HMS Friday – The Most Valuable Ballast

by Mark Lukach

A quick lesson to start things off: boats are made to be buoyant, but have had to deal with the problem of stability. The shape of seacrafts tends to a very dispersed center of gravity, which makes them susceptible to capsizing due to wind, waves, or even just people moving about.

The solution that mankind has come up with is known as ballast. Ballast is basically very dense weight, centralized in the center of the hull of the boat, to provide a stable center of gravity. Ballast comes in many forms, and is most typically the ship’s cargo stashed in the bottom of the boat. In worst case scenarios, rocks or sand bags might be used.

In 1942, the USS Trout, an American submarine, took on the strangest and most valuable ballast ever recorded in naval history: 20 tons worth of golden bars, valued at almost $10 million.This was no ostentatious display of wealth. The golden ballast was a matter of military necessity.

Obviously a bit of background is needed.

The USS Trout traveled from Pearl Harbor to Corregidor Island in the Bay of Manila on a re-supply trip in January of 1942. Corregidor Island was the home of a critical American base, known as the “Rock,” which was in many ways a last defense against a complete Japanese invasion and takeover of the Philippines. The United States had occupied the country since the beginning of the 20th century, and had spent considerable time fortifying Manila against any possible invasions. The Rock was central to that defense.

Problem is, Corregidor Island was low on supplies. The fighting men needed ammunition, badly. Daring submarines like the USS Trout were commissioned to load up with munitions, (and, by the way, store the munitions in the bottom of the sub, to be used as ballast, because even submarines need a stable center of gravity so they don’t roll underwater) and navigate the dangerous waters in order to re-supply the island.

The USS Trout made it to Corregidor Island under the cover of nightfall on February 3, 1942. The sub needed to leave, soon, because if it was spotted by the Japanese during the daylight, it would have most certainly come under fire. But having emptied out its cargo, it needed ballast.

And this is where the gold enters the story.

Corregidor Island was more than just an American fort. It had become an improptu storing house for all things valuable in the Philippines, in order to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese. The fort was fully stocked with state department documents, securities, mail, and most of all, money. Lots of money. Filipino banks had emptied out their reserves and hastily stashed them on the heavily-protected island, for fear that the money–in the form of cash currency, silver pesos, and golden bars–would end up in Japanese banks. Several hundred million dollars worth of cash was burned, because cash can be re-printed. But gold……

All that money was certainly safer on Corregidor Island than it would have been in Manila, it was far from entirely safe. The Japanese were constantly bombarding the island, and if it fell, the Americans would not only lose a valuable strategic base, but millions in gold and silver that would fuel the Japanese war effort.

Which brings us back to the empty, ballast-deprived USS Trout. They brought badly-needed weapons to the island, and now needed ballast to safely leave, something heavy and dense. Sandbags and concrete rocks were too valuable on the island, for their defensive uses. But gold……

A flurry of phone calls, including one to General MacArthur, sealed the deal. The USS Trout would be loaded with gold. A frantic call to arms saw American and Filipino personnel form a giant assembly line to pass the 40 pound gold bars from trucks to the bottom of the sub. It was like something out of the Spanish Armada. A few hours after starting, and still under the cover of night, the USS Trout was loaded with the gold, and it silently slipped off into the deep.

The USS Trout took about a month to get back to Pearl Harbor, where it offloaded the most valuable ballast in history. The gold was stored in the United States for the duration of the war, and returned once the conflict ended.

*via navsource, timawa, corregidor

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