The Lucky Old Lady of Bataan

Who was that lady, you might ask? Well, she wasn’t a lady per se, but a ship, the submarine tender USS Canopus, AS-9. She was the “mother hen” for Submarine Squadron 20 stationed in the Philippines before the war and early into the war, before transitioning to an invaluable support role in the Bataan Campaign which bears acknowledgement.

USS Canopus, circa 1926 (Courtesy  )

USS Canopus, circa 1926 (Courtesy Navsource.org)

Canopus was originally laid down in 1917 as SS Santa Luisa, then Santa Lucia, before being renamed again and completed in 1919 as passenger liner SS Santa Leonora, served briefly in a naval transport role as USS Santa Leonora, was in US Army possession and then back to the Navy for conversion as a submarine tender named Canopus, commissioned as such in January 1922. She was of nearly 6,000 tons in displacement and about 373 feet long, with a top speed of about 13 knots.

After brief service in the Atlantic Fleet, Canopus headed for the Pacific, serving in California and Hawaii before arriving in the Philippines in November, 1924, for service with the Asiatic Fleet. Summers were spent in Tsingtao, China, and cruises to other ports of call in the Far East. By the time the clouds of war gathered in the Far East, Canopus was called the “Old Lady,” among other monikers, after nearly twenty years of service.

USS Canopus, AS-9, and her brood of submarines, at Olongapo, Philippines, circa 19 (Courtesy )

USS Canopus, AS-9, and her brood of submarines, at Olongapo Naval Station, Philippine Islands, 9 March 1932, with four submarines alongside. (Courtesy Navsource.org)

Islands, 9 March 1932, with four submarines moored alongside

On December 8, 1941, Canopus was in port at Cavite, and in the weeks after busy helping with the repair of ships damaged in Japanese bombing raids. With MacArthur’s decision to resort back to the WPO-3 plan for defense of the Philippines and hold out at Bataan, Canopus sailed across Manila Bay and arrived at the naval base at Mariveles on the southwest tip of Bataan on Christmas Day, 1941, anchoring in Lilimbon Cove, Mariveles Bay.

It wasn’t long before the Japanese paid attention to the “Old Lady,” and on a couple of occasions she was decidedly unlucky. Four days after arrival, 29 December 1941, she was struck by a 500-pound armor-piercing bomb which killed six or seven men and wounded 34 more. Some luck and good damage control work kept the ship afloat. In early January 1942 she was hit by a fragmentation bomb which injured 16 men of the anti-aircraft gun crews. After surviving these attacks, Canopus became the “Lucky Old Lady.”

Though seriously damaged, the captain and crew used a ruse to fool the enemy and continue their mission of servicing the Navy and Army vessels and watercraft still left in the Manila Bay area. They made her appear to be a ship abandoned and sunk in shallow water, sustaining a list to starboard, accompanied by smoke pots emitting smoke simulating fire and damage, with cargo booms and cranes deployed at all angles to make the ship appear derelict. The ruse worked and Canopus was not seriously attacked again. At night, the crew went to work in the machine shops aboard the vessel, working hard to keep maritime forces in good repair for operations during the campaign.

Former Canopus crewman and artist Williard Johnson depicted the "hulk" of the Canopus at Mariveles in early 1942.  (Courtesy )

Former Canopus officer and artist LT. Willard C. Johnson depicted the “hulk” of the Canopus at Mariveles in early 1942. (Courtesy evperry.com)

In addition to this valuable support work, the men of Canopus also created “Mickey Mouse Battleships” out of three of the ship’s 44-foot motor launches. Weapons from wrecked naval PBY aircraft and improvised armor plate were mounted aboard the vessels. These small combatants played a useful role in the destruction of Japanese forces which made amphibious landings on the southwest coast of Bataan in late January – early February 1942, during the Battle of the Points.

Scale model of one of Canopus' "Mickey Mouse Battleships" employed during the Bataan Campaign. (Courtesy )

Scale model of one of Canopus’ “Mickey Mouse Battleships” employed during the Bataan Campaign. (Courtesy  Theminiaturespage.com)

Another contribution to the Bataan Campaign was found in the 130 Canopus men who were part of the Naval infantry battalion which also participated in actions against the Japanese forces landed in the Battle of the Points. The Fil-Am forces successfully defended the Bataan coastline against these several landings, virtually annihilating the stubbornly resisting Japanese units. Out of 2,000 Japanese soldiers, only 43 wounded made it back to their own lines.

Map of the location of the Battle of the Points, early 1942 (Courtesy USMC, via Ibiblio.org)

Map of the location of the Battle of the Points, early 1942 (Courtesy USMC, via Ibiblio.org)

In late February 1942, 221 Canopus sailors were sent to Corregidor to augment beach defense forces on the island. But the ship continued its support of the Fil-Am forces afloat and on Bataan. She did so all the way up to 9 April 1942, the day Bataan was surrendered, when she was ordered to be scuttled in Mariveles Bay. On that day, she backed out to deeper water under her own power, and her crew sank her to prevent the enemy from capturing her. The “Lucky Old Lady’s” 327 remaining crew then headed for Corregidor, where they augmented the 4th Marines in the defenses at Corregidor. Her motor launches were then given to the Mine Force and uses as small minesweepers.

Ultimately, most of Canopus’ crew was captured after the fall of Corregidor. The ship’s skipper, Earl L. Sackett, was ordered out and evacuated by submarine and returned to the US. Sadly, many of the captured crew died during their harsh POW captivity.

Commander E. L. Sackett, US Navy, the captain of the submarine tender USS Canopus during the Bataan Campaign.  (Courtesy )

Commander Earl L. Sackett, US Navy, the captain of USS Canopus during the Bataan Campaign. (Courtesy evperry.com)

Captain Sackett might have escaped capture after the Bataan Campaign, but he did not forget about his men. He wrote a book about the experience of the Canopus and ensured that the family of every crew member received a copy, to tell them what their sons had done at Bataan. The book is viewable at: http://as9.larryshomeport.com/html/history.html

More recently, Mr. Everett M. Perry, nephew of S1c Paul Edward Perry, a Canopus crewmember who perished during captivity, published a 200 page book with copious images titled “GHOSTS OF CANOPUS.” It contains some fantastic art of Canopus during her time in Far Eastern waters and the Bataan Campaign, as drawn by Lieutenant Willard C. Johnson, USN. See some samples at: http://evperry.com/canopus.html

The On Eternal Patrol website has a Canopus page with a partial crew list with memorial pages, at: http://www.oneternalpatrol.com/uss-canopus-as-9.htm

With these written tributes available, there is great opportunity to learn more about the important role the submarine tender Canopus, the “Lucky Old Lady,” played during the Bataan Campaign. Her captain and crew of over 500 men distinguished themselves in service afloat and ashore, and reflect great credit upon the naval service.

References:
Battle of Bataan, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Bataan

Battle of the Points, map at: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USMC/I/USMC-I-IV-2.html

Captain Sackett’s History USS Canopus (AS-9), at: http://as9.larryshomeport.com/html/history.html

Doon, R.V. “The War Nurse,” novel with reference to Canopus, at: http://www.rvdoon.com/2014/01/26/u-s-s-canopus-not-forgotten/

Mickey Mouse Battleships discussion thread, at: http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=325745

NavSource Online: Service Ship Photo Archive for USS Canopus AS-9, at: http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/36/3609.htm

USS Canopus, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Canopus_%28AS-9%29

USS CANOPUS, AS-9, NEW BOOK AVAILABLE- “GHOSTS OF CANOPUS,” at: http://evperry.com/canopus.html

USS Canopus (AS-9), 1922-1942, at: http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-c/as9.htm

USS Santa Leonora, at: http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/s5/santa_leonora.htm

War on Sea,” on the Defenders of the Philippines website, at: http://philippine-defenders.lib.wv.us/html/waronsea.html

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2 thoughts on “The Lucky Old Lady of Bataan

    • Yes, she was! Even though she had a rough time in the Bataan Campaign, one can see it was the highlight of her service, for such a time as that. Later, the Navy named another submarine tender Canopus (AS-34) in honor of her distinguished predecessor. That new Canopus served from 1965 to 1994, 29 years of service. The ship was only recently disposed of, by scrapping, in 2010. Hopefully the Navy will name another ship Canopus!

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