BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. Born in Henry, Illinois on 11 September 1901, John Philip Cromwell was graduated from the United States Naval Academy with the Class of 1924. He saw service in Maryland, as well as in several submarines, before achieving command of U.S.S. S-20. By the beginning of World War II he was serving on ComSubPac’s staff, overseeing the operations of SubDiv 203 and SubDiv 44. He would also take command of SubDiv 43.
After a brief overhaul, Sculpin left Pearl Harbor for her ninth war patrol on 5 November 1943. After refueling at Johnston Island on 7 November, she departed for her assigned station northeast of Truk.
Sculpin‘s ninth war patrol was being undertaken as part of Operation Galvanic, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. Because of his position on the Pacific submarine command structure, Cromwell was thoroughly familiar with the operational plans for Galvanic, as well as the source and function of ULTRA.
Sculpin was commanded by LCDR Fred Connaway, making his first war patrol. If conditions warranted, Cromwell would form a wolfpack with USS Sculpin, USS Searaven (SS-196) and either USS Spearfish (SS-190) or USS Apogon (SS-308) under his direction. As a senior officer, Cromwell was completely familiar with the plans for the upcoming Battle of Tarawa, Operation Galvanic, and knew a lot more about ULTRA – and its source – than anyone else on Sculpin. It was Cromwell’s first war patrol also. While attacking a Japanese convoy on November 19, 1943, Sculpin was forced to the surface, fatally damaged in a gun battle and abandoned by her surviving crew members. Captain Cromwell, who knew secret details of the impending operation to capture the Gilbert Islands, deliberately remained on board as she sank. For his sacrificial heroism in preventing the enemy from obtaining this information, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
On 29 November, COMSUBPAC radioed Sculpin to order Captain Cromwell to activate the wolfpack. When Sculpin failed to acknowledge the message, even after several repetitions, she was assumed – correctly – to have been lost at sea. It wasn’t until after the war that the details of her loss – and that of Captain Cromwell – to enemy action became known from both Japanese sources and surviving crewmembers who had been prisoners of war.
Sculpin had actually arrived on station on 16 November and made radar contact with a large, high-speed convoy on the night of the 18th. After making a fast surface run to get ahead of the quarry, LCDR Connaway submerged for an attack at dawn. As he started his final approach, however, his periscope was spotted by the enemy, and Connaway was forced to take Sculpin deep and allow the convoy to pass overhead. Then, he surfaced again to attempt another end run in broad daylight. Unfortunately, the Japanese destroyer IJS Yamagumo had lagged behind the convoy specifically to counter such a move and after forcing Connaway to make a quick dive, dropped a pattern of depth charges that – unbeknownst to the crew – damaged the depth gauge. Sculpin went deep and laid low for several hours repairing damage.
When Connaway decided to go to periscope depth, the diving officer failed to realize that the depth gauge wasn’t moving, and instead of levelling off at 62 feet, Sculpin heaved herself to the surface with the depth gauge still reading 125 feet. She was spotted by the destroyer Yamagumo, which opened fire at once.
Connaway ordered a crash dive, but Yamagumo‘s follow up depth charge attack was perfectly timed and, with Sculpin uncontrollably submerged, Connaway was forced to surface and attempt a gun action.
Yamagumo‘s first salvo hit Sculpin‘s bridge, killing Connaway, along with his executive and gunnery officers. With the senior officers dead, Lieutenant G.E. Brown, Jr. assumed command, ordering the crew to abandon and the boat to be scuttled. Cromwell decided to go down with Sculpin, fearing that he could be forced to reveal what he knew about ULTRA and Galvanic. Ensign Fiedler, the diving officer who had failed to notice the defective depth gauge and presumably felt responsible for what had happened, also chose to go down with the boat.
The 41 survivors were split into two groups and put aboard the aircraft carriers Chuyo and Unyo for transport to Japan. In an ironic twist, Chuyo was torpedoed and sunk by Sailfish—the raised and renamed Squalus, which Sculpin had been instrumental in finding after she was sunk on a training exercise—killing all but one of the 21 Sculpin survivors aboard.
When the story of what Captain Cromwell had done became known after the war, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor. This was awarded posthumously to his widow. In 1954 the destroyer-escort U.S.S. Cromwell was named in his honor.
Medal of Honor
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Navy. Born: 11 September 1901, Henry, Ill. Appointed from: Illinois. Other Navy award: Legion of Merit.
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 Ninth War Patrol of that vessel in enemy-controlled waters off Truk Island, November 19, 1943. Undertaking this patrol prior to the launching of our first large-scale offensive in the Pacific, Captain 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 gun-fight, 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 United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Captain John Philip Cromwell’s name is engraved in the Courts of the Missing, court 5 at the Honolulu Memorial, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Much of the material in the article was gleamed from an excellent biography written by Curt Benege.
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.