The United States Asiatic Fleet was something less than its title suggested. Actually it amounted to only a modest task force. The flagship was the heavy cruiser Houston, commanded by Capt. Albert H. Rooks. There were two light cruisers, the Boise commanded by Capt. Stephen B. Robinson till the latter part of January, when he was relieved by Capt. Edward J. Moran, and the Marblehead, under Capt. Arthur G. Robinson. To support these there were 13 overage, four-stack, flush-deck destroyers of the 1917-18 class, constituting Destroyer Squadron 29. These were:


A tender, the Black Hawk, under Comdr. George L. Harriss, was attached to this squadron.

The submarines were to prove effective in the ensuing campaign. Their number had been gradually increased so that there were 29 at Manila by December. They were tended by the Canopus (Comdr. Earl L. Sackett), Holland (Capt. Joseph W. Gregory), and Otus (Comdr. Joel Newsom). This last had no shop facilities. A submarine rescue vessel, Pigeon (Lt. Comdr. Richard E. Hawes, and later Lt. Comdr. Frank A. Davis) was also attached to the group. The submarines were organized as follows:


Of great importance was Capt. Frank D. Wagner's Patrol Wing TEN, which had 30 PBY's. There were in addition a few smaller observation and some utility planes. Our aircraft were tended by the Langley (Capt. Felix B. Stump, relieved by Comdr. Robert P. McConnell), the Childs (Comdr. John L. Pratt), the Preston (Lt. Comdr. Max C. Stormes), and the Heron (Lt. Comdr. William L. Kabler).

There were the gunboats Tulsa (Lt. Comdr. Tillet S. Daniel) and the Asheville. Capt. Kenneth M. Hoeffel was relieved of the command of the latter by Lt. Comdr. Jacob W. Britt in December, in order that he might take command of the Inshore Patrol. The river gunboats Luzon (Lt. Comdr. George M. Brooke), and Oahu (Lt. Comdr. Douglas E. Smith) had been brought back from China. The Mindanao (Comdr.


Alan R. McCracken) left Hong Kong early in December, arriving in Manila on the 9th. The Wake had been stripped and left at Shanghai, ready for demolition, but it was captured by the Japanese soon after war broke out. The Isabel (Lieut. John W. Payne, Jr.) was a former yacht converted into a 20-knot gunboat.

Finally there were the usual auxiliaries: the oilers Pecos (Comdr. Elmer P. Abernethy) and Trinity (Comdr. William Hibbs); several mine sweepers of the bird class, Bittern (Lieut. Thomas G. Warfield), Finch (Lt. Comdr. Thurlow W. Davison), Lark (Lt. Comdr. Hugh P. Thomason), Quail (Lt. Comdr. John H. Morrill), Tanager (Lt Comdr. Egbert A. Roth), Whippoorwill (Lt. Comdr. Charles A. Ferriter); and a tug, Napa (Lieut. Nathaniel M. Dial).

Six PT boats, comprising MTB Squadron THREE under the command of Lieut. John D. Bulkeley, arrived in the latter part of September. These were to have a spectacular and well publicized history.

Commander in Chief of our Asiatic Fleet was Admiral Thomas C. Hart. Admiral Hart also directly commanded the Coastal Frontier, leaving to Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, Commandant of the Sixteenth Naval District, only the immediate defense zone off Manila and Subic Bay. Admiral Hart further took over personal command of the submarines, Patrol Wing TEN, and the PT boats. These responsibilities required a large staff, which was headed by Rear Admiral William R. Purnell.

Our submarine divisions had been grouped in two squadrons, but with the arrival of additional submarines in November Admiral Hart discontinued the squadron organization. Thereafter the divisions were directly under the Commander of Submarines. On December 10th Capt. John Wilkes was appointed to that position because of his ability and previous experience.

When in November it became evident that Rear Admiral William A. Glassford, Commander of the Yangtze Patrol, would be available, Admiral Hart decided to employ his great experience as commander of the task force. Upon his arrival in Manila about December 1st, Admiral Glassford set about forming his staff, and with the outbreak of war left at once for the Houston.

During the first days of December our ships were disposed as follows: The Houston, after hurriedly mounting additional machine guns, was ordered to Iloilo to await the commander of the task force. The Boise


arrived at Manila on December 4th, escorting an Army convoy. She refueled at once and sailed for Cebu to await further orders.

The Marblehead with four destroyers had been dispatched to Tarakan (Borneo) on November 24th with instructions to delay in that area. At the same time the Black Hawk and four destroyers had been sent to Balikpapan with similar instructions. When on December 6th news came of the Japanese expedition headed for Malaya, these destroyers were ordered to Singapore. They had just arrived there and were fueling when news of the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse was received on December 10th. They immediately hurried north to search for survivors. It was expected that Japanese planes would be on the watch for rescue vessels, and when it was learned that British destroyers had picked up all surviving personnel our ships were ordered to clear the area before dawn. These four destroyers were withdrawn from Singapore before the middle of the month.

Of our remaining destroyers, the Peary and the Pillsbury were in early December still at the navy yard undergoing repairs necessitated by a collision in October. Three more were on patrol in the Manila-Subic Bay area.

As for our aircraft, a squadron of PBY's was based on Sangley Point, and the others of the large planes were at Olongapo and Los Banos. A detachment of patrol planes operated from Davao Gulf (near Malalag), where the Preston was stationed, while some planes were at Balabac attended by the Heron. The seaplane tender Langley was at Manila, as were the oilers Trinity and Pecos, which had recently arrived from the Netherlands East Indies with cargoes of fuel.

The three submarine tenders, Canopus, Holland, and Otus were in the Mariveles-Manila area. Those submarines not at sea were well dispersed.

At 0300 on December 8th news of Pearl Harbor was received. At dawn came the first attack on the Philippines, when Japanese planes destroyed two PBY's on the water at Davao Gulf. A little later four enemy destroyers entered the gulf. The Preston at Malalag let them pass and then slipped out behind them. It was not till noon that the Army landing fields in northern Luzon were bombed and many of our planes destroyed.

Admiral Glassford immediately left by plane for the Houston at Iloilo. The Boise joined from Cebu. The Langley, Trinity, and Pecos with two destroyers slipped from Manila Bay under cover of darkness to join


them and the little fleet headed for the Dutch oil ports via Makassar Strait. In crossing the Sulu Sea our ships sighted the tops of two vessels silhouetted against the evening glow, bearing about 255° T. It was thought that they were a Japanese light cruiser and destroyer, although identification was not certain. Apparently they did not sight our vessels, which were on the dark side of the horizon, and our cruisers, having the tenders to protect, did not develop the contact.

It had been planned in case of war to station the S-type submarines in defense of the northern Philippines. Eight large submarines were to be placed on enemy lines of communication. Eight more were retained as a reserve striking force, while the rest were held as relief for the patrols.

This plan was put into effect at once, except that the idea of a reserve striking force was quickly abandoned and the additional submarines were assigned stations, chiefly in defense of the Philippines. In addition to those in defensive positions, Pike was stationed at Hainan Strait, Pickerel off Camranh Bay (Indo-China), Sturgeon off the Pescadores (near Formosa), Sargo off Cochin China, Spearfish off French Indo-China, and Swordfish off Sama Bay (south coast of Hainan). These submarines stationed off enemy ports had very little success, probably because most enemy forces had already departed before they arrived.


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1 Commander Keith was wounded at the bombing of Cavite on December 10.

2 Relieved December 28, 1941 by Lt. Comdr. Raymond J. Moore.

3 Relieved in December 1941 by Lt. Comdr. Richard G. Voge.

4 Transferred to command of Porpoise, February 6, 1942, after loss of S-36 aground.

5 Transferred to command of Permit February 13, 1942. Relieved on S-38 by Lieut. Henry G. Munson.

6 Transferred to command of Sailfish in December 1941, after destruction of Sealion at Cavite, December 10.

7 Relieved Feb. 6, 1942 by Lt. Comdr. John R. McKnight. Jr.

8 Relieved Feb. 13, 1942 by Lieut. Wreford G. Chapple.

Last updated: June 12, 2002

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation