USS Clueless -- Is suicide sometimes a duty?

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Is suicide sometimes a duty?

I have seen it argued that suicide is always a sin. Dante reserved a punishment in Hell for it.

I think that sometimes suicide is a duty, or to put it another way, a moral obligation. In some cases, I believe it is not only not a sin, but actually a virtuous act. Here's a very specific example of such a case.

In World War 2, the US Navy maintained a fleet of submarines which numbered over a hundred. They performed many duties, but probably the most important of them was commerce interdiction. To put it bluntly, they sank freighters carrying bulk cargo to Japan, including especially petroleum. (They also sank a non-trivial number of Japanese warships, including several aircraft carriers. For instance, USS Archerfish sank HIJMS Shinano, the largest aircraft carrier built during World War II.)

This has to be put into the context of the war. Japan is an island nation which is extremely poor in natural resources. Then and now, almost everything its industry uses has to be imported. Indeed, it was this very fact which indirectly lead to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese predations in China were viewed as unacceptable to the US, and the US resorted to a trade embargo on oil and scrap metal and other strategically important materials. This put Japan into a "use it or lose it" situation with their navy, and the government decided to take a gamble, and attacked. The purpose of the attack was to cripple the US Pacific Fleet (which it nearly did) so as to give Japan time to take and solidify its hold on the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) which was the nearest large source of petroleum.

But the American submarines massively interfered with the ability of the Japanese to bring raw materials to the home islands, and this had pervasive effects on nearly every aspect of the war in the Pacific. Petroleum shortages lead to insufficient training of Japanese aviators, which permitted such aerial slaughters as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which came to be known the "great Marianas Turkey shoot" because of the incredibly lopsided loss ratio. Japanese losses were about ten times the American losses, and the primary reason for that was inexperience on the part of the Japanese fliers, mostly due to inadequate supplies of fuel to permit training.

This was a problem in ships, too, for the ships, cargo or warships, were made from steel which was refined from iron ore which had to be shipped in, using coal and oil which had to be shipped in. As the war went on, Japanese bulk imports sank to disastrous levels, primarily because of the submarines. Over the course of the war, US submarines sank more Japanese tonnage (55% of the total) than all other allied forces combined. There is no doubt whatsoever that the war was made much shorter by the submarine blockade, and that many allied lives were saved.

And how was it that the submarines were so effective against Japanese shipping? It's because they knew where the Japanese ships were, and could lay for them. And that was because the Americans had cracked the codes that the Japanese were using to communicate with those ships. Each day, every ship would report its position, the American codebreakers would read those messages, and send the information (in US codes, which the Japanese did not read) to US submarines.

This was a dramatic advantage, but clearly a very fragile one. Had the Japanese learned of it, they could have changed the codes and blacked out the US codebreakers, and the submarines would have almost immediately lost much of their effectiveness. Nor would this have been the only result. The Americans had cracked the very highest level Japanese diplomatic cipher which had been given the code name Purple, and with it were reading the messages being transmitted from Berlin to Tokyo by Baron Oshima. These messages were invaluable, because the Germans were letting the Baron in on the very highest level secrets, and he was sending the information home -- and to the US. Had the Japanese realized that some of their codes were being read, they might have realized that others were vulnerable, and have changed them all outright. This would have been a catastrophe and it might have lengthened the war in Europe.

Which brings us to Captain John Philip Cromwell, USN. Captain Cromwell commanded a three-submarine wolf pack neark Truk, and was aboard USS Sculpin when it was depth charged by HIJMS Yamagumo 1 on 18 November 1943. Sculpin was badly damaged and had to surface, and had the worst of a surface gunbattle. As a result, the officer in command of Sculpin (Lt. Brown) ordered abandon ship.

Unfortunately, Captain Cromwell was privy to the secret of the broken codes. He was also well aware of the fact that the reason prisoners are interrogated is that interrogation works. Whatever he knew would soon be known to whoever captured him. So Captain Cromwell went down with the sub, and drowned. He deliberately chose to end his life rather than permit himself to be captured, with the awful possibility of revealing to the Japanese such a critical secret.

He made a conscious choice to commit suicide, and because he did it is virtually certain that thousands of other Americans and their allies didn't have to die or be wounded in battle. And for this Captain Cromwell was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, one of only seven awarded to submariners in the war.

What Captain Cromwell did was right. And by his act he shows that sometimes suicide is not immoral.



1. HIJMS == "His Imperial Japanese Majesty's Ship", comparable to the British Navy's "HMS" == "His/Her Majesty's Ship"; in some documentation they use IJN for "Imperial Japanese Navy".

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