Many World War II submarine stories focus on the daring heroism of intrepid commanding officers and their steadfast crews. But as LCDR Glenn Smith, USN (Ret.), demonstrates in his article “One Man, Six Commands at Sea: Captain Frederick Colby Lucas, Jr.,” not everyone was, or is, cut out for the stress of submarine life. What makes Lucas’s story so extraordinary is the fact that he recognized his own limitations and chose to refashion his naval career to play to his strengths. Today we offer the first of three parts of Smith’s article, which introduces Lucas and provides the background for the most crucial element of his story.
“USS Billfish (SS-286), Makassar Strait, November 11, 1943: The depth charges came as suddenly and as intensely as the monsoon rains on the Bay of Bengal. It was as if Billfish had a black flag flying above her, even though she was submerged and running deep. The fact was that she did have a ‘black flag’ flying and did not know it.
“Commanding Billfish was CDR Frederick C. Lucas, U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1930.
“Command-at-Sea is the most coveted position a career naval officer can have. Today, career line officers will typically have one, maybe two opportunities [to] hold this ultimate responsibility. Some will never be so lucky, and rare is the officer that will hold more than two. Six commands-at-sea is virtually unheard of today. However, between 1940 and 1960, Frederick C. Lucas commanded six ships, with mixed results.
“Following graduation from the Naval Academy, like most graduates of his day he was assigned to a big ship to ‘learn the ropes.’ [F]or Lucas it was the carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3). By 1932, he decided to volunteer for submarine duty, and completed submarine school that year. His first sub duty was in USS Bonita (SS-165). After 4 ½ years he was deemed ready for more responsibility and next served at sea as XO of USS Skipjack (SS-184) from May 1939 to June 1940. During that time, Skipjack transited the Panama Canal into the Pacific, where she operated on the west coast and in Hawaiian waters conducting training.
“In July 1940, Lucas assumed his first command, USS R-2 (SS-79) which was a ‘school boat’ operating out of New London, serving the training needs of the Submarine School and Yale University NROTC. By the end of his tour in R-2, Lucas had, on paper, a good resume of more than six years of submarine duty, but like all of his contemporaries, none of it was in combat…it was all theoretical training. In April 1941, Lucas went off to a staff assignment.
“The outbreak of war found Lucas ‘on the beach,’ which was not where most career officers wanted to be. [H]however, it seems that he felt that this was where he could be of the most and best service. He did not push hard for an at-sea assignment, but it came anyway in April 1943 as commissioning CO in USS Billfish (SS-286). Then began Lucas’ trip to destiny in Makassar Strait, which would culminate in the ‘rain’ of depth charges on November 11, 1943. Everything in 1943 was hurried, and so it was with the post commissioning work-up for Billfish, and by early summer she was en route to Fremantle, Western Australia, her new home base. Her first patrol was uneventful, but the second would be different and pivotal for Lucas.”