Captain Cromwell goes down with USS Sculpin

USS Sculpin (SS-191) off San Francisco, California, on 1 May 1943, following an overhaul.
USS Sculpin (SS-191) off San Francisco, California, on 1 May 1943, following an overhaul.
The Japanese destroyer Yamagumo which spent over nine hours hunting for the USS Sculpin.
The Japanese destroyer Yamagumo which spent over nine hours hunting for the USS Sculpin.

Far out in the Pacific the USS Sculpin spotted a Japanese convoy and prepared to attack. Unfortunately she was spotted during her approach and forced to dive. When she surfaced to try again, she came up close to a Japanese destroyer that was trailing behind the convoy. So began a nine hour ordeal by depth charge during which the Sculpin sustained significant damage.

The Diving Officer, Lt. George Brown was sent from his dive control station to assess the damage.

Upon inspection, I found the after engine room had flooded to such an extent I believed it unwise to attempt to place a bubble in No. 4 Main Ballast Tank, which would have aided the trim considerably. The flow of water forward might short the main motor leads. We decided to bail the water forward to another compartment until we could trim the ship without endangering the main motors.

While a bucket brigade was being run by exhausted men in temperatures well over q hundred degrees, the temporary diving officer broached the ship. However, no one could be blamed for this as the depth gauge was stuck at 170 feet and the pressure gauges around the diving station were all flooded out.

When SCULPIN stuck her nose up, the destroyer saw it and came over again, dropping another string of depth charges which tore the radio transmitter from the bulkhead and smashed the receiver, popped light bulbs and severely damaged outboard vents in both torpedo rooms.

Finally Sculpin’s captain, Commander Connaway, decided to surface and fight it out with the deck gun. It would be a one sided battle but it gave them some chance.

Fireman Baker was one of the men who went on deck to man the gun:

The next thing we know, the word is passed through the intercom phones,” Standby to Battle Surface!” Up to the surface we go, the hatch is open and we dash out on deck quickly to man the deck guns and have it out with him once and for all.

The day was a pretty one, with white caps coming over the decks. At first when we went out on deck we couldn’t see the destroyer. Then one of the men spotted it on the starboard side … right against the sun. He was about 3,000 yards off. Immediately we went to our stations on the gun and began to fire at him. We got off the first shot, which went over him. The second fell short.

In the meantime, he had begun to fire at us with machine guns and his 5-inch-70. All we had was a 3-inch-50. One of his shots hit us in the main induction, another went directly through the coming tower and came out the portside, killing a number of men inside, and also some men who were out on deck, hiding from the gunfire. Men were being killed from the machine gun fire as they were coming out of the hatches.

We had a fine crew … the guys really showed the guts they had. A. B. Guillot, Fireman first class, from Louisiana, was on the 50-caliber gun. The Japs made a direct hit on his gun and wounded him severely. I still remember how he looked with blood streaming from great rips in his chest, passing ammunition to the 3-inch gun until he fell over the side. J. Q. Harper, Torpedoman third class, stuck at his 20mm gun until the very end.

With Commander Connaway and other officers dead as a result of hits to the conning tower, the command of Sculpin passed to Lt. Brown. There was one more senior officer travelling on the Sculpin. Captain Cromwell’s role had been to organise the US submarines in a wolf pack later in the patrol, he was privy to high level Naval intelligence, including the Enigma traffic:

I informed Commodore Cromwell, who was in the control room, of my intentions. He told me to go ahead and he said he could not go with us because he was afraid that the information he possessed might be injurious to his shipmates at sea if the Japanese made him reveal it by torture.

I then rang up, ‘Emergency speed” and passed the word, “Abandon Ship”, and sent Chief Hemphill forward and Chief Haverland aft to pass the word in case the P. A. system was out. When they returned to the control room we waited one minute by the clock, then ordered the vents opened, knowing that it would spell the doom of the submarine in minutes and thereby rob the, Japanese of a valuable war trophy.

It was the end of the Sculpin but not the end of the agonies of her crew. Several men chose to go down with the submarine, alongside Commodore Cromwell. Those who escaped from the submarine and were saved by the Japanese were kept in a cage on the Naval base at Truk and subjected to days of brutal torture. Eventually they were treated as PoWs and transported in two groups to Japan. Half of them would die on board the Japanese carrier Chuyo when it was torpedoed by the USS Sailfish on 4th December.

Read the whole of survivor George Rocek’s story at

Captain John P Cromwell
Captain John P Cromwell

The story of Captain Cromwell did not emerge until the survivors returned to the United Staes at the end of the war, when he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor:

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.

The Sculpin pictured during her last refit.
The Sculpin pictured during her last refit.
The USS Sculpin during her refit trials.
The USS Sculpin during her refit trials.

2 thoughts on “Captain Cromwell goes down with USS Sculpin”

  1. Discovered the story about Commodore Cromwell and the other brave men who went down with the USS Sculpin. However, since Cromwell is the only person who knew of Enigma and broken Japanese naval and merchant codes, what rationale led the others who chose to go down with him?

  2. The story of this boat is an amazing one. The incredible story of the survival of Ens. Rocek. And Captain Cromwell’s heroic decision to do whatever it took to not allow the secrets he carried in his head, to fall into the hands of the Japanese. Thank you, Mr. Rocek. And thank you too, Captain Cromwell. You honored yourself and your country by the decisions you made.

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