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Don Isidro (1939)


Dec 15, 2021

Don Isidro, delivered in 1939, was the second and larger of two Krupp built motor ships of De La Rama Steamship Company, Iloilo, Philippines in inter-island service.[2][4] The ship under a time charter[1] by the United States Army as a transport during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. As defending forces became cut off from supply by the Japanese blockade Don Isidro was one of eight ships, only three of which were successful, known to make an attempt to run the blockade.[5] In that attempt, under her captain Rafael J. Cisneros, Don Isidro became involved in the 19 February Japanese attack on Darwin, Australia where, though not in the port, she was strafed, bombed and left off Bathurst Island burning with all lifeboats destroyed. The captain attempted to make land when she grounded about three miles off Melville Island to which survivors swam. Of the sixty-seven crew and sixteen soldiers aboard eleven of the crew and one soldier were killed or missing. Survivors were rescued by HMAS Warrnambool, taken to Darwin, treated at the hospital and then awaited orders at the 147th Field Artillery camp.[6][7]

Don Isidro 24 December 1941 (Australian War Memorial, Naval Historical Collection)
Name Don Isidro
Owner De La Rama Steamship Company
Operator De La Rama Steamship Company
Builder Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft A. G., Kiel, Germany
Launched 1939
Fate Attacked by Japanese aircraft en route to bomb Darwin on 19 February 1942, beached burning, lost.
Notes Under U.S. Army time/voyage charter December 1941 until loss 19 February 1942.[1]
General characteristics
Tonnage 3,261 GRT[1]
Length 320.9 ft (97.8 m)[2]
Beam 46 ft (14 m)[2]
Height 177 ft (54 m) upper bridge[2]
Draught 20 ft (6.1 m)[2]
Propulsion Two 9 cyl turbocharged diesel[2][3][1]
Speed 20 kts[3]
Capacity 408 passengers[3]

. . . Don Isidro (1939) . . .

Don Isidro was constructed 1939 at Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft A. G., Kiel, Germany for the inter-island passenger service of the De La Rama Steamship Company in Philippine waters. She was a diesel motor ship with two nine cylinder turbocharged engines driving two screws for a speed of twenty knots.[1][3]

The day after Great Britain and France declare war with Germany Don Isidro was subject of an incident at Port Said on September 5, 1939 as she cleared the Suez Canal on her maiden voyage from Kiel to Manila. British authorities removed from the ship two German engineers, sailing with the vessel to provide training and technical support, provoking a diplomatic protest from the United States “as illegal and a violation of the neutral rights of the United States” on the day after President Roosevelt proclaimed that neutrality. The British explanation was unsatisfactory to the Department of State but was considered closed “on the assumption that similar instances will not be permitted to occur in the future.”[8][9]

Over the next twenty-six months Don Isidro, along with the smaller and slightly older Don Esteban were noted as the luxury vessels of inter-island passenger service.[4] Then that war caught up again with the 7 December 1941 (Hawaii time) Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines only hours later on 8 December (Philippine time).[Note 1]

Whatever the movements of Don Isidro between Manila being evacuated and being declared an open city on 23 and 26 December 1941 respectively the ship had come under the War Shipping Administration, allocated to U.S. Army charter on 11 January 1942 at Fremantle, and was in Brisbane, Australia being loaded with rations and ammunition on 22 January 1942 when defenders were ordered to withdraw from the Abucay-Mauban line to final defense lines in Bataan.[10][11][12] She left Brisbane on a “special mission” at 1.45 p.m., 27 January 1942 “bound for Corregidor” seeking to supply forces still on Bataan.[13]

The ship’s location in Brisbane was no coincidence. Supplies and ships were being sent to the Netherlands East Indies from Brisbane as the Malay Barrier concept was still alive and the port had been the first stop for a number of ships diverted to Australia with the invasion of the Philippines. Significant supplies, particularly munitions, were already there or on the way from there to Java which was closest to the besieged forces in the Philippines and small, fast blockade running vessels were presumed to be readily available there. Even the prototype seaplane, the Navy’s XPBS-1, had been sent to Australia and onward to Java with critical aircraft parts and a rush order of torpedo exploders from San Diego—and on departure from Pearl 30 January General Patrick Hurley with a bag of cash to add to that dispatched already for procurement locally of vital supplies. Ships of the Pensacola convoy and SS President Polk had been diverted first to Brisbane and then with supplies and munitions intended for the forces in the Philippines to Java. Polk had arrived there 12 January 1942 with 55 P-40E and 4 C-53 aircraft including 55 pilots, 20 million .30 caliber, 447,000 .50 caliber, 30,000 three inch AA and 5,000 75 mm rounds of ammunition along with five carloads of torpedoes, over 615,000 pounds of rations and 178 officers and men in addition to the pilots and herself was heading to Java when Don Isidro was loading and departing for the same destination. [14][15][16][17]

At Brisbane Don Isidro was provided defense in the form of a detachment from the 453d Ordnance (Aviation) Bombardment Company of fifteen men under Second Lieutenant Joseph F. Kane, winner of the command by a coin toss. That unit had been embarked aboard the naval transport USS Republic (AP-33) in the Pensacola convoy. The soldiers armed the ship with five .50-caliber heavy machine guns on improvised mounts.[18]

Captain Cisneros, even as Coast Farmer was readying to leave Brisbane on the same mission, took the ship south around Australia to Fremantle on the west coast for engine repairs, fuel and water before setting out for Batavia for instructions on the run to Corregidor. Science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, then Lieutenant in the US Navy, was disciplined for his role in routing the Don Isidro around the south of Australia, “three thousand miles out of her way”.[19] Arriving there on 9 February 1942 the entire plan was unraveling as Japanese forces take Tengah airfield and make an additional landing on the island of Singapore as well as begin movements toward Sumatra. Meeting U.S. Navy representatives 10 February, as the situation in Singapore worsens and Japanese are conquering Borneo and the Celebes, the plan is changed with Don Isidro joining a British escorted convoy later that day in passage through Sunda Strait to the Indian Ocean. There the ship would separate from the convoy on the 13th and attempt a run south of Java, through the Timor Sea then through the Torres Straits and finally through the Dampier Strait east of New Guinea for the run through the Bismarck Sea and Pacific to the Philippines.[13][20][17]

As the ship was making that attempt the Japanese began landing on Sumatra 14 February, Singapore surrendered on the 15th, evacuation of forces from Sumatra to Java was completed, Bali is taken and Java is isolated on the 17th. Of note for Don Isidro’s fate, the allied convoy headed to Timor escorted by the USS Houston (CA-30) is recalled to Darwin on the 18th.[21]

The run for the Torres Strait was going without incident until an unknown destroyer and freighter were spotted on the 17th headed in the opposite direction and then on 18 February Don Isidro was attacked twice by a Japanese bomber, though without damage. That attack was decisive in the captain’s decision to turn toward the friendly port of Darwin. On the morning of the 19th seven Japanese fighters strafed the ship while she was about 25 miles north of Bathurst Island. This attack holed the ship, destroyed all life boats and rafts and wounded a number of crew and defenders. In early afternoon, at about 1:30 (1330) the ship was again attacked by a single bomber and again escaped bomb damage.[13]

. . . Don Isidro (1939) . . .

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. . . Don Isidro (1939) . . .