John Cromwell, USS Sculpin (SS-191)

CAPT John Cromwell – Medal of Honor Submariner

Captain John Cromwell, USNThe submarine USS Sculpin left Pearl Harbor for her ninth war patrol on November 5, 1943 with Captain John Cromwell aboard. Two weeks later she would be lost, a loss that went unrecognized for 10 days and the truth of which would not be discovered until years after the fact.

At the beginning of World War II, John Cromwell was on the staff of Commander, Submarines Pacific, running Submarine Divisions 203 and 44. He had served in a number of ships at that point in his career and was an experienced officer. Following promotion to captain, he went to sea in Sculpin as the prospective commander of a mid-Pacific submarine wolf pack (a small group of submarines all hunting enemy ships together).

After refueling at Johnston Island on November 7, she headed to her assigned station northeast of Truk. On November 29 Cromwell was ordered to activate his wolfpack. No acknowledgment came from Sculpin. She was, correctly, assumed to have been lost, but the story about what had happened to her would only come out years later from American POWs who had been picked up by the Japanese destroyer that sank her.

It was while heading to their duty station near the Imperial Japanese stronghold of Truk that Sculpin was seen by the destroyer Yamagumo. The destroyer pounded the sub with depth charges. Despite Sculpin’s valiant efforts to escape, and then to engage the destroyer in a gunfight, the sub was fatally damaged. The gunfight killed the Sculpin’s commanding officer and a number of the crew. The ship’s senior surviving officer, Lieutenant George E. Brown, gave the abandon ship order and ordered Sculpin scuttled. Cromwell now faced a serious dilemma.

In the Autumn of 1943, the United States had completed its invasion of the Solomon Islands and was preparing to invade the Gilbert Islands in the Central Pacific. As a senior officer of his task force, Cromwell alone knew of the Navy’s plans. More importantly, Cromwell possessed vital knowledge about the Navy’s success in deciphering Japanese codes. Capturing him would have been an unimaginable intelligence coup for the enemy.

Knowing this, Cromwell made up his mind: he would go down with the ship. He “stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death. Preserving the security of his mission.”

Cromwell was awarded the Medal of Honor for this series of events that all took place on November 19, 1943. He was the most senior submariner awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II and one of the three submarine officers who received the Medal posthumously.

Cromwell had been born in Henry, Illinois, on September 11, 1901 and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with the class of 1924.

The Imperial Japanese destroyer Yamagumo – the Sculpin’s assailant. 

Medal of Honor 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.

Learn More: John Cromwell and the USS Sculpin (SS-191)


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