The USS Canopus, was an aging naval submarine tender, stationed at Cavite Navy Yard during the outbreak of World War II. The crew admitted she “waddled like a duck” but most called her “The Old Lady.” This ship popped up frequently while I was conducting research for THE WAR NURSE. Even Juanita Redmond, A U.S. Army Nurse and Angel of Bataan, mentioned the USS Canopus in her 1943 book, I Served on Bataan. Basically, because the Canopus was an aging submarine tender it wasn’t high on the Japanese target list. She was bombed for the first time on December 29, 1941 and six crew members lost their lives.
On January 1st, 1942 she got hit a second time, and the men disguised her as a bombed out listing hulk, and even used smoke pots to make their effects look real. By day her crew tended the smaller ships and submarines that stayed with them, and they turned her own launches (boats) into miniature gunboats. The submarines had left the Canopus soon after the New Year, but not before restocking her food stores. The spunky ship served as a restaurant and social site for people who got a few hours of leave. When Bataan surrendered most of the crew went to Corregidor and served with the Marines on beach defense. However, a small unit of the crew, formed a naval battalion and they fought with the Army on Bataan. Captain Sackett left Corregidor with MacArthur, but the crew that survived war on Bataan and Corregidor became POWs.
In the first third of my book, Katarina Stahl, follows Jack Gallagher to Bataan after they both experienced the bombing of Clark Air Field and then Jack enlists. The heart of the story is the love between Katarina and Jack while war explodes around them, but also Katarina holds a dark secret inside her, and it takes the brutality of war to cough it up. Jack, being the great guy he is, dubs the USS Canopus–the sugar puss because it offered hot showers, coffee, and ice cream to its guests. The following two paragraphs are excerpted from Captain Sackett’s account of what happened. Sackett wrote a short excerpt of what happened to the ship for the families of the crew members. His report is online here.
Nearly every evening, Army officers and nurses who were able to snatch a few hours leave from their duties, gathered on board the Canopus. We had refrigeration, excellent cooking facilities, and decent living quarters, which seemed heaven to them compared to their hardships in the field. To enjoy a real shower bath, cold drinking water, well-cooked meals served on white linen with civilized table ware, and greatest luxury of all, real butter, seemed almost too much for them to believe. When these favored ones returned to their primitive surroundings and described these “feasts topped off with ice cream and chocolate sauce, they were often put in the same “dog house” as the optimists who claimed to have seen a fleet of transports steaming in.
Our visitors repaid us in full for any hospitality with tales of their own adventures. Captain Wermuth, the famous “one man army” often regaled us with graphic, even grewsome accounts of his many encounters. General Casey, Major Wade Cochrane, Major Kircher, Major Lauman and many others kept up in touch with affairs at USAFFE headquarters and the front lines. Occasionally Marine officers from Corregidor would manufacture reasons for visiting Bataan so that they could visit the Canopus and refresh their memories of better days. Bulkeley and other torpedo boat officers in particular enjoyed our ice cream desserts. We were only sorry when our supplies began to fail toward the end, and we could no longer maintain quite as good hotel service for our friends.
The following are also great resources if you want to read more about the USS Canopus.