He served our nation for 38 years following his commissioning with the US Naval Academy class of 1922. He
rose from Ensign to Vice Admiral with typical assignments and ever increasing responsibilities along the way. He
retired at his last duty station in Seattle, Washington and died 20 years later. Yet there are no streets named after him, no buildings bearing his name, no memorial in his honor- and that’s the way he’d want it. And since he was buried at sea, it took some doing even to get his name on a niche in the Naval Academy Columbarium. He was my father.
I remember taking leave to visit my folks toward the end of Dad’s life. One day he suddenly looked up from the newspaper at breakfast and said, “Hey, Tom, why don’t you write my biography!” Just as suddenly I found myself laughing out loud and saying “Why don’t you write your OWN biography. I’m still working for a living, and you’re playing ACEY-DUCEY at the local clubhouse.” Then we both laughed, and that was as close as he ever got to leaving something written and tangible for his grandchildren.
But that’s the way he was, the way he wanted it. In every sense of the word he had an eminently successful naval career. Moreover, he deserves much credit for the development and employment of the submarine that led to America’s victory over Japan. He was awarded both the Bronze Star Medal and the Legion of Merit. Yet he seemed to consider all that to be past and unimportant to the here and now. I remember at his retirement he made a remark to me that seems characteristic of him. He told me that when someone gets to feeling indispensable, he should immerse his hand in a bucket of water. Then note the zero effect on the water when his hand is removed.
Dad was an accomplished letter writer. In the days before word processors, he could take pen in hand and write a beautiful, succinct, and well organized letter, and then sign and mail it. No roughs, no revisions, it was perfect the first time! He also had a locker full of stories he used to tell when he got going, and they got better, funnier, and more outlandish with each telling. For both these above reasons his lack of records is unfortunate. So let me fill you in on a few things he didn’t say.
Dad was born in a Mormon community in Utah, but found the match with navy life difficult, and he later became an Episcopalian. My grandparents had the lack of formal education typical of the west’s early settlers. But they saw that Dad and his siblings went to college-Dad to the US Naval Academy.
After an initial tour on USS MISSISSIPPI (BB-23), a battleship home ported in Long Beach, CA, he came back to Utah, married my Mom, and reported to Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. I remember hearing some hilarious stories of their early life together- Mom came from a wealthy family and had never learned to cook!
In a very real sense Dad grew up with submarines. What I mean is that he was very much part of the group of submariners that perfected and tested submarine developments, the ones that led ultimately to the Fleet Type Submarine which was so successful against Japanese shipping in WWII. He served in a series of S-boats, eventually commanding the S-29. His duties took him to Coco Solo, Panama and then to Pearl Harbor where he served for many years.
Submarines were his life, if he wasn’t actually at sea or getting ready to go to sea, then he and Mom were socializing with those same submariners. As prohibition ended in I 933, I’m sure there were some wild adventures ashore, but the total effect was a close band of submariners united in their quest to develop a better submersible warship for our nation.
He was gone a lot. I remember a two year period during
which he commanded USS CACHALOT (SS-170), he traveled the
oceans of the world testing engines and equipment from the
tropics to the frozen north. Seems like his home port was
anywhere he moored. Mom kept track of his schedules and tried to
be there when he came ashore. My brother and I stayed in a
California boarding school for those years.
I know Dad felt a sense of urgency to this submarine
development effort, as Hitler was moving across Europe and Japan
was expanding its empire in the western Pacific. Dad knew we’d
be drawn into war eventually, in spite of our neutrality, and we
were going to need a more capable submarine in our navy.
Being an off-and-on father to two adventurous sons wasn’t
easy for Dad, or for us either. When Dad came home he assumed
head of the household again, precipitating a goodly amount of
friction with his two boys. We were used to lots of freedom,
especially as we learned to manipulate, to a certain degree, our
good hearted mother. We loved seeing Dad come home when he
could, but it made family life a mixed bag for us. Seeing him leave
again was always sad, of course, but there were fewer rules to
follow with him gone.
Eventually he was ordered ashore, to the Bureau of Ships in Washington, DC. From the Submarine Desk he was able to follow up on and implement some of the ideas and findings advocated by his band of brother submariners in Pearl Harbor. He was home at night and we had a family again- for awhile, that is.
By this time Britain was at war with Gennany. It was not long before Dad was sent to London as Submarine Liaison Officer to the British Submarine Force. I had a box camera and before he left I took a photo of him in front of our house. He was in his LCDR unifonn except that he wore a metal hat that reminded me of the helmets worn by US doughboys of WWI. And slung under his arm was his gas mask. England was at war, and so was Dad!
We saw Dad off to war and heard later that he had a blonde in his lap during his flight to London. The blonde, of course, was Dad’s code word for an official package: a locked canvas pouch containing classified material being sent to England’s government from America’s government. As a safety precaution, the pouch
was handcuffed to Dad’s wrist and the key awaited his arrival in
From that day on Dad and Mom were on the far ends of a
stream of V-MAIL letters. He had reported in to the American
Embassy in London, and that became his office. However, London
was being bombed nightly by the Axis bombers so it was not a
place for a good night’s sleep.
The submarine officers were invited to stay at an English
estate outside London, called Newpipers. That became their
informal headquarters. All letters were censored, and much of
what Dad did was classified. That eliminated much of what he’d
like to tell us, and instead we learned a lot about life at Newpipers.
Soon Dad’s submarine liaison duties had him reporting to the
British Naval Base at Gibraltar, to ride a British submarine in the
Mediterranean. At the time there was some question as to what his
POW status would be should he be captured by the Germans, since
theoretically America was Neutral!
It was much later that we learned how very green the British
crew was- they were inexperienced at operating their submarine,
and now they were taking it to war. But as luck would have it,
Dad, and the sub, survived the patrol, and weeks later moored
safely at Alexandria, Egypt. Dad headed back to London.
Once Dad was back home from England, life settled down to normal for us for awhile. He commuted to his office on Constitution A venue but was home for dinner most every night. But there were also some rumblings of big things to come- from our house in Arlington we could hear pile drivers going night and day as they worked on a new military center to be called The Pentagon.
Then there was that quiet Sunday afternoon. Dad, my brother Jack, and I were in the back yard gardening, when Mom burst out of the back door sobbing and crying “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” We all gathered around the radio to learn what details we could.
Monday morning all those civilian commuters became military commuters in uniform. Little by little we learned just how badly the battle fleet at Pearl Harbor had been damaged by the Japanese-fortunately submarines at the Submarine Base had been
In early Spring Dad’s new orders had us on the move again
across the continent, as he headed for his new assignment:
Commander Submarine Division I 0 I in Pearl Harbor. The other
three of us rented a house in Palo Alto- it was about as close to
Pearl Harbor that the Navy would pennit dependents.
We saw Dad off from Hunter’s Point on the Submarine
Tender USS SPERRY (AS-12), as I remember, heading for
Hawaii. We were back to V-Mail communications again. During
his two year assignment he was constantly at sea as he trained and
tested each of his submarine crews before their patrols took them
into Japanese waters.
With a special OK from Admiral Lockwood, COMSUBPAC, he even made one patrol himself, in command of USS FL YING FISH (SS-229). For his successful patrol Dad was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V.” He also became eligible for the Submarine Combat Patrol Pin which he wore proudly for the rest of his career.
Tragically he lost one of his submarines when it failed to return from patrol: USS WAHOO (SS 238), its crew of 81 and her Commanding Officer, Mush Morton. These young men were his boys and he felt the loss heavily. Dad wrote a personal letter to the families of every officer and enlisted man in her crew.
For the record Dad’s Submarine Force did itself proud in the Pacific. They succeeded in cutting off Japan from its supplies by devastating Japan’s merchant fleet. Some subs, like WAHOO, actually sank entire enemy convoys and arrived back at Pearl with a Clean Sweep broom tied to a periscope. All that submarine development work leading up to the war resulted in a front line Fleet Type Submarine fully capable of taking the war to the enemy, and sinking their ships in their own back yard. The efforts of Dad’s Pearl Harbor submariners really paid off. The down side was the loss of 52 US submarines, and that hurt a lot. The last year of the war found Dad, now a Captain, back in Washington for duty at the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Then it was back to Pearl again, this time as Chief of Staff to COMSUBPAC. Mom and Dad had quarters in the Sub Base housing at Makalapa, and it was like the good old days again, as navy families enjoyed peacetime life in Hawaii.
The Navy established a General Line School after the war as a curriculum of refresher courses for Naval Reserve Officers desiring to become Regular Navy. It was located in the famous resort hotel Del Monte, in Monterey, California, and Dad was its Commanding Officer. He and Mom fell in love with Monterey and the affection was mutual. That was a good thing since the Navy was about to buy Del Monte.
One of Dad’s many stories described his experience of handing Sam Morse, owner of Del Monte Properties, the biggest check he had ever seen. That check purchased for the Navy the Del Monte Properties, and it soon became the new campus of the Naval Postgraduate School, as it relocated from Annapolis. Several events took place in Dad’s life as I became involved in my first sea duty upon my graduation from the Naval Academy.
He commanded the new pocket battleship USS GUAM (CB-2) for a short tour, bringing it from the Western Pacific through the Canal for ultimate decommissioning in New Jersey. He was selected for Rear Admiral, and ordered to command the Atlantic Mine Force-he and Mom joining in the southern social life of Charleston, SC.
Then it was back to his beloved submarines in New London. It was as COMSUBLANT that he sent USS NAUTILUS to sea for the first time. He and his USNA classmate, RADM Rickover, sharing the limelight, and diplomatically agreeing to just where the boundaries of Rick’s nuclear plant authority began and ended.
I was a student at the Postgraduate School when Dad became Commander Anti-Submarine Force in Norfolk as a Vice Admiral. I guess it was a it takes one to know one policy that sets a submariner into perfecting ways to improve Submarine HunterKiller Groups. He was also in Command of the US Tenth Fleet.
At this same time my father in law, VADM Count Austin also had a fleet command in the Pacific. A fleet commanders’ conference brought them both to Monterey and presented my children an unexpected visit with both sets of grandparents.
At a family dinner I overheard a heated discussion on the controversial nature of ADM Rickover. Dad’s view was that, controversial or not, Rick had great influence with Congress and could get the Navy the nuclear submarine fleet we needed. As always the development of ever more capable submarines was all important to my father.
Dad gave a helping hand to many people during his long naval career. He made special exceptions to rules when he thought a person deserved it. He used his influence to steer other deserving people in new directions. While some senior officers have been known for e11ding careers, Dad was known for just the opposite. He went out of his way in advising, encouraging and assisting outstanding officers toward more brilliant careers. And I never heard anything but high praise for my father from people who worked for him.
As Dad approached retirement, he and Mom hoped for duty in the San Francisco Bay Area, as that had become our family’s emotional home ever since we lived there during WWII. However, the 12th Naval District Commandant billet was filled … but the 13th Naval District was available.
Over the next few years my folks fell in love with the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Dad eventually retired from
Commandant 13th Naval District- he and Mom moving into a gracious home in Seattle. There he continued to represent the best of the Navy as a member of the International Rotary Club, and he served on numerous boards and in other community organizations. He also accepted a position at the University of Washington for awhile, working toward increasing their grants and their participation in research.
I would be remiss should I not give tribute to my mother, who played an indispensable roll in Dad’s career-he could not have done it all without her, and he knew that too. She not only made a home for him, and us kids, at multiple locations, but she was beloved as Peg Watkins, his devoted wife and social hostess, planning and supervising social events, creating a welcoming environment at home, and promoting a cohesive atmosphere for submarine families. Her world included young families of deployed submarine wardroom officers, and she gathered them in and saw to their welfare for many long and lonely periods. Through letters and hundreds of Christmas Cards, they each maintained their contact with distant friends long after they retired.
Mom’s maiden name was Margaret Ruth Orem, her father was a well known Utah railroad owner- the city of Orem honors his name. She stood 5 feet two and although she dedicated her life to making a home for Dad, he knew he could push her just so far. Many humorous stories depict them as the comic strip couple, THE LOCKHORNS at times. However conflicts were often ended suddenly when Mom had had e11011glz! and put her foot down. She was also the go between Dad and us boys, often explaining that he really does love us, and what he meant to say was ….
Dad spent lots of days exploring Puget Sound by yacht, yet he never became a boat owner himself. He told me once that he saw no reason to own a boat when so many of his friends did own them, and wanted him along as a shipmate. Knowing my Dad’s experience at sea and his willingness to help, I know why he was in such demand.
Dad died rather suddenly at 81 years of an aneurism on his abdominal aorta, and I never got to say goodbye. But I searched through his papers and found his final wishes written in his own handwriting: ” to be buried at sea from a US submarine.”
USS CA VALLA (SSN-684), while operating submerged in the Pacific Ocean, piped his ashes over the side- they fired them into the deep sea from a torpedo tube. Thus Dad joined the young submariners he sent to sea during the war-the ones who never came home, the ones who are still on patrol. I know he felt that to be most appropriate. He asked for nothing more. That’s the way he was, the way he wanted it. So now you know.