An uncompromising devotion to duty

In Henry, Illinois, a small town on the Illinois River a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, the local park includes a memorial which has as its centerpiece a submarine torpedo. The monument honors 374 officers and 3131 enlisted sailors who lost their lives aboard 52 American submarines during World War II. Perhaps the most prominent among them is Captain John Philip Cromwell, a Henry native who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after sacrificing his life aboard the submarine USS Sculpin in November 1943.

This weekend the United States and the world will mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in the Pacific in World War II. Among the many important components of the Allied victory in the Pacific war was the U.S. Navy’s submarine service, and the intelligence and codebreaking operations which allowed American planners to disrupt Japanese operations throughout the war effort.

Squarely at the intersection of these two was Captain John Philip Cromwell of Henry, Illinois.

John Cromwell graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1924. His first assignment was aboard the battleship Maryland. But he soon found a calling in the relatively new submarine service, which he entered in 1927, the same year he married Margaret Robinson of Rushville, Illinois. They soon had two children, Ann and John Jr.

Cromwell studied diesel engines, and excelled in the field to such an extent that after serving aboard several submarines in the 1930s he was promoted to chief engineering officer for first a Submarine Division and then in May 1941 the entire submarine force of the Pacific Fleet.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cromwell returned to an at-sea command, serving as commander of Submarine Division 203, flying his flag from the submarine USS Sculpin.

Meanwhile, the nation’s military and political leadership was demanding answers for the disaster at Pearl Harbor, and insisting that measures be taken to ensure that the country was never caught by surprise again. The Navy devoted an enormous amount of time and resources into breaking Japanese codes and providing commanders with as much information as possible about enemy strength, movements and intentions.

USS Sculpin 
Their success in doing so provided the Navy with the decisive tool it needed to win the battle of Midway six months after Pearl Harbor. More hard-fought victories followed, and soon the Americans were on the offensive in the Pacific, taking the first steps toward the Japanese home islands.

While serving on the staff of the Pacific Fleet’s submarine force commander, Cromwell had been granted access to some of the intelligence produced by this code-breaking operation, known as Ultra. He was well aware of the capabilities of U.S. intelligence, and of the importance of keeping those capabilities secret from the Japanese, lest they change their codes and methods, thus rendering all this intelligence work useless.

In November 1943, Cromwell sailed aboard Sculpin for his ninth war patrol, this time in support of U.S. forces on their way to invade the Japanese-held Gilbert Islands, a mission called Operation Galvanic. Cromwell headed a task force which included two other subs, USS Searaven and USS Apogon.

“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,” a citation would later read. “Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his under seas flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold.”

On November 18, Sculpin moved to intercept a convoy bringing Japanese reinforcements to the islands, but an escorting Japanese destroyer struck first. Sculpin dove to attempt to evade the enemy ship, which was attacking with depth charges, anti-submarine explosives fused to detonate at a pre-determined depth. More than a dozen explosions rattled Sculpin and damaged her sea valves and pressure gauges, causing the sub to rise until it broke the surface.

The enemy destroyer now moved in for the kill, but Sculpin was not finished fighting yet. Sailors quickly manned the sub’s deck gun and opened fire, engaging in a brief gun battle with the more heavily-armed Japanese ship. The American gun crew was killed, along with the sub’s captain, Commander Fred Connaway. A surviving officer gave the order to abandon ship.

But Cromwell faced an agonizing choice. To stay aboard meant certain death, but abandoning ship would ensure his capture by the Japanese, who would seek to find out all he knew about America’s intelligence capabilities.

“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,” his citation continues. “Preserving the security of his mission at the cost of his own life, he served his country as he served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty.”

As with many submarine sinkings, there was no official word of the loss for several weeks. When Sculpin failed to return to Hawaii she was declared “presumed lost.” Cromwell’s family, and the families of the other crewmembers, did not find out what had happened until two years later when the survivors were rescued from a Japanese prison camp.

In 1946, Captain John Philip Cromwell was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for “his great moral courage in the face of certain death.” His son, John Jr., accepted the medal on his behalf. The younger Cromwell would go on to graduate from Annapolis in 1951 and serve the nation in Korea and in Vietnam. Not long after, the Navy paid further tribute to Cromwell, when in 1954 it commissioned the destroyer escort USS Cromwell named in his honor. His daughter, Ann, christened the ship, which served in the fleet until the early 1970s.

Memorial in Henry, Illinois. Photo from

Captain Cromwell’s sacrifice and heroism are proudly remembered by his hometown with a monument in the city park, which includes the complete Medal of Honor citation. The memorial was dedicated on July 4, 1974. The city of Henry and a group of U.S. Navy submarine veterans hold a memorial service at the park each fall on Cromwell’s birthday. Today it is an especially poignant service, as Cromwell was born on September 11, 1901, exactly 100 years before another devastating sneak attack on America.

The service honors not only those lost on this century’s “Day of Infamy,” but the man who sacrificed his life to protect a secret crucial to America’s victory in World War II.