Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?” I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches. Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses. There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.
Two disgraces stand out. The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945). Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker. Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft. At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down. You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless. You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.” The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine. One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.
Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey. He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914. His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana. Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy. He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918. Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic. He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.
In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4. He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands. His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior. Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.
In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin. His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale. In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa. Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu. At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor. It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions. Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.
A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs. Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.” One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded. It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II. As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.
(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing. Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer. President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946. True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion. Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command. Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command. By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership. Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank. His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.” Indeed, it was.
A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968). Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945. Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking. Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.
At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States. Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island. Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized. This was a catastrophe of epic proportions. Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship. Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.
Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed? The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea. He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.” The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts. First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war. Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.
A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King . The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial. He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired. Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.
Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence. After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968. This too was a failure of Navy leadership. McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.
- The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
- Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
- Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis. Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.
 According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions. According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”