As we go to the beach this Independence Day weekend, mention of the word LaniKai makes us think of one of the flagship resorts on Fort Myers Beach or one of the world's most beautiful beaches in Hawaii.
After you read this story, however, you will never forget the saga of the U.S.S. LaniKai, easily one of the most unique stories in U.S. Naval history. Although LaniKai served in two World Wars and made one of the most dramatic escapes during World War II, as well as being part of John Ford's 1938 epic movie, "Hurricane," starring Dorothy Lamour, most people have never heard of this historic little ship.
If the Japanese did not attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the whole world would today know about the U.S.S. Lani Kai, as she was on a secret mission, authorized by the President, to incite an inevitable war with Japan by having the Japanese Navy attack and sink her.
PUBLIC DOMAIN PHOTO
LaniKai, formerly U.S.S. Hermes, pictured at Peal Harbor as part of the U.S. Navy, circa 1918.
LaniKai would be a part of history that currently belongs to the U.S.S. Maine. In spite of LaniKai only being 87 feet long and propelled primarily by sail and an 85 horsepower Atlas diesel engine, she was classified as a "Man of War" as she was captained by a U.S. Navy captain, Kemp Tolley, and had at least one cannon and one machine gun. Of course, the three-pound cannon was a brass relic of the Spanish-American War, last fired in 1898, and the machine guns were from World War I. A wooden Coca-Cola crate served as part of the bridge. But, before she could confront the Japanese Navy fleet with two other small ships, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, thereby negating her primary mission.
LaniKai returned to the Philippines, survived the bombing of Cavite Navy Yard and aided in rescuing officials from Manila to Corregidor on Christmas Day 1941. On Dec. 26, LaniKai began an epic 4,000-mile cloak-and-dagger escape from Japanese-controlled waters, surviving two typhoons en route, until it was one of the few ships to successfully escape to Australia.
LaniKai was then loaned to the Royal Australian Navy at Fremantle, Australia for use as a boom defense ship during the rest of the war and was renamed the HMAS LaniKai. After WWII, it was returned to the United States Navy. The LaniKai sank during a typhoon at Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1947. The wreck of the LaniKai was found in 2003 and is one of the world's great diving sites today.
Originally built in 1914, as the Hermes for a German company, she was acquired by the U.S. Navy, commissioned U.S.S. Hermes, and served during WWI as a patrol vessel. After the war, the ship was bought by the LaniKai Fish Company in Hawaii and renamed LaniKai.
LaniKai was sold to MGM studios in 1937 to make the film "Hurricane" and then used as the MGM yacht. Lani Kai was then acquired by the U.S. Navy on Dec. 5, 1941, and now you know the rest of this heroic naval story.
--James F. Kaserman is an author and historian. His books are in the library system and also available at his web site at www.sarahjameskaserman.com