Civilian Heroes of the Pacific War in World War II

One of the least known group of heroes on earth is the little group of blockade runners of the Dutch East Indies in 1942, who, at the request of the Australian, British, Dutch and American (ABDA) Command in that area, made desperate and dangerous supply runs to starving US forces in the Philippines who were then cordoned off by a powerful Japanese naval and air blockade, in the dark weeks and months after Pearl Harbor.

Only a few weeks earlier, US Marine Major Jimmy Devereaux had valiantly fended off a superior Japanese force in its attempts to capture Wake Island. Many historians now believe Devereaux's forces could have succeeded in denying Wake to the Japanese had the US Naval commander in the area at that time--Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher--been more bold. Fletcher chose not to attack the relatively smaller Japanese naval forces off Wake with his own powerful task force in the area, in support of Deveraux, for fear this would tip off the Japanese as to his force's locations, and allow them to bring in larger forces. Some military historians today see this as over-caution, as the Japanese forces were then pinned down and occupied with other areas to capture. In any event, in the midst of Admiral Fletcher's hesitation, a group of civilians on Wake with Devereaux's Marines did not hesistate: they took up weapons and fought the Japanese invaders, greatly bolstering Devereaux's tiny force and allowing Wake to hold out until just before Christmas, 1941.

Only a few months after the events on Wake and the events in the Dutch East Indies we will describe below, in late 1942 brave partisans in Yugoslavia would bring the German army occupying that area to the brink of disaster, as they hit behind the German lines in Russia and disrupted vital Nazi communications. At the same time, brave Polish Jews, in the underground in Warsaw, rose up in the ghetto there, and, for months, fought the German army in Poland to a standstill. These groups, along with the civlian laborers around Stalingrad who helped "freeze in" Hitler's invasion of Russia by winter 1942, and the French partisan guerillas who were to capture Paris from the Germans before the Allied armies had even entered the city, had one thing in common: they were composed, not of regular military units, but of civilians.

I quote extensively below from Destination Corregidor by Robert L. Underbrink (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1971)

"The arduous process of supplying both the North and South Luzon forces during the withdrawal to Bataan was complicated by the shortage fo supplies and supply officers, the urgency of transporting food stocks and equipment to the peninsula, and the destruction of goods that could not be saved. . .

"A particularly vexing problem was the supply of rice...Quaertermaster officers immediately began buying all available rice; 5000 tons had been acquired and stored at Cabanatuan . . . by December 23, 1941. The trouble came when the quartermasters attempted to move the rice. In an effort to assure civilians an adequate supply of staples, the Commonwealth Government had decreed that neither rice nor sugar was to be removed from the provinces without governmental approval. General Drake vigorously protested this restriction and repeatedly asked for permission to transport both commodities to Bataan, but the Government ignored his appeals. As a direct result, the USAFFE was deprived of enough rice to have supplied Bataan for a year.

"Also lost were 2000 cases of canned fish and corned beef and a stock of clothing stored in Tarlac, but owned by Japanese wholesalers. Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Lawrence, commander of the Quartermaster Depot in Tarlac, tried to confiscate these supplies, but USAFFE Headquarters issued specific orders to the contrary. Lawrence was warned that he would face a courtmartial if he took control of the Japanese-owned stocks of food and clothing (17-18).

"In the late afternoon of 19 January 1942, Colonel John A. Robenson, US Army base commander at Darwin, Australia, received an urgent radio message from Headquarters, USAFIA, at Melbourne, instructing him to round up six resourceful junior officers of sound judgment and lfy to Java on a mission that would be described in a following letter.

"The following day Robenson slected Captain S.J. Randall, 1st Lt. F.H. Andrew, 1st Lt. J.C. Boudoin, 1st Lt. A.B. Cook, 2nd Lt. P.M. Nestler, and 2nd Lt. R.E. Stensland. A short time later, he added Private J.E. Lundberg, who turned out to be the mainstay of the mission, to handle the paper work.

"Despite the obvious urgency of the original message, it was three days before a plane brough from Melbourne a long, detailed letter spelling out the difficult assignment Colonel Robenson had been given. Stated simply, the Robenson Mission had as its objective the organization in the Dutch East Indies of ships, crews, and cargoes for prompt dispatch to General MacArthur's forces in the Philippine Islands (59)."

"Colonel Robenson was directed to dispatch two of his men to the Celebes, one to Makassar, the other to Buton, while he and the remainder of his staff organized efforts in Java. The Celebes-bound agents were to have ample funds--approximately three quarters of a million dollars--at their disposal to hire ships and crews to deliver cargoes to the Philippines. Recognizing the hazardous nature of the duty, Robenson and his agents were authorized to pay whatever sums were necessary, including large bonuses, to get cargoes safely delivered to the Philippine Islands, preferably the Manila Bay area.

"The Colonel was encouraged to seek assistance from nearly everyone in the East Indies, especially Dutch and British, both of whom were being informed of his mission. He was directed to purchase supplies as needed and to call upon the U.S. Army, Air Corps, and Navy--even the RAAF--if it appeared they could further his mission. Robenson was reminded that though risks were great, the dispatch of many small ships on a broad front over many routes would succeed. (60)."

"On [January 22, 1942, USAFIA Commander at Melbourne, General] Brereton received a message from Admiral Hart at Surbaya, recommending that the Mauna Loa and the Coast Farmer be sent directly to Mindanao, where small ships were available to carry cargoes to Corregidor. Hart reported that Makassar and Buton were not suitable for transhipment operations, and he warned that cargo ships proceeding north in waters west of 130 degrees longitude would run a heavy risk. Since 130 degrees longitude lies only a short distance west of New Guinea, this ruled out the movement of large cargo carriers into the NEI, and it also greatly reduced the number of routes believed open to blockade runners attempting to reach the Philippines from either Java or Australia (61)."

". . . Andrew and Stensland soon found that shipping was might hard to come by in Celebes..

"Only hours after Robenson departed for the Indies, he received new instructions cancelling plans for the transshipment of cargoes from the Celebes. Following receipt of Admiral Hart's warning, USAFIA had decided against delivery in the Celebes of rations and ammunitiion to be forwarded to the Philippines. The two officers were to be sent to Makassar and Buton, as ordered in the original directive, but their job was limited to the pruchase of subsistence and the movement of foodstuffs north by interisland cargo vessels. . . (62)."

"Captain Lewis J. Connelly, flying Lieutenants Andrew and Stensland to the Celebes in the Beechcraft, took off first. Upon the outbreak of war, Connelly, an experienced commercial pilot in the Philippines, had been commissioned in the Air Corps, and since that time had made hazardous flights all over the southwest Pacific in tired, old unarmed transport planes. The first leg of the journey, from Darwin to Koepang, Timor, was uneventful. But the second leg, the 450-mile hop to Kendari, the airfield nearest to Buton Island, nearly proved to be Captain Connelly's last flight.

"His original plan was to fly straight to Kendari, where he would deliver a tire for a grounded B-17 bomber. Andrew was to get off at Kendari and head for Buton while Connelly and Stensland would fly west to Makassar. However, Captain Connelly knew that Japanese aircraft had made several light raids on Kendari, usually between two and three o'clock in the afternoon. For some unknown reason--perhaps a hunch on his part--a short distance form Koepang, Connelly elected to go to Makassar first. He explained to Lieutenant Andrew that he didn't have enough gas to reach Kendari, but he could make it to Makassar. Yet this seems strange for the distances are almost identical. In any event, Connelly altered his flight plan. When the men landed at Makassar after dark, they learned that the Japanese had captured Kendari that very day. Had Captain Connelly followed his original plan, the plane would have dropped unwittingly into enemy hands, and the three men would probably never have been heard from again."

". . .Colonel Robenson ordered the men to meet him at the Oranje Hotel in Downtown Surabaya. . .

"Robenson ordered Lieutenant Cook to obtain from Mr. McLean of the firm, Frazier Eaton, four or five vessels of form 200 to 1000 tons, regardless of the price. Nestler was given an equally important assignment: the purchase of dry rations and caned goods--anything that could be transported to the Philippines. Colonel Robenson believed that they would have little diffiulty rounding up ships, crews and cargoes. But he soon learned that money wasn't everything (64-5)."

[It is interesting to note here that John Toland's But Not In Shame (NY: 1961: "This Naked Island") cites the large number of ships sunk during this period of time of the Japanese invasion and conquest of Malaya and Singapore. Toland noted that perhaps hundreds of vessels were sunk in the Indies waters below Singapore by Japanese aircraft. This explains a good part of the reason for the lack of such shipping. Note here, too, the role reversals we are seeing here: military personnel buying groceries, while civilians are flying hazardous missions for the military. Meanwhile, this very mission is attempting to utilize civilian shipping companies and personnel to get into places that Admiral Hart and his Navy staff and facilities have recently evacuated because they were "militariliy untenable," such as Manila Bay!--mcs]

"Lieutenant Cook reported that the Florence D., a small, fast cargo ship anchored in the harbor [of Surabaya, Java], seemed ideal for thier purposes. when the Colonel learned that the ship was under charter to the United States Navy, he made a beeline for Headquarters, US Asiatic Fleet, [the command of Admiral Hart, a man some fellow officers were already regarding as "overly cautious" due to his pessimistic statements about potential shipment of supplies to the Philippines for the Netherlands East Indies, or NEI], located in a large residence in the outskirts of Surabaya. But the Navy flatly refused to release the Florence D. Colonel Robenson ppointed out that General MacArthur and an army of 50,000 men were literally starving to death up on Bataan and Corregidor and stated in unmistakable language that he was going to move heaven and hell to get supplies into the Philippines. The Navy took the position that the Philippine garrison was doomed, and the dispatch of unarmed and unescorted cargo ships north was inviting their destruction. Robenso refused to give up. He promised to return the next day, and to keep coming back until they gave him the Florence D.

"As good as his word, Colonel Robenson continued to hound the Navy until finally, on 2 February (1942)--perhaps to get rid of him--the vessel was released. Another good break followed: the cargo ship Don Isidoro, which had been partially loaded at Brisbane, Australia and had circled the Australian continent, had just steamed into Batavia for additional cargo before making her run for the Philippines...(67)."

"The Philippine Don Isidoro, plain built in Germany in 1939, displaced 3200 tons and had a speed of 19 knots . . . When Colonel Robenson and Henry Quade inspected the ship, Captain Rafael J. Cisneros assured them that he and his men would do their best to deliver food and ammunition to the Philippine Islands. ..(67).

"While at Batavia, Robenson and Quade ...discovered that Mr. A.C. Bodeker, an authority on shipping in the NEI, was staying at the Hotel des Indies. The Dutchman agreed to make a survey of shipping available for blockade running to the Philippines. Bodeker found 13 vessels of British and Norwegian registry, ost of them small China coasters of ancient vintage, that might be pressed into service. When Robenson tried to lay hands on these ships, he ran into red tape shoulder high.

"He immediately asked that the ships be held in port until he could originate a formal request for their use. However, before the restraining order was issued, the British Vice-Conssul at Surbaya, where most of the ships lay at anchor, sent six of them on their way, and it was not practicable to recall them.

"When Colonel Robenson attempted through official channels to obtain the release of the remaining seven vessels, he discovered that he had to have the approval of nearly every person of authority in the Netherlands East Indies: General Wavell, Supreme Commander, ABDA; Admiral Hart, Allied Naval Commander; Admiral Helfrich, the Dutch Naval Commander; Commodore Collins, the British Naval Commander at Batavia; the British Consul General at Batavia; the British Vice-Consul and the Chinese Consul at Surabaya. The Dutch officials, and especially Admiral Helfrich, were in the end the only persons who took any interest in Robenson's dilemma. ..(68)."

"All commercial shipping in the NEI technically came under Dutch control at the outbreak of war, yet the Netherlanders were hesitant to requisition ships without the consent of the British Government...[so] the colonel's real problem was to win British support...68)."

"On 10 February 1942, Robenson received by courier Henry Quade's resignation from the mission, written at Bandoeng the previous day. Quade remained there long enough to further Colonel Robenson's request for shipping. But by the time the request was submitted to ABDA Command, which had been moved to Lembang, only four of the original 13 ships were still available. Robenson's proposal had, in fact, been brought to the attention of the High Command twice, and it was decisively scuttled during the second meeting when both British and American naval authorities agreed that it was no longer feasible to move supplies into the Philippines. The implication was that the Philippine garrison was already lost...The four old coastal steamers Robenson had requested were free to go on their way.

"Incensed at the outcome of their joint efforts, Quade continued: 'During about eleven days of intensive scurrying around trying to locate ships and then to find who had authority to release them, we had almost no cooperation whatever--and apparently very little sympathy. When we finally pinned down the only quarter that presumably had power to act in this matter, our efforts were completely squelched. NO one wanted to take responsibility of issuing a direct order which was the only way we could get the ships (74)."

"During the time Robenson's request was being considered at Lembang, the officer conferred with Captain Manzano and drew up a contract covering the compensation, insurance, and conditions of performance for the forthcoming voyage to Mindanao. The contractual agreement between the US government and Captain C.L. Manzano, Master of the Florence D, dated 9 February, 1942, stated that the ship and crew were to undertake a special mission. In return for this service, the Captain was to receive 20,000 gilders, the Chief Engineer half that amount and each of the ship's remaining officers 5000 guilders, and all were to be insured.

"The twenty-eight crewmen of the Florence D. were to receive four times their normal salaries, and each man was insured for $500. The contract stated: 'This bonus to be effective only during the actual time necessary to deliver the cargo and if return passage is made, to be effective from the date of the departure of the Florence D , until its arrival at the port . . .'

"Since life insurance companies in the NEI refused to insure anyone involved in the mission, the contract stated that the US Army, through the Chief Finance Officer in Washington, assumed the life insurance liability of the officers and crew for the amounts indicated. Coveage was effective only for the period required to accomplish their mission, up to 60 days from the date the }{\plain \i Florence D.}{\plain left Surabaya. Should death result while engaged in the mission, appopriate compensation would be paid to the beneficiaries set forth in the contract. Madrigal and Company, Manila, PI., owners of the vessel, were to receive just compensation should the }{\plain \i Florrence D.}{\plain be lost as a result of enemy action. The agreement also stipulated that Captain Manzano would scuttle the ship rather than to allow it to fall into Japanese hands.

"When the ship was nearly loaded, Colonel Robenson gave Captain Manzano a case of beer to be delivered to General Jonathan M. Wainwright in the Philippines. Robenson and Wainwright, classmates at West Point, had "galloped many a dusty mile together," and were friends of long standing. Colonel Robenson remembered the General loved his beer. Included with the package was a letter in which Robenson said, '...This ship contains...practially all the 3" AA ammunition there is in the Far East...You're doing a great job . . .'

"On 12 February, while Robenson and his men labored to finish loading the Florence D. at Surabaya, the 3300 ton Don Isidoro stood out of Batavia with a cargo of flour, dry ratiions, and ammunition. Her course, as chartered by the Dutch Admiralty, was west from Batavia, south through the Sunda Strait, thence eastward through the Timor Sea. In the vicinity of Bathhurst Island, she was to swing north, through the Arafura and Banda Seas, then make a straight run for Mindanao. MacArthur had recently radioed that blockade runners were to be sent to Anaken, Mindanao, on Gingoog Bay, and that the Anakan Lumber Company would handle unloading operations. But fate had other plans.

"That same day, Cook went to the U.S. Navy Headquarters for routing instructions for the Florence D. Aside from a single native soldier, the former Headquarters building was deserted. The only information the native had was 'everybody gone.' Cook returned to the Oranje. Private Lundberg was unaware that the Navy had pulled out and Colonel Robenson was out of the city. On a hunch, lieutenant Cook turned on a radio for the regular noon broadcast by Tokyo Rose, who gave all the news, including the move of Navy Headquarters and the new address. Cook went to the address, found the Navy offices and obtained routing instructions for the blockade runner.

"The smaller 2600-ton Florence D was now ready to shove off for the Philippines. Within 24 hours after the Don Isidoro left Batavia, the Florence D left Surabaya. 'It might have been wishful thinking,' said Colonel Robenson later on, 'but somehow as I watched that ship stand down the bay I'd have bet my boots and spurs that she was going to get through to Mindanao. It seemed to me that she just hadM to get through--that God would let no one stop her.'

"It appeared that Colonel Robenson's efforts were beginning to pay off, and that afternoon General Brett radioed MacArthur at Corregidor the good news that the two blockade runners were on their way. He reported that the total cargo included 500,000 rations, 10,000 rounds of three-inch ammunition, quarter of a million rounds of .50 calibre, and three million .30 calibre. The Florence D's cargo also included canned fruits, jams, jellies, candies, cigarettes, and beer--items certain to be welcome on Bataan (74-6).

"That night Colonel Robenson learned of the surrendor of Singapore. The loss of Singapore, ' . . . One of the most bitter and decisive defeats ever suffered by the forces of the British Commonwealth,' imperiled the entire west flank of the Malay Barrier defense line. Only one day earlier, 800 enemy paratroopers dropped on Palembang, Sumatra, had been annihilated . . . (84)."

"The pilots and crews mannning the northbound aircraft provided invaluable assistance to forces in the Philippines by carrying cargo to Mindanao, yet the more arduous task of transporting it on to Luzon fell to an ephemeral unit called the Bamboo Fleet. A decrepit high-wing Bellanca cabin plane, nicknamed 'Old Number Nine,' and two other planes, owned and operated before the war by the Philippine Air Transport Company, with William R. Bradford general manager and senior pilot. At the outbreak of war, the eight-year-old Bellanca, an ancient Waco cabin plane, and a four-place Beech biplane were commandeered by the US Army. Bradford was commissioned a captain in the Air Corps...(181-2)."

"Bradford's successful [first] night flight to Cebu sparked the idea of an air shuttle sevice between Bataan and American-held bases in the south.

"Operating out of Mindanao, the antiquated aircraft of the Bamboo Fleet were soon carrying foodstuffs and medical stores to Bataan Field, returning with key personnel . . .

"The vest-pocket airlift by the three ramshackle planes of the Bamboo Fleet was a strictly fly-by-night operation. And for good reason. With Japanese bombers and fighter aircraft freeling prowling the skies by day, the light planes were forced to operate during the hours of darkness.

"Few pilots at any time in any war have had a more hazardous assignment. Unarmed and dangerously overloaded, the little planes were highly vulnerable. Apart from the danger of enemy interception, the old airplanes pressed into service were old and tired, barely airworthy under ideal conditions. The three-place Bellanca had previously been condemned for private flying . . .(182-3)."

These brave civilians are further described in Toland's But Not In Shame, and Eric Morris's Corregidor: The End of the Line (NY: Stein, 1981).

Thus, we see another blurring of the lines in life: flying obsolete, even dangerous aircraft--aircraft the military had long since refused to use for combat--civilian pilots flew directly into the eye of combat--and danger--in those dark days of 1942 in the Pacific war in World War II. While one segment of the US military was in full retreat from Japanese invaders of Java, America's civilians in the merchant marine (and elsewhere aboard ships) stood fast and carried desperately needed supplies to still other starving US troops on Bataan and Corregidor, flying into the face of an enemy before which the ABDA command military was forced to retreat.

Like the civilian construction workers on Wake Island a few weeks before them, who stood fast alongside Marine Major Jimmy Devereaux's brave stand against a superior force of Japanese air, army and naval forces (Toland, 118-131), these civilians were on the front lines of World War II. Like the civilian partisans in Warsaw, Yugoslavia and France in the European theater, and the civilian laborers struggling to dig in at Stalingrad on the Russian front, these civilian fliers and ships' crews valiantly carried on the struggle against the Axis enemy.

Fifty-nine years later, on September 11, 2001, similar civilian heroes, here on our own American shores, were to display courage and self-sacrifice as they physically fought with terrorists who had seized their plane and succeeded in keeping them from flying that airliner into the White House or Pentagon, forcing them to crash into a field in Pennsylvania instead. And the courage of those World War II blockade runners was seen again that day among the New York Fire Department members, as they rushed headlong into the burning World Trade Center Towers to try to save whoever they could, and, instead, lost their own lives.

Go back to The Diplomats, Dad and Me: The Blurring of the Lines in Life

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