WW2 Sub Skippers Were Very Young

Quote of the Day

I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.

— Stephen Covey

I was watching this Youtube video about two famous WW2 submarine skippers, Morton and O'Kane, and I started to wonder just how old these skippers were during WW2.

Hollywood movies usually show WW2 sub skippers as men in their late 40s or 50s (e.g. Operation Pacific or Run Silent Run Deep). I found a list of the top scoring US submarine skippers of WW2 and was able to figure out their birthdays. Given their birthdays, I determined that they had an average age of 32 years on December 7th, 1941.  The following table summarizes their ages and their post-war "ships sunk" scoring. When you think about the responsibility they had, these men were very young.

Ships Sunk Rank Captain Birthday Age at time of Pearl Harbor Attack Ships Sunk Tonnage
1 Richard H. O'Kane 02-Feb-1911 30 Years, 10 Months and 5 Days 24.0 93,824
2 Slade D. Cutter 01-Nov-1911 30 Years, 1 Months and 6 Days 19.0 71,729
3 Dudley W. Morton 17-Jul-1907 34 Years, 4 Months and 20 Days 19.0 54,683
4 Eugene B. Fluckey 05-Oct-1913 28 Years, 2 Months and 2 Days 16.3 95,360
5 Samuel D. Dealey 13-Sep-1906 35 Years, 2 Months and 24 Days 16.0 54,002
6 Reuben T. Whitaker 23-Sep-1911 30 Years, 2 Months and 14 Days 14.5 60,846
7 Gordon W. Underwood 03-Jun-1910 31 Years, 6 Months and 4 Days 14.0 75,386
8 Royce L. Gross 29-Sep-1906 35 Years, 2 Months and 8 Days 14.0 65,736
9 Charles O. Triebel 17-Nov-1907 34 Years, 0 Months and 20 Days 14.0 58,837
10 John S. Coye Jr. 24-Apr-1911 30 Years, 7 Months and 13 Days 14.0 38,659
11 William B. Sieglaff 06-Jul-1908 33 Years, 5 Months and 1 Days 13.0 32,886
12 Thomas S. Baskett 04-Sep-1913 28 Years, 3 Months and 3 Days 12.0 27,273
13 Henry C. Bruton 15-Feb-1905 36 Years, 9 Months and 22 Days 11.0 54,564
14 Bafford E. Lewellen 22-Sep-1909 32 Years, 2 Months and 15 Days 11.0 23,685
15 Charles H. Andrews 14-May-1908 33 Years, 6 Months and 23 Days 10.0 57,243
16 Robert E. Dornin 30-Dec-1912 28 Years, 11 Months and 7 Days 10.0 54,595
17 Eric L. Barr Jr. 02-May-1912 29 Years, 7 Months and 5 Days 10.0 46,212
18 Ralph M. Metcalf 22-Jun-1913 28 Years, 5 Months and 15 Days 10.0 40,040
19 Raymond H. Bass 15-Jan-1910 31 Years, 10 Months and 22 Days 10.0 37,977
20 Malcolm E. Garrison 29-Mar-1910 31 Years, 8 Months and 8 Days 10.0 37,368
21 Thomas B. Klakring 19-Dec-1904 36 Years, 11 Months and 18 Days 10.0 33,122
22 John A. Moore 12-Jan-1910 31 Years, 10 Months and 25 Days 9.5 45,757
23 Glynn R. Donaho 25-Mar-1905 36 Years, 8 Months and 12 Days 9.5 29,870
24 Eli T. Reich 20-Mar-1913 28 Years, 8 Months and 17 Days 9.0 59,839
25 Walter T. Griffith 03-Jun-1911 30 Years, 6 Months and 4 Days 9.0 45,874
  Average Age   32 Years, 0 Months and 0 Days   1,295,367

Note that in 1940 (pre-WW2), the average age of an Army major (comparable to Navy Lt. Commander) was 48. The demands of war thrust young people into command roles much more quickly than in peacetime.

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3 Responses to WW2 Sub Skippers Were Very Young

  1. William schoettle says:

    I think the tonnage is off. Dornin had a lot more.

    • mathscinotes says:

      Hi William,

      I based my original post on a web version of the JANAC naval records. I have now regenerated the data from the raw JANAC records. I did not see any significant changes. Yes, some of the numbers were rounded in the old data, but the rounding was accurate. I specifically checked Dornin's data using multiple sources – the table is accurate. I should mention that two sets of "books" were kept: (1) wartime records, and (2) JANAC, which used records from the Japanese. In most cases, the JANAC records show less tonnage than the wartime records. The one major exception is the record of Archerfish.

      While I was doing post maintenance, I made a few other changes:

      • Used the skipper's full legal name (middle name abbreviated). This eliminated things like "Mush" in Morton's name.
      • Fixed a spelling error in Bruton's name that exists all over the web – it is usually misspelled as Brunton.
      • Used a lighter color format that I have been experimenting with.

      Thanks for the careful reading.


  2. Jim Simpson says:

    Clay Blair's "Silent Victory" discusses this in some depth. According to him, the Navy quickly learned that "older" -- think mid-to-late 30s -- COs were much more tentative in their attacks.

    This was attributed to two factors; one that their training had been during peace time when the Navy's concept of operations for submarines was more of a scouting mission for the surface fleet. Submarines would locate the enemy and the big battleships would come in for the kill

    The second factor was age itself. Older officers tended to be more safety oriented whereas young COs still retained much of the "invulnerability" that teenage males tend to exhibit. Not that the older officers were cowards, but they recognized that they, and the submarine, could be destroyed and therefore weighed the risks differently.

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