Tue, Apr 27, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Old ship stirs World War II mystery

The Philippine boat `Lanikai' is thoughtto have run secret missions for the USduring the war and served asbait for the Japanese navy


A 90-year-old wooden schooner has been dug up from its watery grave near this former US naval base, bringing to light the heroism of its Filipino and American crew in World War II.

"It brings a lot of memories about my father," says Jaime Velarmino, 65, as he inspects the barnacle-encrusted wheel of the 23m Lanikai, which was sunk by a storm in 1947 shortly after the war.

Velarmino's father, Hilario Velarmino, was among the 12 Filipinos in the 18-man crew of the vessel, which US and Filipino naval historians say played a crucial role in the allied effort against Japan.

Built in 1914, the Lanikai once fished Alaskan salmon in Seattle and was chartered out as a yacht from Hawaii, briefly sailing in Hollywood when it was used for the pre-war movie Hurricane before it was commissioned into the US Navy at the start of the war in 1941.

According to Filipino historians, then-US President Franklin Roosevelt ordered it to be fitted with guns and sent it on secret missions.

Acting as bait

The Lanikai gathered intelligence for the US Navy and patrolled the shores of Indonesia and Australia to monitor the southward push of the Japanese Imperial Army.

But the auxiliary schooner skippered by Lieutenant Kemp Tolley during the war, may have had an even bigger mission.

"There were some accounts that Roosevelt may have used it to bait the Japanese to start World War II," says Felicito Payumo, who heads the port authority that runs Subic, which was the Americans' premier naval base in Asia until 1992.

Payumo says the Americans have not confirmed such accounts and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the US into the war, before the Lanikai was able to play a pivotal role.

In his book Cruise of the Lanikai: Incitement to War, Tolley says it was clear to him that his mission was to create an incident that would incite war with Japan but events overtook his mission.

The crew survived the war but the Filipinos' contributions, along with those of the ship, were all but forgotten before an Australian diver found the wreck and sought permission from the Philippine government to salvage it.

The schooner's remains, which now sit at a restaurant by the wharf here, have also come to symbolize the Filipino crew's quest for recognition, pensions and other benefits.

"Very little has been previously known about the Lanikai," until recently, concedes Payumo.

Velarmino said his mother recounted that his father would often slip out of their home to board the Lanikai, but had kept its mission a secret even after he retired after the war.

"He only told us he was a fisherman," he said, but said the family would often wonder why the family received payments from the US Navy entitling them to war rations and provisions.

The family learned about the Lanikai's importance when its American skipper, Tolley, resumed correspondence with his father in the 1970s.

Velarmino said his father named one of his brothers after Tolley -- the US captain who rose to become an admiral at the time of his retirement.

Significant historical find

Both the elder Velarmino and Tolley are now dead.

In his book, Tolley paid tribute to the Filipino crew's unflagging dedication to the war and recalled many "funny and heroic things" about the Lanikai.

Payumo said the Lanikai artifacts would become the centerpiece of a planned naval museum in Subic, now a freeport and major tourist destination in the region.

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