Late at night, on December 31, 1941, an old ship prepared to weigh anchor to escape Manila. Its destination was Sydney, Australia. On board, were 224 wounded USAFFE soldiers (134 of them Americans and 90 of whom were Filipinos); 67 crew members, all Filipino, and 25 medical and Red Cross personnel, all Filipino except for one American nurse, and some others.
The ship was the S.S. Mactan. Its journey represents one of the great escapes of World War 2.
In the book "At His Side: The Story of the American Red Cross Overseas in World War 2," George Korson chronicles the story of the S.S. Mactan.
On December 24, 1941, at the US High Commissioner's residence in Manila, which is now the US Embassy, some twenty Red Cross volunteer women were packing Christmas gifts for soldiers and sailors in hospitals in and around Manila. Mrs. Sayre was in charge of the group.
At eleven in the morning, word came from Douglas MacArthur that American and Filipino officials would be evacuating to Corregidor.
In Corregidor, officials found themselves with very little to do. Among the men there was General Basilio Valdes, Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army and concurrently Secretary of National Defense. He was also a doctor.
On December 28, 1941, Valdes returned to Manila on a secret mission. To evacuate wounded USAFFE troops in Sternberg Hospital, to Australia.
Two hectic days followed. Manila had been steadily bombed by the Japanese, and few ships were available. Other ships had been sunk by mines, such as the S.S. Corregidor, which sank on December , 1941, when it struck a mine near Corregidor. Over a thousand people drowned.
Valdes had to work out the strict requirements for a ship to be recognized as a legitimate hospital ship under the Geneva Convention. First of all, all sides would have to be informed the ship was a Red Cross ship. This required the Swiss Government acting as the go-between, so the Japanese and American governments could coordinate. It also meant the ship could not carry any armed soldiers. And it had to be painted white with red cross markings on the smokestacks of the ship.
In a little over two days, Valdes was able to coordinate all these things even as the USAFFE had withdrawn from Manila and a power vacuum meant hardly anything continued to function efficiently.
Late in the afternoon of December 31, 1941, Army ambulances arrived at Manila’s Pier 1 and halted alongside the S.S. Mactan. It took three hours for the ambulances to transfer their passengers to the ship. Meanwhile, the city was in chaos as looting was taking place and the gasoline dumps in Pandacan were set on fire.
And yet, 224 officers and enlisted men, all wounded, were embarked.
Then, as the ship was about to leave, late in the evening of December 31, 1941, it was discovered the ship lacked charts to navigate the dangerous waters of Manila Bay. The Philippine Diary Project has Gen. Basilio J. Valdes solving the problem of the charts (involving the charts of the presidential yacht, Casiana, recently sunk off Corregidor), in his entry for December 31, 1941. By 11:40 p.m., the ship finally left Manila.
The official Red Cross history described this great escape:
"The journey was fraught with peril. The ship had to zigzag through a maze of mines just to leave Manila Bay, following a Navy ship for guidance, and had a close call when it made a wrong turn in the darkness. The ship was infested with cockroaches, red ants, and copra beetles. Violent storms tossed the ship and drenched the patients on their cots on the decks, sheltered only by canvas. There was a fire in the engine room, and for a time those aboard prepared to abandon ship. Two wounded soldiers died from their injuries during the crossing, and a depressed Filipino soldier committed suicide by jumping overboard."
Finally, on January 27, 1942, "the Mactan arrived in Sydney Harbor to much fanfare, especially after newspapers had falsely reported that the ship had been attacked multiple times. Despite the primitive conditions aboard the vessel, the wounded soldiers arrived in very good condition and were quickly taken to a hospital on land."
It was a rare success story. The Mactan left Manila as 1941 turned into 1942. The next day, the Japanese arrived in Manila. The story of this ship is one of the great stories of World War II. And as we continue to recall the 75th anniversary of that war's events, perhaps this tale will once again take a hopeful place in the story of those times.
Happy New Year!
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