A Career In The Submarine Service
Rear Admiral John (Jack) Elwood Lee, born in Wilmington in September 1908, attended Saint Thomas Parochial School and graduated from Wilmington High School in 1926. A career in the Navy beckoned, and Jack headed to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, graduating in 1930. That year, in the academy yearbook, Jack’s roommate wrote: “Jack’s compass is ‘steady on’ in everything he does…. a fast finish with the Academic Department, and in the various activities to which he lends himself there is no pausing to dally in the by-ways.”
The clear head and calm demeanor were to serve Jack well. After brief tours of duties on two battleships and two destroyers, he was detached to attend submarine school in New London, Connecticut. In April 1936, LTJG Lee received his first submarine assignment, at a time when submarine technology was still in its infancy. Those who volunteered for the role—and most men in the submarine service in the late 1930s were volunteers—received hazardous duty pay, and life about these underwater vessels was not easy. Extremely tight quarters with little ventilation, high temperatures and humidity, and living/working in a space while simultaneously carrying a load of torpedoes all provided special challenges, and the commanders of such vessels needed special skills. That Lee possessed these skills is demonstrated by a career that included receiving three Navy Crosses.
His first Navy Cross was for heroism as Commanding Officer of the USS Grayling (SS-209) during her fourth, fifth and sixth wartime patrols, from October 19, 1942 to April 25 1943, when the sub was active in enemy-controlled waters in the Southwest Pacific. The USS Grayling destroyed seven enemy ships and damaged others. Lee demonstrated tactical daring and skill during these patrols, and he was subsequently given command of the newly commissioned USS Croaker (SS-246). As Lee headed back to assume the new duties, a tragic event underscored the dangers of submarine service: in September 1943, the USS Grayling was lost at sea, going down with her crew of 76 men.
Lee assumed command of the USS Croaker in April 1944, and headed back to the Pacific, where the Croaker distinguished herself in battle. Lee was given his second Navy Cross for actions during the Croaker’s first war patrol in the East China Sea, from July 19, 1944 to August 31, 1944. During this period, the Croaker sank a 5100-ton cruiser and three other hostile ships.
And the third Navy Cross was presented for the Croaker’s second patrol, again in the East China Sea, from September 23, 1944 to November 10, 1944, where she launched seven night-surface attacks to sink four enemy ships and damage four others.
Throughout World War II, Lee was credited with sinking 15 confirmed ships of approximately 63,457 tons. By the end of the war, he had received three Navy Crosses, one Silver Star and a Bronze Star.
In the post war years, Lee remained in the Navy, eventually becoming Commander of the Submarine Reserve Fleet for the Pacific Coast and Hawaii. During the Korean War, he was assigned to the Pentagon, and from 1953 to 1956, Captain Lee was Commanding Officer of the submarine base in New London, Connecticut, where he officially accepted the world’s first nuclear powered vessel, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), ushering in a new era of submarine technology. Rear Admiral John Elwood Lee died in 2002 in San Diego, California.
A few other historical notes: Military tradition ran strong in Lee’s family, and his brother, Major General D. Preston Lee, Sr., also served with distinction in the military. While commanding the USS Croaker during World War II, Lee filmed color motion pictures through the submarine’s periscope, documenting an enemy cruiser being hit and sunk by one of the Croaker’s torpedoes. These films survived the war and today are a valuable research source for scholars. The USS Croaker also survived the war. Following decommissioning, it became part of a military museum. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and can be toured at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park in Buffalo, NY.
Thank you to David H. Ennis and Preston Lee for providing the information in this article.