The Crevalle’s Last Transit through Balabac

Posted by Rebekah
Jun 21 2010

Sorry about the long wait.  One of my little ones has been quite sick and fussy, and as much as I enjoy this project, my kids come first, as is natural.

I’ll take this moment to say that I may be a bit sporadic over the next few days.  The final revisions of the book is due in ten days, and I’m making some changes based on some things I’ve found recently.  I’ll do my best, but if it seems like I’m shorter and less detailed than normal, that’s why.

I wrote last that I would talk about about the Crevalle’s last transit of Balabac Straits, which happened on May 8, 1944.  This is an important transit because when the Flier was ordered to go through Balabac at top speed, the Navy also sent detailed route that the Crevalle supposedly used.  There were no orders attached to this route, and according to the investigation, Admiral Christie and his staff included this information only as a helpful guide to get through, since, whenever Crevalle took soundings during the transit, it was over 100 fathoms deep, which was considered too deep for Japanese sea mines. (They were wrong, but that’s another story.)

So what happened?

Well, since Flier was lost, there had to be an investigation, and a lot of interesting things came out, which I was able to read about.  (You can too, if you like.  Just go to pg. 60 for the Investigation’s transcript).  For one thing, the Navy recorded in the transcripts the exact directions they gave as derived from Crevalle’s passing.  I could bore you with the whole thing, but why bother when I can plot it out on a map.

In this map, the track of the Crevalle on May 8 is in bright blue. The track of the Flier is in the customary red. Where that track ends in the lower left-hand corner is approximately where Flier was heading for on her last night. Had she suceeded, she would have been there a 2:30 am on the morning of 14 August

Now, during the investigation, Captain Crowley gave several reasons as to why they chose not to use that path.  To begin with, Crevalle approached from further north than Flier, and they had to get through the Strait more quickly than diverting that far north would have allowed.  Secondly, Crevalle passed much more closely to Roughton Reef than Crowley was comfortable with. Unlike modern charts, the charts there men were working with had few, if any soundings.  Roughton Reefs was a known hazard, but Comiran wasn’t as much.   Since Crowley wanted more space between his boat and the reef, and also wanted as much sea space around him as possible to give him the greatest amount of maneuvering room in case of small fishing or patrol vessels, he and his navigator Jim Liddell plotted a course closer to Comiran.  For safety, they would take continuous soundings so they could stay in the deep water.   Once past Comiran Island, they would meet up with the Crevalle’s track for the rest of the passage.  After all, the most dangerous part of the passage was still to come: passing down the coast of Balabac and beyond the southern tip.

Flier never made the conjunction with the Crevalle’s track.  She went down too early.  Just before she hit the mine, she took a sounding of 42 fathoms deep, too shallow for comfort.

It is just as likely that Flier hit a floating mine as well as a tethered mine, and that even if Flier had diverted enough to follow Crevalle’s track to the nth degree, she still might have hit a rogue mine.  As Al was to find out, those were quite common in this area.

Still, as I did research to find out what Crevalle was doing when she crossed the Balabac Straits, I found out a couple of interesting things:

1.) The directions the Navy gave Flier made it sound like Crevalle was crossing Balabac heading west like Flier, but she wasn’t: she was heading east on a special mission.

2.) So I had to work my way back through the directions cross-referencing the few indications in the Crevalle’s war patrol reports of her route through Balabac I discovered that the directions were not translated exactly: for example, at one point, Crevalle traveled due north, or 0 degrees True.  The correct translation of that if going in the opposite direction would be head 180 degrees True, or due south. The directions the Navy gave the Flier, however, record they should head 184 degrees true, or slightly west of south, not due south.

3.) Crevalle also went through the night of a full moon. Flier went though during a waning crescent.  The significance might not be much, but tides are stronger during the full and new phases of the moon, and depending on the tides when Crevalle passed near Roughton Reef, that tide might have been purchased Crevalle a few more feet of clearance than Flier would have.

Does all this nit picking really make a difference though?  Well, not really, since we’re discussing history, and sadly, no matter what we do, nothing will bring the Flier and her crew back.  If it was mine,  especially if is was a rogue mine, then there was no fault on anyone’s head, just bad luck.

But I found those instances quite fascinating and helped me figure out why the decisions to go through Balabac where they did were made.

Incidentally, Crevalle was never supposed to go though that strait.  On 6 May, her CO was called and informed that due to a very pressing rescue mission, her patrol was being terminated early, and she was being re-routed to Negros Island to pick up some refugees and some papers.  There were only supposed to be 25 refugees, but they ended up taking 40, and the package of Japanese papers.

Those papers held the Z Plan, the plan to eliminate the Allied Navy once and for all.  They had washed up onshore of a neighboring island after the plane that was carrying those plans crashed into the sea.  The story of how these plans were collected, given to the Crevalle, then RETURNED, is really quite fascinating.  It ended up being one of the greatest intelligence coups of WWII.  Enjoy!

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