Mr. Tuohy is a London correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
During World War II, some of the U.S. Navy’s most successful admirals were those who led from the front, whose flags flew from their warships leading formations into combat. One thinks of such fighting admirals as William Halsey, Raymond Spruance, Marc Mitscher, Richmond Kelly Turner, Thomas Kinkaid, Daniel Barbey, and many others. They fought from the bridges of their battleships, carriers, cruisers, and amphibious ships. Five U.S. rear admirals were killed in action during the war: the first, Isaac Kidd, aboard ARIZONA at Pearl Harbor; the last, Theodore Chandler, on the heavy cruiser LOUIS-VILLE hit by a kamikaze in Lingayen Gulf in January, 1945.
There were several submarine flag officers in the Pacific, though only two admirals at any given time. Most tried their best to get into action-accompanying a boat on a combat patrol. The foremost submarine flag officer in the Pacific, Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, was ComSubPac from February, 1943, until the end of the war. He repeatedly requested permission of his boss, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, to ride a fleet boat into action. The requests were denied. Nimitz insisted that Lockwood’s presence at fleet headquarters was essential and should not be jeopardized by risking a ride on a dangerous war patrol. Lockwood did, however, travel as a sub passenger between Pearl and Midway.
In the Southwest Pacific, the naval command structure was different. While Admiral Nimitz commanded the Pacific Ocean Area, with Lockwood his Submarine Force commander, General Douglas MacArthur was in charge of the Southwest Pacific theater. (The demarcation line varied as the war progressed.) The South-west Pacific Submarines, later known as Submarines, 7th Fleet, were under the command of Rear Admiral Ralph Christie, and later Rear Admiral James Fife. They reported to the 7th Fleet com-mander, from late 1943, Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, MacAr-hur’s top naval commander. The 7th Fleet boats were based at Brisbane on Australia’s northeast coast and Fremantle, the port of Perth, on the southwest shore.
Ralph Christie was a flamboyant officer, determined to make a war patrol on one of his submarines. His first two requests were turned down by Admiral Carpender, then Commander 7th Fleet. With Carpender replaced by Kinkaid, Christie decided to act. As he put it, “There was only one way to do it, just go and report it later. If I came back, I would be congratulated-· if I did not–well frankly that was never seriously considered although many of our splendid ships did not return to port.
Christie flew from Perth to Darwin on Australia’s north coast, where subs sometimes put in to refuel and rearm and continue on patrol. On January 25, 1944, He picked up BOWFIN with its fine skipper, Walt Griffith, which had come in for a reload after a successful run. He went aboard and offered his services as a junior officer-of-the deck. At sea, Griffith scored hits on one ship and bored in.
“We were very close to him, too close, within machine-gun range,” Christie wrote later. “I thought we would dive but the skipper chose to hold the initiative by remaining on the surface for another torpedo attack. Only my complete confidence in BOW-FIN’s captain kept me from suggesting we dive or put on full speed to put more distance between us and the enemy.” One wonders what skipper Griffith felt with his force commander looking over his shoulder on the bridge. BOWFIN sank no recorded ships but damaged some and laid mines off Borneo. BOWFIN dropped off Christie at Exmouth Gulf in northwestern Australia, whence he flew to Perth, qualified for a prized submarine combat pin.
General MacArthur messaged Christie: “Congratulations! I cannot tell you what a thrill the magnificent service of your submarines gives me. Nothing in this war, or any other for that matter, can surpass it.” Christie’s reaction: “I had been on the firing line in combat with the enemy, a unique, invaluable, and thrilling experience.
Admiral Christie decided to go on another war patrol in June, 1944, when he again flew to Darwin and picked up HARDER which had just completed a brilliant but harrowing fifth patrol sinking three Japanese destroyers. HARDER’s crew was bone-tired, looking forward to a quick return to the rest camp at Perth. But skipper Sam Dealey agreed to Christie’s request to go out on a second leg, specifically after a large Japanese nickel ore carrier.
Admiral Lockwood in his book on HARDER, Through Hell and Deep Water, said the news of the add-on patrol caused “bitter disappointment” among the crew. “They felt they had done a tough job and that a speedy return to the rest camps at Perth was indicated.” He quoted a HARDER radioman: “Unfortunately, Admiral Christie wanted to go out with us. The crew was pretty sore.
Headed for the Celebes, Christie, acting as junior officer-of-the-deck at the periscope, spotted a cruiser and two destroyers. But the targets were too distant for a setup and moving away. Christie noted: “I said to Sam something to the effect that if he exposed his conning tower, they would close and he could knock them off. Later Sam asked me if I had really meant that. Of course I was neither criticizing nor directing, although the way we felt about Sam and HARDER, the risk was not great.
While close to the target, HARDER missed an opportunity to sink the nickel ship, “one of the rare instances where Sam was fooled,” according to Christie. HARDER dropped off Christie in Darwin and proceeded to overdue R&R in Perth. Christie thought five patrols as skipper earned Dealey a long, needed rest. But, at Oealey’s request, Christie allowed his skipper to make a sixth patrol. Mighty HARDER was lost with all hands on August 24, 1944.
According to Clay Blair Jr., Admiral Lockwood’s staff believed that Admiral Christie pushed Dealey and his crew too hard with the second leg of the fifth patrol. And that Christie’s actions smacked of being a “stunt” which needlessly strained skipper and all hands. Further, some thought Christie should have beached Dealey after five exhausting patrols. HARDER’s sinking increased the friction between Admirals Christie and Kinkaid. The two flag officers got into a nasty disagreement over the medals to recommend for Sam Dealey. (He eventually received a Medal of Honor). In the end, Kinkaid had Christie transferred from his submarine command in Australia–much to his dismay.
Rear Admiral James Fife was named Commander Submarines 7th Fleet. When Fife transferred his command from Australia to newly liberated Subic Bay in the Philippines in March, 1945, he sailed aboard HARDHEAD making a war patrol en route. The submarine under Commander Francis Greenup sank a large tanker-after several torpedo misses with the admiral looking over the skipper’s shoulder. Fife therefore qualified for the combat pin. Both Fife and Christie delighted in making their war patrols. How much their presence abroad contributed to the Submarine Force is questionable.
Meanwhile, Admiral Lockwood in Pearl Harbor developed Wolf Pack tactics for his Submarine Force, with special pack commanders or commodores. Lockwood had a special fondness for the small wolf pack, usually of three boats-two hitting Japanese convoys from the flanks; the third following to pick off stragglers or damaged ships. The packs were to be commanded by a senior officer, usually a division or squadron commander. The commodores flew their pennants. Much of the success of the wolf pack depended on good communications between the wolf pack commodore and the skippers. But such was not always the case with submarine radio communications. U.S. skippers distrusted sending many radio messages for the Japanese were adept at intercepting them. There was feeling that German Admiral Karl Doenitz endangered his U-boats by too many transmissions between ship and shore headquarters. Similarly, when Captain Jimmy Fife was in command of submarines earlier in Brisbane, his insistence on maneuvering his boats around-as on a checkerboard with the resultant increased radio traffic was considered less than judicious.
The first senior officer to sail aboard a submarine on a war patrol was veteran Captain John H. (Babe) Brown, who was given tactical command of a four-boat mission. He flew his flag aboard NARW AL and remained outside the Sea of Japan, while PLUN-GER, PERMIT, and LAPON entered that nearly landlocked sea for the first time in July, 1943. The boats operated independently and the results were disappointing.
Pearl Harbor’s first organized wolf pack consisted of three boats, CERO, SHAD, and GRA YBACK, led by Captain C.B.-(Swede) Momsen, inventor of the Momsen Lung who assisted in the rescue of SQUALUS survivors in 1939. The wolf pack results in October 1943, were unimpressive-only three confirmed sinkings. Afterward, Momsen recommended that the packs should be controlled from shore, a la Admiral Doenitz. The second wolf pack (PARGO, HARDER, SNOOK) was led by division commander Freddy Warder (ex-SEAWOLF) in November. It was plagued by poor communications but downed seven Japanese ships. Warder suggested that the commodore was superfluous and command of the pack should be left to the senior skipper.
Admiral Eugene Fluckey relates that on his first wolf pack with BARB, Admiral Lockwood acceded to the requests of the other two skippers that they, both on their first war patrols, not have the burden of carrying the pack commander, Captain Edwin Swinburne. So BARB was given the dubious honor. Skipper Fluckey was not keen on wolf packing, believing luck was where you found it, and you had to go out and look for it. He later wanned up to the wolf pack idea, particularly when the senior skipper was someone as proficient Charles Elliott Loughlin in QUEENFISH.
However, when Fluckey won the Medal of Honor on BARB’s dramatic 1 lth patrol, his exploits in Namkwan Harbor on the China coast were accomplished operating alone.
Sometimes there was friction between the pack commander and the skipper he was riding with. Lawson P. (Red) Ramage in command of PAR CHE, found that the pack commander, the abrasive, experienced Lew Parks, rubbed him the wrong way, and they had words on patrol. Perhaps because of the friction, Ramage turned in a great patrol winning the Presidential Unit Citation for PARCHE and the Medal of Honor for himself. Lew Parks got a Navy Cross.
One drawback in having a senior officer command a wolf pack was tragically illustrated in the fate of Captain John P. Cromwell, in command of SCULPIN, SEARAVEN, AND APOGON in November 1943. With Cromwell aboard, Sculpin was skippered by Commander Fred Connaway. After a heavy depth charging, Connaway decided to surface, but the boat broached and was hit by shellfire from a Japanese destroyer. The skipper and exec were killed-leaving the engineer, Lieutenant George Brown, in command. He ordered the crew to abandon the mortally-damaged ship. Captain Cromwell declined to obey the order, explaining that he had advance knowledge of plans to invade the Gilbert Islands (Tarawa) and chose to go down with SCULPIN rather than risk divulging vital information under torture as a prisoner. After the war, when the story was told by SCULPIN survivors, Captain Cromwell was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Some top skippers like Richard O’Kane, Slade Cutter and Charles Triebel believed that submarines could best be deployed individually, rather than risk the complications of operating as a team with the problem of haphazard communications and danger of firing at one another in a melee. O’Kane of top-scoring TANG thought that a boat under an aggressive skipper could do better on its own. He pointed out that many small wolf packs were really better designated as group patrols. Nevertheless, Lockwood persisted in forming wolf packs, at first with supernumerary commodores, but later turning command over to the senior skipper. (Some critics said Lockwood created the job of pack commodore to keep senior officers in his command busy: squadron and division commanders did not have a heavy workload when their boats were off on patrol for up to two months each.)
Similarly, 7th Fleet submarines in 1944 joined up in small packs to harass Japanese shipping in their areas. So, small wolf packs increased toward the end of the war, culminating in one grand effort-a nine-boat sortie into the almost landlocked Sea of Japan in June 1945. The Hellcats were divided into three-boat echelons, with Commander Earl Hydeman, skipper of SEADOG, in overall command. However, the boats operated individually with assigned sectors rather than in joint, coordinated attacks. The operation was a great success-though BONEFISH was lost.
Thus by the end of the war, there were no extra commodores going to sea at the head of wolf packs. To his deep chagrin, Uncle Charlie Lockwood never did made a war patrol, though Nimitz finally relented and promised him one. The war ended before the promise could be kept.
Did the presence of admirals or commodores aboard boats on war patrols contribute to success? Most skippers would probably say that they did not. The extra burden on skippers dealing with all the problems of command would seem to outweigh any benefits the flag officer might provide, looking over their shoulders.
What of the concept of a fighting admiral in today’s Submarine Navy? Senior officers tend to suggest that an admiral’s place is not aboard a boat in combat. In World War II, Chester Nimitz accepted that his job as Commander of the Pacific Fleet was not on a flagship-nor did the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet, Ernest J. King, fly his flag seriously from other than DAUNTLESS at the Anacostia Naval Station.
Retired flag officer Richard W. Mies, a former ComSubLant, said he was unaware of any recent plans to put a sub group commander (rear admiral) aboard a boat in combat. He added that the Navy had “experimented” with placing a squadron commander aboard a carrier in a battle group to assist in the employment of subs attached to the group. However, the practice was never “institutionalized.”
Retired Admiral Frank Kelso declared that the Navy might or might not assign a flag officer aboard a submarine “depending on the circumstances.” But Rear Admiral Paul F. Sullivan, Director of Submarine Warfare, believes the sub group commander should remain ashore, since his going afloat would “add little value” in future warfighting scenarios. In short, says Admiral Sullivan, echoing a widespread opinion, an admiral aboard an operational submarine “causes more grief than grace.”