Rear Admiral John G. Crommelin
(1902 - 1996)

John Geraerdt Crommelin, Jr. was born in Montgomery, Alabama on Oct. 2, 1902, the son of John G. Crommelin and Katharine Vasser Gunter. He attended public schools in Montgomery and subsequently attended the University of Virginia for one year before entering the U.S. Naval Academy in 1919. Following graduation from the Naval Academy in 1923, John was assigned to sea duty for two years before beginning flight training in 1925 at NAS aviation flight school, Pensacola, Florida which he completed in November, 1926.

Before World War II, he served in various aircraft squadrons and other assignments at sea including the USS Lexington, USS Colorado, USS California, USS Ranger, and USS Saratoga. During this time gunnery and bombing tactics were developed which would later be used in fighting the Japanese.

The Big 'E' in April, 1939

For 15 months beginning in June 1942, John was assigned to the USS Enterprise where he served first as Air Officer before assuming the duties of executive officer. During that time, Enterprise participated in the occupation of Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, The Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands, and the Battle of Fennel Island.

USS Enterprise encounters a near-miss during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

The USS Enterprise (CV-6), commonly known as the "Big E," was the sixth aircraft carrier of the United States Navy and the seventh U.S. Navy ship to bear the name. Launched in 1936, she was a ship of the Yorktown class, and one of only three American carriers commissioned prior to World War II to survive the war (the others being Saratoga and Ranger). She participated in more major actions of the war against Japan than did any other US ship. These actions also included the Battle of Midway, various other air-sea engagements during the Guadalcanal campaign, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, as well as the "Doolittle Raid" on Tokyo. In the performance of his duties, John was instrumental in the ship being awarded a Presidential Unit Citation plus other honors.

A book on the USS Enterprise entitled "Then There Was One" by Eugene Burns
was dedicated to John, a man affectionately known as the "pilot's pilot" and "The Spirit of the Big E."
The dedication reads, "To John Crommelin and his breed of men..."

A testimonial published in Tailhook Magazine by RADM James Ramage has this to say about John Crommelin's stint aboard the "Big E":

One of the great leaders who we in Naval Aviation during World War II admired was CDR John G. Crommelin, who served as air boss and executive officer in USS Enterprise (CV-6) during 1942 and 1943. During that time, four new commanding officers passed through the ship, and John provided the character, the underpinning of spirit, that saw the carrier through some trying times. The man was everywhere -- he spent many hours in the ready rooms and elsewhere on the ship. He was an excellent pilot and flew with the squadrons when we operated ashore in the forward area. He was the soul of the ship, the very embodiment of the name Enterprise in a way that dramatized the character of this strong leader.

After promotion to captain, he was assigned to Commander Carrier Division 24 as Chief of Staff and Aide on board the carrier USS Liscome Bay. The Liscome Bay was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Makin Island campaign off the Gilbert Islands on November 23, 1943. At that moment, John was taking a shower and managed to make his way, naked, to the flight deck. During this activity, he sustained moderately severe burns for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. Jumping from the flight deck into the water 45 feet below, he swam to some cork which kept him afloat until a destroyer found and rescued him.

USS Liscome Bay and John Crommelin

"Twenty-Three Minutes to Eternity"
- a book about the tragic end of the USS Liscome Bay.

The torpedo struck the carrier in the worst possible place: the thin-skinned bomb storage area. The resulting explosion could be seen 16 miles away, literally ripping the Liscome Bay in half and killing 644 of her crew including some Composite Squadron (VC) 39 pilots sitting in the cockpits of their aircraft on deck awaiting the first launch of the day. In terms of lives lost, it was the costliest carrier sinking in United States naval history. Liscome Bay's loss came on her first combat operation: the American invasion of the Gilbert Islands. Despite her short career, she touched a number of remarkable and famous lives. Doris Miller, the first black American sailor to win the Navy Cross, lost his life, as did Rear Admiral Henry Mullinnix, one of the Navy's first "air admirals." John Crommelin was the senior officer to survive the sinking, one of 272 men able to go over the side of the ship.

[Coincidentally, the same November morning that John was experiencing his near-fatal ordeal in the sea off the Gilbert Islands, his brother, Charles, was also facing calamity when the cockpit of his Hellcat fighter (at the Japanese island base of Mili) was hit by an explosive shell. Blinded in one eye and with his head hanging outside the cockpit, Charles was able to fly 120 miles and make a perfect landing on the carrier Yorktown. His landing was recorded by navy photographers and included in the famous combat film The Fighting Lady which won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1945.]

Uniform belonging to John G. Crommelin, dated 12-24-43.

In 1944 after recovering from his burns, John became the chief of staff of another carrier division commander. For his performance there, he was awarded The Legion of Merit with Combat V for operations in the forward Pacific Area Jan. 1 - Aug. 8, 1944.

USS Saipan - Capt. John Crommelin's last command

John's final assignment during WW II found him in charge of training all the pilots and squadrons on the West Coast. Then in 1946 Capt. John G. Crommelin assumed command of the USS Saipan, launched on 8 July 1945 and commissioned on 14 July 1946. Saipan trained student pilots out of Pensacola from September 1946 to April 1947.

Other post war assignments included the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. It was there that he sacrificed his career in 'the Revolt of the Admirals' by his outspoken opposition to the Defense Department's scuttling of naval air power and showing partiality to the Air Force. He was relieved of his duties at the headquarters and publicly reprimanded by Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, Chief of Naval Operations, for making public confidential Navy letters linking top admirals with active opposition of armed forces unification.

In Tailhook Magazine, RADM James Ramage remarked on this episode in John's career:

John Crommelin later played a key role in the 1949 struggle to save Naval Aviation. In placing his convictions before his career, Crommelin was forced into retirement as a result of his outspoken support of the carriers in a page of history known as "The Revolt of the Admirals." None who know him ever heard him express any regret for his courage in the face of overwhelming odds -- he knew what must be done, and he gave it his best shot regardless of the cost to him personally.

Lt. John Crommelin in 1930.
John during the height of
'the Revolt of the Admirals'

In May 1950, John applied for retirement and ended his three-decade Navy career in June with the rank of rear admiral because of his combat record. His retirement came just before the beginning of the Korean War in which naval aviation from carriers played a significant role. In later years, he operated part of his family plantation, named Harrogate Springs, in Elmore County, raising a variety of crops. He also ran unsuccessfully for various public offices. He was a candidate in the Democratic Presidential primary in New Hampshire in 1968 and also repeatedly announced himself as a candidate for the United States Senate.

He married Lillian E. Landis in 1930; she died in 1991. John died on Nov. 2, 1996 at his home in Montgomery, Ala. He was 94. He was survived by one brother, a retired Navy captain, two daughters, a son, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

(Picture credit: LIFE Magazine)


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