Tuesday, November 19, 2013

TFH 11/19: Captain John P. Cromwell, USN

John Philip Cromwell was born on September 11, 1901 in Henry, Illinois. He attended the United States Naval Academy starting in 1920, and graduated with the class of 1924. He was commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Navy, and after a brief stint in surface ships volunteered for the submarine service.

During the late 1920s and into the 1930s, he commanded several different submarines and also held positions in engineering fields within the submarine force. When the United States entered World War II, he was the chief engineering officer for the Pacific Fleet subs.

Cromwell commanded three different submarine divisions during 1942 and into 1943, and was considered one of the ablest officers in the submarine force. He was tabbed to command a U-boat style "wolf pack" with multiple submarines in late 1943 to use those type tactics against Japanese shipping. These formations were known in US Navy terminology as "coordinated attack groups". Cromwell would sail aboard the USS Sculpin (SS-191), and be joined by the USS Spearfish (SS-190), USS Searaven (SS-196), and USS Apogon (SS-308).

Sculpin sortied from Pearl Harbor on November 5, 1943. Two days later after refueling at Johnston Island, the submarine set off for their patrol area. On November 29, Cromwell was ordered to activate his attack group. The order went unacknowledged. After the order was retransmitted two days later, again without answer, Sculpin and Cromwell were presumed lost.

It wasn't until after the war that we learned what happened.

Sculpin had arrived at their patrol station near Truk, one of the largest Japanese strongholds in the south Pacific, on November 16, 1943. During the night of November 18-19, they detected and attempted to attack a Japanese convoy. Unfortunately, before they could reach a firing solution with their torpedoes, the Japanese spotted Sculpin on the surface and enemy destroyers honed in on the lone boat.

The submarine dove and attempted to escape but was battered by multiple enemy depth charges. Sculpin suffered heavy damage, including loss of their depth gauges. That damage proved critical because they accidentally surfaced more than once while trying to evade, and instead, suffered heavier attack.

Sculpin's commanding officer, Commander Fred Connaway, knew his boat was doomed. He ordered, with Captain Cromwell's concurrence, that Sculpin should surface and the deck guns be manned so that they could hold off the enemy long enough for the crew to escape, albeit into Japanese captivity. After surfacing, a Japanese shell struck Sculpin's exposed bridge, killing Commander Connaway and most of the sub's leadership.

Cromwell had one more fateful decision to make. It was not just his life at risk were he to be captured. As a senior officer in the submarine force, he was fully aware of the imminency of Operation GALVANIC, the attack on Tarawa Atoll. If the Japanese tortured or drugged him, he could alert them to the attack that, in fact, would begin the following day.

More importantly, Cromwell was one of the officers entrusted with one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war in the Pacific: the United States had broken the ciphers that protected Japanese communications. Those decoded communication intercepts, known as "ULTRA" or "MAGIC", were essential to victory, especially since the Japanese were erroneously convinced their communications were absolutely secure.

It wasn't just the Sailors and Marines heading for Tarawa whose lives were in his hands; it was tens of thousands of not just Americans but servicemen of our Allies who would be in mortal peril as they worked to defeat Japan were Cromwell's knowledge extracted during interrogation.

The measure of John Cromwell's devotion to duty and final act of heroism remained unknown until the handful of Sculpin survivors captured by the Japanese were liberated from captivity at war's end. As Sculpin took her final dive, Cromwell voluntarily went with her in final defense and protection of the critical knowledge in his head and was thus posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (A-F):


Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Navy

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commander of a Submarine Coordinated Attack Group with Flag in the U.S.S. Sculpin, during the 9th War Patrol of that vessel in enemy-controlled waters off Truk Island, 19 November 1943. Undertaking this patrol prior to the launching of our first large-scale offensive in the Pacific, Capt. Cromwell, alone of the entire Task Group, possessed secret intelligence information of our submarine strategy and tactics, scheduled Fleet movements and specific attack plans. Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his underseas flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold at Truk. Cool and undaunted as the submarine, rocked and battered by Japanese depth charges, sustained terrific battle damage and sank to an excessive depth, he authorized the Sculpin to surface and engage the enemy in a gunfight, thereby providing an opportunity for the crew to abandon ship. Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs, he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death. Preserving the security of his mission, at the cost of his own life, he had served his country as he had served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty. His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

The Navy later honored this valiant hero by naming the Dealey-class destroyer escort USS Cromwell (DE-1014) for him. The ship served from 1954 to 1972 and was scrapped in 1973.

Had the Japanese captured him and extracted the knowledge of ULTRA, the course of World War II in the Pacific would likely have been vastly different from the history we know, and for that, Cromwell's self-sacrifice may well have been war winning.

John Philip Cromwell rests with the Sculpin.

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