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 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.