JOHN W. WILCOX, JR., RADM, USN
John Wilcox, Jr. '05
Date of birth: March 22, 1882
Date of death: March 27, 1942
From the 1905 Lucky Bag:
Biography & Loss
Wilcox was born in Midway, Georgia, on 22 March 1882. He was a 1905 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and was a skilled rifle marksman.
As a lieutenant commander, Wilcox was the first commanding officer of the armed yacht USS Yacona (SP-617) when she was commissioned on 10 December 1917 for World War I convoy escort and antisubmarine duty in the Atlantic Ocean. He received the Navy Cross for distinguished service during the war as flag secretary on the staff of Commander, Battleship Force 2, United States Atlantic Fleet. By March 1919, Wilcox had been promoted to commander and was the executive officer of the troop transport USS Von Steuben (ID-3017), engaged in bringing American servicemen home from Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Wilcox was on the staff of the United States Naval Academy, serving as the school's athletic director, from 1931 to 1934.
From 27 May 1939 to 30 June 1939, while a captain, Wilcox served as acting president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, between the departure of outgoing college president Rear Admiral Charles P. Snyder and the arrival of incoming president Rear Admiral Edward C. Kalbfus. Promoted to rear admiral, he then became commander of the Special Service Squadron in the Panama Canal Zone until relieved by Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt on 3 August 1940. Wilcox was President of the Board of Inspection and Survey from September 1940 to December 1941.
Wilcox was the newly appointed Commander, Battleships, United States Atlantic Fleet, when the United States entered World War II on 7 December 1941. He came aboard his flagship, the battleship USS Washington (BB-56), in Virginia's York River, to take up his duties on 13 December 1941, simultaneously also taking command of Battleship Division 6. Washington conducted training along the United States East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico until March 1942.
On 25 March 1942, Wilcox became commander of Task Force 39, consisting of Washington, the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), the heavy cruisers USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37) and USS Wichita (CA-45), and eight destroyers. The task force had orders to join the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands and thereafter assist the Home Fleet in covering Arctic convoys bound for the Soviet Union. With Wilcox aboard Washington, the task force departed Casco Bay, Maine, on 26 March 1942, bound for Scapa Flow.
On the morning of 27 March 1942, the second day of the voyage, Wilcox appeared unaccompanied and without a coat on Washington's deck while Task Force 39 was pushing through heavy seas off Sable Island in stormy North Atlantic winter weather. He held a few brief conversations with some of the men on deck before they lost track of his whereabouts. At 10:31, a member of Washington's crew reported a man overboard at 42°24′N 61°34′W and soon thereafter Tuscaloosa sighted a man struggling in the water and took evasive action to avoid running him down. The task force began a search and rescue operation. Mustering of Washington's crew found no one missing from the ship's company or Wilcox's staff, and it gradually became apparent that Wilcox himself had gone overboard.
Wasp launched four SB2U-2 Vindicator dive bombers to assist in the search, one of which crashed astern of Wasp while attempting to land, killing its two-man crew. About 80 minutes after Wilcox went overboard, the destroyer USS Livermore (DD-429) sighted his body floating face down in the rough seas, but the bad weather prevented its recovery, and it was never seen again. Task Force 39 soon suspended its search and resumed its voyage to Scapa Flow.
From Naval History Magazine - February 2018 by Richard J. Bauman:
Man overboard” is perhaps the most chilling phrase one can hear on board a ship. And when those words were heard on the morning of 27 March 1942, one of the most baffling incidents in U.S. naval history began. To this day it has never been satisfactorily resolved.
That morning, a U.S. Navy task force was zigzagging through the wintry North Atlantic, bound for a rendezvous with Royal Navy ships near Scapa Flow, off the north coast of Scotland. The 13-ship task force included the battleship Washington (BB-56), the aircraft carrier Wasp (CV-7), two heavy cruisers, and eight destroyers. In command was Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox Jr., on board the Washington. Almost four months after the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this tiny armada was the strongest force the U.S. Navy could muster in the Atlantic.
On the Washington ’s bridge, Lieutenant (junior grade) William Fargo, officer of the deck, tried to see through the snow and freezing spray, alert for any indication of an enemy assault—from the sea, under the sea, or the air. Forward of the bridge, the barrels of the 16-inch guns were glazed with ice. Waves slammed over the ship’s bow, drenching the deck with icy water.
On the fantail, a lookout shivered in his foul-weather gear. His eyes swept the gray waves and the battlewagon’s wake for anything out of the ordinary. According to the ship’s log, at 1031 came the heart-stopping cry: “Man overboard!” The fantail lookout could see a man in the water. The Washington and all other ships in the task force were under radio silence, so Captain H. H. J. Benson ordered the message to be relayed to the other ships by whistle and flags.
Two of the task-force destroyers closed toward the flagship’s wake. The cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37), in the murky light some distance behind, signaled that a man could be seen in the water, apparently swimming toward a life ring. But moments later, the destroyer Livermore (DD-429) reported sighting the man floating face down in the raging, heaving sea. Neither ship could recover him. The question on board the Washington , and all the other task-force ships, from skipper to seaman, was the same: Who was the man overboard?
A roll call of every officer and seaman was made, in all 2,000 men, and every man of the Washington ’s crew was accounted for. Captain Benson ordered a recount, and this time he ordered officers to sight each man in his charge as his name was called. After all, there was no doubt that someone had fallen overboard—no fewer than six officers and men on three ships had seen the man struggling in the water.
The task force plowed through sea and weather, and the missing man was long-since lost now. But who was he? The second head count was the same as the first. All officers and men were accounted for. Benson still believed there was an error, but he nonetheless ordered that the report be submitted to Admiral Wilcox.
An officer took it to the admiral’s cabin. The Marine sentry on duty outside opened the door—and the cabin was empty. Where was the admiral? The ship was searched. He was not on board. The answer to the puzzle suddenly was clear. Only one man was not listed in the ship’s muster rolls—Admiral Wilcox—who had to be the missing man.
In a later board of inquiry, it was revealed that shortly before the admiral was spotted in the water, several men had seen him on deck. They reported that he looked pale, and a couple of men thought he acted confused while trying to get from one part of the ship to another.
The board of inquiry determined that “The loss at sea of Rear Admiral Wilcox was not caused in any manner by the intent, fault, negligence, or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therewith. . . . John W. Wilcox, Junior, late Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy, died on March 27, 1942, in the line of duty and not as the result of his own misconduct.”
Of course, many things could have precipitated that plunge into the icy Atlantic. Two popular notions were that Admiral Wilcox had been swept into the sea after suffering a heart attack or getting seasick. Whatever the cause of Admiral Wilcox’s accident, he is the only U.S. admiral ever to have been lost overboard at sea. [Note: this is incorrect; RADM Lynne Quiggle '30 was also lost in this manner.]
Memorial Hall Error
The board of inquiry determined that
“The loss at sea of Rear Admiral Wilcox was not caused in any manner by the intent, fault, negligence, or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therewith. . . . John W. Wilcox, Junior, late Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy, died on March 27, 1942, in the line of duty and not as the result of his own misconduct.”
John should be included with his classmates in Memorial Hall. His absence was discovered while researching others in Memorial Hall; the Naval History Magazine article was on the front page of the US Naval Institute website.