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Meet the Anti-Snowden: Captain John Philip Cromwell

December 24, 2013

This has been the year of Edward Snowden, the traitor who has done so much damage to the United States and its intelligence services, above all the National Security Agency, from which he stole over a million classified documents. As readers of this blog are well aware, my contempt for Snowden knows few bounds, though even those have been pushed by Ed’s recent interview in The Washington Post, which emanated a North Korean level of sycophancy to our defector, as well as the news today that Ed will be hosting a Christmas TV special. It is becoming increasingly difficult to parody such self-righteous silliness. 

To be clear, there has never been an intelligence compromise of this magnitude in the history of Western espionage. It will take NSA and its partners decades, not years, to set this damage right, and some will prove permanent, with consequences for our security than can only be guessed at yet. Snowden has betrayed not just intelligence matters, but code-breaking secrets from the realm of signals intelligence (SIGINT), the most sensitive of all governmental secrets. In an earlier age the sensitivity of such secrets was well understood and protected accordingly, sometimes to the point of death. Quite a few patriots have given their lives to protect America’s SIGINT secrets – many are honored by NSA at the National Cryptologic Memorial – and I’ve mentioned some of them. Today I want to highlight one such remarkable hero.

In mid-1943, life seemed to be going well for John Philip Cromwell. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a career submarine officer, Cromwell had recently been promoted to Captain and was serving as the skipper of a submarine squadron in the Pacific. As such, he commanded a “wolf pack” of several U.S. Navy submarines that hunted Japanese warships and freighters in the vast expanse of the Western Pacific. Although never fully grasped by the American public, U.S. Navy subs did more than any other part of the American war machine to ultimately cripple Japan’s war effort. Simply put, in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy managed to do to Japan what the German Navy failed to do to Great Britain: strangle the enemy’s war economy through gradual attrition of the fleet and merchant navy by submarines.

The biggest reason for this American success was intelligence, specifically SIGINT. Thanks to a top secret program codenamed ULTRA, the U.S. Navy knew the locations of Japanese naval and merchant vessels and, armed with this information, American submarines were able to wreak devastation on the enemy’s merchant fleet and tonnage. ULTRA, which was based on the decryption of Japanese naval codes and ciphers, was the indispensable element in the American submarine campaign against Japan, although very few personnel knew this. During World War II, the U.S. military took concepts like compartmentalization and “need to know” seriously.

Captain John Philip Cromwell, USN (1901-1943)

Captain Cromwell was fully “read on” for ULTRA and understood its importance to the secret war against Japan. He accepted the burden of such knowledge, and he went to sea for the last time on 5 November 1943, when he left Pearl Harbor with USS Sculpin (SS-191), part of his squadron, on a war patrol to attack Japanese shipping in advance of the coming U.S. invasion of Tarawa.

By the middle of the month, Sculpin was on station off Truk and ready to engage the enemy. Its effort to attack a Japanese task force on the morning of 19 November was cut short by a faulty depth gauge, which led to the Sculpin surfacing right in front of the Japanese destroyer Yamagumo. While the submarine managed to dive again, numerous enemy depth charges forced Sculpin to the surface, into a one-sided gunfight with the Japanese destroyer. While Sculpin put up a good fight, cannons on the Yamagumo blasted her decks clean, killing most of the command group. The surviving deck officer made the decision to abandon ship and scuttle the submarine.

Some forty-one sailors from the Sculpin managed to escape the sinking vessel and were taken prisoner by the Japanese, but Captain Cromwell was not among them. When the word went out to abandon ship, John Cromwell stayed on the sinking submarine. The forty-two year-old husband and father knew he had no choice but to go down with the Sculpin. Not only had he been briefed on the impending invasion of Tarawa, but more importantly, he knew about the ULTRA secret, the U.S. Navy’s unmentionable ace in the hole against Japan.

Knowing he could not let the enemy, who was prone to torturing prisoners, find out about ULTRA, Captain Cromwell elected to go down with the boat; according to all survivors’ accounts, he did so calmly, stoically. The full story of John Cromwell’s heroism and sacrifice only became known to the U.S. Navy after the war, when Sculpin survivors emerged from Japanese captivity.

Soon after, Captain Cromwell’s widow accepted her late husband’s Medal of Honor, the country’s highest valor decoration. To this day, John Cromwell is the highest-ranking U.S. Navy submariner to receive the Medal of Honor. A U.S. Navy ship was named after him, and in 2011, Sub Base Groton (CT) dedicated its Submarine Learning Center in the captain’s name. Participating in the dedication was John P. Cromwell, Jr., who followed his father’s footsteps into the Naval Academy, and enjoyed a full career, retiring as a captain himself. He donated his father’s Medal of Honor – “my most prized possession,” as he termed it – to the new center. So seriously did the Navy take secrecy that the real reason his father died – to protect the ULTRA secret – was not revealed to even his son until decades after.

When I used to train U.S. Navy cryptologic officers in their profession, I made sure every single new officer learned the story of Captain John Cromwell, to know the importance of keeping secrets even unto death. As Edward Snowden enjoys the adulation of the media, I can’t help but wonder what a hero like John Cromwell would make of this sorry spectacle. I will state with the utmost confidence that, if the Republic doesn’t start making more John Cromwells and fewer Edward Snowdens, the country has no future.

From → Espionage, History, USG

24 Comments
  1. Thanks for telling his story.

  2. Miss Cherry Jones permalink

    Thank you for this history lesson. As simplistic as it is to say, I always learn something when I read your posts. I do hope you’ll do more history-centric posts in the coming year. As important as current events are, it is equally important to understand the past.

  3. We lost two of my fellow cryptographer friends and co-workers back in 1970 when they were captured by the HUKs in the Philippines. They were tortured relentlessly and finally after days of beatings and violations of their persons I can’t even begin to imagine, they were buried barely alive in deep graves in the jungles surrounding Mount Pinatubo. We found their dead bodies two weeks later after an extensive search and on a tip from a local rice farmer.

    What we eventually learned from our investigation was that these brave young men (both age 20) never gave up any U.S. security secrets, codes or crypto analysis to their captures. They are true heroes along with men like Captain Cromwell.

    All that being said, after having worked for a branch of the NSA in the USAF for four years I am a bit torn by Snowden’s activity. We lived by a different code back then and would have never taken to spying on common U.S. citizens, although the FBI under Hoover was notorious for it, we at the NSA simply didn’t cross that line. So, again, I am a bit torn.

    He is a hero for showing how this current U.S. administration (and likely past recent one’s as well) acted unconstitutionally by spying on its own citizens using questionable, if not illegal, methods to do so.

    He is also a traitor in that his first stop in his flight from America was communist China where he was interrogated by Chinese officials and who knows what he may have told them. Now he sits in Russia and you can bet their own agents have spent time behind closed doors with him as well.

    He may be a hero in one sense, but because of his traitorous actions after the whistle-blowing he needs to be apprehended by American law enforcement and returned to the United States and put on trial for espionage.

  4. D Webb permalink

    Samuel, thank you for your service.

    You’re right, the world is upside down since you served. The US in WW2 did not torture prisoners. Does now. It didn’t cross the line to going after innocent American citizens for unwarranted surveillance. (Except for Hoover, but that was criminal conduct, not national policy) It does now.

    I’d just remind you that a soldier has an obligation to disobey illegal orders, no matter how emphatically issued. Since going to the chain of command that issued the illegal orders is not an option, the only option is to disobey and alert the authorities. And there is no higher authority than the American public.

    The NSA and many of the honorable people who serve in it are understandably angry. But the civilian and military leaders who created this state of affairs made their bed. Now they have to lie in it.

  5. thanks for re-telling this story with added info on Capt. Cromwell.
    We need to post the blame for Snowden’s defection where it properly belongs, with his employer, Booze, Allen, Hamilton (spelling may not be correct). They were the ones who took this young, impressionable, immature, young man, who had failed at several jobs and had not even graduated from college, and proceeded to give him a six figure salary with no experience other than sitting for hours at a computer terminal, a top secret clearance, and and access to our most top secrets. This at a time when barely a quarter of Americans make six figures near the end of their productive life much less start out at that salary.
    Booze, Allen should be the one called before Congress for a complete investigation, their access to government contracts terminated and existing ones revoked. It is this company that has placed the nation in harms way. They should be subjected to intense media criticism and driven into bankruptcy like Arthur Anderson for the Enron scandal. Unfortunately Booze, Allen has lots of lobbyists and supporters in Congress whose hands it greases regularly with substantial donations so the gaps in the nation’s secrets will continue.

  6. Poiuyt O'Zxcvbnm permalink

    You present a fascinating piece of history, but the targeted monitoring of Japanese WWII communication is hardly relevant to the modern mass surveillance that pervades our international data networks. For Snowden to speak out against this terrible overreach of SIGINT collection is patriotism, not treason.

    That said, I’d rather he’d have revealed all this anonymously rather than basking in the limelight.

  7. This really greatly written.
    It would be even better if the first paragraph was rewritten to something like «…damage to the United States and her allies´ and our and our allies´ intelligence services…»
    Keep the powder dry and the key board sharp John.

  8. srose permalink

    Accepting your assessment and sentiments toward Snowden, the fact that he was able to do what he did blows the whistle on the disintegration of the NSA’s ability to maintain operational security. And Security is their middle name! This is a massive failure on the part of the organization. The damage caused by the leak is symptomatic of how damaged the organization itself is or this never would have happened.
    Maybe they don’t deserve our trust to use the powerful weapons they have.
    As you say yourself, those in charge of this critical and perilous agency, apparently are not serious. One wonders what they do take seriously.
    Thank you for the story about Captain Cromwell, to me it’s more about those in command at the NSA than Ed S.

    • Short answer: excessive outsourcing

      • srose permalink

        Outsourced to who, the Kremlin? Sorry, couldn’t pass that one up.
        Seriously, with regard to the long answer, Cromwell didn’t surrender himself (abrogate his responsibility) because it was the fault of manufacturer of the faulty depth gauge. The NSA heads created and signed off on a system that broke the rules of espionage 101, they are responsible for the catastrophic failure. Really it was inevitable.
        You have said that most likely Snowden is a “useful idiot” but he’s nowhere near as useful as those who okayed this system. They don’t seem sophisticated enough to understand the technology as it exists. It didn’t come back to bite them, it bit US. Why isn’t the floor littered with heads?
        Do you doubt that there are not professionals, moles, happily mining whatever they want from this open book?
        One last question if you please, did the serious flaws in the organization have any bearing on your decision to leave it?

      • I \t’s actuarially very likely that FIS have penetrated US IC, at any given time. DC press mentioned a molehunt inside NSA back in 2010, I’ve referenced it on my blog. I left NSA because professors have better hours. :)

  9. Zeljko permalink

    Is security or the Constitution more important?

    I think we need more Snowdens. The people should have oversight over what the government does. The NSA acares me not so much for what it is doing today but what it WILL be doing tomorrow. How many of us, and for what reason, will we be labeled as enemies of the state (terrorists) and put under close scrutiny?

    • Zeljko permalink

      BTW – I am a Conservative / Classical Liberal / individualist that believes in smaller government and greater liberty for the people. This makes me an enemy of “The Big State”.

      • Krigl permalink

        I am also an individualist and more or less Classical Liberal, but that doesn’t make me an enemy of the West (and common sense). You might wanna check the settings of your objective reality

    • You’ve already admitted you’re a supporter of terrorism. Noted.

  10. I think it’s worth pointing out that ULTRA – the Polish, French but primarily British efforts at breaking the encryption of the German Enigma devices used by Germans and Japanese – was also responsible for the German inability to get a stranglehold on British shipping, because the Brits knew where they were looking for that shipping. That British effort was led by Alan Turing, which makes his work – in your words – one of the biggest reasons for our success in the Pacific, and Britain’s success in the Atlantic.

    The British government thanked him by hounding him into committing suicide because he was a practicing homosexual. Which is exactly why Snowden did the right thing. Yes, he should be tried and – if found guilty (some of us still believe in innocent until proven guilty) – punished for what he did. But so is anybody in the NSA involved in any covert or warrantless surveillance of US citizens, or anybody who has authorized such surveillance, up to and including both Bush and Obama. Based on what the released documents have revealed, they also need to be brought to trial and if found guilty punished.

    • Alan Turing was badly treated so Ed Snowden was right to steal secrets and defect to Russia. Non sequitur much?

  11. Krigl permalink

    Just a nitpick: shouldn’t US officer getting intel about Japanese be fully “read on” MAGIC, instead of ULTRA? Anyway, keep on reminding people that “Freedom is not free,” this simple truth has evidently fallen into oblivion. Article reminded me of the sacrificed recon pilot mentioned in F. W. Winterbotham’s memoir (strangely enough, it made it through the Iron Curtain and got translated into Czech and officially published during eighties, nice change from mostly Czech or Soviet authors) – convoy to Africa had to be observably “discovered” through normal means to prevent German and Italian suspicion.

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