USS SCULPIN (SS-191) began her ninth war patrol on 7 November 1943, departing Johnston Atoll, where she had stopped to fill up on fuel after leaving Pearl Harbor, for the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The United States was about to mount a massive attack on the Gilbert Islands and SCULPIN was charged with intercepting any Japanese naval forces that might be on their way to oppose the invasion. She was supposed to remain on station until 14 December and then return to Pearl Harbor. But after leaving Johnston Atoll she was never heard from again.
Although Commander Fred Connaway was the commanding officer of SCULPIN, the boat was also carrying Commander (soon to be Captain) John Cromwell on his first war patrol. His job was to take over command of a wolfpack of four subs, including SCULPIN, if superiors directed that the group be formed—there was a chance that such a confederacy would not be needed, in which case Captain Cromwell would remain aboard as just another officer until SCULPIN completed the patrol. But orders came through on 29 November and the three other subs waited for close to two days for further instructions from Cromwell. None came. On 1 December, COMSUBPAC sent new orders to Cromwell, hoping to raise a response. Once again, there was silence. SCULPIN was finally declared overdue and presumed lost four weeks later. For nearly two years no one knew what had happened to the sub. But after the war ended, several SCULPIN crewmembers were released from Japanese POW camps and came forward to tell their story.
On 18 November 1943, SCULPIN came across a convoy of enemy vessels and prepared to attack. A high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse ensued as the sub several times reached a firing position only to be discovered and chased away by the ships and their escorts. As the fight wore on, things began to go poorly for SCULPIN. A string of depth charges destroyed her depth gauge, so in attempting to come to periscope depth her crew miscalculated and broached the boat, bringing her exact location to the ships’ attention. SCULPIN dove once more, but the Japanese were able to place about twenty depth charges almost directly overhead. The sub lost depth control and was driven deep; leaks began opening up and water poured in. More depth charges took out her sonar, rendering the boat unable to “see.”
CDR Connaway knew that the game was up, but he didn’t want his crew to die along with their boat. He took SCULPIN back to the surface and ordered the deck guns manned. Within minutes, Connaway, the bridge watch standers, and the entire gun crew were dead, killed by enemy fire. The senior surviving officer made sure the rest of the men had a chance to abandon ship, then gave the order to scuttle the boat.
Cromwell, uninjured, must have been thinking fast. He knew a great deal about the plans for the upcoming invasion of the Gilberts, as well as information about other military operations. He also knew that he would be questioned if he was captured and he wasn’t sure how long he could stand up under torture. So while the last of SCULPIN’s Sailors opened the seacocks and escaped, Cromwell remained aboard, choosing to go down with the sub.
The survivors had a long road ahead of them. A Japanese destroyer picked up 42 men; one, badly injured, was thrown back into the water. After a week and a half of questioning at a base on the island of Truk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, the group was split in half and loaded onto two aircraft carriers to be sent to Japan. On 2 December, USS SAILFISH (SS-192) ran across one of the carriers and sank it, killing all but one of the American POWs (the final man managed to clamber up the side of a passing Japanese ship); she had no way of knowing her fellow countrymen were on board. It was a terrible twist of fate given that over a year before SCULPIN had helped to bring SAILFISH, then called SQUALUS, back to the surface after she sank off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Based on information provided by the twenty-one SCULPIN survivors, the Navy awarded Captain Cromwell the Medal of Honor. It was presented to his widow.
Sixty-two men died either the day SCULPIN went down or onboard the Japanese carrier. SCULPIN, the recipient of eight battle stars and the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, was the twenty-fourth American submarine lost in World War II.