the pathfinder

A brief history of the Pathfinder (1899-1941) in the Philippines

Text has been taken from "The Second Launching of the Pathfinder: Restoration and Conservation of the Antonio Jacobsen Painting of the First C&GS Ship Pathfinder", by Albert "Skip" Theberge.

The Philippines

The Pathfinder had been ordered to the Philippine Islands as an indirect result of the Spanish-American War. At midnight on May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey, USN, had maneuvered a United States fleet past the entrance to Manila Bay on his way to attacking a Spanish fleet guarding Manila. At 5:41 A.M. Dewey issued his famous order “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” By 12:40 P.M. the Spanish had surrendered, effectively ending over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. However, there were revolutionary forces that believed this would spell independence for the Philippine Islands.

These hopes were dashed by the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, when Spain formally ceded the Philippine Islands to the United States. This led to the Philippine Insurrection, an all-out war that lasted for three years and continued guerrilla activities for at least the next ten years. Because of this insurrection, the U.S. Army and Navy both had need for safe and rapid water-borne transportation. Inaccurate and inadequate charts had led to frequent groundings of Army transports and gunboats. Adding to the sense of urgency of developing modern accurate charts, the heavy cruiser USS Charleston was lost by striking an uncharted rock north of Luzon on November 2, 1899. This was the first steel-hulled vessel lost by the United States Navy. As a result of the Charleston disaster and other groundings, the Pathfinder had been ordered to the Philippine Islands.

After arrival, the surveyors were occasionally subjected to attempted mayhem from a hostile populace. There were a few instances of survey crews being fired upon while conducting land operations, but fortunately not one surveyor was harmed. On at least one occasion though, survey operations were curtailed because of the report of hostilities. On Mindanao in 1912, “Owing to a reported uprising among the mountain tribes back of Baganga it was regarded as unsafe to send parties into the interior and the season's work in this locality was then closed.”

Ceasing work because of potential hostilities was a rarity during the career of the Pathfinder, but oftentimes Philippine Constabulary Guards accompanied survey crews into areas considered potentially dangerous. This hostility was fueled not only by the desire for Philippine independence, but also the antipathy of the Muslim society of the southern islands for the Christian society of the northern islands.

Compounding the problem of the physical and political environment, this new possession was comprised of over 7000 islands spread over a vast area approximately equal to one sixth that of the United States. As noted above, the northern islands were overlain with Spanish culture while the southern islands were predominantly Muslim. Besides these major cultural units, there were numerous tribes, at least eight major languages, and hundreds of local dialects with which to contend while interacting with local natives.

Measuring Rain

A Working Ship

When the Pathfinder arrived in Manila in late 1901, it joined a small group of C&GS personnel who had begun work in the Philippine Islands in 1900. The Pathfinder, which was owned and funded by the C&GS, joined the Research, a small vessel acquired in March 1901 and funded by the Philippine Insular Government for the use of the C&GS in Philippine Islands surveys. The insular government funded the use of three more steamers – the Romblon, Marinduque, and Fathomer at various times over the next forty years.

To accomplish its surveying work, the Pathfinder used classical techniques that hadn’t changed much in the preceding 50 years. An astronomic latitude and longitude point and an initial azimuth were determined on remote islands that served as starting points for local geodetic networks. This was followed by measurement of a baseline and development of a triangulation network. Using the baseline distance to control all subsequent computed distances and the initial azimuth to control directions of lines, the interior angles of multiple triangles were observed by theodolites and the length of sides of the various triangles were determined. The geodetic positions of the points observed upon could then be computed. After the disjointed triangulation networks were eventually connected, a final adjustment was made of the whole network such that all computed points lay in a common datum.

Islands were positioned relative to each other by triangulation surveys as the surveyors not only climbed high mountain peaks for line of sight, but built high observing towers to either see over the massive trees of the tropical rain forest or allow one to see further from horizon to horizon with increasing elevation. Lines of sight through these trees would often have to be cut. The surveyors would often be amazed when entangling vines held up a tree after its base had been cut away.

In spite of these methods and the tremendous labor involved, the Pathfinder had a record of accomplishment that few survey ships of its era could match.

The Death of a Survey Ship

By the mid-1930’s, the Pathfinder was an old ship. It was decommissioned in 1934 for lack of funds during the Great Depression. It lay alongside at Manila until 1938 when it was re-commissioned.

However, the war was on the horizon. In April 1939, Commander Richard Lukens, then scheduled to become the next Director of the Philippine Coast and Geodetic Survey, wrote his friend Lieutenant Paul Smith "....If it were not for the war clouds of Europe, I would feel a lot better....H. and M. [Hitler and Mussolini] are certainly raising hell and God only knows what will be the end. War seems terrible and so does abject subjection. I guess we are on the threshold of a great shift in the world scene. None of us can escape the consequences." On April 26, Lt. Smith wrote back to Commander Lukens, "....You may be interested to know... that I have accepted a bet with Captain Heck that there will be no serious disturbance prior to May 12 at 12 noon Eastern Standard Time. The stakes in this wager are one bottle each of Munich beer to be paid by the loser...."

Topographic work

Smith won the bet as Hitler did not invade Poland until September 1, 1939, beginning World War II and the chain of events that would lead to the destruction of the Pathfinder.

Life on the Pathfinder

During the years 1939 to 1941, the Pathfinder was engaged in surveys throughout the Philippine Islands and far offshore on the west side of Palawan Island. It was also engaged in nation building activities as the complement of Coast and Geodetic Survey officers was reduced and Filipino cadets were being trained to replace them in anticipation of Philippine independence. This enlightened policy began in 1936 following the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 which established the Commonwealth of the Philippines.

In July of 1940, the name of the Pathfinder was changed to Research, commemorating the first survey vessel of the Coast and Geodetic Survey in the Philippine Islands. The name was changed because a new C&GS survey ship for which the name Pathfinder had been selected was being built. This new ship was destined to be a lucky ship and the most illustrious survey ship of World War II.

In 1941 the ship worked in the southern Philippine Islands and based out of Cebu while working in the Sulu Sea. One of its last projects was to determine the location of Cagayan Sulu, an island in the southern Sulu Sea. Lieutenant George Morris was executive officer of the Research during this period and was transferred to the Fathomer as acting commanding officer when Charles Shaw, its commanding officer, was attacked while in Jolo by Moro tribesman and evacuated to a hospital in Manila.

Ten hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the first attacks on the Philippine Islands were made and both ships were ordered back to Manila. The Fathomer was commandeered by the Army and George Morris was relieved of its command. On December 24 Manila was bombed and Commander Cowie was killed while at the C&GS facilities on Engineer Island. Following his death, Commander C. A. Egner, commanding officer of the Pathfinder, was made Director of the Philippine Coast and Geodetic Survey and Lieutenant George Morris assumed command of the Research.

On December 28 the Research endured the first of many bombing raids which occurred over the next two days. While tied up at Engineer Island, Japanese bombs hit the ship early in the afternoon. Although not sunk, the portside plating just above the waterline was badly shattered and the after-deck was on fire. According to Ensign Constancio C. Legaspi, Officer of the Deck, "All the boats, including those on the water were burned except the whaleboat and the motor whaleboat which we saved from the fire. I immediately ordered the men to put out the fire using buckets and hand pumps while the engineers on watch were raising steam to operate the steam pumps. The fire was put out after about two hours fighting. However, the cabin, after railings, awnings, wardroom, and part of the after deck were burned."

On the morning of December 29, the Research was able to proceed to Corregidor under its own power and arrived at 0715. At 0730 a Japanese reconnaissance plane was sighted and at 1155 the ships at anchor at Corregidor were under attack by Japanese dive bombers. This was the Research’s lucky day as it was only hit by small metal particles and spray. However, the planes returned the following day, December 30, at 0730. The bombing was quite intense and the crew abandoned the ship to seek safety on Corregidor.

Chief Engineer George W. Hutchison, who had been with the C&GS since its first years in the Philippines, remained aboard during this bombardment. There were many near misses on the Research and the ship sprung leaks in its bottom. By 1630 the boiler was already underwater and a tugboat was requested to beach the ship. At 1733 the ship was pushed ashore by a tugboat at the Officers Bathing Beach on Corregidor. In spite of the protests of Chief Hutchison that the ship was not secure, the tug proceeded off. At 1830, the ship commenced drifting and the tugboat called back.

The tug was unable to follow the Research as it drifted through a minefield, and when Chief Hutchison last saw his ship, it was down by the stern and he presumed sinking. Surprisingly, it drifted across the bay to the Bataan Peninsula where it went aground. Here the Research was looted and destroyed, an early casualty of the Battle of Bataan.


The Pathfinder, renamed the Research, had fulfilled its destiny. A tough little ship built for Alaska service had spent two years in Alaskan waters but for over forty years had surveyed much of the Philippine Islands only to be destroyed by Japanese bombs off the island fortress of Corregidor. The ship had opened commercial shipping routes throughout the Philippine Islands, surveyed numerous harbors, found numerous hazards to navigation, helped establish a modern survey network throughout the archipelago, and surveyed thousands of miles of shoreline. The ship exacted its revenge though, as Pathfinder charts, surveys, and tide and current observations helped guide American troops in the retaking of the Philippine Islands. Its name was commemorated by the launching and naming of the second Pathfinder on January 11, 1942, only eleven days after the Research was lost on the shores of the Bataan Peninsula. Of its namesake, it was said that “The Road to Tokyo was paved with Pathfinder charts.”

Thus the first Pathfinder is today but a memory. The officers and crew who manned her decks are all gone. Possibly all of its charts and surveys have been superseded. However, like its name, it led the way for succeeding generations of hydrographers and surveyors. It helped lay the foundation for the modern surveys of the Philippine Islands. Its officers and crew serve as an example of perseverance, technical competence, and scientific integrity. They overcame almost unbelievable adversity and hardship to help bring the Philippine Islands into the modern world.

the pathfinder

  • Report of the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Showing the Progress of Work 1898-1911.
    On-line at U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Reports
  • Annual Report of the Superintendent, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey 11912 -1919.
    On-line at U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Reports
  • Annual Report of the Director, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey 1920 -1930.
    On-line at U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Reports
  • Annual Report of the Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. 1931-1941.
    On-line at U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Reports
  • Eyman, R.P. 1945. “Riding out a Philippine Typhoon”. Published in: Heavy Weather Guide, Appendix No. 4, Pp. 169-174. Originally published in: United States Naval Institute Proceedings. March 1945.
  • Freeman, C. F. 1924. “Pathfinder” Brings Story of New Babuyan Blast; Islanders Driven to Boats. In: Manila Times, July 24, 1924. Front page.
  • Freeman, C. F. 1924. “Mysterious Babuyan” Home of Snakes and Forgotten People. In: Manila Times. October 12, 1924. P. 11.
  • Frisby, E.R. 1921. Philippine Surveys. Unpublished manuscript. Rare Books, NOAA Central Library.
  • Grover, D. 1994. “Mystery Ships of a Forgotten Fleet”. Published in: Sea Classics, Vol. 27, No. 4. Pp. 50-57.
  • Lukens, R. R. 1931. “ Surveying the Philippine Islands”. In: Merchant Marine Bulletin, April 1931, pp. 10, 11, and 32.
  • R.R. Lukens. 1935. “The Pathfinder in the Typhoon of 1905”. In: Field Engineers Bulletin Number 9. December 1935. P. 10.
  • Maher, Thomas J. 1969? The Philippines. In: Around the World in Forty Years: The Autobiography of Captain Thomas J. Maher, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. Unpublished manuscript. Rare Books, NOAA Central Library. On-line at
  • Morris, George E. 1994. Living History Interview.
    On-line at
  • Morris, Katharine E. 1994? My Experiences in World War II . Undated manuscript provided by Ted E. Morris, nephew of George E. Morris. Unpublished.