Lying moored to the northeast bank of Mariveles Bay, Philippine Islands, early in the afternoon watch on 5 January 1942, the submarine tender Canopus (AS-9), opened fire with her four 3-inch antiaircraft guns as seven Japanese bombers approached, the sharp bark of the 3-inchers mingling with the drone of the planes overhead. Lieutenant Bethel V. Otter, the gunnery officer, directed the battery’s fire up to the instant the bombs began to straddle the ship. One struck the stack and exploded, showering shards of metal on the tender’s upperworks and wounding “Red” Otter and 12 of his 20 men.
The 27-year-old lieutenant from Kentucky, despite having suffered many shrapnel wounds in his back, seemed animated by only one thought: to check on the welfare of the captain. Otter rushed to the bridge and after finding Commander Earl L. Sackett unhurt quickly returned to his men. Refusing first aid for himself, he tended to the casualties. Ten wounded sailors went to facilities ashore for treatment. The next morning, Otter finally consented to leave the ship for treatment.
The ship in such desperate straits at Mariveles had been completed in 1919 by the New York Shipbuilding Company of Camden, New Jersey, as the Santa Leonora. In search of tenders for its submarine force, the Navy obtained the vessel from the U.S. Shipping Board. Transferred to the service by executive order on 29 October 1921 and designated as AS-9, the ship was renamed the Canopus on 4 November. She began undergoing the transformation from merchantman to naval auxiliary at the Boston Navy Yard.
The Canopus’ conversion, the chief of Naval Operations reported, “is being accomplished at a large saving on previous . . . conversions,” partly because the ship’s crew was helping with the alterations. The stripping process of the decommissioned pre-dreadnought battleships New Jersey (BB-16) and Virginia (BB-13), which were awaiting final disposition at Boston, yielded significant machinery and fittings for the Canopus. On 24 January 1922, the tender was commissioned at her conversion yard, with Commander Alexander S. Wadsworth Jr. in command.
After sailing from Boston on 9 November, the Canopus underwent further fitting out at Coco Solo, Canal Zone, and San Pedro, California, where she served as tender for Submarine Division 9 until 17 July 1923. She next tended the boats of Division 17, based at Pearl Harbor, before continuing westward in September 1924.
The Canopus reached the Philippines on 4 November to become the flagship for the Asiatic Fleet’s submarine divisions. Her routine became moving with her brood of boats from the Philippines to Tsingtao, China, then back again. The ship’s workload waxed and waned, but by mid-1941 she was providing services for 17 submarines—modern fleet boats as well as the World War I emergency-program S-boats that she had tended from the beginning.
Shortly before the mid watch ended on 8 December 1941, the Canopus, anchored 1,000 yards east of Manila Bay’s Sangley Point, received word “Japan had started hostilities against the United States of America.” Over the next five days, the ship, festooned with camouflage netting and painted to match the surrounding docks, moved three times along the waterfront as she continued to service submarines. After General Douglas MacArthur declared Manila an open city, the Canopus moved again, to Mariveles, at the tip of the Bataan Peninsula, where on Christmas Day she was moored close to the shore, painted a mottled green and camouflaged with foliage.
Such measures were to no avail, for she suffered a bomb hit on 29 December near her magazines that might have caused the loss of the ship had not desperate damage-control measures prevailed. The tender was further damaged in the 5 January 1942 attack.
By that time, her repair force had been reduced to less than 75 men, but the battered Canopus had begun performing a wide range of valuable services for U.S. and Philippine forces. Over the following months she would repair Army Transportation Service vessels, Philippine “Q-boats” (motor torpedo boats), and Army launches, as well as charge batteries and fix and manufacture parts for vehicles ranging from tanks to road rollers, and for equipment—from flamethrowers to cook stoves. Her men would fashion 72 tripod mounts for machine guns, and mounts or foundations for weapons ranging from 3-inch antiaircraft guns to .30-caliber machine guns.
The Canopus also actively participated in the defense of Bataan. Modified into miniature gunboats and commanded by executive officer Lieutenant Commander Henry W. Goodall, the tender’s motorboats and launches attacked Japanese forces attempting to infiltrate the coast. Ultimately, however, the enemy’s relentless advance led to the evacuation of men and as much matériel as possible to Corregidor on 8 and 9 April.
Lieutenant Commander Adolph Hede, formerly the Canopus’ first lieutenant and navigator, had the sad duty of scuttling the tender. After fuel, provisions, and personal effects were offloaded, sailors demolished machine tools and radio equipment using sledgehammers, removed breechblocks from guns, and wrecked four torpedoes and four paravanes. The Canopus backed out of Lilimbon Cove at 0140 on 9 April, under her own power. With the ship lying in such a position to partially block the cove, her anchor chains rattled down the hawse pipes as she let go both anchors.
Ironically, members of the Canopus’ crew had helped transform her into a tender, and now some of her sailors were laying her to rest. They opened the flood valves to the torpedo-warhead locker and forward magazine, backed off the main condenser plates, and opened the main injection valve that would flood the engine and boiler rooms and the shaft alley. Because the damage inflicted by the explosion of the 29 December bomb had never been repaired, the flooding in that part of the ship would continue unchecked. The Canopus settled, quickly took on a 10-degree list, and finally sank into the 14-fathom depths an hour into the afternoon watch.
Commander Sackett would be evacuated from Corregidor by submarine just before it fell to the enemy. But many of the Canopus’ crew, including Red Otter, would face the final Japanese onslaught as members of the embattled island’s garrison. When the enemy landings unfolded on the morning of 6 May, Otter tenaciously held the section of beach defenses assigned to him and his shipmates before charging a Japanese machine-gun position and falling mortally wounded. “I have not the slightest doubt,” Sackett later wrote, “that he led his men in a final desperate endeavor to clear out the invaders, and thus lost his life. Knowing him as I do, I am sure he would have preferred it that way.” Otter, who posthumously received the Navy Cross for his heroism on Corregidor, typified the spirit of the Canopus—fighting to the last.
Canopus (AS-9)-class submarine tender
Displacement: 8,000 tons
Length: 373 feet, 9 inches
Beam: 51 feet, 8 inches
Draft: 21 feet, 5 inches
Speed: 13 knots
Armament (1940): 2 5-inch/51-caliber single-purpose guns; 4 3-inch/50-caliber antiaircraft guns; 4 .30-caliber Lewis machine guns; 2 3-pounder guns
Complement: 413 officers and enlisted men (432 as submarine division flagship)