This Day in History: John Cromwell, a captain who went down with his ship

On this day in 1901, a hero is born. Captain John P. Cromwell would become the most senior submariner to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II. He stayed aboard his sinking submarine because he knew that his death would keep vital American secrets out of enemy hands.

What kinds of thoughts go through your head when you know that you are minutes away from drowning? What kind of dread fills your being as you watch the water rise? How many memories of family overwhelm your final moments?

Thankfully, most of us will never know the answers to these questions. And yet this is exactly the type of death that Cromwell chose—all for the good of his country.

Cromwell had been serving in the Navy since his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1924. He’d served on battleships and on submarines. He’d been an engineering officer, and he’d worked in D.C. By late 1943, he was serving at sea aboard USS Sculpin. He was commander of several submarine divisions, and he was privy to many of America’s most important secrets.

Unfortunately, that voyage aboard Sculpin would prove to be his final war patrol, although the details of his last days would not come to light until after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

The conflict that led to Cromwell’s brave decision occurred on November 19, 1943. Sculpin was then preparing to attack a Japanese convoy, but it was one of those days when nothing seemed to be going right. Perhaps most fatally, Sculpin’s depth gauge had become damaged during one encounter, but Sculpin’s crew had no idea: They thought the gauge was operating normally.

You can imagine that several things went wrong after that. At one point, Sculpin tried to go to periscope depth, but it accidentally surfaced and revealed its presence to the Japanese destroyer Yamagumo instead. The battle that followed went badly, and Americans were forced to scuttle the submarine. Their capture by the Japanese was inevitable.

At this point, Cromwell had a tough choice to make. He knew a lot about Ultra, the project that had enabled Allied forces to intercept and read encrypted enemy communications. Moreover, he knew a fair amount about ongoing Allied operations in the Pacific. If he were captured by the Japanese, all that information would be at risk. “I can’t go with you,” he reportedly told the officer then commanding Sculpin. “I know too much.”

“Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs,” Cromwell’s Medal citation describes, “he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death.”

Cromwell maintained the viability of America’s ongoing missions at the cost of his own life, and yet no one had any idea what he’d done until after the war. Only then were survivors of Sculpin released from Japanese captivity, finally free to describe what they’d witnessed on that November day.

Cromwell’s widow would soon be presented with her husband’s Medal of Honor.

“His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service,” his citation concludes.

Yes, it certainly does.

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