A Change of Mission
At 1330 on 29 August, Carrier Task Group 77.1, commanded by Rear Admiral Dixwell Ketcham (who was also commander, Carrier Group 27), sailed from San Pedro Bay, Leyte, in the Philippines. Its mission was to provide air cover for mine-clearing operations in the sea lanes from Leyte through the East China and Yellow Seas to Korea. The task group consisted of two escort carriers (the flagship Block Island [CVE-106] and the Santee [CVE-29]) and four destroyer escorts (the Thomas J. Gary [DE-326], Prister [DE-327], Finch [DE-328], and Kretchmer [DE-329]). Once at sea, the task group was joined by a fleet oiler, the Chepachet (AO-78).
On 3 September, when Task Group 77.1 was steaming in the vicinity of Okinawa, 7th Fleet Commander Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid canceled the mine-clearing mission and diverted Ketcham’s task group to Keelung Harbor on the north coast of Formosa to rescue all Allied prisoners being held in Japanese camps there. Underscoring the urgency of this mission, it was specified that the rescue be accomplished “as expeditiously as possible.” While the new mission given to Admiral Ketcham sounded simple enough, it proved to be anything but.
The task group was not organized or prepared in any way for prisoner rescue and evacuation: It was not carrying necessary supplies, small stores, clothing, bedding, and other items needed, nor were the ships manned for such a mission. Each of the two CVEs had a small landing party, made up of its Marine detachment and specified Navy personnel, and small boats to take them ashore. At this time no Allied forces were on Formosa; it was completely occupied by Japanese army units and operational attack aircraft were at the island’s Matsuyama Airfield. As was the case throughout most Japanese-occupied territory, some members of the imperial forces were not aware of the preliminary surrender agreement or didn’t believe or accept it.
The only Allied personnel on the island were starved and helpless POWs, and Ketcham had no intelligence concerning the situation except what could be gathered from aerial observation by his embarked aircraft. There was precious little time even for that; the operational plan was being created as they sailed, and with great gaps in needed information.
The Dangerous Route to Keelung
With Japanese submarines still at sea, the route to Keelung took the task force through uncharted naval minefields. As if these problems weren’t enough, there was a full-blown typhoon between the warships and the port that was moving in more or less the same direction as they were. Beginning on 31 August, flight operations were suspended due to the foul weather and heavy seas; they did not resume until 4 September, the day before the task group reached the Keelung area. Once the fleet oiler joined the group, slower speeds were necessary in order to stay together, adding to the trip’s duration. Continuous course changes were made in an effort to avoid the worst part of the storm, which significantly increased the distance traveled and consumed still more time. On 4 September the storm subsided considerably, and with its center moving ahead of them, the task group made straight for Keelung. The day was spent preparing to deliver what food, medicine, and clothing the ships did have to the prisoners.
On 2 September, Japan’s unconditional surrender had been formalized on board the USS Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay, but there was no way of knowing whether or not the Japanese commanders on Formosa were aware of it. At 1530 on 4 September, an ad hoc landing party of Marines and Navy medical personnel, commanded by Colonel A. D. Cooley, USMC, was transferred from the Block Island to the Thomas J. Gary in preparation for landing the next morning. There had been no communication with anyone on Formosa; this lack of information added to the tension and made the situation more difficult.
The task group arrived off Keelung at 0300 on 5 September and began intense flight operations before daybreak. F4U Corsairs and F6F Hellcats flew low over the north end of the island, reconnoitering, and located three prison camps, an airfield, docks, antiaircraft gun emplacements, and other Japanese installations, gathering all the information that they could concerning the situation on the ground. They also made low passes over Japanese installations to intimidate the local commanders and encourage the POWs.
The Leaflet Drop
Concurrently with the aerial reconnaissance and low flyovers, the aircraft strategically dropped leaflets over administrative buildings, the airfield, the docks, and the three POW camps—with an emphasis on the camps. These leaflets had been printed under way on board the Block Island . Because the crew had no way to print them in Japanese—even if there had been someone in the task group who could write Japanese—they were printed in English with the hope some members of the Japanese garrison could read them. The leaflet was addressed to the commander, Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Forces on Formosa (a generic title, hopefully created) and announced both the formal unconditional surrender by Japan on 2 September and enumerated demands.
Among the demands were that the Japanese provide the task group with harbor pilots knowledgeable of the location of mines and that they prepare berthing for two light cruisers and one destroyer at the docks (a British task group, including two light cruisers, was to join the operation). The Japanese were also directed to have competent authorities on the docks to meet Cooley’s landing party, with a view to the immediate release of the Allied prisoners. Importantly, they were commanded to safeguard the welfare of all Allied prisoners and to see that all supplies dropped, or otherwise delivered for them, reached the prisoners—and them alone.
In order to communicate with American vessels preparing to land and those remaining at sea, the Japanese commander was instructed to establish radio communication “immediately” through a designated frequency and call signs. Finally, the Japanese were instructed to mark each prison camp with the letters “PW” 20 feet high against suitable backgrounds and oriented so as to be read from the southwest. Signed by Ketcham, the decree left no doubt as to who was in charge. Marine Captain James Secrest, who dropped the leaflets from his Corsair, could see some of them being picked up by the Japanese as he was dropping them.
At the same time that flight operations commenced, the order was given to send the landing party, which was already assembled on the Gary , ashore. The ship, accompanied by the Kretchmer , made for the Keelung docks with all hands at battle stations. During their slow 8½-hour move into the harbor and to the docks, the DEs were covered by fighter aircraft, which sighted four naval mines and destroyed two of them; the other two, for the time being, were not an obstacle.
Meanwhile, it was decided to run the risk of landing an American representative on the ground prior to the landing party’s arrival at the docks. As the two DEs approached Keelung harbor, Marine Captain Dick Johnson flew in with his TBM-3 Avenger carrying staff liaison officer Major Peter Folger, USMCR, in the gunner’s seat. Navy and Marine Hellcats covered them, circling low over the airfield. Johnson and Folger were able to land on Matsuyama Airfield without resistance and were met by the field’s commander. With contact established on the ground with the Japanese and the landing party headed into the harbor, U.S. anxiety began to subside.
A makeshift American flag was affixed to a commandeered Japanese staff car, and Folger departed immediately in it for the three camps in the area—numbers 1, 5, and 6—to determine the most urgent needs of the prisoners. Upon his return to the airfield, Folger was met by one of the pilots of the Hellcats that had provided air cover. The liaison officer gave him a hastily composed list of needed food and medical supplies at the camps; it was immediately flown to the flagship. A request for urgently needed, specific medicines was later radioed to the Block Island on aviation tactical frequencies and added to Folger’s list. In short order, TBFs from the carriers carrying the needed supplies in their huge torpedo bays—each large enough to hold a 2,000 pound bomb—were landing at Matsuyama Airfield, where the supplies were quickly transferred to commandeered Japanese trucks and rushed to the camps. In that first day, with limited facilities and improvised communication and logistics, 9,500 pounds of badly needed food and medicine were delivered to the prisoners in the three camps.
After Captain Johnson’s first contact with the Japanese, an Air Ground Air Service (AGAS) team flew in to Matsuyama Airfield in three C-47s and immediately joined Cooley to assist in his dealing with the Japanese. The AGAS teams were U.S. deep-penetration units, organized and trained to assist downed Allied aviators and to conduct other clandestine operations in enemy-held territory. At the end of World War II they were highly active in the rescue of Allied POWs, as they could be inserted by parachute or land in their own aircraft.
Navigating the Evacuation
Meanwhile, as a result of the communications order and guidance contained in the dropped leaflets, the Japanese and the Gary established radio contact. A harbor pilot was ordered to meet the ships of the task group, and the local Japanese commanding officer instructed to stand by at the docks. Both demands were met—and the first not a moment too soon. Unbeknownst to the task group commander, the DEs were hove to in the middle of a naval minefield. The urgency of the situation had forced Ketcham to sail into an unknown situation, but amazingly not one of his ships had struck a mine.
Late in the morning Cooley organized an ad hoc committee to meet with representatives of the Japanese forces, including a college professor who acted as interpreter. The committee included British Colonel H. J. Kilpatrick, a senior POW; two other senior officer POWs; Lieutenant Colonel H. W. Glattly, U.S. Army Medical Corps; Major F. N. Grazebrook, Royal Engineers; and members of the AGAS team. Cooley wasted no time in making arrangements to begin removal of the Allied prisoners from the camps. His first priority was to evacuate Camp Number 1. He demanded and received a train to transport prisoners who were too sick to make the trip in trucks. Sleeper cars, too, were demanded and provided in the train for stretcher cases. By 1740 the camp was vacated, and 312 prisoners were delivered to the two DEs at the docks for further transfer to the aircraft carriers. Cooley, his landing party, and the ad hoc committee remained ashore overnight and made detailed arrangements to evacuate camps 5 and 6 the following morning.
Beginning early on the morning of 6 September, the evacuation of all prisoners in those camps was executed exactly as planned, with no resistance by the Japanese. At 1000, as the Kretchmer approached the harbor to take on another load of evacuees, the fighter cover spotted and destroyed a mine in the ship’s path. Things were going well, but danger and uncertainty remained. By about 1630, evacuation of camps 5 and 6 was completed. In all, 1,160 prisoners were loaded aboard the DEs for transport to the carriers, while 121 personnel had to be left behind in the Japanese hospital: 82 POWs who were too sick to be moved and 39 medical personnel to care for them.
According to the action report from the Block Island, 100 percent of the camps’ evacuees required medical treatment for conditions including malnutrition—often with extreme edema—beri beri, anemia, diarrhea, chronic ulcers, malaria, and intestinal parasites. To accommodate the 474 POWs brought aboard, the hangar deck was cleared of planes and transformed into a hospital ward; as the flight deck was crowded with aircraft, takeoffs were limited to catapult launches. The carrier broke from the darken-ship regulations of the first night of a cruise and kept the hangar deck ports open, which “solved ventilation problems that would have been severe in the tropics under rigid wartime conditions.”
The ships of Ketcham’s task group returned to the carriers with the last of the evacuees. The senior medical officer on board the Block Island noted that “If ordinary care is exercised in selection of movable patients from the non-transferables, no trouble should be anticipated en route.” Only 50 of the most healthy and strong prisoners remained on each of the DEs for the rough, three-day trip to Manila, and the medical officer on board the Block Island later observed that “practically all of these repatriates improved physically during the cruise to Manila.”
Handoff to the British
The British took over air patrols for the rest of 6 September so that U.S. aircraft could return to their carriers. At about 1000 on the morning of 7 September, the reassembled Task Group 77.1 made rendezvous at sea off Keelung with British Task Group 111.3, commanded by Rear Admiral R. M. Servies and comprised of one escort carrier (the flagship), two light cruisers, and two destroyers. At 1120, a Japanese harbor pilot arrived aboard the British flagship, and the task group steamed toward Keelung, entering the harbor that afternoon. Servies then assumed control, including responsibility for the care of the Allied personnel left behind at the Japanese hospital.
With the U.S. landing party recovered and the rescued POWs distributed and cared for as well as was possible, Task Group 77.1 sailed for Manila. The requirement for mattresses, bedding, medicine, clothing, and other needs of the liberated POWs far exceeded the ships’ supplies. However, the American crews responded admirably, providing their own mattresses, sharing personal clothing and possessions, and willingly assisting with personal care. As Ketcham expressed in his somewhat understated after-action report, “All hands participated with a will.” When some of these salty sailors and Marines of the landing party had first seen and begun to assist the emaciated POWs, they did so with tears in their eyes. All members of Task Group 77.1 were shocked at the condition of the walking skeletons they rescued, and they responded with selfless, great compassion.
The task group arrived safely at Manila, without incident, at 0800 on 9 September, successfully completing the difficult and dangerous rescue of the North Formosa Allied prisoners of war. During the entire operation, there was only one casualty. Tragically, Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander Victor Gang of the Santee was swept overboard in heavy seas during the typhoon. His body was recovered by the Finch .
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“USS Thomas J. Gary ,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Thomas_J._Gary_(DE-326).