WWII Spy, movie star and known to the rich and famous – this remarkable wreck is steeped in history.
The schooner-rigged diesel-powered yacht was built in 1914 and originally named the ‘MV Hermes’ and sold to German owners. It was at the dock in Honolulu at the start of WWI, so it was confiscated into U.S. Navy service by executive order and renamed the ‘USS Hermes’. She served the Navy for the duration of that war, operating as a submarine patrol vessel and general intelligence-gathering patrol craft around the Hawaiian islands. After the war, she continued in official service, firstly with the Hawaiian Government as a tender for leper colonies and then as a store ship and general auxiliary for the Pacific Air Detachment.
She was sold, and re-named ‘Lanikai’, in October 1926 to the Lanikai Fish Company and then passed through several ownerships until, in 1937, she was sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM) film company for filming in the movie ‘The Hurricane’ (starring Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour). After filming was complete she remained in use as the MGM yacht, until being sold to the Luzon Stevedoring Company in Manila.
With the start of hostilities in WWII, she was again commissioned into US Navy service, on the 5th December 1941, and served with distinction during the conflict – earning a ‘Battle Star’ in recognition. Upon entering military service, she was fitted with a vintage (Spanish-American War era) 47 mm gun and two .50 caliber machine guns.
She was initially ordered to conduct top-secret intelligence patrol activities around Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, as part of a US Navy plan to use “small vessels to form a defensive information patrol… to observe and report by radio Japanese movements in the west China Sea and Gulf of Siam”. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor made that irrelevant and she remained in Manila Bay where she survived a devastating Japanese air-raid on Cavite Harbor on the 10th December and took part in the evacuation of military forces from Manila to Corregidor Island.
After the Japanese invasion, she took part in an amazing and brave escape from the Philippines, hoping from island-to-island, via the Dutch East Indies, to get to Australia. She was crewed with three US officers, one Dutch officer and a compliment of 15 Filipino sailors. Under constant threat from the enemy fleet and patrol aircraft, she spent 82 days – island-hopping at night, hiding during the day – evading Japanese air and sea patrols. She was bombed once, near Java on the 3 February and was lucky to survive, as 3 Japanese bombs straddled her.
She eventually arrived in Freemantle, Australia on the 18th March and spent the next 5 months as a patrol vessel on the north-eastern coast, before ownership was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy, who utilized her for harbor defense for the remainder of the war. When the war ended, she was due to be returned to her original owner in Manila and sailed to Subic Bay for maintenance and repair prior to handover. Sadly, after so many heroic exploits during the war, she was sunk by a typhoon in 1947.
The wreck lies scattered at a depth of 36m, but much of the structure is still recognizable and attracts a lot of marine life. She was only re-discovered in Nabassan Bay by local divers in 2003. Many interesting artifacts were salvaged from the wreck and are now displayed in the local maritime museum. One of the less frequently visited dive sites, due to the depth.