The harbor, usually bustling with U.S. warships entering or leaving under the luxuriant Hawaiian sun, was instead that 7 December morning shrouded with smoke. The battlewagons along Battleship Row, once considered the backbone of the Pacific Fleet, either rested on Pearl Harbor’s muddy bottom or bobbed unsteadily on the surface, appearing more like funeral pyres than intimidating warships. Mangled cruisers and dying sailors starkly contrasted with Oahu’s tropical beauty, transforming the stunning island into a scene more appropriate for a horror story than a vacation brochure.
Commander Clifton A. F. Sprague, a career naval officer, stood on the deck of his seaplane tender, the USS Tangier (AV-8), trying to comprehend the inexplicable scene. Across Ford Island to his left, battleship crews swam from burning ships or struggled to keep surviving vessels afloat. Behind him, the capsized USS Utah (AG-16) and the damaged light cruiser USS Raleigh (CL-7) hinted at the desperate times that lay ahead for the U.S. fleet in the Pacific.
Surprisingly, his own Tangier had emerged relatively unscathed. Despite her length, which at 492 feet made her a third larger than the destroyers anchored in Pearl Harbor and an easily discernible target, the seaplane tender evaded attack from eight Japanese aircraft. The ship and her officers and enlisted men easily could have become casualties, but good fortune, combined with his gun crews’ accuracy, brought her through.
“I was proud of my boys,” he wrote to his sister, Dora, in the aftermath, not surprisingly turning the spotlight on his crew rather than himself. “Everybody did their job and considering it was a complete surprise on a Sunday morning we have a lot to be proud of.”1
He could be proud of himself, as well, for at Pearl Harbor Commander Sprague first displayed the talent for command in combat that later blossomed in the Philippine Sea and off Samar. It was a gift honed by years on the sea, by study at the U.S. Naval Academy as well as afterward, by his brief experience in World War I, and by association with key naval personalities in the 1920s and 1930s.
Gaining the Respect of Others
Born on 8 January 1896, Clifton Albert Frederick Sprague loved the sea. During summers at his family’s Rockport, Massachusetts, cottage, the young Sprague developed a fondness that lasted his entire life. “He felt at home on the ocean,” said son-in-law Daniel Vaughan. “He wanted to smell the salt air and have the ocean near him.”2
After attending Highland Military Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts, and nearby Roxbury Latin School, Sprague entered the Naval Academy in 1914. Popular with his classmates, he was nicknamed “Ziggy” because of the unusual way he zigzagged through the halls. “All in all, Clifton is a living example of a true-blue comrade with all that term implied,” declared the 1918 Lucky Bag, the Academy’s yearbook.3
After graduating 43rd of 199 midshipmen, Sprague received his initiation in command by serving in the gunboat USS Wheeling (PG-14) during World War I, escorting supply and troop transports. Grasping that aviation offered numerous opportunities for an ambitious young officer, Sprague joined the fledging air arm as Naval Aviator No. 2934 on 11 August 1921. Eight years later he was posted to Annapolis as a flight instructor, a role that allowed him to introduce flight to the new generation of officers who would play such a prominent role in the next world war. In that capacity he became acquainted with Captain William F. Halsey Jr., who was stationed at the Academy and wanted to earn his wings. The future World War II hero instantly fell in love with flight and later recalled, “I flew as often as Duke [Lieutenant Commander D. C. Ramsey] or ‘Ziggy’ Sprague would give me a ride.”4
At the same time that Sprague immersed himself in flight, the young officer became captivated by a girl he met at a party on Christmas of 1924. The stunning Annabel Fitzgerald could play the part of the then-popular flapper, but her shy demeanor and deeply Catholic outlook, which contrasted with that of her famous brother—novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald—belayed that image. The couple married five months later, becoming the proud parents of daughters Courtney, in 1926, and Patricia, in 1927.
Sprague received his first command in 1931 when the lieutenant commander took charge of Patrol Squadron Eight operating out of Panama and Hawaii. From the beginning, Sprague emphasized drills and stressed the need to be prepared for the unexpected. His men quickly appreciated his firm grasp of matters. Squadron member Edward H. Eckelmeyer said Sprague was “a serious man who didn’t say much. He seemed to be always quietly thinking about whatever was on his mind.”5
Five years later, Sprague became the air officer on board the carrier Yorktown (CV-5), where he directed everything pertaining to the air. Retired Admiral James S. Russell, who had served as the flight-deck officer under him, recalled that Sprague was a hands-on commander who quickly gained the respect of everyone. “He never had to yell at people to get the job done,” said Russell. “Even though I never saw him get mad, there was no question who was in charge.” Russell added that Sprague “informed himself on everything. Sprague was a very thorough guy.”6
Preparing His Men for Battle
After a brief stint in command of the oil tanker Patoka (AO-9) in August 1940, Commander Sprague became CO of the Tangier, which had been launched in September 1939 as a cargo ship, was acquired by the Navy in July 1940, and was slated to undergo conversion into a seaplane tender. After a year of work at Oakland, California, the Tangier was commissioned on 25 August 1941. With a complement of just over 400 officers and men, the ship was filled with machine shops, engine parts, and other items needed for repairs. As a support craft, she sported few weapons—four 3-inch antiaircraft guns and eight .50-caliber machine guns supplemented a solitary 5-inch gun—but Sprague scheduled repeated drills to ensure the tender was the most offensive-minded repair vessel in the fleet.
In October, after the ship had completed her shakedown cruise, Sprague set course for Pearl Harbor. He made an immediate impact on his officers and men, and used the Pacific crossing to Hawaii as a training ground for his crew, planning as many drills as time would allow. For each exercise, he told his officers what he wanted done and then gave them the freedom to work out the specifics as to how to do it. Ensign John J. Hughes said: “Commander Sprague would never jump on anyone and yell at them for doing something wrong. He was very soft-spoken and easy to talk to. We respected him, but we didn’t fear him.”7
The crew responded to Sprague’s easygoing command style. As he walked about the decks during the day, Sprague often halted to ask a sailor where he was from or to inquire about his family. Crewmen on duty in the middle of the night became accustomed to Sprague’s visits to the radio shack where, dressed in robe and slippers, he shared a cup of coffee with them. “You got no bullshit from Sprague,” said Seaman First Class Leonard Barnes, a radio operator. “He always seemed to say logical things that we could relate to. Some officers gave us orders just to give them, but if everything was clean and neat, Sprague wouldn’t order you to do more.” Even when the men fared poorly in drills, Sprague maintained his cool. “I never saw Commander Sprague lose his composure,” said Barnes. “When he spoke, we listened, like a grandparent who walks into the room and gets respect from his family. We did our best to please him.”8
Sprague was, however, not above admonishing them when he thought it necessary. After one poorly executed drill, the captain informed his crew over the ship’s loudspeaker that they took two minutes to get to stations, something he considered unacceptable. With world events boiling to a crisis point, war loomed as a real possibility, and Sprague knew that if his men were lax now, they would suffer when hostilities flared. “It took you too long to respond,” he reminded them. “The real thing is going to happen one day and you’ve got to be ready.”9
The Tangier pulled into Pearl Harbor on 3 November. As the month waned, Sprague canceled liberty for the crew and increased the number of drills. He remembered the 1928 sneak “attack” on Pearl Harbor by USS Langley (CV-1) aircraft following Fleet Problem VIII, and wanted his men to be at their sharpest in light of the rapidly deteriorating international situation. After the crew performed dismally during a series of drills on 6 December, an upset Sprague gathered his officers in the wardroom. “We’re not prepared,” he said. “We can’t trust the Japanese. How do you know the Japanese won’t attack tomorrow?”10
Sprague tossed out that admonition to prod his men to better effort. He had no idea that a force that included six aircraft carriers and more than 400 aircraft under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo had departed Japan on 26 November and was then bearing down on the Pacific Fleet’s base. The next morning, two hours from Pearl Harbor, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of 49 bombers, 40 torpedo planes, 51 dive bombers, and 43 fighters off carriers and toward Hawaii (see “Commander Fuchida’s Decision,” p. 16).
‘They’re Bombing Us!’
The Tangier was moored at berth F-10 along Ford Island’s northwest side, a location normally used by the fleet’s carriers, which were then at sea. Aligned behind the Tangier were the battlewagon turned target ship Utah and the light cruisers Raleigh and Detroit (CL-8). The seven warships on Battleship Row rocked gently at their moorings across Ford Island, situated amid a harbor bulging with vessels of all sorts.
Shortly before 0800, Fuchida signaled his pilots to begin their descents. The dive bombers veered toward airfields about Pearl Harbor, while the torpedo planes targeted Battleship Row. When Fuchida realized he had achieved surprise, he sent Nagumo the prearranged message: “TORA, TORA, TORA.”
The first bombs hit at 0756. The Tangier’s Lieutenant Richard Fruin had just stepped on deck when he noticed a group of airplanes approaching Ford Island, but coming in from the wrong direction. One week earlier superiors had chastised a naval aviator for flying in an unauthorized area, and Fruin guessed that this group of aviators would be called to the carpet when they landed. He dropped those thoughts when he spotted red circles on the planes and, a few seconds later, bombs falling on Ford Island. Boatswain Wesley L. Larson, the officer of the deck, also saw the bombs and quickly ordered general quarters sounded. Seaman Joseph Mapes rushed to the mess hall shouting: “They’re bombing us! They’re bombing us!”11 By 0800—only two minutes after the Ford Island control tower commander broadcast the alarm “AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR, THIS IS NOT A DRILL”—the Tangier’s 3-inch antiaircraft guns had begun firing on the invaders, beating practically every other American ship to the punch.
On the bridge, Sprague estimated that 40 to 50 Japanese planes were diving on targets about the harbor. Three minutes later, a trio of torpedo planes approached the Tangier’s starboard quarter from the north and released their torpedoes at the Utah. In an explosion that knocked cooks off balance in the Tangier’s galley, two ripped into the aged battleship, which would capsize in eight minutes. A pair of torpedo planes made runs on the Raleigh and Detroit, heavily damaging the former, but the Tangier, shrouded by smoke billowing across Ford Island from the damaged Arizona (BB-39), was overlooked.
During the attack, Sprague stood quietly on the seaplane tender’s open bridge, in full view of his men on deck, rather than taking advantage of the protected bridge one deck below. He gave few orders, instead relying on the training and readiness of his men. The commander believed that if he showed confidence in his crew by remaining in the open and by rarely interfering, they would perform better. “All those men on the main deck and above it, at one time or another as they fought, could see Sprague calmly standing there throughout the battle,” said Ensign Hughes. “That impressed us officers and encouraged the men.” Seaman First Class Barnes marveled at how cool Sprague remained, “but then, he always was cool. At Pearl Harbor, he acted like he’d thought everything out. Sprague knew what to do, like he was born to command during a crisis.”12
Danger from Below and Above
The attack ended at 0825. Sprague, following earlier orders from Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband Kimmel, prepared to steam out of the harbor for open sea, but he delayed departure to allow larger ships with their greater firepower to leave first.
After a 15-minute lull during which the Tangier crew checked watertight doors and hatches and brought up ammunition, a midget submarine appeared 800 yards off the ship’s starboard bow. The Tangier’s forward 3-inch gun fired six shells, while the tender Curtiss (AV-4), moored near Pearl City, to the Tangier’s west, joined in. Before turning away, the boat launched a torpedo at the Curtiss that missed and exploded against a dock. Two minutes later, the destroyer Monaghan (DD-354) rammed and dropped two depth charges on the submarine, sinking her. But Sprague and his crew believed that their fire contributed to the boat’s loss.
The second wave of Japanese attackers—80 dive bombers, 54 bombers, and 36 fighters—struck at 0840. Seeing Battleship Row in shambles, aircraft concentrated on the undamaged cruisers and destroyers about the harbor and on ships along Ford Island’s north side, precisely where Sprague’s Tangier was located. One dive bomber charged in across Ford Island, but the Tangier’s forward 3-inch gun ripped off its tail section while .50-caliber machine gun bullets punctured its side, spiraling the plane into the water directly behind the Curtiss.
Five minutes later, another dive bomber approached from the northeast, but the Tangier’s accurate fire caused it to veer out of control and crash ashore at Beckoning Point, due west of the ship. A third Japanese plane followed at 0910, but the ship’s gun crews, according to Sprague, pumped “a veritable storm of lead” at the plane that tore into it, killed the pilot, and produced a fire in the fuselage. The Japanese observer unsuccessfully tried to extricate himself from the inferno as the plane swerved sharply and crashed into the Curtiss.
Five additional dive bombers charged at the Tangier in rapid succession. Commander Sprague watched their bombs drop and was certain some would hit, but two splashed into the water 15 and 20 feet off the starboard side and two hit 20 and 40 feet aft. Geysers erupted off the ship’s bow, and bomb fragments shattered windows on the protected bridge, but not one bomb hit the Tangier.
During the action Sprague periodically sent reports to the men laboring belowdecks. The sailors stationed there felt the ship shake and heard the explosions, but, unable to see the unfolding events, had no idea how the ship was faring. They appreciated that, despite being in the middle of a deadly attack, their skipper did not forget them. Fireman Second Class Walter F. Hamelrath said, “To one who was frequently on duty in the confines of the engine room this was a definite morale booster.”13
When the attack ended, the Tangier was one of the fortunate Pearl Harbor ships. Bomb fragments had punctured the tender in 42 places, but none caused serious damage nor penetrated below the waterline. Only three men sustained slight wounds. The commander later claimed that the reason his ship survived the eight planes that dove on her, even though “some came damn close, was that the volume of our fire was so great they couldn’t complete their dive.”14 He also believed that the bombs that hit near his ship must have burrowed into the harbor bottom’s mud, “which muffled the force of the explosion.”
In his action report, Sprague praised his crew for shooting down three enemy planes, hitting and possibly destroying two more, and participating in the attack on the midget submarine. His gun crews expended 415 3-inch shells and 23,000 .50-caliber rounds, prodding Sprague to claim that his officers and crew had performed brilliantly. He said that his men were alerted so quickly and rushed to stations with such alacrity that he believed the Tangier was the first ship in the harbor to open fire.
With battleships resting on the harbor’s bottom, other vessels coughing smoke, and the dead littering ship and shore, the Tangier’s performance was understandably overlooked. Some of the crew bristled at the oversight of what they considered a stellar response, but the unassuming Sprague gave it little thought. In an 8 December memo to his crew he simply wrote, “You are all right for my money.”15
The Tangier’s enlisted men and officers felt the same about their commander, who received a Letter of Commendation for his actions that first day of the Pacific war. Seaman Mapes said years later: “It isn’t by coincidence we were the only ship tied up at Ford Island not to get hit. It was because of Sprague’s training and drills.”16
Unparalleled as a Commander
By destroying or putting out of action so many of the Pacific Fleet’s battleships, the Japanese forced the U.S. Navy to switch focus to aircraft carriers. Fittingly Sprague, who had shown a gift for command under fire at Pearl Harbor, was a crucial component in that pivot. He skippered the Wasp (CV-18) during the successful Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. Four months later, with his flag in the escort carrier Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70), Rear Admiral Sprague commanded Task Unit 77.4.3—“Taffy 3”—13 escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts that executed a daring defense against Japanese battleships and cruisers off Samar Island. This, the climax of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, helped turn back a Japanese surface force and saved General Douglas MacArthur’s Leyte Gulf beachhead.
Sprague added to his laurels after the war. In February 1946, with his flag in the Shangri-La (CV-38), he supervised a joint task group and a naval air group involved in Operation Crossroads, the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. Two years later he commanded Carrier Division Six when the unit embarked on a four-month tour of the Mediterranean showing the flag, and in 1950 he became the Commandant of the Seventeenth Naval District and Commander of the Alaskan Sea Frontier, an important post in the Cold War friction with the Soviet Union. During that tenure, on 12 November 1950 Sprague became the first admiral to fly over the North Pole.
Sprague officially retired as a vice admiral to his home in Coronado, California, on 1 November 1951. During his naval career he had received 16 awards and citations, including a Navy Cross for his actions off Samar and four Legion of Merit awards; Taffy 3 had also earned a Presidential Unit Citation.
On 16 February 1980, the Navy would launch in his honor the guided-missile frigate Clifton Sprague (FFG-16). A commander who downplayed public recognition while emphasizing training and preparation, Admiral Sprague would have loved the ship’s coat-of-arms, which bore the Latin slogan Nunc Paratus (Ready Now).
On 11 April 1955, the Tangier’s Pearl Harbor–attack commander passed away at age 59 from a massive heart attack. Fittingly for a man who loved the sea, he was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, a beautiful jut of land flanked by San Diego Bay on one side and his beloved Pacific Ocean on the other.
The men who served under him claimed that Sprague, with his calm demeanor and thorough preparation, was unparalleled as a commander. “We would have gone to hell and back twice for you,” Christopher Carson of the Fanshaw Bay wrote to the admiral two years after the war ended. 17
They so highly regarded Sprague that the men raised funds to pay for the beautiful Battle of Leyte Gulf Memorial that adorns San Diego’s waterfront. Images of the 13 ships he commanded off Samar flank a bust of Sprague. Flattering tributes to the commander are carved into the bust’s pedestal, but Fanshaw Bay Ordnanceman William M. Carson may have best summed up Sprague’s leadership abilities. “He had the gift of making the sum of the parts add up to a lot more than the whole,” he wrote in 1989. “Part of leadership I guess is bringing out the best in people and focusing their energies on worthwhile and mutually beneficial goals. Whatever it is he had it in spades.” Carson then added, “The Halseys of this world may add the drama to war but it is the Spragues who win the battles.”18
1. Clifton Sprague letter to Dorothea Harvey, 2 February 1942, Clifton A. F. Sprague Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.
2. Author’s interview with Daniel Vaughan, 11 December 1993.
3. U.S. Naval Academy Lucky Bag, 1918.
4. Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey and J. Bryan III, Admiral Halsey’s Story (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947), 52.
5. Rear Admiral E. H. Eckelmeyer letter to Henry Pyzdrowski, 17 March 1989, courtesy of Henry Pyzdrowski.
6. Author’s interviews with Admiral James S. Russell, 14 and 21 April 1992.
7. Author’s interview with John Hughes, 24 April 1992.
8. Author’s interview with Leonard Barnes, 4 April 1992.
9. Author’s interview with Richard L. Fruin Jr., 25 April 1992.
10. Patricia Sprague Reneau and Courtney Sprague Vaughan, Remembered and Honored: Clifton A. F. “Ziggy” Sprague (Santa Cruz, CA: privately published, 1992), 76–77. Author’s interview with Wesley Larson, 15 April 1992.
11. Author’s interview with Joseph Mapes, 9 April 1992.
12. Hughes interview; Barnes interview.
13. Walter F. Hamelrath letter to Patricia Reneau, 25 May 1987, in the Clifton A. F. Sprague Collection.
14. Commanding Officer to Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, “Official Report on the Pearl Harbor Air Raid,” 2 January 1942, RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
15. Clifton Sprague message to the USS Tangier officers and crew, 8 December 1941, in the Clifton A. F. Sprague Collection.
16. Mapes interview, 9 April 1992.
17. Christopher Carson letter to Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, 21 September 1947, in the Clifton A. F. Sprague Collection.
18. William Carson letter to Bill William, 1 August 1989, in the Clifton A. F. Sprague Collection.