Key point: Debate remains over the President's orders to send three small gunboats into possible harms way. Where they meant to get attacked and trigger a wider war?
As he read the decrypt of the radiogram from Admiral Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, several things bothered Admiral Thomas C. Hart, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet based at Manila, Philippines, besides the tortured syntax and curious terminology. The message read:
“PRESIDENT DIRECTS THAT THE FOLLOWING BE DONE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AND WITHIN TWO DAYS IF POSSIBLE AFTER RECEIPT THIS DESPATCH. CHARTER THREE SMALL VESSELS TO FORM A QUOTE DEFENSIVE INFORMATION PATROL UNQUOTE. MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS TO ESTABLISH IDENTITY AS UNITED STATES MEN-OF-WAR ARE COMMAND BY A NAVAL OFFICER AND TO MOUNT A SMALL GUN AND ONE MACHINE GUN WOULD SUFFICE. FILIPINO CREWS MAY BE EMPLOYED WITH MINIMUM NAVAL RATINGS TO ACCOMPLISH PURPOSE WHICH IS TO OBSERVE AND REPORT BY RADIO JAPANESE MOVEMENTS IN THE WEST CHINA SEA AND GULF OF SIAM. ONE VESSEL TO BE STATIONED BETWEEN HAINAN AND HUE ONE VESSEL OFF THE INDO-CHINA COAST BETWEEN CAMRANH BAY AND CAPE ST. JACQUES AND ONE VESSEL OFF POINTE DE CAMAU. USE OF Isabel AUTHORIZED BY PRESIDENT AS ONE OF THREE VESSELS BUT NOT OTHER NAVAL VESSELS. REPORT MEASURES TAKEN TO CARRY OUT PRESIDENTS VIEWS. AT SAME TIME INFORM ME AS TO WHAT RECONNAISSANCE MEASURES ARE BEING REGULARLY PERFORMED AT SEA BY BOTH ARMY AND NAVY WHETHER BY AIR SURFACE VESSELS OR SUBMARINES AND YOUR OPINION AS TO THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THESE LATTER MEASURES. TOP SECRET
For a start, Hart thought that sending out a “defensive information patrol” would “consume effort we could ill spare from more valuable objectives.” Intelligence on the Japanese invasion force massing on Hainan Island and in Vichy-controlled French Indochina (Vietnam) was already available from several sources, having in fact been the principal reason for Washington’s war-warning message to all U.S. Pacific commands on November 27. A key source was his own Navy Patrol Wing 10. On November 25, tipped off by a rumor from Hong Kong, Hart had surreptitiously initiated aerial surveillance of Camranh Bay, on the central Vietnam coast, using a couple of Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats and had personally written and dispatched the first report the same day. Then, on November 30, Admiral Stark, with presidential approval, ordered him to do what he had already been doing on his own authority for five days.
The December 1, 1941, order’s excruciatingly specific detail, extraordinary as it was inappropriate to a fleet commander, also perplexed Hart. Why did the president specify surface reconnaissance? Hart had flatly stated in his November 25 report that the situation most clearly required air observation because high land makes examination from ships both difficult and slow. Also, picket ships would run greater risk than aircraft. As it was, one of his Catalinas had barely escaped from closing Japanese fighters by dodging into cloud.
Why did the president specifically forbid using naval vessels, except the Isabel? The Asiatic Fleet—mainly a “show the flag” force of three cruisers, 13 four-stack, World War I-vintage destroyers, and no fighter aircraft—counted 27 submarines, which were fully capable of surface reconnaissance, clandestine at that. Isabel, Hart’s relief or holiday flagship, was a trim 900-ton private yacht converted during World War I for convoy escort. Hart had noted that with her white hull, buff deckhouse, twin stacks, and inconspicuous armament of two 3-inch deck guns and two 3-inch antiaircraft guns, Isabel might pass at a distance for a small Chinese merchantman. He wondered whether Roosevelt had also noticed while viewing the copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships he had always kept handy since his time as assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I.
By mid-1941, it was no secret that, though opposed to colonialism, Roosevelt was convinced that if Japan cut Britain’s imperial lifeline to the Far East, democracy would be lost in Europe and the Japanese militarist government would control all of Asia. At the Argentia Conference off Newfoundland in early August 1941, Roosevelt had assured British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Britain could count on American armed support in the event of a Japanese attack on the British and Dutch colonies in the Far East. Although Admiral Hart was not privy to that agreement, he must have guessed the existence of something like it, since after Japanese forces occupied southern French Indochina in mid-1941, he and his staff had been participating in mutual defense coordination conferences at British Far East Fleet headquarters in Singapore.
In late November, the president’s war council had held a series of meetings to discuss the problems posed by the burgeoning Japanese threat. One problem was that in order to provide armed support to the British Roosevelt would have to have a declaration of war from Congress, which reflected an isolationist and pacifist public opinion of less than 20 percent in favor of America’s entering a war.
At the November 25 war council meeting, which had resulted in the Thanksgiving Day war-warning message, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson raised the question of how to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot. The council had no solution then, but at the November 28 meeting, called to discuss the president’s sending of a personal message to Emperor Hirohito, someone had brought up the Panay Incident, the accidental sinking by the Japanese of a U.S. Navy gunboat on the Yangtze River in China in December 1937. Although no record remains from the meeting of December 1, which resulted in the “three small vessels” message, historians have conjectured that it must have addressed the problem of how to get the United States into the war if the Japanese attacked only Singapore, Thailand, or the Netherlands East Indies, and not the Philippines or other U.S. territory in the Far East, as well as specifically how to devise an incident in which Japan would commit the first overt act by sinking one or more American warships.
Provoking an “Isabel Incident”?
At first, the requirement for Filipino crews annoyed Admiral Hart. He would have to get them from the Insular Force, a naval auxiliary, and ignore their legal restriction to Philippine waters. According to contemporary news accounts, relations were currently touchy with the Commonwealth of the Philippines, which the United States was grooming for the coming of independence in 1946. President Manuel Quezon had exasperated the Roosevelt administration by openly considering requesting early independence and hinting at a subsequent offer of Philippine neutrality to appease Japan. The Panay Incident four years earlier was still fresh in Hart’s mind. Could the requirement for Filipino crews be to guarantee the loss of Filipino sailors in an “Isabel Incident” and serve to rally Filipino popular opinion behind the United States?
Whatever its real intention, Hart knew the presidential directive was a definite and unequivocal order, so worded as to bear the highest priority, and had to be carried out. He told fleet operations officer Commander Harry Slocum to have Isabel’s captain report to him first thing the next morning and to find two small vessels for charter.
Isabel’s skipper was Lieutenant John Walker Payne, Jr. Owing to the ship’s generally poor condition—age and long tropical service had reduced her 26-knot top speed to about 15—her captaincy had been down-rated to lieutenant. The last lieutenant commander selected to captain the Isabel had, after inspecting the vessel, retired to his cabin and shot himself.
Admiral Hart knew and liked Payne and personally briefed him on the presidential directive, requiring Payne to memorize his verbal orders and recite them back. No one was to know the actual mission of the Isabel except the admiral and Lieutenant Payne until the vessel was at sea. Then the executive officer was to be taken into confidence. They were to proceed to Camranh Bay, approach the coast only under cover of darkness with dimmed running lights to give the appearance of a fishing craft, and report in code all movements of Japanese ships within a few hours of sighting. For a cover story, a fake operational dispatch was transmitted, ostensibly ordering Isabel to search from Manila west to the vicinity of the Indochina coast for a lost Navy PBY plane.
Payne fueled and provisioned at Cavite Navy Yard, and, since his crew was all American, took on five Insular Force Filipinos. Hart had ordered him to fight the ship as necessary and to destroy it rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Accordingly, he ordered all removable topside weights cleared, including motorboats and gangways, and took on board an additional pulling whaleboat and life rafts. All confidential material except one cipher was turned in. Once at sea, Payne related Hart’s orders to his executive officer, Ensign Marion Hugo Buaas, a 1938 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who had recently come over from the cruiser USSHouston. Payne told Buaas that the admiral suspected that the president, anxious to get into the war against the Axis, thought the voyage of the Isabel into Japanese-controlled waters off Indochina would accomplish this goal.