JOHN P. CROMWELL, CAPT, USN
John Cromwell '24
Date of birth: September 11, 1901
Date of death: November 19, 1943
From the 1924 Lucky Bag:
John was lost on November 19, 1943 when he consciously chose to remain aboard the sinking USS Sculpin (SS 191) rather than risk capture by the Japanese. He had been briefed on the upcoming invasion of Tarawa, and was aware of the United States' success in decrypting Japanese radio communications.
His wife was listed as next of kin; he was also survived by a son and daughter. The entire family was present in New London, Connecticut during the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 and in Honolulu during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. John's son, Jack, was a member of the Class of 1951.
John has a memory marker in Illinois.
Early Life & Career
Cromwell was born in Henry, Illinois, on September 11, 1901. Appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1920, he graduated in June 1924 and served initially in the battleship USS Maryland school and was assigned to USS S-24 (SS-129) during 1927–29. He next had three year's diesel engineering instruction, followed by further tours of duty in submarines.
Lieutenant Cromwell commanded USS S-20 (SS-125) in 1936–37, then served on the staff of Commander Submarine Division 4. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander in 1939 and spent two years in Washington, D.C. with the Bureau of Engineering and Bureau of Ships. In May 1941, he became engineer officer for the Pacific Fleet submarine force.
World War II
During 1942–43, Cromwell commanded Submarine Divisions 203, 44 and 43, flying his pennant in USS Sculpin (SS-191).
Following promotion to captain, he went to sea in Sculpin as prospective commander of a mid-Pacific submarine wolf pack. Sculpin was commanded by LCDR Fred Connaway, making his first war patrol. If conditions warranted, Cromwell would form a wolfpack with USS Searaven (SS-196) and either USS Spearfish (SS-190) or USS Apogon (SS-308) under his direction. It was Cromwell's first war patrol also.
Medal of Honor action
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. On 29 November, COMSUBPAC radioed Sculpin to order CAPT 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 John 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 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.
Around noon, Connaway attempted to bring Sculpin back to periscope depth, seeking another opportunity to attack. However, while coming up, the broken depth gauge stuck at 125 feet, confusing the diving officer, and causing the boat to broach the surface in full view of Yamagumo, which was still patrolling the area. As Sculpin crash-dived again, the Japanese destroyer dropped a string of 18 depth charges, severely damaging the boat and causing temporary loss of depth control. Numerous leaks developed in the hull, and so much water came on board that the submarine was forced to run at high speed to maintain depth. This invited a second Japanese attack that did even more damage.
At this point, Connaway concluded that the only chance of saving his crew was to come to the surface and fight it out there. Sculpin surfaced, and with decks awash, her crew manned the deck guns. The result of this uneven contest was hardly in doubt. Yamagumo's first salvo hit Sculpin's conning tower, killing the entire bridge watch team, including Connaway and his executive and gunnery officers. The gun crew died almost instantly from shrapnel. The senior ship's officer surviving, a reserve lieutenant, ordered the boat scuttled and the crew to abandon ship.
This action left CAPT Cromwell facing a fateful choice. With his personal knowledge of both ULTRA and GALVANIC, he realized immediately that to abandon ship and become a prisoner of the Japanese would create a serious danger of compromising these vital secrets to the enemy under the influence of drugs or torture. For this reason, he refused to leave the stricken submarine and gave his life to avoid capture. He and 11 others rode Sculpin on her final plunge to the bottom, where her secrets would be safe forever.
Medal of Honor
From Hall of Valor:
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Captain John Philip Cromwell (NSN: 0-58950), United States Navy, 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, 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 undersea 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.
Legion of Merit
John was also awarded the Legion of Merit, but the citation at Hall of Heroes is obviously incorrect.
USS Cromwell (DE 1014) was named for John; the ship was sponsored by his daughter.
Cromwell Hall, the Navy's Submarine Learning Center at the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, was also named for him.