenty-nine planes in each—two-motor bombers—lovely, tight, parade-ground formations, coming over at about 25,000 feet.

But, I thought, when our fighters get up there and start rumpling their hair, those formations won’t look so pretty.

"Only where were our fighters? The Japs passed on out of sight over the mountains, and then we began hearing the rumble of bombs—only first we felt the vibrations on our feet, even out there in the water, and we knew something was catching hell.

But what? Manila? Maybe Nichols Field? Or even Cavite, our own base? We couldn’t know.”

Cavite in flames.

- said Bulkeley laconically

“I did,” said Bulkeley laconically. “I was there, at Cavite. The Admiral sent us a two-hour warning that they were coming—from Formosa, and headed on down in our direction across Northern Luzon. So we hauled our boats out into the bay.

"They kept beautiful formations, all right. The first big V had fifty-four planes in it, and they came in at about 20,000, with their fighters on up above to protect them from ours—only ours didn’t show! We couldn’t figure it.

"First they swung over Manila and began to paste the harbor shipping. It was a beautiful clear day, and I remember the sun made rainbows on the waterspouts of their bombs. They were from a hundred and fifty to two hundred feet high, and it made a mist screen so dense you could hardly tell what was happening to the ships.

"It turned out nothing much was— they only hit a few.

“But then that big beautiful V pivoted slowly and moved over Cavite—began circling it like a flock of well-disciplined buzzards.

“They were too high to see the bomb bay doors open, but we could see the stuff drop slowly, picking up speed.

"Only as we watched we found we had troubles of our own. Because five little dive bombers peeled off that formation, one by one, and started straight down for us. When they were down to about fifteen hundred feet, they leveled off and began unloading.

"Of course we gave our boats full throttle and began circling and twisting, both to dodge the bombs and to get a shot at them.

"Our gunners loved it—it was their first crack at the Japs. I remember Chalker’s face; he’s a machinist’s mate from Texarkana—a shootin’ Texas boy. He was pouring 50-caliber slugs up at them, cooler than a pail of cracked ice, but that long, straight, pointed jaw of his was set.

"Houlihan, who was firing the other pair of 50’s, was the same.

"They’d picked out one plane and were pouring it up into the sky, when we saw the plane wobble, and pretty soon she took off down the bay, weaving unsteadily, smoking, and all at once, two or three miles away, she just wobbled down into the drink with a big splash. So we know the 35 boat got one.

"Meanwhile the 31 boat had shot down two more.

"After that the planes didn’t bother strafing the MTB’s. Guess the Jap pilots back at their Formosa base passed the word around.

“It certainly surprised our navy too, which had never guessed a torpedo boat could bring down an airplane. Later on I got a kidding message from Captain Ray, chief of staff:


An enemy suicide plane, shot down by PT tender Oyster Bay, crashes in the water close aboard and LST. The ttenders Oyster Bay and Hilo are at left, Orestes center. This was the third plane shot down over Oyster Bay on the morning of November 24, 1944. From ’At Close Quarters’ book, Part VIII - Southwest Pacific - Return to the Philippines.

“About 3:30 the Japs left, so we went on back in to Cavite to see what had happened. They’d flattened it—there isn’t any other word. Here was the only American naval base in the Orient beyond Pearl Harbor pounded into bloody rubbish.

"We didn’t have time then to think about where our American planes could have been, because the place was a shambles, and we began loading in the wounded to take them to Canacao hospital. The first boatload was all white Americans except one Negro—from a merchant marine boat—with a compound fracture—his shoulder bone was sticking out and it looked brick-red against his black skin. We put a tourniquet on him and never once did he whimper—a very brave guy.

"There was half an inch of blood on the landing platform at Canacao—we could hardly keep on our feet, for blood is as slippery as crude oil—and the aprons of the hospital attendants were so blood-spattered they looked like butchers.

“We went on back to Cavite and offered to carry more wounded. The big base was one sheet of flame except for the ammunition depot. Only a piece of the dock was left, and through the shimmering flames you could see only jagged walls.

"Then we saw Admiral Rockwell—he was directing the fire apparatus which was trying to save the depot. He is a tall man, a fine figure of a sailor, but his head was down that day. In a dead voice he told us we’d better get out—that the magazine was liable to go up any minute. We offered to take him with us to Mariveles, but he said no, his job was here, to do what he could to save the magazines.

“So we picked up from the gutters and streets a lot of cans of food we knew we would need—they were from the bombed warehouses—stacked them in the boat, and set out.”

- said Ensign Akers

“The weirdest thing I saw there,” said Ensign Akers, “was a native woman—every stitch of clothing blown off by a bomb, running around screaming, completely berserk. But you could see she wasn’t wounded, and so everybody was too busy to catch her and calm her down. How she got there no one knew or even asked.”

- said Ensign Cox

“I was back there a couple of days later after the fires were out,” said Ensign Cox, a good looking yellow-haired youngster from upstate New York.

“They were burying the dead—which consisted of collecting heads and arms and legs and putting them into the nearest bomb crater and shoveling debris over it. The smell was terrible. The Filipino yard workers didn’t have much stomach for the job, but it had to be done and done quick because of disease. To make them work, they filled the Filipinos up with grain alcohol.

"The weirdest thing of all was that the week before I’d bought a bike, and the night before the raid I’d left it locked against a wall. Just for curiosity, I went over to where it had been and there it still was—beside the wall, which was only a jagged ruin, and yet its paint wasn’t even scratched.

"I unlocked it and rode all over the yard, watching those staggering Filipinos, maybe dragging a trunk toward a crater, pulling it by its one remaining leg, or else maybe rolling a head along like over a putting green.

"The Japs must have killed at least a thousand. Mostly dock workers—they caught them right at dinner hour.”

- said Lieutenant Kelly

“That raid gave me my first big shock of the war,” said Lieutenant Kelly, “but it wasn’t the damage they did. From over in Mariveles I couldn’t see what was happening after the Jap bombers disappeared over the mountain. I got my shock after they had unloaded and flew over us on their way home—the same beautiful tight formations—not a straggler.

"Where was our air force? What could it mean? Didn’t we have about one hundred and fifty planes—most of them fighters?

"Were our guys yellow? Or had somebody gone nuts and told them not to take off—let the Japs get away with this? It made you sick to think about it.

“From over towards Cavite we could now see that huge column of smoke rising into the sky as the Japs left the scene.

“But it wasn’t until Lieutenant DeLong dropped in at four o’clock in the 41 boat that I knew how bad off we were. He said the Cavite base was a roaring blast furnace—the yard littered with those mangled and scorched bodies—and furthermore that all our spare parts for the MTB’s—engines and everything—had been blasted to bits. Machine shops completely gone.

"Not so much as a gasket left to see us through this war, with the factory halfway around the world.

“Also he said the Cavite radio had been hit. That still left the short-wave voice stuff to talk with Manila or Bataan or the Rock, but of course this couldn’t be secret from the Japs, so they would be depending on our six boats for courier duty to relay all confidential stuff.”

PT 95, the first Huckins 78-foot boat. From ’At Close Quarters’ book, Part II - Development - A New Type Emerges.

- said Bulkeley

“So I wasn’t surprised,” said Bulkeley, “when early the next morning I got a hurry call to report to the Admiral in Manila. As our 34 boat cleared the mine fields around Bataan, looking over toward Manila I saw something very queer—shipping of all descriptions was pouring out of that Manila breakwater into the open harbor—destroyers, mine sweepers, Yangtze River gunboats, tramp steamers, all going hell for breakfast.

"And then I saw them—a big formation of about twenty-seven bombers. By then I was beginning to learn that if we saw planes in the air, they would be Japs, not ours.

"Then came another formation of twenty-nine, and still another of twenty-six.

“If they were after shipping, we shouldn’t get too close to the other boats, so I changed course. They wheeled majestically around the bay’s perimeter, and each time they passed Manila a load would go whistling down and presently huge columns of black and white smoke began rising—we could even see some fires, although we were still eleven miles away.

“‘Where in hell is our air force?’ our crew kept asking me. ‘Why in Christ’s name don’t they do something?’

“But the thing that really got me was that these big Jap formations, circling the bay like it was a parade maneuver, each time would sail impudently right over Corregidor! Didn’t they know we had anti-aircraft guns?

“They knew all right, but it turned out they knew something I didn’t. For presently all twenty of Corregidor’s 3-inchers opened fire, and it made me sick to see that every one of their shells was bursting from 5,000 to 10,000 feet below that Jap formation. Those pilots were as safe as though they’d been home in bed.

"Later I found out what the Japs apparently already knew—that the Rock’s anti-aircraft guns didn’t have the range.

"And only then did it begin to dawn on me how completely impotent we were. . . .

Curtis P-40’s, Clark Field, Philippines, 1941.
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