A less likely candidate than the Canopus for the roll of heroine in a tale of adventure could hardly be imagined. She was no longer young, and had never been particularly dashing, but her partisans were always ready to ascribe a certain majesty of her appearance. Undeniable, she waddled like a duck, as was pointed out in many a good-natured jibe, but that was only natural in a middle-aged motherly type, and she was truly "mama-san" to her brood of submarines, which used to forage with her from the Philippines to the China coast and back again each year.
Built in 1921 to be a combination freight and passenger carrier for the Grace Line, she was shortly taken over by the Navy, and converted to a submarine tender. She was given extensive machine shops, foundries and storerooms to provide for the material needs of the "pig-boats", cabins and living spaces for the comfort of their crews when off duty, and a few guns as a concession to the fact that she was now a man-of-war.
In 1925 the Canopus escorted a division of six "S" type submarines of the vintage of World War I to the China Station. This imposing force, before the clouds of World War II gathered on the horizon, carried a large share of the burden of showing the Stars and Stripes in Asiatic ports, much of the time in the midst of "incidents' brought on by the spread of the New Order.
Looking back, it is hard to decide just when war with Japan became inevitable. Perhaps the background was laid when Japan was given control of the Mandated Islands after World War I. To be sure, these islands, which lay across American life lines to the Philippines, were not supposed to be fortified, but the Navy, at least, never had any illusions on that score. Throughout the service, there was a general feeling that eventually the Japanese would become open enemies, and that a treacherous blow would be the signal for opening hostilities. We in the Orient were only surprised that this blow landed first at Pearl Harbor, instead of on the Asiatic ships, which comparatively "had their necks out" whenever they visited China Ports.
We now know that the Japs wanted bigger game while the advantage of surprise was still in their hands, and probably felt that they could pick off the Asiatic Fleet anyhow, at their leisure. But China sailors had been treated to a war of nerves for many years, and had been made to feel that they were living on borrowed time. In 1940 things looked so bad that their families had been sent back to the States, in spite of their vehement protests, be it said. Those Navy wives were an intrepid lot, and were accustomed to putting up with such hardships and dangers in following their men from port to port, that it took something more than a little Japanese menace to make them leave the strange fascination of the Orient voluntarily.
It had always been expected that the Canopus, along with other slow auxiliary ships; the destroyer tender Black Hawk; the seaplane tender Langley; and the tanker Pecos, would, if possible, be hurried out to safer spots further south when war became imminent, on the basic assumption that the Philippines could not be held for long. In fact, during 1941 war seemed so likely that the Fleet was held in the southern Philippines most of the time.
However, in the fall of 1941, the situation appeared to be growing a little more favorable. Freed of the restrictions previously imposed by national policy, at last reinforcements were arriving in the Philippines, and it seemed that after all there might be a chance of holding the Islands. Army planes and tanks were coming in rapidly, and more submarines with their tenders arrived. Within a few months, when those new forces had been organized and shaken down into their new environment, the Philippines would obviously be a much harder nut to crack. The war plan was in the process of change, based on the promise that now there was a chance of holding the Islands until the Fleet should arrive. Perhaps the Japanese realized this, and decided that it must be "now or never." Their answer was -- Pearl Harbor.
- - -Chapter II- ->