Tuesday, February 17, 2009

USS Quail (AM-15)

Figure 1: Alongside the radio-controlled target ship Coast Battleship No. 4 (ex-USS Iowa, Battleship # 4), probably off the coast of Panama, circa February-March 1923. Quail provided salvage support during exercises with the target ship. Courtesy of Mrs. C.R. DeSpain, 1973. From the scrapbooks of Fred M. Butler. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: Review of the Atlantic Fleet Minesweeping Squadron, November 1919. Ships of the squadron anchored in the Hudson River, off New York City, while being reviewed by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels on 24 November 1919, following their return to the United States after taking part in clearing the North Sea mine barrage. Identifiable ships present include (left column, from front to rear): USS Turkey (Minesweeper # 13); USS Quail (Minesweeper # 13) with SC-354 alongside; USS Lark (Minesweeper # 21) with SC-208 alongside; USS Swan (Minesweeper # 34) with SC-356 alongside; and USS Flamingo (Minesweeper # 13) with an unidentified submarine chaser alongside. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Six "O" type submarines nested alongside a pier in Central America or the Caribbean, circa 1923-1924. USS O-6 (SS-67) and USS O-9 (SS-70) are the two outboard submarines. USS Quail (AM-15) is also alongside the pier, in the left background. Courtesy of the Estate of Virginia Cornwell, 1982. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS Galveston (CL-19) (center) with USS Quail (AM-15) (at left) probably at Corinto, Nicaragua, in December 1926 - February 1927, during the Nicaraguan revolution. Collection of John Spector, donated by Mrs. Minnie Spector, 1986. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Lieutenant Commander John Morrill, standing in the stern sheets by the till, and his 17 crewmen from USS Quail on board their camouflaged 36-foot motor launch. Courtesy Rear Admiral John Morrill. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: Map showing the route traveled by Lieutenant Commander John Morrill and his men from Corregidor, the Philippines, to Darwin, Australia. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: A copy of the book “South From Corregidor,” written by Lieutenant Commander John Morrill, which recounted his amazing escape from the Philippines and his subsequent voyage to Australia with 17 men in a 36-foot motor launch. Click on photograph for larger image.

USS Quail (AM-15) was an 840-ton Lapwing class minesweeper that was built by the Chester Shipbuilding Company at Chester, Pennsylvania, and was commissioned on 29 April 1919. The ship was approximately 187 feet long and 35 feet wide, had a top speed of 14 knots, and a crew of 61 officers and men. Quail had a modest armament of only two 3-inch guns.

Shortly after being commissioned, Quail was sent to Kirkwall, Scotland, where she was assigned to the North Sea Mine Sweeping Detachment. This unit was given the task of clearing thousands of mines from the North Sea after the end of World War I. Quail continued working with this unit until 25 November 1919.

In 1920, Quail was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet and operated mainly in Cuban waters and along America’s east coast. In September 1922, she was transferred to the submarine base at Coco Solo, Canal Zone, and patrolled the Caribbean. The next year, Quail was sent back to America’s east coast and in 1925 she went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for an extensive overhaul.

In 1927, Quail was given the task of patrolling the west coast of Nicaragua and later joined naval maneuvers in the Caribbean. From July 1928 to January 1929, Quail found herself back on the east coast patrolling the waters between Virginia and Massachusetts. She returned to Coco Solo in 1929, but from 1931 to early 1941 Quail was based at Pearl Harbor, although she did complete some survey work off the coast of Alaska during this time.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Quail was in the Philippines as part of the US Asiatic Fleet. During the defense of Corregidor, Quail served in her capacity as a minesweeper and swept a channel that provided access to South Harbor, Corregidor. But as the Japanese began closing in on Corregidor, almost all of the remaining American ships in the Philippines were destroyed. Somehow the Quail managed to survive enemy air and sea attacks for several weeks. But her luck finally ran out on 5 May 1942. On that day, the Japanese bombed the small American gunboat Mindanao and the minesweeper Pigeon and sank both of them. Quail had been hit by three 6-inch shells and was in very bad shape. Two-thirds of her crew was sent to man the guns on Corregidor, leaving only a handful of men on board the ship.

On the night of 5 May, as the Japanese bombarded Corregidor for their final invasion of the island fortress, Lieutenant Commander J. H. Morrill was standing on board what was left of his ship, the minesweeper Quail. He watched in awe as the Japanese pounded Corregidor with hundreds of cannons positioned on the coast directly opposite the island. What Morrill didn’t know while watching this spectacle was that he was standing on the last ship of the US Asiatic Fleet in Philippine waters. By 4:30 AM on 6 May, Morrill received a message from land that he was to place the rest of his men ashore at Fort Hughes, Caballo Island, to man the antiaircraft guns there. As more of Morrill’s crew left the ship to go to Fort Hughes, Japanese aircraft were bombarding Corregidor as well as Fort Hughes. However, during these air raids, the Japanese seemed to ignore the damaged Quail, perhaps thinking that the sinking minesweeper wasn’t worth bombing. By 10:30 AM Morrill received his last order from headquarters on Corregidor instructing him to scuttle his ship.

Lieutenant Commander Morrill went ashore at Fort Hughes and found some men to help him scuttle Quail. But when they were ready to board the ship’s boat to return to the minesweeper, a shell sank their small boat. Morrill and four men swam 200 yards to another small boat moored near the dock and, while under enemy fire from circling Japanese warplanes, somehow managed to return to Quail. Morrill and his men made it back to the minesweeper and they scuttled the ship.

After Quail was gone, Morrill and his men took their boat, a 36-foot naval motor launch, and went to the deserted tug Ranger that was beached nearby on Caballo Island. Once there, Morrill decided that he was not going to surrender to the Japanese and that he and his men were going to escape. They searched Ranger for clothes, guns, ammunition and, most important, diesel fuel for their motor launch. They found about 450 gallons of diesel fuel on board the beached tug and stowed it in their boat. That night, Morrill went to Fort Hughes and asked the surviving members of Quail’s crew if they wanted to join him on his journey. He had a pocket watch, some diesel fuel, a few small-scale charts of the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies, and a little food and water. He proposed that they board the 36-foot motor launch and try to make it to Australia. Some of the crewmembers were just too exhausted to even contemplate such a journey, but 17 men decided to join Morrill and take their chances with the sea rather than surrender to the Japanese.

At 10:15 on the evening of 6 May 1942, Lieutenant Commander J. H. Morrill and 17 of Quail’s crewmembers set off on a remarkable journey south towards Australia. They initially traveled at night and hugged the coastline as their 36-foot motor launch plodded along at three knots. The men camouflaged the tiny vessel with green fronds and branches and painted it black so that it would look like a harmless native fishing boat. They avoided numerous Japanese aircraft, destroyers, minesweepers, and patrol boats as they continued southwards along the Philippine coastline. They stopped a few times along the coast of Luzon, where some kind Filipino villagers gave them food and water. By 13 May, they headed into the more open waters of the Sibuyan Sea and moved past the southwest end of Masbate Island in the central Philippines. They passed a Japanese tanker along the way, but the tanker ignored them, possibly thinking that they were either pirates or fishermen. They reached Cebu on May 15. On that same day they landed on the northwest coast of Leyte and bought some diesel oil and canned goods from a Chinese storekeeper. Morrill and his men also learned that the Japanese were on Leyte and that they were looking for Americans. Morrill and his crew left and continued south, headed for Surigao Strait between Leyte and Dinagat Islands.

On 17 May, the small group reached Tandag on northeastern Mindanao and obtained more supplies and fuel from another Chinese merchant. But the Japanese were making rapid advances throughout the Philippines and Morrill and his men managed to avoid enemy patrol boats that night by hiding in a secluded cove. On 18 May they left Port Lamon, where friendly Filipinos gave them more fuel. They continued their journey southward, eventually reaching Fisang Island north of Timor in the East Indies on 24 May.

The natives of the Dutch East Indies were not too helpful to the Americans and they would not take either American or Philippine currency. So the only way Morrill and his men could get any supplies was through trading what few valuable belongings they had for some desperately needed fuel oil and food. The small boat left Fisang but was only able to make it to the island of Keor, in the easternmost part of the Dutch East Indies, before their small engine gave out. The people on Keor didn’t seem any friendlier, but the Americans had to stay to repair their engine. The engine had to work well because they were about to leave on the last part of their journey across a large distance of open ocean for Australia. So they beached the boat and the men of the Quail replaced a burned-out bearing with one carved out of hard wood and installed it. Remarkably, it worked.

Morrill and his men left Keor and continued their journey south to Australia. On 4 June 1942, this small band of Americans reached Melville Island just north of Darwin, Australia, where they met some friendly Australian missionaries. They obtained food and water from the missionaries and the next day they left Melville and, with no fanfare and no recognition, slowly made their way into Darwin harbor. They tied up their boat and, once on shore, tried to report to any Americans in the harbor. All they found were a few American officers with an Army Air Force unit.

After 29 days and traveling 2,060 miles in a 36-foot motor launch, Lieutenant Commander J. H. Morrill brought his 17 men from the Quail to safety. They went from Corregidor to Darwin with no sextant, no decent charts, and only a pocket watch as a chronometer. Lieutenant Commander Morrill received the Navy Cross and was eventually promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral.

Although the Quail was lost, some of its crew decided that surrendering to the Japanese on Corregidor was not an option. Even though the odds against them were enormous, these incredibly brave men in their small boat managed to avoid Japanese aircraft and warships while, at the same time, battling the sea as well as the weather. But like so many of the men in the old US Asiatic Fleet, they simply refused to give up. It was a remarkable achievement by a group of sailors who were determined to get back home so that they could live to fight another day.