Sailing into the Unknown

Sailing into the Unknown

By Glenn Barnett
6/12/2019 • World War II Magazine

Choosing the uncertainty of an epic journey across 2,000 miles of enemy-controlled ocean rather than the ignominy of surrender, Lt. Cmdr. Jack Morrill and the crew of USS Quail escaped from the Philippines in a fragile 36-foot motor launch.

Jack Morrill knew there wouldn’t be room for everyone, but he had no choice. With luck, the 36-foot boat could handle maybe 18 men. “We’ll draw straws,” he said. “Some will stay, some will go.”

It was May 6, 1942, and the Japanese were about to overrun the island fortress of Corregidor. The fall of “the Rock” would be the final step in Emperor Hirohito’s quest for complete control of the Philippines and unquestioned dominance of the western Pacific, extinguishing for good the old European powers’ centuries-long influence in the region. More than five months of suffering, dwindling supplies, sunken ships and dead friends had already pushed the fortress’ American and Filipino defenders to the brink of surrender. Then, during two fateful days in early May, a relentless deluge of Japanese artillery, air power and infantry finished the job.

With Corregidor in its death throes, Lt. Cmdr. John H. Morrill and the 24 men he commanded were huddled in a tunnel complex beneath Fort Hughes on nearby Caballo Island. The day before, the captain had reluctantly scuttled his damaged ship, the wooden-hulled minesweeper USS Quail, and put in at Caballo. Surrender, however, was not an option for the career Navy man. Against daunting odds, the 1924 Annapolis graduate had decided that he would somehow find a way to flee the doomed American garrison at Fort Hughes and make his way to the Allied stronghold of Darwin, Australia—a mere 1,900 miles away!

Even under the best of conditions, a voyage like that would be a challenge. In Morrill’s case, the sojourn would force him to deal with the additional threat of navigating across stretches of ocean swarming with Japanese ships, doing so with a crew that had been battered and bruised during the grueling final battle for the Philippines. A weaker—or wiser—man would have considered such a feat futile, but not Morrill, who was inspired by General Douglas MacArthur’s own escape by sea from Corregidor to the island of Mindanao two months earlier. For Morrill, however, there was no hope of heavily armed, lightning-quick PT-boats escorting him to a swift passenger plane that could whisk him away to safety. Instead, the commander would need to rely on luck and his own skill in mastering the intricacies of seamanship on the open ocean.

As Morrill contemplated his escape, about all that remained afloat in Manila Harbor amid the twisted wreckage of a once-proud oceangoing fleet was Quail’s 36-foot motor launch with its aging and unreliable diesel engine. Shortly before scuttling his ship, Morrill had hidden the open boat in a sheltered cove on Caballo, for just such a getaway.

With Fort Hughes being battered into rubble by the stream of shells, Morrill tried to salvage what he could from the recently sunken tug Ranger, which was resting on the harbor’s shallow bottom, half out of the water. On the tug was a treasure trove of supplies, including four automatic weapons and six Springfield rifles, cases of tinned corned beef and salmon, and charts and maps. Most important, Morrill and his men found 450 gallons of diesel fuel—too little to get them to Australia, but sufficient to help them escape their Caballo hellhole.

It was at that point, however, that Morrill faced a decision no commander wants to confront. The size of the motor launch meant that as many as seven men would have to stay behind. Those who remained would almost certainly find themselves POWs or worse, but there was no other option. To be as fair as possible, Morrill decided that drawing straws was the best recourse. It helped that some of the men opted out, willing to await the mercy of Japanese jailers to the unknown perils of a fragile boat on the open sea. Among the men lucky enough to find a space on the commander’s getaway vessel was gunnery officer Donald G. “Guns” Taylor, who limped severely from ulcers and sores on his leg and foot caused by jungle rot. Although Morrill feared Taylor would be a liability on the trip, his intense loyalty to Guns was the deciding factor.

Also chosen was a master mechanic named Richardson, who would be desperately needed to keep the boat’s engine running. Richardson was outranked by other engineers on Quail, but he had a magic touch when it came to motors. He, too, was one of the few men who Morrill insisted make the trip.

Another was a pharmacist’s mate named Head, who was the closest thing to a doctor the men would have. The slightly stooped Head had thick black hair that had begun to gray at the temples. He had already proved his worth to the men of Quail several months earlier by securing a good supply of vitamin supplements for them following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Head, though, was on the verge of being left behind. During the final hours of American resistance, he had been called upon to help in the Fort Hughes sick bay, where a seemingly endless flow of injured men had come. Morrill sent one of his men to retrieve Head, who dashed to the boat, arriving just in time.

At 1015 hours on May 6, during a rare lull in the enemy bombardment, the crew shoved off into the great unknown. No sooner had Morrill and his men departed than the Japanese resumed their shelling of Fort Hughes. Had the captain waited another 20 minutes, they might not have gotten away.

The first obstacle the Americans faced was their own mine-filled harbor. Touching one of those barely submerged hazards would have blown the launch to matchsticks. But since Morrill had commanded a minesweeper, his men knew what to look for. They made their way cautiously, keeping a sharp lookout for a Japanese gunboat believed to be lurking in a nearby cove.

At 0100 hours on the 7th, the men observed three destroyers and a patrol boat in the distance ahead. Morrill turned back to a half-hidden cove within sight of Corregidor, where the men camouflaged their boat with fronds and branches and tried to get a few moments of rest. Even though the boat had just set out, Morrill could already see that his hungry and exhausted men could not continue on half-rations. He ordered the tins of meat opened and allowed his crew to eat their fill. That evening, refreshed by food and rest, they started to remove the camouflage. They had not gotten far, however, when they spotted a Japanese destroyer heading for their cove. The men grabbed their weapons as the enemy ship pulled in.

Every member of the crew realized that a single shot would destroy them, and each experienced heart-pounding fear while praying that they hadn’t been spotted. Mercifully they were not discovered, and the next morning the enemy destroyer lazily weighed anchor and steamed off.

On May 8, Morrill and his men watched from their hideout as the Japanese started taking prisoners off Corregidor and the other surrounding Philippine islands. It was a terrible sight; the prisoners standing tightly packed on the decks of the enemy gunboats had been stripped to their skivvies. The crew knew that their friends and shipmates were among that mass of humanity.

As Morrill and his men were pondering the fate of their unfortunate comrades in arms, thousands of miles away in Philadelphia, Pa., a telegram was making its way to the commander’s wife. She, like hundreds of other worried spouses, would receive the dreaded War Department telegram that read, “REGRET TO ADVISE YOU THAT PENDING FURTHER INFORMATION YOUR HUSBAND IS MISSING.”

Unaware of the heartache at home, the Quail fugitives set out again. As they slowly motored on, they cautiously watched several Japanese patrol boats and destroyers lined in a screen, all playing their searchlights over the water looking for stray U.S. vessels. Suddenly three destroyers emerged from the dark and rushed past without spotting them. Morrill figured that there must be a hole in the Japanese screen as the destroyers went by, so he followed in their wake, moving safely through the dragnet.

The next morning the Americans landed on the southwest coast of Luzon beyond the enemy activity in Manila Bay. Since none of the men was familiar with the shore, they chose to stay outside the reef for the day. The sailors realized that their boat’s Navy gray paint would give them away, so they disguised it with a coat of black paint that somehow had made its way aboard. While the men were applying the paint, Morrill also noticed that the bobbing craft was riding too low in the water to have any hope of making the crossing he envisioned.

A motor launch is designed for harbor use, transferring sailors from ship to shore and back. The one taken from Quail was flat-bottomed and would run rough on the high seas or in a storm. Morrill would have to lighten the craft to keep it from being swamped. Spare anchors were jettisoned, as were the old Lewis machine guns. Even the brass taffrail and other frills were torn away, which at least had the benefit of altering the boat’s basic appearance.

After discarding everything that could be spared, Morrill determined to run the Verde Island passage that separates Luzon from Mindoro. He could see enemy craft patrolling throughout the day and reasoned that they were looking for him and his crew. To make matters worse, the launch’s aging motor, which had not been run or repaired for months, began gushing oil. Richardson informed his captain that it would have to be repaired, but for the moment they would have to make do. The leaking oil was collected, and every hour or so they stopped the engine and poured the oil back in. For this task, they covered the motor with a tarpaulin and worked by flashlight, knowing they couldn’t allow any light to escape.

By the time dawn broke, the men found themselves at the small Luzon village of Digas. They did not know what to expect from the villagers, but they had to put in. To their surprise and delight, the Filipinos were anxious to help. They brought food in abundance and, seeing that the men were without utensils, fashioned wooden spoons and coconut shell bowls for them.

The next temporary haven was in the village of Bomdoc, where the crew rested. Again the villagers treated them royally, providing food and more supplies. Richardson was desperate to overhaul the engine, to which Morrill consented. Four of the men worked feverishly in the hot sun, stripping the engine to its bedplates. One of the pistons was so badly aligned that it was banging against the cylinder head. It was a wonder the head hadn’t cracked.

With repairs made and everyone fed, Morrill and his men once again set out on the evening of May 13, the rebuilt engine purring in their ears. The Americans could now make a respectable 5 or 6 knots.

The high spirits were soon dashed— several Japanese patrol boats had formed a screen through the narrow passage of the Sibuyan Sea. In the dark, Morrill quietly steered the boat between two of the enemy vessels, but to his horror the tide pushed the launch back. The crewmen couldn’t make any progress that night until the current changed in their favor and carried them past the picket line.

Early on May 15, the little boat reached the island of Cebu. It approached a stretch of the shore where stately homes dominated the beach. Unlike the welcoming villagers at their last two stops, the people here seemed completely uninterested in their arrival. “Guns, what do you make of it?” Morrill asked Taylor. “I don’t like it,” the gunnery officer replied. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Morrill responded, and turned the boat back out to sea. It was only later that the Americans learned Japanese officers had taken over the stately homes along the shore, and their habit of rising late had spared the sailors a much more terrifying greeting.

Back at sea and with the sun now shining brightly, Morrill decided to risk a daylight run between Cebu and Leyte. At first it went well—no boats in the water, no planes overhead. But at midday the relative calm came to an end. As the boat rounded the head of a little island, the crew came upon a Japanese tanker a mere 6,000 yards away bearing down on them. The men dived under a tarp on the shallow deck while Head—with his mangy black hair, which from a distance allowed him to pass as a Filipino—manned the tiller. The tanker passed within 3,000 yards, but its crew showed no signs of recognition or suspicion.

That afternoon the Americans managed to pass over a reef and into sheltered Tabango Bay on Leyte. They tied up to the dock and were made to feel quite welcome. The wealthiest man in the village invited the crew to his home for a meal. He also advised Morrill that for the next two days or so the Japanese would be busy processing all their new POWs into prison camps. On the third day they would have a victory celebration and then would rest the following day. After that, however, they would be out again in earnest, looking for escapees such as Morrill and his crew. “By that time, you had better be out of Philippine waters,” he counseled the commander.

Not to be outdone by the old man’s hospitality, a Chinese merchant insisted on hosting the fugitives for dinner at a local restaurant. Liquor flowed, served to them by Chinese girls and mestizas (half-Chinese, half-Filipina). The girls offered to dance for the crew that evening, but alarm bells went off in Morrill’s head. It would not do to have drunken sailors involved in local entanglements that might send jealous boyfriends off to alert the enemy. For all he knew, the Japanese had already been informed of their presence and were on their way. It would be beyond embarrassing to be captured while carousing with the local lovelies, he figured, so he politely declined the offer on behalf of his disappointed men. There were more important things to worry about.

Meanwhile, Head had purchased a day-old Manila newspaper that reported that American and Filipino soldiers who had been holding out around the islands were now following the orders of Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, Allied commander of the Far East, to surrender to the Japanese. That bad news dashed any of the Quail fugitives’ hopes that they could join a guerrilla band rather than attempt the hazardous crossing to Australia.

By May 17, the small boat had run through squalls and rough seas to reach the northern shore of Mindanao. Even the staunchest seamen among the crew were exhausted from the boat’s constant lurching and their endless bailing. Morrill knew they needed some shore rest before attempting the next leg of their passage.

A Chinese merchant in Mindanao sold the Americans more fuel and provisions and warned that the Japanese were on their way. That night the men counted six patrol boats scouring the nearby waters for them.

Once again the Quail crew could not stay long. As the men slept on the beach the following night, they were awakened by the loud motor of a patrol boat entering the bay where they were moored. Working as silently as possible, they loaded the boat, pulled up its anchor and headed back to the open sea.

From Mindanao they passed into the Pacific Ocean. Given his many close encounters with enemy ships, Morrill feared that it was only a matter of time before his luck would run out. He decided to give the rest of the island a wide berth.

The Americans were headed east, away from the comforting sight of land. Morrill soon discovered that the sextant he had taken from the wrecked Ranger had been left behind on Caballo, meaning he had no instruments to help navigate. The veteran sailors knew that out on the open ocean they could easily drift hundreds of miles off course, with disastrous consequences.

Living up to the maxim that adversity is the mother of invention, the Americans fashioned a makeshift sextant from parallel rulers and cardboard. The improvised instrument required them to look with unprotected eyes into the sun to take their bearings, but there was no alternative.

Morrill set a course for the East Indies. He understood that if anything went wrong, he couldn’t expect much comfort from the locals there, who were known to care little for either the Americans or the Japanese.

The fugitives had no choice but to keep moving both day and night. They remained out of sight of land until they reached Morotai, the northernmost island in the East Indies. Morotai, however, was reputed to have a Japanese garrison, so they gave it a wide berth.

Morrill did his best to find uninhabited places to land for water and rest, but it was rarely easy. At one point, after turning off the motor as they were landing, the men found out that they couldn’t restart the engine. Its battery had died.

The shore was too rocky to beach the boat, so the men worked in the surge up to their thighs. Tying a rope to the propeller blades and shaft, they pulled on it, hoping to turn the engine over. After repeated failures, one of the men wrapped sticks around the smooth surface of the shaft. That provided the needed friction, and after a few more yanks on the rope, the motor kicked over and the men jumped back in the boat, exhausted but happy.

No one knew what to expect in the East Indies. Since neither American dollars nor Philippine pesos were of any use, barter seemed to be their only option. They quickly realized, however, that they had little of value with which to trade. Fortunately, pharmacist’s mate Head had his medical supplies and other gear onboard and proved to be a fountain of ingenuity. He bargained hard for food and fuel, trading medicines, undershirts and underpants—all in high demand.

Language was another problem. One of the crew spoke some Dutch, but the Dutch colonial administration of the East Indies apparently had made little impression on the locals, so Head resorted to communicating through gestures and nods.

At one stop, on the small island of Keor (or Kur), the locals gestured that they simply wanted the Americans to go away. The crewmen were ready to acquiesce, fearing they might be betrayed for what surely must be a sizable Japanese bounty for the capture of Americans. But their boat’s engine and precarious drive train had to be fixed before any further attempt to Australia could be made. Therefore, much to the dismay of the local population, the men beached the launch. When the villagers tried to intervene, only the superior firepower of the Americans’ modern weapons kept them back.

The hull was scraped while the mechanics took apart the propeller drive shaft to make hasty repairs. Once again American ingenuity saved the day. Richardson had spent days carving and sanding a piece of hardwood to the dimensions of the engine’s spent stainless steel bearing. When the wood replica was inserted in its place, it worked.

The villagers were evidently happy when the crew cast off from Keor the next morning. The men struggled to Molol (Molu) Island to make a final supply purchase before embarking on their last long dash to the safety of Australia. While cautiously entering the lagoon, they spotted an anchored lugger, which quickly ran up the Japanese flag. The Americans froze, knowing there was no escape. However, as soon as the lugger crew realized that the 36-foot launch held Americans and not Japanese, it ran down the flag. It was another close call.

While Head bartered for water and food, a local schoolteacher who could speak some English told the captain that both New Zealand and Tasmania had fallen to the Japanese. Even then, he said, fighting was raging in southern Australia. The little band of fugitives had been out of touch for so long that they did not know what to believe.

On May 31, Morrill began the final stretch of his odyssey. He opened up the engine for the first time, letting the launch run at full speed as it passed through the Arafura Sea. The men were in high spirits, talking about what they would do when they reached Australia—the food they would eat, the women they would meet.

That night, however, Morrill was rudely awakened by a wave splashing over the gunnels, in the worst storm he had experienced. He throttled back the motor and held the boat so that the surging waves were a quarter off his port beam. By doing that, he could crest each 8-foot swell without slamming the boat against the trough of water between them. For hours he held fast to the tiller without being relieved, while the crew bailed desperately. There was no margin for error. The slightest mistake in steering would sink the boat.

With the makeshift sextant, Morrill and his crew managed to find the lee of a small island that sheltered them from the teeth of the storm. On June 4 they reached Melville Island, just north of Darwin. There, they were at last among friends. An Australian missionary fed them the first Western meal they had had in months. During their five-month battle in Manila Bay, they had been constantly on short rations and high tension. Their monthlong voyage had changed all that. The men looked tan and fit. They had all gained weight and regained health. Even Taylor’s leg was healing nicely. Now it was nearly over. They learned with relief that Australia was safe for the moment from Japanese attack, although Darwin, their final destination, was being bombed almost daily.

At midnight on June 6, the motley crew made what must have seemed a leisurely trip over to Darwin. The boat sailed over the bar and into the busy harbor. Perhaps the men expected the news of their escape to precede them, but it had not. In fact, instead of being greeted with a celebration, they were detained as soon as they docked by the understandably suspicious Australian Shore Patrol. Even after the crewmen convinced their hosts of their identity, they were at loose ends—they had no money and no place to stay.

Fortunately, a U.S. Army Air Forces officer took the men under his wing, fed them, provided what clothing he could and made arrangements for their transportation south. Within a few weeks, Quail’s survivors were reassigned and scattered to the four corners of what was now a truly global conflict.

There was no official celebration for what they had accomplished, but in Philadelphia at least, Mrs. Morrill received a welcome telegram. It read: “HOW ARE YOU? I AM WELL. —Jack.”

 

Glenn Barnett teaches history at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif. For further reading, see The Lonely Ships: The Life and Death of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, by Edwin P. Hoyt.

Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here

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