Rule number one at sea: keep the sea outside of the boat

What is bravery?

Through the years, I have often been told by people that they could never ride a submarine. Claustrophobia is probably a big thing, but the fear of being cooped up in a small metal cylinder operating in a vast ocean is also a factor.

I saw a lot of brave actions in my short time on boats. Fires, flooding, loss of power, electrical shocks, and so on were not daily occurrences, but when they did happen, all hands responded. One of my least favorite memories was being in the Caribbean on one of my fast attack submarines and having a rogue wave come crashing over the bow. The torpedo loading hatch was open for convenience and in an instant, the wave pushed water through the hatch down into one of the most sensitive areas on the boat.

Green water coming through that open hatch was one of my most frightening memories. Getting the hatch closed required some work and everyone involved was soaked to the bone. But the hatch was shut and fortunately limited damage occurred. I still dream about that day from time to time.

Today I was working on some submarine month stories and came across a small article in the Washington Times. It contained an article from the Associated Press datelined Portsmouth NH, April 8, 1943 and listed four awards that were presented.

The first award was for a Silver Star for a Navy quartermaster who refused to abandon a damaged conning tower as his submarine dived to escape destruction. Three other awardees were mentioned. As was common for that era, no mention of the submarine or the operation was recorded.

With that minimal information, I started digging and came up with the story of Quartermaster Richard F. Breckenridge of Tacoma Washington.

Richard F. Breckenridge

DATE OF BIRTH: July 22, 1921

PLACE OF BIRTH: Tacoma, Washington

HOME OF RECORD: Tacoma, Washington

Navy Cross


Service: Navy

Division: U.S.S. Cuttlefish (SS-171)

GENERAL ORDERS: Commander in Chief, Pacific: Serial 26 (November 27, 1942)


“For extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession while manning his battle station on the U.S.S. CUTTLEFISH (SS-171), during the highly successful and aggressive THIRD War Patrol of that submarine that resulted in the sinking of 29,600 tons of enemy shipping. On or about 27 August 1942, when the submarine was required to make a quick dive to escape destruction, the conning tower hatch wheel jammed, making it impossible to close the hatch. The Commanding Officer then ordered the conning tower abandoned, all hands except him [Breckenridge] dropping down into the control room. With the lower conning tower hatch closed and with water coming through the upper hatch, he coolly remained at his station and by his skill and determination succeeded in freeing the hand-wheel and securing the hatch before flooding of the conning tower reached the floor plates. By this act of heroism valuable instruments were saved and the submarine was able to continue on a successful patrol.”

USS Cuttlefish SS 171

USS Cuttlefish (SC-5/SS-171), a Cachalot-class submarine and one of the “V-boats,” was the second ship of the United States Navy to be named for the cuttlefish. Her keel was laid down by Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut. She was launched on 21 November 1933 sponsored by Mrs. B. S. Bullard, and commissioned on 8 June 1934, Lieutenant Commander Charles W. “Gin” Styer in command. Cuttlefish was the first submarine built entirely at Electric Boat’s facility in Groton, Connecticut; construction of previous Electric Boat designs had been subcontracted to other shipyards, notably Fore River Shipbuilding of Quincy, Massachusetts.

After returning to Pearl Harbor, Cuttlefish put to sea on her first war patrol on 29 January 1942. On 13 February, she performed a reconnaissance of Marcus Island, gaining valuable information, and after patrolling in the Bonin Islands, returned to Midway Island on 24 March. She refitted there and at Pearl Harbor, and on 2 May cleared Midway for her second war patrol. From 18 to 24 May, she reconnoitered Saipan and the northern part of the Mariana Islands. On 19 May, she attacked a patrol ship, and while maneuvering for a second attack, was detected. She was forced deep to endure four hours of severe depth charging, more of which came her way on 24 May when she challenged three enemy destroyers. The next day an alert enemy plane caught her on the surface and dropped two bombs as she went under, both of them misses.

As it became obvious the Japanese Fleet was out in strength, Cuttlefish was ordered to patrol about 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) west of Midway, remaining on station during the Battle of Midway from 4–6 June 1942. She returned to Pearl Harbor on 15 June, and there and at Midway prepared for her third war patrol, for which she sailed on 29 July under the command of Lieutenant Commander Elliot E. Marshall. Patrolling off the Japanese homeland, she attacked a destroyer on 18 August, and received a punishing depth charge attack. Three days later, she launched a spread of torpedoes, three of which hit a freighter and one of which hit an escort. Explosions were seen, but the sinking could not be confirmed. On 5 September, she attacked a tanker which, it is believed, she sank.

Returning to Pearl Harbor on 20 September 1942, Cuttlefish was ordered to New London, where she served the Submarine School as a training ship from December 1942 to October 1945. On 8 December 1944, she suffered minor damage in a collision with USS Bray (DE-709). She was decommissioned at Philadelphia on 24 October 1945, and sold for scrap on 12 February 1947.

Why did he risk his life?

I never really hesitated going back on submarines despite some harrowing moments. One of the reasons was because of the instinctive knowledge of how much training each man goes through from the minute he volunteers. And every person in the submarine force is a volunteer.

We learn to hear danger in every sound, every unique motion of the boat, differing smells and the sound of the voice on the 1MC as a casualty is announced in some remote part of the boat. You learn to sleep lightly and you learn to sleep in minutes instead of hours. You are on alert from the moment the boat unties the lines from the pier. And you pay attention to every little detail around you.

I don’t know what Chief Breckenridge was thinking the day he saved his boat. All of the drilling and damage control training must have kicked in automatically. All I know is that he joined a very small group of American Submariners that were rewarded for their actions.

From his Obituary:

Richard “Dick” Breckenridge, USN Retired C.P.O., husband and father passed away after a short illness on November 9, 2005. He was 84 at the time of his passing

Dick graduated from Roy high school in 1939 and enlisted in the Navy in 1940. He proudly served his country in the submarine service during WWII and was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions aboard the USS Cuttlefish. His “tour of duty” ended as a recruiter in Portland, OR.

Upon retirement, Dick returned to his beloved Washington, settling in Mineral in 1962. Not ready to rest his oars, he joined the US Forest Service in 1964 and retired again in October 1976.

Dick was an active member of Storm King Post 171, American Legion, Sub Veterans WWII, Fleet Reserve. He also belonged to the Masons. He and his wife Dorothy traveled to as many of the organizational functions as they could, with side trips to Alaska and Hawaii.

Dick left behind his wife, Dorothy, daughters Sandi and Karen, and son Jim, 8 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Graveside services were held at the Mineral Cemetery.

QMC/SS Breckenridge – A true American Hero

Mister Mac

Six things to know about the Navy Cross

  1. The Navy Cross is awarded in recognition of extraordinary heroism.

The Navy Cross medal depicts the relief of a sailing ship on waves, framed by laurel leaves with berries in all four corners; the reverse side crossed anchors and the letters “USN” for U.S. Navy. It hangs on a blue ribbon with a white stripe down the middle.

Although originally created for those who exhibited “extraordinary heroism or distinguished service,” the open-ended concept of “distinguished service” has since been removed from the criteria to redefine the award’s focus on valor. Today, the Navy Cross is presented to those who distinguish themselves through extraordinary heroism while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States.

Their actions must take place in a situation of great danger, or at great personal risk to themselves. Their actions must also go beyond the usual expectations of bravery in battle.

  1. The Navy Cross is second only to the Medal of Honor.

The Navy Cross is the second-highest military decoration that members of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps can receive, second only to the Medal of Honor. It is the equivalent of the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force and Space Force’s Air Force Cross and the Coast Guard’s Coast Guard Cross.

  1. It was created to honor those who served in World War I.

When the Navy Cross was created just after the end of World War I, the Medal of Honor was the only medal awarded for valor at the time. Through an act of Congress, the Navy established both the Navy Cross and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal on February 4, 1919, to properly acknowledge the actions of those who served in WWI.

  1. The Navy Cross has broken barriers.

Several service members have received the award before they could vote or were recognized as equal members of American society. U.S. Navy Nurse Corps Chief Nurse Lenah Higbee – one of the first twenty women to join the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908 – was the first woman to be presented with the Navy Cross after her distinguished service throughout World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic. She was committed to caring for members of the U.S. Navy no matter the risk or immense effort that it required.

Decades later, on December 7, 1941, Doris Miller – a mess attendant on the USS West Virginia – was collecting laundry when Japanese planes began bombing Pearl Harbor and an alarm went off on the ship. Miller headed to his assigned post, only to find it destroyed by a torpedo; so instead, he headed to the ship’s deck. Here, as the ship came under fire, he carried several wounded sailors out of danger, including the captain of the ship, at great personal risk to himself.

As a Black sailor, Miller was relegated to the messman branch and had not been trained extensively in weaponry; but he took control of a .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun on the deck anyway and fired it at Japanese aircraft until he ran out of ammunition. He hit several Japanese planes and downed at least two aircraft. For his immense bravery, Miller was presented with the Navy Cross in 1942 and was the first Black sailor to ever receive the medal.

  1. It has been awarded to service members outside of the Navy and Marine Corps.

Until 2010, when the U.S. Coast Guard established its own Coast Guard Cross medal, members of the Coast Guard that were eligible received the Navy Cross. Several U.S. Army soldiers have also received the Navy Cross, as well as multiple service members from other countries, including Italy, New Zealand and South Vietnam, among others.

  1. The Navy Cross acknowledges immense bravery – and in some ways, immense sacrifice.

The circumstances of the Navy Cross are specific. Service members who receive it must have been in direct combat with the enemy and must exhibit extraordinary heroism at great personal risk to themselves. Because of these circumstances, many of the stories of how service members receive their Navy Crosses are as somber as they are heroic.


One thought on “Rule number one at sea: keep the sea outside of the boat

  1. Was at Nuclear Power School when MINSY sank the Guitarro (sp?) inadvertently (hopefully) when the shipyard folks decided to test both main ballast vents when the hull over the engine room was open to atmosphere. All students at NPS were told to go to their rooms in the barracks and stay there as Rickover was expected shortly. I later spoke with one of the nuc-EM’s who was on board when she went down and his description of the ‘adventure’ had my hair curling.

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