Mon, Nov 05, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Stars and Stripes over Pratas Island

The US occupied the small island for a day towards the end of World War II

By John J. Tkacik, Jr.

A Gato-class submarine sails past Mare Island Navy Yard, Nov. 29 1944.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Submarine crews in wartime generally know the date and time, but often lose track of the days. And the nights. On Tuesday May 29, 1945, just a few minutes past zero-hundred hours, the USS Bluegill, a Gato-class American submarine, burst up through ghostly phosphorescent waves and into the glistening full-moonlit sea about three miles southwest of Pratas atoll in the South China Sea.

Within minutes, the topside hatches swung open. Emerging crewmen hoisted boxes of ammo, firearms, radio sets and life vests on deck. They assembled folding “fol-boats” and a large rubber equipment boat under the eye of two Australian commando officers assigned to the sub. When all was ready, the commandos boarded a fol-boat alongside in the sea froth, then loaded the gear, explosives and automatic weapons. With their oars, the commandos pushed off from the sub’s steel hull, paddled easily and quietly toward the dimly visible white beaches on a 70-minute trip to low-lying Pratas Island (東沙), also known as Tungsha Island.

When the rubber boat swept with gentle breakers onto the nighttime sands, the two men leaped into the foam and dragged it into the beach’s scrub fringe. They listened for any hint of a Japanese garrison. Nothing. Shouldering their weapons, they scouted up the underbrush margins to discover trenches, foxholes, remains of recent campfires — but no humans.

Another several hundred yards on, they confronted the nighttime shadows of two large wooden cannons guarded ostentatiously by two motionless figures in Japanese navy uniforms.

“We watched and waited for what seemed forever but was probably no more than five minutes,” one of the commandos later recalled; the guards were not fierce Japanese kaigun rikusentai, the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces, but straw-stuffed scarecrows, armed with wooden sticks, immovable sentries for makeshift lumber howitzers.

In a methodical four-hour night reconnaissance, they crisscrossed the abandoned palm-forested island, its Japanese radio-weather station, the concrete jetty and barracks buildings, from end to end. On the north side of the encampment charcoal ash, fresh fruit and still-thriving flowers in a small Shinto shrine told the Australians that the island had been abandoned perhaps 10 days earlier. Confident that the island was safe, the Australians returned to the beach and radioed their mother-ship. The Bluegill’s commander, with the all-clear from the shore party, signaled from the conning tower for the 10-man team on deck to load their landing boats and make for the beach.

Once on the Pratas, the 12 invaders fanned out through the encampment and pier areas to document the island’s topography, facilities and supply stockpiles.

The submarine log reads: “We assembled around the flag pole, and at 1022 on May 29, 1945, a handful of soldiers and sailors stood at solemn attention while the Stars and Stripes slowly ascended the flag pole and two captured Jap bugles blared forth. The land they now stood on was US territory! A plaque was then affixed to the base of the pole certifying the capture of the island by the crew of the USS Bluegill.”

Sadly, if the Pratas atoll was “US territory,” its new owners lavished it with neither the dignity nor tender care due sovereign property. The Americans departed on May 29 as quickly as they arrived, carting off canned Japanese vegetables, war souvenirs, neglected codebooks and any naval documents left unburnt. The Australian commandos set explosive charges to the rest of it. The Pratas was a dismal pall of smoke as the Bluegill set sail at 4:40pm that afternoon.

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