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The Unsung Joint Operational Success at Midway

By Dale A. Jenkins, with contributions from Dr. Steve Wills

The Battle of Midway in June 1942 is best known for the brave actions of U.S. Navy carrier pilots who, despite heavy losses and uncoordinated action, were able to find and destroy four Japanese carriers, hundreds of Japanese naval aircraft, and hundreds of irreplaceable Japanese aviators and deck crews. What is not often remembered is that the defense of Midway was a joint effort with Marine Corps and Army aircraft also playing a brave role in the defense of the island against Japanese attack. Today, the U.S. military almost always fights in a joint context, and the Battle of Midway, especially in the key decision of the Japanese strike commander to rearm his reserve force for a second attack a Midway, highlight that even a small joint contribution can force an opponent to make fateful decisions. In this case, joint action contributed to a decision that cost the Imperial Japanese Navy victory and likely sealed the fate of its four-carrier task force and the lives of thousands of Japanese sailors.

A Joint but Disorganized American Team

By May 27, 1942, a week prior to the Battle of Midway, the code breakers at Pearl Harbor  were able to advise Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz that the Japanese Striking Force, which included at least four aircraft carriers, would launch an air attack at first light on June 4th against the defenses on Midway Island to prepare for an amphibious landing on the island. Nimitz reinforced Midway with every plane he could mobilize to defend the island: old Buffalo fighters and a few new Wildcats, Avenger torpedo planes, B-26 and B-17 bombers, Marine Dauntless dive bombers, Vindicators, and amphibious PBY Catalina patrol aircraft. Among these aircraft were a number of Marine Corps and Army aircraft. Nimitz planned to have three Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown in a flanking position northeast of the projected southeast Japanese track aimed directly at Midway, and then to coordinate with the land-based aircraft to concentrate his aircraft over the Striking Force for a simultaneous attack on the Japanese forces.

Poorly Coordinated Air Battle

While Army and Marine Corps aircraft did not make up the majority of the combat aircraft, they had the vital role of supporting Navy patrol aircraft by expanding the search around Midway Island and providing more early warning. Without the Army B-17 bombers performing maritime search, fewer Navy aircraft would have been less to patrol around the carrier task force. Although Navy patrol aircraft ultimately detected the Japanese occupation and striking forces, the additional patrol space provided by Army aircraft helped ensure the detection and warning to Midway before the attack.

At 0430 on June 4, the Japanese carriers launched 108 planes, half of their total force, to attack the Pacific Fleet shore defenses on Midway Island. The remaining planes constituted a reserve force: attack planes armed with anti-ship torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs, and a large complement of Zero fighters. At 0603, a U.S. PBY patrol aircraft from Midway located the Japanese carrier fleet. Strike aircraft from Midway flew to intercept the Japanese carriers and land-based Buffalo and Wildcat fighters rose to defend the island. Marine Corps gunners on Midway fired antiaircraft guns at the attacking Japanese aircraft. The military facilities on Midway were heavily damaged in the attack with hangers and barracks destroyed. Casualties among the Midway aircraft defending Midway were equally heavy. Of the 26 Marine Corps F2F Buffalo and F3F Wildcat aircraft that opposed the Japanese strike on Midway, fifteen were lost in combat. At the end of the battle only two air defense fighters were still operational to defend the island.

The joint attackers flying against the Japanese carriers fared little better than the joint air defense fighters. Six Avenger torpedo planes and four B-26s were the first to reach the Japanese carriers just after 0700 and were opposed by thirty Japanese Zeros. Five of the six Avenger torpedo planes were shot down trying to attack a Japanese carrier. Two B-26 aircraft targeted another carrier, and one was shot down, and two escaped after their ineffective torpedo drops. The fourth B-26 was on fire, and the pilot may have attempted a suicide crash into the bridge of Japanese flagship Akagi, but he narrowly missed and ended up in the ocean. During this encounter, the carriers were forced to maneuver, and although the attacks from the Midway planes failed to score any hits, they caused alarm and confusion in the Japanese command. Aircraft from the Pacific Fleet carriers, however, failed to appear because the carriers at 0600 were over sixty miles away from their expected position, were beyond their operating range and did not launch. As a result, Admiral Nimitz’s plan for a concentrated attack failed. Joint coordination of fires is an absolute necessity in operations and the resulting failure of the Midway-based joint air attack to inflict damage is a good example of what happens when coordination is not present.

Operational and Tactical Effects of Indecision

The operational effect on the Battle of Midway from their disjointed Marine Corps and Army aircraft, and later those of U.S. carrier torpedo squadrons, however, was significant. Japanese Striking Force commander Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo received a message earlier from the commander of the Midway attack force recommending another attack on Midway but was slow in deciding how to respond. Because of the desperate attacks from Midway, and his personal narrow escape on the Akagi bridge, Nagumo decided the reserve force needed to launch a second attack on Midway. At 0715 he ordered a change in the ordnance of the reserve planes from torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs to the high explosive impact bombs used on land targets. At 0728, a Japanese scout plane sent a message – ten enemy ships sighted; ship types not disclosed.

Now Nagumo was presented with a dilemma, he had two different targets – the facilities on Midway Island and the now-spotted ships. He decided to let his returning Midway strike force land first and then launch his reserve force armed with torpedoes to attack American ships. This required changing the ordnance loaded on his reserve aircraft back to torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs from the weapons loaded to attack Midway a second time. This difficult and time-consuming operation would cause a substantial delay in getting the aircraft airborne.

The disruption of the Japanese air planning cycle by Marine Corps and Army aircraft yielded key tactical results as well. The Japanese planes that had attacked Midway returned as planned, beginning at 0830. They all landed by 0917, but an attack of all four refueled and rearmed air groups against the Pacific Fleet carriers would not be ready to launch until about 1045, at the earliest. Authors Jonathan Tully and Anthony Parshall noted, “the ceaseless American air attacks had destroyed any reasonable possibility of “spotting the decks” (preparing for strike aircraft recovery before Tomonaga’s (the commander of the Japanese Midway bombing attack force) return because of the constant launch and recovery of combat air patrol (CAP) fighters,” needed to intercept the attacking Army and Marine aircraft from Midway. This Japanese loss of tempo in Japanese carrier operations due to these attacks would prove fatal of the Japanese force.

Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, in command of carriers Enterprise and Hornet, had closed the range and dispatched full air groups from both carriers at about 0710. At 1025, Dauntless dive bombers from Enterprise, running extremely low on fuel, found and destroyed two Japanese carriers. At the same time Yorktown dive bombers destroyed a third carrier. Several hours later Enterprise dive bombers destroyed the fourth carrier, but not before its attack on Yorktown led to the loss of that ship. At the end of the day, Pacific Fleet carrier pilots had scored a major victory that marked a turning point in the Pacific War.

The attacks of the Midway-based aircraft had not scored any damage on the Japanese carriers or their escorts, but they contributed to the overall victory by keeping both the Japanese aircraft and ships engaged and unable to re-arm effectively for another Midway attack, or a strike on the American carriers. The delays in preparing this strike, and some luck left Japanese aircraft re-arming and refueling below decks when U.S. carrier-based dive bombers attacked, and they hits they scored on those planes caused conflagrations on the Japanese flattops that could not be extinguished.

Joint Lessons

The attacks by the Midway-based joint strike failed in their tactical mission but yielded later successful tactical and operational results. The Navy recognized the value of the B-17 in a scouting role to the point that Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King ordered a number of Army aircraft for naval service. The Army believed that the B-17’s from Midway had inflicted damage on the Japanese fleet, but the failed horizontal bombing attacks by the big Army bombers convinced the Japanese to ignore the Army planes in the future. Failures in hitting Japanese ships later in the Solomons campaign caused the Army to re-assess the B-17’s ability to attack ships. The Army later discovered that “skip bombing,” a process developed with the Australians was a more effective means through which Army aircraft could attack ships.

The joint aspect of Midway’s defense continued as Army Air Force aircraft provided defense of the island well into 1943 due to shortages of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft committed elsewhere in the Pacific War. The Marine Corps 6th Defense battalion remained in garrison on Midway until the end of the war, and the idea of Marine Air/Ground forces engaged in sea control warfare is returning to the Marine Corps in the form of Marine Littoral Regiments in Force Design 2030. The value in understanding the Battle of Midway from a joint perspective is that even the smallest amount of joint action at a crucial phase can fundamentally improve the odds of joint force success.

Dale A. Jenkins is the author of Diplomats & Admirals, 402 pages, Aubrey Publishing Co., New York, Dec. 2022.

Dr. Steve Wills is a navalist for the Center for Maritime Strategy

Featured Image: Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6) TBD-1 aircraft are prepared for launching on USS Enterprise (CV-6) at about 0730-0740 hrs, June 4, 1942. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

What We Can Learn from the Rickover Papers

By Claude Berube, PhD

With nearly a dozen biographies, countless articles, and word-of-mouth stories, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover may be the most written- or talked-about flag officer in US naval history. Can we still learn anything about the man, what he did, or why he did it? Beginning in the 1950s, many authors and publishers approached Rickover about a biography or autobiography – Simon & Schuster, Harper & Row, Naval Institute Press, etc. He rejected them all, wryly noting that “autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Dr. Francis Duncan, a historian working for Atomic Energy Commission, eventually wrote two authorized biographies based on more than a decade with Rickover, as recorded in copious notes. Duncan also had the advantage of having access to the most substantive collection of Rickover papers. Rickover was a master of shaping his image; consequently, an authorized, contracted biography with Duncan offered the best opportunity for him to manage that story.

Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that historians should use primary sources only because secondary sources have already been pre-selected and that one should read two or three versions of any episode to account for bias. Such is the case with every Rickover biography. When in 1983 a columnist from The Washington Post asked Rickover to write a biography, the Admiral explained that he had already compiled volumes of his thoughts and reflections on various subjects over the years and that he did not want to condense them into a book. However, he did allow that perhaps someone else may decide to do that someday. That was what Duncan had access to and is now finally available to researchers.

Retained in Rickover’s Arlington condominium until his second wife Eleonore’s passing in 2021, the collection was bequeathed by her to the US Naval Academy. They were then catalogued and made available in the Nimitz Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Rickover’s papers include personal correspondence, memoranda from meetings with journalists, congressmen, admirals, and presidents, as well as transcripts of telephone conversations and the famed interviews with applicants of the nuclear program. This totals approximately 250 archival boxes, arguably one of the largest collections of any U.S. naval officer.

Perhaps the most insightful and significant papers are the daily letters to and from his first wife Ruth in the decade leading up to the Second World War. This is the real education of Hyman G. Rickover – researchers will learn how he shaped himself and, more importantly, how he was influenced by Ruth.

Researchers will find plenty on the recommendations and behind-the-scenes decision-making of major programs throughout the Cold War, all thanks to Rickover who left such incredibly detailed records. The papers will confirm the mythology and stories about Rickover all these years; but it will also surprise many people. There are other aspects to the man and the officer.

He received thousands of fan mail letters from home and abroad. He was as likely to get a note of thanks from a teacher in Chicago, a student in San Francisco, or a young adult in Ghana, as he would from a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee or president of a major corporation. He was recognizable – he was, for example, one of the few Navy admirals to grace the cover of Time magazine after World War Two and television talk shows sought him out because of his outspokenness and appeal to the broader public.

Rickover’s wide-ranging contacts and interests are reflected in his Rolodex. Contact cards for influential economists John Galbraith (top left) and Milton Friedman (top right) are shown with an entry for the 1981 film Das Boot (bottom).

Rickover succeeded by his intellect. He was driven by curiosity and learning what he did not know. He was a voracious reader even on his early ships and submarines trying to understand the world around him. Among those literally thousands of works were Michael Ossorgin’s Quiet Street, Captain Robert Scott’s letters on his voyage of discovery to the South Pole, Boris Pilnyak’s The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea, Karl Marx’s Das Capital, and Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Readers may be surprised that Rickover, a Polish-Jewish emigre, would read this notorious work, however the answer may lie in the fact that Rickover read articles and books not to agree with them but to understand the ideas shaping the world both negatively and positively. Another factor may have been understanding his first wife Ruth’s country of origin better and communicating with her as he saw her as not an intellectual equal but his intellectual superior. Rickover, never one to do anything by halves, taught himself German in order to translate a book on U-Boat tactics.

He faced personal challenges. He was self-aware enough as a junior officer that he could admit to his young wife Ruth his sudden fits of depression and despair and being tormented by the “slough of despond.” He later admitted to his official biographer that he suffered from an inferiority complex. Perhaps these were simply part of what drove him to succeed and surpass his peers in some ways.

Admiral Rickover meets with President Kennedy. (Photo via JFK presidential library and museum)

Rickover held integrity as one of the highest character traits. He could not be compromised. During a meeting with his friend the British Lord Mountbatten, Rickover was offered a knighthood in exchange for an agreement on submarine information, resulting in Rickover returning to the dining room his face “pale with anger.” On their way home, he told his second wife Eleanore the story and concluded with, “Can you believe he didn’t know me any better than this – that I would fall for a knighthood?” True to Eleonore’s nature, she responded, “But I’ll always be a Lady.”

He challenged elitism everywhere – the Navy, large defense contractors, economic classes – likely because he had risen from a childhood of such poverty that his mother could only afford an orange once a year in Poland. He was acutely aware of his role and his destiny in the Navy, not simply as Hyman Rickover, but as someone who had arrived in the United States with nothing and whose religious background might have been an impediment at the time. As he told his biographer and preserved in countless notes made by Duncan, “My job, as I saw it, was to struggle through to the greatest accomplishment of which I was capable, ignoring, as far as possible, my Jewishness. This is not to say that I denied it. What I denied was the power it had to limit self-development, to force me to act humbly, rather than arrogantly, to suffer.”

No factor contributed more to enabling Rickover’s successful career than Congress. A student of history, he realized that the Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher made political connections as a young officer and, consequently, it was easier for him to make reforms, a discussion that occurred between Rickover and his friend Lord Mountbatten. He knew how to cultivate support among members – by giving them the information they asked for and having a reputation for efficiency. He was idolized and befriended by members of Congress. Over the course of four decades, he testified before congressional committees more than two hundred times – a record likely unsurpassed by any military officer or civilian.

Figure 1.
Figure 2.

Rickover spoke to them in hearings, and in personal conversations, in ways no other military officer could or would dare. He was honest, direct, and, yes, he could entertain them with his sharp wit even in a hearing that would never occur in the 21st century. They loved him for it. They respected his technical expertise, but they also expected and valued his candor. For some, he became their friend “Rick.” Rickover notes attending DC plays with Senator Scoop Jackson and their wives or dining at the home of House Appropriations Chairman Clarence Cannon who played the piano for him. Rickover’s influence, reputation, and relationships with senior congressional leaders was such that he would be called to answer off the record questions or when some members needed help. In one case, Congressman Charles Price wanted to see House Appropriations Chairman Cannon who was not seeing anyone. Price appealed to Rickover to intervene. Cannon, upon Rickover’s request, acceded and met with Price. And it was an intervention by Congress, not the Navy, which would promote him to flag rank.

In his early years as an admiral, the Navy brass and a Secretary of Defense tried to temper Rickover’s influence with Congress to no avail. As one admiral noted after a conference in Monterey of flag officers on the Rickover problem, “there isn’t a damn thing we can do to him or about him, because he’s got the Congress on his side, and we’d just better live with it.”

Most in the U.S. Navy’s submarine community have heard the stories of the famous Rickover interviews, where he would place the midshipmen in uncomfortable situations or berate them to determine how they could respond to adversity, but now aside from the experiences of those young midshipmen, we now have concrete evidence. Actual transcripts of many of those interviews exist in this collection. His reputation was cemented by the famed “interviews” of midshipmen applying – or in many cases told to apply – to the nuclear reactor program. Rickover required some candidates to have their parents or fiancées write letters on their behalf understanding why the midshipman would have to sacrifice time away from them (again, the letters of which are in this collection). Perhaps it was because the Navy had refused Rickover’s own request as a junior officer for a specific billet to accommodate Ruth in her career.

A partial transcript of an interview between Rickover and a nuclear power program candidate.

The interviews, as well as his speeches and memos, make it clear that though he was involved with and promoted technology, he placed a higher value on the humanities. As he questioned the midshipmen, he would discuss history, philosophy, religion, and management and not their technical skills. He writes that he can train anyone for the nuclear program but they had to be able to think and the humanities offered the best grounding for those future officers.

Rickover gave and wrote hundreds of speeches. His first known speech was in 1931 on the topic of the World Court to the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Kiwanis Club. Later that decade he spoke to technical organizations. His speech to a wider audience, “The Importance of Education in the Advancement of our National Resources,” occurred in 1953. Soon after, he was frequently invited to speak to a variety of organizations domestically and internationally. Rickover’s speeches were a breadth of practical, philosophical, and governmental issues: “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life,” “Competency Based Education,” “The Decline of the Individual,” “An Effective National Defense,” “The Meaning of a University,” “Liberty, Science & the Law,” and “A Humanistic Technology” are just a few. On average, he gave at least one speech monthly. Education would be his obsession – in addition to the nuclear navy which he saw as inextricably intertwined.

Retired Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover prepares to enter the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN 709) for a tour at the conclusion of the ship’s commissioning ceremony. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

He could be curt, rude, and abusive to officer candidates for the nuclear power program, to the point where the Chief of Naval Operations gently asked him to reconsider his methods. On the other hand, the papers show he could engender such loyalty from his technical and administrative staff that many stayed with him throughout his tenure as he fathered the nuclear navy for three decades. The internal office memos written by Rickover to his staff or his sharp wit to Senators and Members of Congress during congressional hearings are insightful.

People are often more complex than perceptions. The papers clearly demonstrate that Rickover had an unexpected compassionate streak. He helped his staff when they needed to move to a new assignment and would loan them money to purchase a new home; he voraciously wrote get well notes to people he knew, especially if they were children of friends. All the money he made from speeches, articles and books was donated to charities such as orphanages, disabled children societies, CARE, etc. In Shanghai as the Japanese invade China, Rickover stopped to tend to the poor and dying on the streets. One letter is from a young boy named Hyman from California taunted at school for his name and was told by his mother that there was an admiral with the same name. Rickover responded to him, explained to him the history of the name, and gave him advice. In all of this collection, Rickover only signed “H.G. Rickover,” except in this case where his empathy led him to sign his name, “Hyman Rickover.”

These papers represent a new era for understanding Rickover, the Navy, and the nation. These papers should eventually be made public so that Rickover might be known on his own terms and uncensored, even decades after his death. There is more work to be done, and I hope some historians will explore those papers. There are dozens of books to be written and, perhaps someday, a full transcription of all these papers will be completed.

Claude Berube, PhD, is a history professor at the US Naval Academy and former director of the Naval Academy Museum. He and archivist Samuel Limneos edited a volume of a portion of the Rickover papers, Rickover Uncensored, published in October 2023.

Featured Image: Admiral Hyman Rickover. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Life and Legacy of Admiral John Dahlgren

By Dr. Rob Gates

When I give a tour of the Dahlgren Heritage Museum, I always start at the photograph of Admiral John A. Dahlgren. It’s not unusual to get questions like “Was he born around here?” or “When was he stationed here?” The answers to those questions are, respectively, “No” and “Never.” So, who was John Dahlgren and why are the Navy laboratory and town named after him?

John Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren was born in Philadelphia in 1809. His parents, Bernhard and Martha Dahlgren, were well educated and on the edge – geographically and financially – of Philadelphia society and he knew the children of the top families. His parents insisted that he be given a proper education and he received top grades in mathematics, science, and Latin at a Quaker school.

Dahlgren’s world changed when his father died in 1824 and left the family in dire financial straits. He applied for an appointment as a midshipman in the Navy but was turned down. He worked for a time as a church secretary and then decided to reapply. This time, however, Dahlgren did something different and, following a pattern that he used throughout his life and career, used outside influence. In this case, that of prominent citizens of Philadelphia and family friends.

He was appointed as a midshipman in February 1826 and in April was ordered to serve on the USS Macedonian, originally the HMS Macedonian, on a cruise to South America. That was followed by a cruise to the Mediterranean on the USS Ontario. So far, his career was much like that of any Midshipman but things were about to take a turn. His cruise was cut short by illness and he was sent home on the USS Constellation, one of the original six frigates ordered by the US Navy. He used his three months leave to go to the Norfolk Navy School to study for his promotion examination.

Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, USN, standing beside a 50-pounder Dahlgren rifle, on board USS Pawnee in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, circa 1863-1865. He was then commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. (Photo via Library of Congress)

He passed and was assigned to the USS Sea Gull, a receiving ship in Philadelphia, as a passed midshipman.1 There were some advantages to such an assignment. First and most importantly, it counted as an assignment at sea. In the 19th century, promotion was by strict seniority and there was no mandatory retirement age. So, in addition to waiting your turn for promotion, it was necessary to build a resume. The most important part of a personal record was time at sea and, eventually, command at sea. Other advantages included easy duty with time to pursue other interests and the opportunity to live (and spend time) on shore rather than on the ship. Dahlgren, for example, studied law by reading and making notes on Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, an influential law text from the 18th Century.

In June 1833, he got sick again and took an unplanned years leave to recover his health. When he was returned to active duty in 1834, he was assigned to the United States Geodetic Survey as an assistant to the Superintendent Ferdinand Hassler. This took advantage of his skills in mathematics and science and was a turning point in his career. Hassler believed in continuing the education of his assistants and Dahlgren received the equivalent of a graduate education in mathematics from him. He excelled in his assignments and, as his responsibilities grew, he took on additional duties as a leader of a survey team. He quickly found that he was being paid half that of the civilian members of his team and campaigned for a promotion or pay increase. Both were turned down and, as before, Dahlgren used influence outside of the Department of the Navy and wrote a letter to his senator, who pressured the Secretary of the Navy on Dahlgren’s behalf.2 Shortly after, he received his promotion to lieutenant.

Unfortunately, the close work he was doing damaged his eyes and in 1837 he was sent to the naval hospital in Philadelphia for treatment. When his eyes did not improve he requested leave to go to Paris – on full pay – for treatment. Dahlgren spent six months there but, again, there was little improvement. He was offered a choice – go to sea and possibly lose his sight or go on furlough at half pay. He objected to half pay on the basis that he had a service-related injury. After his proposal was rejected, he appealed to his congressman who had the decision reversed. He stayed on leave until 1842.

While his eyesight did not improve in Paris, it was another turning point in his career. He became acquainted with the work that Henri Joseph Paixhans was doing with the French Navy on a type of cannon that could fire an explosive shell. Dahlgren studied Paixhans’s work and wrote and self-published a translation of his work after returning from Paris. He distributed it to Navy officers which established his reputation as an ordnance expert. When he returned to active duty and was assigned to the USS Cumberland, he was a division officer and responsible for the Cumberland’s four shell guns. While on the USS Cumberland, he invented a simpler breech lock for the guns and an improved method for sighting guns, which added to his reputation as an ordnance expert. The cruise was cut short by anticipation of war with Mexico and he returned to Philadelphia in late 1846 and awaited orders. They came in January 1847 when Dahlgren was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography at the Washington Navy Yard.

For the next five years Dahlgren applied the mathematics and science that he learned from Hassler to the development of ordnance. During that time, he established the Experimental Test Battery at the Navy Yard and he used the data that were gathered through testing in a scientific approach to designing naval guns.

The result was the famous soda bottle-shaped Dahlgren gun. He also assigned Navy officers to the foundries where the guns were made and applied his knowledge to develop a more rigorous approach to the acceptance of the guns by the Navy.

IX-inch Dahlgren Gun. (Photo from Naval History and Heritage Command)

In 1861, the Commandant of the Navy Yard, Captain Franklin Buchanan, a Maryland native, resigned his commission on the belief that Maryland would secede. When that didn’t happen, he offered to withdraw his resignation. His offer was turned down and he “went south” and joined the Confederate Navy.3

Buchanan’s logical successor was Commander Dahlgren, but Commandant was a captain billet and his promotion was not likely. Promotion to captain usually followed a command tour at sea and Dahlgren had not been to sea in several years and had never had a command tour. His friend President Abraham Lincoln intervened and convinced Congress to pass a Special Act to promote him over the Navy’s objections.

A similar thing happened seven months later. Dahlgren wanted command at sea and Lincoln used his influence to have Dahlgren promoted to rear admiral and assigned to command the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Charleston, South Carolina to replace Rear Admiral Samuel F. DuPont in 1863.

But it was not easy or without controversy. Dahlgren had been pushing Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles for assignment to sea duty for a year and Welles had resisted on the grounds that Dahlgren was more valuable in his ordnance assignment. When he was promoted and saw that DuPont was in disfavor because of his failure in Charleston, Dahlgren saw an opportunity. He approached Welles about replacing DuPont. Welles felt that Dahlgren’s selection would cause resentment within the officer corps but, at the same time, knew that it would please the president. Welles resented Dahlgren’s relationship with Lincoln and saw it as an opportunity to get Dahlgren out of Washington and away from the president. His compromise was to appoint Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote to command the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron with Dahlgren in a subordinate role commanding the ironclads. Foote and Dahlgren prepared to take command and met with Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, the newly assigned army commander in South Carolina, to discuss his plan to capture Charleston. Foote fell ill and when he died, Welles felt that because Dahlgren was familiar with Gillmore’s plan, he was the best choice to succeed him.

Dahlgren had three missions when he took command: (1) capture Charleston, (2) blockade the South Atlantic Coast, and (3) defend the fleet and base at Port Royal. However, he was given only one specific instruction by Welles – support the Army and General Gillmore in conducting his operations. When he took command, he found that Gillmore’s first operation was to take place in just a few days. Dahlgren jumped in to support him and, while he felt that the Navy performed admirably, he saw the first signs of the problems that were to trouble him for most of the rest of the war. Dahlgren supported Gillmore’s joint army-navy plan but thought there needed to be a single overall commander. Dahlgren commanded the navy force while Gillmore commanded the army. Each felt free to do what they thought was right and, as a result, coordinated effort was problematic.

Rear Admiral John Dahlgren (fifth from left) stands with his staff on board the sloop-of-war Pawnee off the Georgia coast in 1865. (Photo via Library of Congress)

There were also personality issues. Welles had long thought that Dahlgren’s push for sea duty was motivated by a search for the glory that he could not get in a shore assignment. Since that required protecting his reputation, he was reluctant to take chances and quick to avoid taking responsibility for failure. Unfortunately, Gillmore displayed many of the same characteristics. That eventually led to a feud that colored Dahlgren’s postwar years. The end result was a number of army operations that accomplished relatively little and, in any case, did not lead to the capture of Charleston.

In the fall of 1863, Dahlgren told Welles, who agreed with his assessment, that he could not undertake inner harbor operations at Charleston, as desired by Gillmore, with the forces at his disposal. He said that he could do so with additional ironclads. Welles agreed but noted that it would be several months before new ironclads would be available. However, by the end of the year, the War Department and the Navy Department both decided there were higher priorities and that there would not be any future efforts to capture Charleston.

Dahlgren’s focus the rest of the year was on blockading efforts and maintaining a stalemate in Charleston. During this time, he offered to resign three times. Welles attributed the offers to Dahlgren’s “glory seeking” and rejected all of them. He also saw possible political problems if he accepted Dahlgren’s resignation and still wanted to keep Dahlgren out of Washington.

Late in the year, General Sherman was approaching Savannah and Dahlgren saw an opportunity to support him through amphibious operations on the Georgia coast. Dahlgren had a longstanding interest in amphibious operations and had previously developed a small boat howitzer and the Model 1861 Navy (or “Plymouth”) rifle for shipboard and amphibious use. He also developed a manual for amphibious operations that included a fleet force of trained sailors and marines and incorporated artillery. Many of the elements of amphibious operations that he pioneered, tested, and revised are now widely accepted. He later supported Sherman’s move to bypass Charleston by providing a naval distraction. He occupied Charleston in February 1865 and spent the remaining months of the war removing obstructions in harbors and, finally, disbanding his squadron. He relinquished command in July and returned to Washington.

He spent some time in Washington before taking command of the South Pacific Squadron in 1866. He returned to Washington in 1868 and served as Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance for a year and then as Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard until his death in 1870.

In retrospect, some of Welles’s concerns were borne out. Senior navy officers respected Dahlgren for his work in ordnance but, as Welles suspected, resented his use of relationships and politics to get successes that they felt he had not earned. It should be said that he had some success while commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and, to one degree or another, he accomplished his three objectives. He also developed an understanding of joint operations and pioneered amphibious operations. He was a prolific writer and authored a number of books on ordnance and one on amphibious operations.

On the negative side, his conflict with Gillmore shaped his life from the end of the Civil War until his death. He spent much effort defending his reputation from charges from Gillmore and others and “refought” Charleston often during those years. As a result, his contributions to learning the lessons of the recent war and further contributions to ordnance were few.

Dahlgren’s Legacy Lives On

John Dahlgren left a rich legacy in the development, acceptance, and testing of naval ordnance. He established the Experimental Test Battery at the Washington Navy Yard for those purposes. His legacy was preserved after his death when the Naval Proving Ground (NPG) was established in Annapolis, Maryland in 1872 and then moved to Indian Head, Maryland in 1890. The focus of the NPG was on the same things that concerned Dahlgren although Indian Head branched out, especially during World War I, and produced smokeless gunpowder and tested rockets. However, technology overtook the capabilities of the Indian Head river range and by 1917, the need for a larger testing range for the Naval Proving Ground had become critical.

Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, championed the effort to relocate the range from Indian Head. In 1918 an auxiliary test range was created at Dido, in King George County, Virginia, that was called the Lower Station of Indian Head. Earle thought that an appropriate name was needed for the post office at the new site. He persuaded Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to request the U.S. Postal Service to change the name of the existing Dido post office to Dahlgren to honor the “Father of American Naval Ordnance,” with the change happening in 1919. Most of the testing moved to Dahlgren and, in 1932 the Lower Station officially became the Naval Proving Ground and Indian Head became the Naval Powder Factory.

The site at Dahlgren was originally established to test large caliber naval guns but has tested all sizes and calibers of navy guns – from 18 inches down – and, more recently, the electromagnetic railgun. Testing peaked during World War II and again, but at a lower level, during the Vietnam years. Dahlgren was the only place to fire 16-inch guns when the battleships were reactivated in the 1980s. The Navy has said that nearly 350,000 rounds were fired at Dahlgren between 1918 and 2007, averaging 3,800 rounds fired per year.

A view of the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division’s gun line in June 1989, where all gun barrels bound for service aboard U.S. Navy ships are tested. (U.S. Navy photo)

Dahlgren’s mission expanded from ordnance testing to research and development when Dr. L.T.E. Thompson came in 1923. It has continued and has included such things as work on laser-guided projectiles in the 1970s. Other things were also happening in Dahlgren. Aviation work came to Dahlgren in 1919 and stayed until World War II. Work included development and testing of unmanned airplanes, the Norden bombsight, and bombs. Dahlgren’s efforts in gunnery were computation-intensive and one of the most powerful computers of the day, the Aiken Relay Calculator, came to Dahlgren and, several years later, was replaced by the Navy Ordnance Research Calculator. Dahlgren’s computer capability led to new opportunities in ballistics, orbital mechanics, and missiles.

January 31, 2008 A electromagnetic railgun test firing at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Va. (U.S. Navy photograph)

There have been challenges to both the Dahlgren site and the river range. Dahlgren met many of the challenges by broadening its mission to take advantage of its capabilities to meet emerging Navy needs, including in lasers and unmanned vehicles. Eventually, expertise in these new areas led to the current focus on systems engineering.

Through all of the changes and challenges, the Potomac River Test Range – “the nation’s largest fully instrumented over-water gun-firing range” – has remained an important part of Dahlgren’s mission. During each of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) studies, the range was a key element in Dahlgren’s responses and the cornerstone that preserved Dahlgren’s location.

The most recent challenge is a June 2023 lawsuit filed by environmental groups concerned with the potential pollution of the river from weapons testing. A settlement was reached in January 2024 when the Navy agreed to seek a “permit for discharges of pollutants” from the state of Maryland.

As capabilities and scope of work grew over the years, the name of the organization changed to reflect its changing mission. In 1992, the name was changed to the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.

So, John Dahlgren was not born here and never served here but the Division is his legacy and, so, his name lives on.

Robert V. (Rob) Gates, a retired Navy Senior Executive, served as the Technical Director at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Indian Head Division, and in many technical and executive positions at NSWC, Dahlgren Division, including head of the Strategic and Strike Systems Department. He holds a B.S. in Physics from the Virginia Military Institute, a Masters in Engineering Science from Penn State, and a Masters and PhD in Public Administration from Virginia Tech. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College. Dr. Gates is the Vice President of the board of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation.


1. A ship that was past its useful life and no longer seaworthy could be converted into a receiving ship. It would be permanently tied up at a harbor or navy yard and used for inducting (“receiving”) and training newly recruited sailors.

2. Seniority was a problem. A midshipman appointed in 1839 could expect to be promoted to lieutenant in 1870. Promotion also required assignment to a position that supported the rank. Dahlgren fell short in both regards.

3. Buchanan was commissioned a Captain in the Confederate Navy and commanded the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) against the USS Congress and USS Cumberland in the Battle of Hampton Roads. He was wounded and was not in command against the USS Monitor. He was later promoted to full admiral, the only one in the Confederate Navy.

4. The range of the 14 and 16-inch guns being developed for battleships could only be tested under limited conditions at Indian Head. In addition, there were some testing-related incidents. 

5. In 1914, Secretary Daniels issued General Order Number 99 which prohibited alcohol (for drinking) onboard navy ships. As a result, purchases of coffee increased and sailors reportedly referred to it as “a cup of Josephus Daniels” which was later shortened – and better known – as “a cup of Joe.” 


Browning, Robert M. Jr.  “The Early Architect of Amphibious Doctrine.” Naval History Magazine. April 2019.

Bruns, James H. “John A. Dahlgren: Lincoln’s Seasick Naval Genius.” Sea History. Autumn 2016, 20-25.

Craig, Lee A. Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Dahlgren, Madeleine Vinton. Memoir of John A. Dahlgren. Boston: James B. Osgood and Company, 1882.

Luebke, Peter C., Ed. The Autobiography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren. Washington Navy Yard, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, Water Range Sustainability Environmental Program Assessment, May 2013.

Rife, James P. and Rodney P. Carlisle. The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia 1918-2006. Dahlgren, VA: NSWCDD, 2007.

Schneller, Robert J. Quest for Glory: A Biography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996

Symonds, Craig L. Confederate Admiral: The Life and Wars of Franklin Buchanan. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008.

Taaffe, Stephen R. Commanding Lincoln’s Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009.

Featured Image: A 14-inch gun fires a test round down range, during World War II. (Photo via U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Cuban Missile Crisis: Soviet Submarines Attack?

By LtCol Brent Stricker

“It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.” –Jeffrey Pelt, The Hunt for the Red October


The lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis remain relevant today when nuclear powers struggle in crisis and do their best to avoid escalating to conflict. As a prime example, the Russia-Ukraine War has similar parallels to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States objected to Soviet missiles in Cuba seeing them as a direct threat to the United States and the Western Hemisphere. Russian President Vladimir Putin provided NATO expansion and “military development of the territories of Ukraine” as a similar existential threat to Russia justifying the invasion of Ukraine. A review of the confrontation between the navies of the Soviet Union and the United States during the crisis may inform the Western powers supporting Ukraine in its current defense against Russia.

Soviet Submarines Bound for Cuba

In addition to its missiles and bombers, the Soviet Union intended to establish a naval base in Cuba. A submarine flotilla was dispatched before the crisis began. Ryurik A. Ketov, the commander of one of these submarines, wrote of his experiences during the crisis. The Soviet Navy made a critical error in sending Foxtrot class diesel submarines to Cuba as these boats were designed for northern latitudes and were required to run on the surface or snorkel to recharge their batteries. Oddly, the Soviet leadership in Moscow seemed unaware that diesel boats, and not nuclear powered submarines which could make the entire trip submerged, were being sent to Cuba. This would lead to confrontations with the U.S. Navy who attempted to force these boats to surface.

To make this confrontation more dangerous, the submarines were each armed with one nuclear tipped torpedo. The Americans were unaware of this, and mistakenly assumed as the Soviet submarines were identified as Foxtrots that they did not have nuclear weapons. The torpedoes also required the voyage be covert, with the boats expected to stay undetected.

The torpedoes were a last-minute addition to the voyage added a week before. The torpedoes were each guarded by a designated officer who slept by it. They were not fully combat ready. The designated officer would prepare the weapon for use and was the only one carrying the keys to load the torpedo. The boat captains were provided vague instructions for the use of the nuclear torpedoes.

As Captain Ryurik Ketov recalled:

“Vice-Admiral A.I. Rassokha He said, ‘Write down when you should use these. . . . In three cases. First, if you get a hole under the water. A hole in your hull. This is the first case. Second, a hole above the water. If you have to come to the surface, and they shoot at you, and you get a hole in your hull. And the third case – when Moscow orders you to use these weapons’. These were our instructions. And then he added, ‘I suggest to you, commanders, that you use the nuclear weapons first, and then you will figure out what to do after that.’”

The crisis began while the flotilla was underway. The Soviet crews were able to monitor U.S. radio broadcasts to keep current with the emerging events. This was how they first learned of Soviet missiles in Cuba and the quarantine to be imposed on Cuba. 

As the flotilla headed south toward the quarantine line, conditions aboard the boats began to deteriorate. The internal temperature of the boats rose. The Foxtrots were designed to operate in northern latitudes and began to experience difficulty as they approached the Caribbean. Captain Ketov noted, “there was an insufficient supply of fresh water for the crew, no air conditioning in the compartments – which would otherwise have facilitated the smooth operation of the boat’s machinery – and most importantly, no one had experience in servicing equipment under such high temperatures.” This became worse as the boats tried to avoid U.S. Navy anti-submarine (ASW) patrols forcing the boats to attempt to recharge using snorkels which were unable to vent the boats with fresh air.

The Kennedy administration was anxious to avoid a misunderstanding when confronting Soviet ships, particularly submarines. Defense Secretary McNamara had the U.S. Navy developing a system to signal the submarines. These signal instructions were provided to the Soviets in a Notice to Mariners (NOTMAR). The surface ships would drop practice depth charges (PDCs) above a submarine and transmit the signal to surface. Submarines were expected to surface with a bearing to the east. The NOTMAR stated the signaling devices were not harmful. The Soviet captains never received the NOTMAR.

The flotilla was soon closing with the U.S. Navy ASW forces. The U.S. Navy was broadcasting in the clear, and at first the Soviets were suspicious. Captain Ketov wrote, “We started to listen to US radio stations, and compared their announcements with US ASW communique´s, as well as with messages from home, we came to believe that these transmissions could be taken into account to determine where and when the ASW ships and planes would be located.” The U.S. Navy was able to locate and track three of the four submarines. When located, PDCs were dropped on the submarines which the Soviets perceived as attacks.

The Soviet crews found themselves in a physically stressful and dangerously perceived environment. They could not know if a war had begun, and the constant explosions and heat were taking their toll. Captain Ketov noted, “My men began fainting from heat stroke, and the increase in humidity started to affect the operating condition of the equipment. The average air temperature inside the submarine rose to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, and up to 144–149 degrees in the engine compartment.” They each had a nuclear torpedo, but no specific instructions on when or if they could use it.

This situation nearly came to a head during the efforts to force the B-59 under Captain Savitsky with flotilla commander Captain Arkhipov aboard. The U.S.S. Beale encountered the submarine at 4:49 p.m. on 29 October 1962 and spent the next four hours signaling her with PDCs and hand grenades. Captain Savitsky was heard to say, “‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing summersaults here’ Political Officer Valentin Grigorievich, screamed “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.’” The nuclear torpedo was not assembled—otherwise flotilla commander Captain Arkhipov might not have been able to convince Savitsky to not fire on the Beale.

The B-59 was eventually forced to surface at 8:59 p.m. due to its low battery levels. The Soviet crew was greeted by a ship’s band playing jazz. This surreal situation might have fit into a scene from Dr. Strangelove.

The B-59 was the closest the crisis came to a nuclear exchange. While the Kennedy administration had attempted to mitigate this with the NOTMAR, the confused situation aboard the submarines and the perceived threat of armed conflict at any moment made war very risky. On the Soviet side, “at least some officers in the Soviet military command thought that it would have been better if the submarines used their weapons rather than allow the US forces to force them to the surface.” The Soviet captains insisted they were never forced by U.S. Navy ASW efforts to surface; their drained batteries required it.


Uncertainty and confusion amongst the Soviet Captains concerning the ASW activities by the U.S. Navy could have led to a nuclear confrontation. Despite the precautions of the NOTMAR to the Soviet Union, this message was never transmitted through bureaucratic channels to submarine commanders. Vague orders on the use of nuclear tipped torpedoes and the heat and confusion might have caused a local commander to launch these weapons, dragging two nuclear powers into an escalating exchange both desperately wanted to avoid.

This potentially escalatory exchange at a pivotal moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis offers a cautionary tale for the continuing conflict in Ukraine. The availability and usability of bureaucratic channels, for example, seems an important starting point not only to ensure messages are received but that communication can even take place. And while uncertainty and confusion were potentially unavoidable in the Cuban Missile Crisis’ near-nuclear exchange, the Kennedy administration’s anxiety to avoid a misunderstanding when confronting Soviet ships might still hold implications for Western powers in their support of Ukraine in the current conflict there.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as a military professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Soviet submarine B-59, forced to the surface by U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba. (Credit: U.S. National Archives)