The Sinking and Raising of RPS Rajah Soliman (D-66): 29 June 1964

The Sinking and Raising of RPS Rajah Soliman (D-66): 29 June 1964

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November 30, 2022

CDR Mark R Condeno PN

By the Editor – The author provides an overview of the history of RPS Rajah Soliman, flagship of the Philippine Navy, sunk during Typhoon Winnie on 29 June 1964. The article highlights the fascinating salvage operations that followed the sinking. A 5 minute read.

On 29 June 1964, the Philippine Navy lost its flagship and first Destroyer Escort during the fury of Typhoon Winnie. The loss of a flagship is a major loss to any navy; fortunately, during this incident none of the officers and crew were lost. Despite the harshness of Mother Nature, the ship’s entire complement fought bravely to save the ship until the end. For us to determine what transpired on that fateful day, this is her story.

Introduction: USS Bowers (Destroyer Escort 637)

The USS Bowers (DE-637) was a Buckley-class Destroyer Escort of the United States Navy (USN) commissioned on 27 January 1944, that participated in several major battles of the Pacific War, including operations in New Guinea, the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the Battle of Okinawa. Her duties included Search and Rescue (SAR), Escort, Naval Gunfire Support, Anti-Submarine operations and Radar picket. She was hit by a kamikaze on 16 April 1945, killing 37 of the ship’s crew.

She was named after Ensign Robert Keith Bowers 0-84057 USNR, a seaplane pilot of Observation Squadron 2 aboard the battleship USS California (BB-44) killed in action on 7 December 1941 during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ensign Bowers hailed from Kittitas County, Washington, and was the Son of Mr. Ira Alva and Eunice Bowers of Ellensburg, Washington. Ensign Bowers died during the first wave of the Japanese attack while directing the moving up of the ammunition onto the deck of the USS California, as narrated by fellow officers to Ms. Dorothy Dietz, the fiancée of Ensign Bowers.

Conversion to High Speed Attack Transport

On 24 May 1945 preparations were made for the Destroyer Escort’s conversion to a High-Speed Attack Transport of the Charles Lawrence-class. By September 1945 she was involved in trainings and exercises off Cuban waters, after which, she was again decommissioned until February 1951 when recalled into service to become part of the Atlantic Fleet as training vessel for the Marine Corps, USN Underwater Operations Group, and midshipmen. By 1954, she was attached to the 6th Naval District and served as a Naval Reserve Training Ship. 

On 18 December 1954, USS Bowers (APD-40) was again decommissioned until loaned to the Philippine Navy on 31 October 1960 as part of the Military Assistance Plan (MAP). By 21 April 1961 she was bought by the Philippine government and commissioned into the Philippine Navy as RPS Rajah Soliman (D-66) and classified as a Destroyer Escort.

RPS Rajah Soliman (D-66)

The biggest ship in the Philippine Fleet at that time, RPS Rajah Soliman served the country and the Navy for three years and six months until her demise. It was the only ship in her class inducted into the Philippine Fleet. Rajah Soliman was named after one of the three famed rulers of Manila during the 15th Century, Rajah Soliman, along with Rajah Matanda and Rajah Lakandula who opposed the Spanish conquest of Manila. A very fitting name for a warship that symbolized a Filipino patriot and warrior.

During transfer to the Philippine Navy, now a high-speed Charles Lawrence-class Attack Transport, she had the following specifications:

Displacement (full load): 2,130 tons; Dimensions (L x W x D):  93.3 x 11.2 x 3.9 meters; Armaments (in Philippine service): Guns : 1 x single 5″/38 Mk 26 DP, 3 x twin 40mm AA, two Depth Charge racks and three Torpedo tubes with 21-inch Torpedoes; Cargo capacity: four LCVP landing crafts, six 1/4-ton trucks, two 1-ton trucks, four ammunition carts, four packs howitzers; Storage, Ammunition 6,000 cu. ft.; General Cargo 3,500 cu. ft.; Gasoline 1,000 cu. ft.; Troop Capacity: 150 men, Depth Charge Capacity: 200; Powerplant: Two boilers driving twin GE turbo-electric drive turbines: 12,000 bhp driving two shafts; Max Speed: 23.6 knots; Range: 11,000 at 12 knots; Ship crew: 12 officers and 186 men.

RPS Rajah Soliman was loaned and acquired during the administration of President Carlos P. Garcia though none of the ship’s tabulated record of movement can be found during this period. However, during the incumbency of President Diosdado Macapagal, the ship would take the President on his various trips, reaching far flung areas of the country along with the First Lady Eva Macapagal and their staff. Notable of these trips were the visits made by the President on Burias Island on 27 December 1962. Earlier in 1962 she was dispatched to Singapore was to pick up excess passengers, Muslim pilgrims of MS Taipooan, which had been apprehended by Singaporean authorities for overloading.

     Apart from her primary mission of conducting patrols over the Philippines’ vast territorial waters, RPS Rajah Soliman participated in various local and bilateral naval exercises with American counterparts.

Typhoon Winnie (Local Name: Typhoon Dading)

Typhoon Winnie begun on 24 June 1964 as a category 3 typhoon, it was the most destructive typhoon to hit the Philippines in 30 years, touching down at Manila and nearby provinces on 29 June 1964. Manila experienced a total blackout due to the effects of the typhoon, with several structures damaged, leaving people homeless and about 500,000 affected. It had a peak speed of 115 mph or 185 km per hour. Winnie departed the country on 4 July 1964, traveling towards the coast of China.

As noted earlier, the typhoon hit Manila on 29 June, when RPS Rajah Soliman was already at the Ship Repair Facility (SRF) in Mariveles, Bataan. As narrated by Sir Jhun Nonato (Son of Commander Godiardo Guinson Nonato 0-1976 PN PMA Class of 1944, skipper of RPS Rajah Soliman during the sinking), in his memoirs and as narrated by the crew of D-66 to him after the disaster, the crew had tried to save the ship but were no match for the waves with which the ship was pummelled, and pushed into the concrete sea wall and pier.

The crew fought hard to keep her afloat by pulling the towlines inland, but the fury of Mother Nature had taken over. After giving the order to abandon ship, Commander Nonato decided to stay behind but was pulled out in time by his crew as a chunk of metal felled from the mast almost hit him.

Since the ship was undergoing repair during that period, its engines had been removed – Sir Jun overheard his father say that if the engines had been installed, he would have taken her out to sea with good chances of saving her. But again, it must have been God’s will, as, if the ship had been taken out to open sea and sunk, loss of life might have occurred due to the typhoon’s fury.

Also of note, Typhoon Winnie’s local name was Dading, which is also the nickname of Commander Nonato. He was court martialed for the incident under charges for possible culpable neglect but was later cleared of charges, though sadly his naval career suffered as he was eventually bypassed for promotion to Navy Captain (equivalent to Army Colonel).

The ship’s superstructure and starboard side were badly battered by the pounding waves that caused its eventual capsizing. The debris and mud further deteriorated the wreck site.

The Skipper

Commander Godiardo Guinson Nonato was born on 2 March 1919 in Bacolod, Negros Occidental. Prior to joining the Philippine Military Academy in 1940, he was enrolled at the University of the Philippines, Diliman College of Engineering. He graduated with the Class of 1944 of the Philippine Military Academy.

Apart from his General Staff Course (GSC) and other local schooling, he had attended the USN’s highly specialized Mine Warfare Course at the US Naval Mine Warfare School, Yorktown, Virginia. Commander Nonato was the Philippine representative for the course, along with 11 other Naval officers from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the Republic of Korea, and Sweden.

Prior to becoming the skipper of RPS Rajah Soliman, he was the Commander of the Headquarters and Service Group, Cavite Naval Base. He took Command of RPS Rajah Soliman sometime in early 1963 until its sinking in 1964.

He married the former Ms. Coleta Oquias and had seven children namely: Lysander, Cynthia, Godiardo Jr, Jocelyn, Tyrone, Kyster, and Yvette.

Captain Nonato retired in 1969 at the age of 50 with last rank held as Navy Captain, after which he joined Ysmael Shipping and shuttled between Manila and Hong Kong as part of his job. After his stint with the Shipping Company, he did contract repair works with the Philippine Navy. His last job before retiring for good was as the administrative/personnel manager of Feagle Enterprises. Captain Nonato passed away on 6 November 2000 at age 81.

Salvaging and Raising RPS Rajah Soliman: The Parbuckle System

Based on the book Mud, Muscle and Miracle by Captain Charles Bartholomew USN and Commander William Milwee Jr USN, after the typhoon’s departure, plans were made by the Philippine Navy to salvage the ship as it lay in 24 feet of water and eight feet of mud with a 150 degree list. Philippine Navy salvage operators using pontoons were able to bring the ship to 10 degrees. Discussion later revolved around whether it was worthwhile to salvage D-66 considering the cost, and if she was still repairable despite the damage taken to her structure and hull.

The Philippine Navy dilemma of salvaging the ship became known to the Chief Salvage Officer of the USN’s Pacific Fleet, Commander Eugene B Mitchell. As stipulated in the Military Assistance Pact, ships and equipment when no longer needed by the Allies reverts back to United States control or ownership. Thus, on 9 December 1964, D-66 reverted back to US control.

The salvage process took almost a month, beginning 16 January 1965 and ending on 18 February, though to put the ship in the upright position took only 13 days – the remaining two weeks were required for dewatering, de-ballasting, and cleaning of mud and debris. Five parbuckling attempts were conducted for the salvage operation.[1]

The raising of the Rajah Soliman wreck is noteworthy as the facility where it was located was a vital industrial berth. Thus, removing the wreck was of the essence, while the USN saw it as an important salvage exercise to further hone its capabilities for the exercise objective of keeping Vietnam’s rivers navigable as the Vietnam War escalated. The SALVEX also brought out the importance of the lift craft type of vessel in this kind of operation. The parbuckle was last used almost 20 years ago, and as was the case during the salvage operations with Rajah Soliman, it has again proven that the technique is still up to standard with adequate technological and personnel support.

After the successful operation, D-66 was towed to the Ship Repair Facility at Subic Bay Naval Base on 1300 hours 18 February 1965. Another survey was made of the ship and it was decided that she was beyond economical repair. She was sold to the Mitsubishi International Corporation for scrapping on 31 January 1966.

Appendix: Composition of Ships during the RPS Rajah Soliman Salvage Operation

USN units involved were the salvage ships USS Bolster (ARS-38), USS Grasp (ARS-24), harbor tug USS Takelma (ATF-113) and Floating Crane YD-127, along with two Royal Navy lift craft from Singapore, LC-25 and LC-28. USS Bolster (ARS-38) a Bolster-class rescue and diving hip was commissioned into service on 1 October 1945 and as of the present is undergoing scrapping. During the SALVEX, her skipper was CDR Francis L Looney USN. USS Grasp (ARS-24) was a Diver-class rescue and salvage ship commissioned on 22 August 1944 that conducted patrol missions during the closing days of the Second World War. She again saw action during the Project Jennifer Operation. During the SALVEX, she was skippered by LCDR Peveril Blundell USN. USS Takelma (ATF-113) is an Abnaki-class tug commissioned on 3 August 1944 in US Naval Service and still currently in active service with the Navy of Argentina as ARA Sub-Official Castillo (A-6). During the Rajah Soliman SALVEX, her Commanding Officer was LT Ray William Jr USN. USS YD-127 is a 100-ton capable floating crane. Currently, no records or details exist online. (Based on the Harbor Mine Clearance Operations handbooks, it notes that YD-120 was utilized during the operation, but again one of the illustrations notes the yard crane is YD-127 though no online records of YD-127 is available, while YD-120 is currently in service at the Apra Harbor, Guam. Also used were Royal Navy (HM Singapore Naval Base) WW2 vintage 750-ton lift craft: Lift Craft 25, Lift Craft 28 – no records or details exist for these two vessels. Other USN officers involved on the SALVEX were: Rear Admiral Joseph W. Williams Jr, USN Commander TF 73 – Logistics support force, US 7th Fleet Flagship USS Ajax (AR-6); Commander Eugene B. Mitchell USN, Pacific Fleet Salvage Officer; LCDR J. Huntly Boyd, USN Fleet Salvage Officer CO Service Group 3; Commander Willard Franklyn Searle USN, SRF-Subic Bay; Commander U.S. Naval Forces Philippines (COMNAVPHIL), Explosive Ordnance Division, Naval Magazine, Subic Bay.[2]

References

Exchange of communication via email with the son of Captain Nonato, Sir Jhun Nonato, from 15 June to 27 June 2018. Upon request of this author, he kindly provided photographs of Captain Nonato as well as other details of his Family and career. His memoirs http://my-memoirs.yolasite.com/rps-rajah-soliman-capsizes-off-bataan.php and http://my-memoirs.yolasite.com/blog/rps-rajah-soliman-de-66-conflicting-dates-on-sinking were vital in completing the D-66 story. The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Sir Jhun Nonato in the completion of this article.

Mud, Muscle and Miracle by Captain Charles Barthomomew USN and Commander William Milwee Jr USN, published by the Naval History and Heritage Command with the US Naval Sea Systems Command, Department of the Navy, 2009.

Harbor Clearance Operations by the United States Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command, 1989, SO300-BE MAN010-0910LP-232-6900

RPS Rajah Soliman:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RPS_Rajah_Soliman_(D-66)

http://defenseph.net/drp/index.php?topic=168.0

https://www.flickr.com/photos/goriob_b22/7087254221

http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/archpdf/ah196506.pdf – US Team raises Philippine Ship page 25 All Hands Magazine

http://picssr.com/tags/philippinenavy

http://defenseph.net/drp/index.php?topic=168.0

https://www.marad.dot.gov/search/BOLSTER/

http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/37/pdf/3742a.pdf

https://www.marad.dot.gov/search/BOLSTER/

http://defenseph.net/drp/index.php?topic=168.0

USS Bowers (DE-637/APD-40)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Bowers_(DE-637)

http://www.navsource.org/archives/06/637.htm

USS Bolster (ARS-38)

http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/37/3738.htm

US Maritime Administration File USS Bolster

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Bolster_(ARS-38)

USS Grasp (ARS-24)

http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/37/3724.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Grasp_(ARS-24)

USS Takelma (ATF-113)

http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/39/39113.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARA_Suboficial_Castillo…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARA_Suboficial_Castillo

USS Ajax (AR-6)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Ajax_(AR-6)

Typhoon Winnie (DADING): Accessed 09 June 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_Pacific_typhoon_season


[1] I have consulted two notable publications with regards to the raising of RPS Rajah Soliman (D-66) that covers in detail the salvage operation conducted, methods used and forces involved. These are (1) Mud, Muscle and Miracle by Captain Charles Bartholomew USN and Commander William Milwee Jr USN; and (2) Harbor Clearance Operations by the U.S. Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command released in 1989.

[2] What is lacking in this article are the details of the SALVEX operation and personnel involved as conducted by the Philippine Navy while they initially righted the ship earlier on and details on the two Royal Navy liftcraft from Singapore Naval Base. The author would highly appreciate any information on these matters.