Often the best books are those you discover entirely at random, browsing through some forgotten shelf somewhere. It is one important reason why shopping at Amazon will never be like shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store. At Amazon you need to search for something intentionally. Or maybe their fancy consumer algorithm will suggest some new title you actually might be interested in. But no way will you ever find some neglected out-of-print treasure you never dreamed existed before. If you are a real book nut, these are the finds that thrill you the most.
Case in point: I recently picked up my copy of Cruise of the Lanikai while bumming around a huge junk store in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I’d never heard of it, but the title and cover, the blurbs on the back, and especially the feel of the book at once set my lit sensors a-tingling.
Having now read it, I can’t say the book is especially well written. But the story it tells truly is remarkable. Imagine getting to cruise in an old gaff-rigged schooner all the way from the Philippines to Australia just as the Japanese are unleashing their trans-Pacific assault against American, British, and Dutch possessions in December 1941. Imagine doing this while harboring a sneaking suspicion that you’ve just escaped being sent on a one-way suicide mission by the President of the United States. Throw in all the other features that make any bluewater passage aboard a sailing vessel an adventure in itself, and you have what they a call a “proper yarn.”
The vessel in question, just a tad under 90 feet in length, had already had an unusual career. Originally christened Hermes, she was built by the legendary W.F. Stone in Oakland, California, for the American agents of a German trading company. She was in Honolulu when the U.S. entered World War I and was quickly commandeered by the U.S. Navy and employed as a picket and patrol craft. After the war the Hawaiian territorial government used her as a tender to the Molokai leper colony. In 1926 her name was changed to Lanikai when she was sold to a fishing company and sailed in the inter-island trade. Later, in 1933, she became a private yacht and in 1937 was acquired by MGM so she could play a role a film, The Hurricane, which starred Dorothy Lamour and was directed by John Ford. After the film was shot she was again sold into commercial service, this time in the Philippines.
Enter our author, then Lieutenant Kemp Tolley. Like the vessel he came to command, he had an intriguing and somewhat peripatetic background. The son of an Army officer, he was born in Manila in 1908. He spent a good part of his youth there and later attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis. After graduating he served in battleships and later in the Asiatic fleet on Yangtze River gunboats. In late November 1941 he was aboard of one of the last two U.S. gunboats that secretly fled Shanghai in the face of the growing Japanese presence there. Beset by a typhoon, harassed by Japanese air and naval patrols, the two small river craft crossed the Taiwan Straits on December 2 and 3 and safely arrived in Manila.
The very next day, December 4, Lt. Tolley received orders to join his very first command, the ungainly schooner Lanikai, which had just been chartered by the Navy for “one dollar a year for the duration.” Informed that his instructions came direct from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Tolley was directed to arm this very un-military vessel with one cannon and a machine gun, provision it for a two-week cruise, enlist a primarily Filipino crew, and be ready to sail in 24 hours. After he prepped his vessel, Tolley was advised he was to embark for the Indochinese coast with sealed orders to be opened en route. The next morning, however, with a crew of 19 aboard Lanikai poised to depart on this mysterious mission, Tolley’s orders were suddenly cancelled as word came from Hawaii that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Much of Tolley’s account concerns itself with Lanikai‘s escape from war-torn Manila Bay and her subsequent cruise south as the Japanese tide rolled across all of the western Pacific and southeast Asia. After plundering the ruins of the Navy’s Cavite shipyard outside Manila for supplies and covering every inch of Lanikai in dark green paint, Tolley and crew departed Luzon on December 26. Sailing at night and anchoring in coves and cul-de-sacs along the shore by day, with no detailed charts to guide them, they crept through the Philippine archipelago and on into Indonesia avoiding all contact with other vessels. They prayed for bad weather and typhoons, when decreased visibility and miserable conditions allowed them to stand out into open water in daylight. But they seem also to have reveled in their uncertain freedom from military convention, the eccentricity of their vessel, and the warm insouciance inherent to any tropical cruise. Equipped with comfortable deck chairs and a large open-air barbecue (jury-rigged from an oil drum), they enjoyed themselves when they could.
Like many modern-day Pacific cruisers, the crew of Lanikai particularly enjoyed their time on Bali, where their eyes popped at the sight of publicly bare-chested women. They were also lavishly entertained by the colonial Dutch authorities. On Java, however, the harsh reality of the war again caught up with them. As the Japanese overwhelmed the disorganized Allied forces defending the Netherlands East Indies, Lanikai only barely escaped the many hostile naval forces in the area. Again using dirty weather and a typhoon as cover, she managed to safely reach the Australian coast and arrived in Fremantle on March 18, some 82 days after her departure from Luzon. According to Tolley, she was the only surface vessel in the entire U.S. Asiatic fleet to survive the Japanese onslaught.
Interwoven with his account of his time aboard Lanikai and some select memories of his youth in Manila, Tolley also lays out a rather detailed military history of the prelude and aftermath of Japan’s surprise December 7 attack, all with an eye to solving the mystery of the super-secret Presidential mission on which he never got to embark.
His bottom line conclusion: in very early December 1941 FDR knew full well that a large Japanese task force was steaming down the Indochinese coast to attack British and Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia, but was fearful the U.S. might not also be attacked. He desperately wanted an entree into the war that would pass muster with the U.S. Congress and dramatically alter the mostly isolationist mood of the American public. So he resolved to send Lanikai (plus two other two small vessels similarly equipped) out to loiter on the route of the Japanese task force, in hopes one or more would be sunk, so he could self-righteously wave the bloody flag of an attack on U.S. warships and declare war on Japan.
Apparently, not all historians agree with this analysis. Some assert that the “three small vessels” FDR ordered dispatched to Indochina were to merely gather intelligence. Tolley’s arguments, supported by much post-war research, are, however, rather convincing. He notes that U.S. air patrols over the area were already gathering ample intelligence as to the movements of the Japanese task force. Also, Lanikai was not equipped with a working radio transmitter, which absolutely belies the notion of her sending reports back to Manila. And why, pray tell, the very specific Presidential directive that the vessels have mostly Filipino crews? Tolley posits that FDR wanted to ensure his gambit resulted in Filipino casualties, so the people of the Philippines would fully support an American war against Japan.
Not long after arriving in Australia, Lanikai was transferred to Australian command and spent the duration of the war on local harbor patrols. After the war she returned to the Philippines, where she was sunk in a typhoon in 1947. These days, evidently, her wreck is a favorite among Filipino dive tour operators.
As for Kemp Tolley, he went on to have a very distinguished naval career, rising eventually to the rank of rear admiral. He died in Corbett, Maryland, just 10 years ago at the ripe old age of 92. He wrote several other books on naval history, but Cruise of the Lanikai seems to have been the most successful. My randomly encountered copy of the book is a paperback published by the Naval Insitute Press in 1973.
This and at least two different hardcover editions can easily be purchased online if you scratch around a bit. I think you will find it is well worth the trouble.