Determining the Navy’s top submarine patrol captains of World War II can be a simple matter if your list is confined to those who sank the most enemy tonnage, destroyed the most ships, earned the Medal of Honor, or received the most Navy Crosses. Measuring a commander’s leadership ability, however, brings a more subjective yardstick into play, not necessarily reflected in the wartime scorecard.
Contending with adversity can help define a leader, and some of the most courageous and skillful American sub commanders sailed into combat with notoriously defective weapons. During the first year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many boat captains were unnerved by torpedo failures and relieved of command. Others followed orders to attack aggressively. Some never came back. Others returned, bristling with resentment over torpedoes that ran too deep, failed to go off on contact, or exploded before contact.
The Navy Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) blamed poor marksmanship and lack of proper maintenance of the Mark 14 torpedoes. This infuriated boat captains who knew better. A command shake-up elevated Rear Admiral Charles Lockwood, a veteran submariner, to command of Submarines, Pacific Fleet, and he demanded BuOrd do something. When it refused, he took his grievance to a wartime conference in Washington where he let loose. “If the Bureau of Ordnance can’t provide us with torpedoes that will hit and explode, then for God’s sake, get the Bureau of Ships to design a boat hook with which we can rip the plates off a target’s side.”
To restore confidence, Lockwood and subordinates in Australia and Pearl Harbor did their own field tests, pinpointed problems and came up with their own solutions. This eventually forced BuOrd to admit its errors and start delivering reliable weapons by mid-1943, and by war’s end, the “Silent Service” had isolated Japan and helped bring the war to an end. Aggressive, confident boat captains and a decisive, knowledgeable leader at the top were key. “A submarine skipper has to convey to the crew his character,” explained Fireman First Class Larry Macek, who served in the Sailfish (SS-192). “Everybody on board has a need to know that he knows what he’s doing.”
There is no question the war produced many great American submarine commanders. Here, then, is my compendium of eight whose unique leadership qualities led to success at sea.
Frederick B. Warder
Birth: 19 March 1904
Death: 4 February 2000
USNA Class: 1925
Highest Rank: Rear Admiral
WWII Awards: Navy Cross with Gold Star
Lieutenant Commander Warder, the salty-tongued skipper of the Seawolf (SS-197) from 1939 through 1943, was among the most aggressive U.S. commanders in the early months of World War II. Under him, the Seawolf was often the target of sustained depth charges after many attacks on enemy vessels with torpedoes that were duds. Warder’s perseverance, however, resulted in the sinking of a Japanese destroyer, cruiser, transport, and several other vessels later in the war. The skipper’s calm demeanor was a critical factor in him being able to bring his boat and all on board back from every patrol unscathed.
Despite the ferocity with which Warder engaged the enemy, he nevertheless evoked compassion for survivors. When the Seawolf would surface after a successful attack, he ordered crewmen to toss life jackets to any Japanese who refused to come aboard, telling them “your enemy is also your brother, in a sense.”
Enlisted men’s worship of Warder stemmed from an incident in Manila before the war. A Seawolf sailor had been falsely accused of precipitating a barroom fight. Warder adamantly defended the man in an angry confrontation with Asiatic Fleet commander Admiral Thomas Hart, who backed down. Later, when inebriated Seawolf sailors were collared by the shore patrol in Pearl Harbor and asked to identify their commanding officer, they replied, “Fearless Freddie.” The nickname stuck.
Lawson P. Ramage
Birth: 19 January 1909
Death: 15 April 1990
USNA Class: 1931
Highest Rank: Vice Admiral
WWII Awards: Medal of Honor, Navy Cross with Gold Star, Silver Star
Nicknamed “Red” for the color of his hair, Commander Ramage was immensely popular in the submarine force and relentless in battle. His first command, the Trout (SS-202), was bedeviled by premature torpedo explosions and duds off Borneo in January 1943 that foiled masterful attacks on a 17,000-ton tanker, 3,000-ton freighter, 2,000-ton transport, and destroyer. By the time the Trout returned to base in western Australia, Ramage was boiling mad. He ended up going toe-to-toe with Rear Admiral Ralph W. Christie, commander, Submarines, Southwest Pacific, with Ramage claiming, “If I get 25 percent reliable performance on your torpedoes, I’ll be lucky,” and Christie railing against those spreading distrust and skepticism about the weapons.
Later, as the skipper of the Parche (SS-384), Ramage earned the Medal of Honor by risking his life in combat with a heavily screened Japanese oil convoy in the Luzon Strait on 31 July 1944.
In a stunning night surface attack, Ramage penetrated the convoy to cripple a freighter with a stern torpedo shot and then sink the leading tanker and damage the second one with bow and stern torpedoes. According to his Medal of Honor citation:
Exposed by the light of bursting flares and bravely defiant of terrific shellfire passing close overhead, he struck again, sinking a transport by two forward reloads. In the mounting fury of fire from the damaged and sinking tanker, he calmly ordered his men below, remaining on the bridge to fight it out with an enemy now disorganized and confused. Swift to act as a fast transport closed in to ram, Comdr. Ramage daringly swung the stern of the speeding Parche as she crossed the bow of the onrushing ship, clearing by less than 50 feet but placing his submarine in a deadly crossfire from escorts on all sides and with the transport dead ahead. Undaunted, he sent 3 smashing “down the throat” bow shots to stop the target, then scored a killing hit as a climax to 46 minutes of violent action with the Parche and her valiant fighting company retiring victorious and unscathed.
Ramage’s executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Woodrow W. McCrory, said that enemy gunners couldn’t train their deck guns low enough to hit the Parche as she maneuvered in the melee.
Reuben T. Whitaker
Birth: 23 September 1911
Death: 9 October 1985
USNA Class: 1934
Highest Rank: Rear Admiral
WWII Awards: Navy Cross with two Gold Stars, Silver Star with three Gold Stars
Like Ramage, Commander Whitaker was a brave, tenacious commander. As skipper of his first boat, the indomitable S-44, he attacked a column of three destroyers off New Georgia in September 1942, scoring a hit, but the torpedo was a dud. The trio of warships then took turns working over the sub with blistering depth-charge counterattacks during which S-44 narrowly escaped to fight again.
As captain of the Flasher (SS-249) in the summer of 1944, Whitaker took charge of a three-sub wolf pack. On the night of 28 June, he located a 13-ship convoy bound for Singapore. Surfacing to attack in shallow waters littered with uncharted shoals, the Flasher bore in to sink a 6,000-ton freighter and damage another. On 7 July, the skipper sank another freighter off Camranh Bay. On 19 July, he sank a 5,700-ton Japanese light cruiser guarded by a destroyer in the South China Sea and then outwitted the destroyer captain, who dropped 28 depth charges in two attacks.
A week later, while patrolling the Luzon Strait, the Flasher made a night surface attack on a convoy of 14 large ships protected by a dozen escorts. Whitaker slipped into the midst of the convoy and fired his last six torpedoes. One sank a freighter, a second damaged another cargo hauler, and a third passed through the formation to hit a fully loaded 5,280-ton tanker that erupted in flames, illuminating the sub and the entire convoy. With shells landing all around the Flasher, she dove to 300 feet and escaped.
Charles O. Triebel
Birth: 17 November 1907
Death: 10 March 1996
USNA Class: 1929
Highest Rank: Rear Admiral
WWII Awards: Navy Cross with two Gold Stars, Silver Star with Gold Star
Lieutenant Commander Triebel was a legend by the time his new fleet boat Snook (SS-279) pulled into Pearl Harbor in the spring of 1943 to begin her first war patrol. The skipper had a jagged scar across his neck, the result of a confrontation with thugs in Panama in 1937 when he was a lieutenant in the Shark (SS-174). Ashore, Triebel was well known for hard partying and devil-may-care high jinks. But once at sea, he was the quintessential sub commander, or as historian Clay Blair put it, “dedicated, shrewd, extraordinarily competent.”
Triebel completed three war patrols in the East China Sea in the span of five months in mid-1943. The first began as a mine-laying mission into the shallow mouth of the Yangtze River. His boat became stuck in mud, worked free, and then bounced along the bottom until the skipper found a hole 75 feet deep in which to hide until nightfall, when the sub surfaced to release 24 mines in two hours. On the second patrol, Triebel sank three freighters and two sampans in aggressive torpedo and gun action. During the third patrol, he damaged a tanker until driven off by two destroyers on 24 June. Ten days later, he located a convoy of eight ships in a nocturnal rainstorm. Surfacing amid the vessels, the Snook engaged the convoy in an epic battle, unleashing 19 torpedoes over three hours, damaging a 17,600-ton whale-factory tanker and sinking two freighters in excess of 5,000 tons each.
Samuel D. Dealey
Birth: 13 September 1906
Death: 24 August 1944
USNA Class: 1930
Highest Rank: Commander
WWII Awards: Medal of Honor (posthumously), Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross with three Gold Stars
A Texan, Commander Dealey was “soft-spoken, clean-living, and family-oriented,” according to Clay Blair. But at sea, he was a savant of submarine warfare in command of the Harder (SS-257), which was nicknamed “Hit ’Em Again, Harder.” Lieutenant Commander Frank “Tiny” Lynch, the Harder’s huge executive officer and a former U.S. Naval Academy football star, described him this way: “He had the vision and mind of an artist. His imagination pictured situations so vividly and scenes photographed themselves so clearly on the retina of his mind that he really did not need a TDC [torpedo data computer] solution.”
Dealey was dauntless in six war patrols in the Harder. On his fifth, to pick up guerrilla fighters on Tawi Tawi northeast of Borneo, the skipper earned his reputation as “the Destroyer Killer.” En route on the night of 6 June 1944 Harder intercepted a convoy of three tankers flanked by two destroyers. One of the warships detected the sub and charged. As was his habit, Dealey allowed her to close to within 1,000 yards before firing three torpedoes in a down-the-throat pattern. The warship exploded and sank. The following night, Dealey encountered another destroyer and attacked her with three torpedoes from only 650 yards. All three detonated, destroying the vessel.
With eight other destroyers hunting for the sub, she made her escape, rendezvoused with the guerrilla force, and then set sail for Australia through the Sibutu Passage. There the Harder encountered two more Japanese destroyers. Dealey went after them, sinking one and possibly damaging the other. On 10 June, the Harder moved in on a convoy of three battleships, four cruisers, and many destroyers. Alerted by a spotter plane to the sub’s presence, a destroyer peeled off after her. Dealey allowed the warship to close to the narrowest of margins and then launched three torpedoes he believed ravaged the warship. The sub endured a two-hour depth-charge counterattack before escaping to return to base safely.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously awarded Dealey the Medal of Honor after he and his entire crew were lost to enemy action in the Philippines on the Harder’s sixth patrol.
Slade D. Cutter
Birth: 1 November 1911
Death: 9 June 2005
USNA Class: 1935
Highest Rank: Captain
WWII Awards: Navy Cross with three Gold Stars, Silver Star with Gold Star
Commander Cutter, nicknamed “Whataman” at the Naval Academy, was an All-American football tackle and undefeated heavyweight intercollegiate boxing champion. At 215 pounds and just over six feet tall, he commanded attention as a sub captain. Like Treibel, he enjoyed hard-partying ashore while being skilled and relentless in combat. He was very amiable with enlisted men, often visiting the crew’s mess after every enemy action to discuss what had happened.
Cutter drew on his sports background to train his crew. “Sports makes you offensive minded,” he explained. “On each training period we would start with the individual and the fundamentals, then on to department training, then molding all departments into a team for surface gunfire and another team for torpedo battle stations. The important thing was to develop in each man self-confidence and confidence in his team.”
An example of his determined pursuit of the enemy occurred on 28 January 1944 as commander of the Seahorse (SS-304). The boat intercepted a convoy of three troop transports under heavy escort departing Palau. Cutter tracked the vessels for 32 hours, waiting for an opportunity to strike. On the night of 30 January, he attacked, sending three torpedoes into a ship loaded with 450 Japanese soldiers, blowing off her fantail and sinking her. Despite counterattacks by destroyers and surveillance by aircraft overhead, the Seahorse continued to track the convoy until 1 February, when Cutter struck again, sinking another ship while defying counterattacks.
Throughout the 600-mile, 82-hour chase, the skipper was glued to the sub’s electronics and plotting table and stayed awake by chain-smoking cigarettes, drinking cup after cup of coffee, and toward the end taking Benzedrine. “I was in pajamas when I was called to the conning tower, and I was in pajamas when it was all over,” he later mused. “God, they must have smelled.”
Robert E. M. Ward
Birth: 2 February 1914
Death: 9 April 1980
USNA Class: 1935
Highest Rank: Rear Admiral
Awards: Navy Cross with Gold Star, Silver Star with Gold Star
Commander Ward, the son of a California judge, was best known in World War II as the skipper of the “jinxed” submarine Sailfish (SS-192), the former Squalus, which sank in 1939 with the loss of 26 lives. The sub was salvaged, refitted, and given her new name. Ward seemed an unlikely match as commander, given he had survived the sinking of S-26 off Panama on 24 January 1942, in which 46 men drowned. But it was a match made in submarine heaven. He commanded the boat during her last three, very successful war patrols.
Most notable was the sub’s tenth patrol, during which Ward sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Chuyo, part of a three-carrier convoy. The attack began at midnight on 3 December 1943 during a typhoon 300 miles southeast of Tokyo Bay. Over a ten-hour period, the Sailfish single-handedly made three torpedo forays against the Chuyo, finally putting the 22,250-ton vessel under. Commenting on the loss, Japanese Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Miwa cited Ward for his skill and courage: “We did not expect such skillfulness. That carrier was attacked in the night, wind speed at 20 meters, just a single submarine and the same one attacked twice again the next morning.” Remarkably, the Sailfish—the ghost ship of the fleet—survived the entire war despite Japanese boasts that imperial warships had sunk the famous sub.
As for Ward turning the boat into one of the most accomplished U.S. submarines, a Sailfish veteran said the skipper’s success came from being assertive and aggressive without being unreasonable or reckless. “He was outward, friendly,” said Larry Macek. “With Ward you always had the feeling you would be coming back. He had charisma, always with that wry smile of his.”
Eugene B. Fluckey
Birth: 5 October 1913
Death: 28 June 2007
USNA Class: 1935
Highest Rank: Rear Admiral
WWII Awards: Medal of Honor, Navy Cross with three Gold Stars
Commander Fluckey detested his nickname, “Lucky,” which rhymed with his last name. Luck, he said, had little to do with his phenomenal command of the Barb (SS-220) during the last 16 months of the war. In four war patrols, he sank an aircraft carrier, cruiser, frigate, and various merchant vessels plus sailed more than 450 miles to find and rescue Australian and British prisoners of war adrift amid a typhoon in the South China Sea. The skipper was an improvisational genius who encouraged inventiveness by his officers and enlisted men. He and his crew pioneered the launch of guided missiles from the Barb to attack enemy targets in Japan, and sent saboteurs ashore in rubber rafts to successfully blow up a 16-car coastal train (see “The Sailor Who ‘Torpedoed’ a Train,” April 2011, pp. 60–65). Retired Navy Captain Max Duncan, who had served as the Barb’s torpedo and gunnery officer, said Fluckey was “decisive, compassionate, inclusive and inspirational to his men and revolutionized submarine warfare.”
An example of that resourcefulness was his Medal of Honor attack on two convoys of 30 Japanese ships anchored in the Chinese port of Nam Kwan. Surfacing at nightfall, the sub ventured 26 miles inside the 20-fathom curve, the line outside of which waters are deep enough to safely dive. The enemy believed the port, guarded by patrolling frigates, was too far inland in shallow waters for a submarine attack. But the Barb slipped past the warships and found the convoy vessels lined up broadside to broadside. In quick succession, Fluckey launched four stern torpedoes. Chief Gunner’s Mate Paul Saunders described the scene: “A big freighter goes up, and another. Then an ammo ship blows and sets the whole harbor off like a string of firecrackers. What a show, what a show! Tracers, rockets, the works. Ship after ship catches fire. Searchlights are streaking the sky looking for bombers, because nobody figures a submarine got inside.”
In the confusion, the Barb darted for deep water past numerous Chinese junks at anchor in the harbor. A patrolling frigate set off in pursuit, lobbing shells as she closed, and the submarine returned fire from her deck gun. The skipper, on the conn, demanded more speed. When the engine room chief called up that the diesels were doing the best they could and any more power might dislodge the governors, Fluckey barked, “Well, tie down the governors and put 150 percent overload on all engines!” Informed the bearings were overheating, Fluckey demanded, “Let them melt, Jim!” The Barb clocked a record 23.5 knots, eluding the frigate and making her getaway. Reaching the 20-fathom curve after a 30-minute chase, Fluckey noted: “Never realized how much water that was before. However, life begins at forty [fathoms]. Kept going.”