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Leadership 'somewhere south of hell'

Don Keith
Don Keith is the author of War Beneath the Waves, the true story of bravery and leadership aboard the submarine USS Billfish in World War II, a tale that took 60 years to tell. He is also the co-author of 21 other books including Final Patrol and The Ice Diaries.

How would you perform on the job if hell broke loose and others relied on you to lead them out of the fire? Warriors train for it. But when the world is crashing in and leadership is required, is training enough?

Charlie Rush, a young Naval officer from small-town Alabama, faced just such a moment when as a Japanese destroyer attacked the submarine USS Billfish, where he was a junior officer. And when the moment came -- when the depth charges were exploding with terrifying proximity, when the submerged vessel was running out of breathable air -- he stepped up and took charge, though his actions that day meant risking everything.

Rush's story, hidden from public view for more than 60 years by a "gentleman's agreement," now teaches us the meaning of leadership under fire and how the line between courage and cowardice can become so extraordinarily thin.

Rush was a midshipman at the Naval Academy when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, like his fellow officers-in-training, was rushed off to war. Aboard ships in the Pacific, he received on-the-job training, both good and bad. While serving aboard a destroyer, for example, his commander -- a Harvard-educated steam engineer with no management skills -- proved incompetent, even though he still won praise from superiors, no matter how poor his performance.

Rush's next assignment brought him under the wing of one of the most intrepid submarine officers of the era, John "Moke" Millican. While the older Navy brass were still conservative in their submarine tactics, Millican boldly engaged the enemy, sometimes using his deck guns when he'd run out of torpedoes. His men knew he could--and would--lead them through fire, and Rush learned by his side.

In November 1943, Rush became a junior officer on USS Billfish on her second war patrol from Fremantle, Australia. His captain, Frederic Lucas, was a desk-job skipper, more familiar with theory and bureaucracy, a reluctant wartime commander who had studied leadership but had no experience delivering it when the situation demanded. The Navy needed experienced submariners but the only submarine this man had skippered was a peacetime training vessel. He had never fired a torpedo in anger or experienced a depth-charge attack.

Armistice Day, 1943, Lucas had his first opportunity to lead in combat. An enemy patrol boat spotted Billfish in the Makassar Strait off Borneo. Instead of leaping into action, the captain leisurely watched from periscope depth as the enemy craft sped their way. Rush, as diving officer, boldly suggested they must go deep to evade the advancing enemy. Directly contradicting a commanding officer bordered on insubordination, a step in the direction of mutiny. Yet, amazingly, the captain replied to Rush: "You are the diving officer. Do what you want." The captain, it seemed, had relinquished his authority.

Rush went to the control room and dove to 300 feet, just as a hail of depth charges rattled the ship. The vicious attack continued for the next 15 hours. The steel hull cracked open in places, pumps failed, water flooded into the aft torpedo room, and the sub was in danger of sinking. Hearing nothing from the captain, who was in the conning tower above him, Rush instinctively organized damage control, together with two experienced chiefs, Charlie Odom and John Rendernick, who created a bucket brigade, hauling water from the flooded compartments to bilges where pumps still functioned.

Yet faster than they could fix the damage, the Japanese rained down depth charges on them, as if they could see the sub beneath hundreds of feet of murky sea water. Still with no guidance from the captain, Rush took them deeper, hoping again to evade the enemy. They went deeper than they could safely dive -- they were only yards away from the water pressure crushing the hull -- but there was no option: They had to escape the deadly depth charges. But how was it the Japanese were able to pinpoint their position so accurately?

After 12 hours, Rush finally climbed to the conning tower to speak with captain. What he found there shocked him: The captain was sitting on the floor, shaking, praying, inspecting the palms of his hands. In the words of another officer, he was completely "out of it." At the same time Rush discovered with horror why the Japanese could so easily track them: the sub, leaking oil, had kept to a straight course for hours, taking no evasive maneuvers at all while the oil clearly marked their trail. No wonder the barrage was unrelenting!

Rush knew he had to take charge, or the sub would go down with all hands aboard. He assumed command, announcing quietly and without drama: "I have the conn." He negotiated a 360-degree buttonhook turn, cleverly swimming back beneath their own oil slick to get away. The last breathable air and battery power faded just as they finally surfaced. The chiefs and the crew worked quickly to vent the air, recharge the batteries, and repair extensive damage.

You might imagine that when the captain regained his senses, he would have confronted Rush -- or vice versa. But the brotherhood of submarine service ran deeper than that. Instead Rush made a deal with the captain. If the skipper resigned from submarine service, what happened that night would remain a secret: Both agreed. The captain later served with distinction on surface vessels, helping win the war. Sixty years later, Rush sought formal recognition for Chief Charlie Odom and Chief John Rendernick., the two chiefs who had so valiantly kept the ship alive during the barrage. Through this process, Rush's own bold leadership and bravery came to light, and he received the Navy Cross in 2002.

Rush still maintains that his skipper should not be blamed for "losing it." No man knows how he might perform in the midst of hellfire. The captain was in a situation he had never experienced before. Few men have. When his crew needed his leadership, he was not able to give it.

Thankfully, Rush had learned the meaning of leadership from watching past skippers, both good and bad, and he knew that only near-mutiny could save the ship. ,But he also possessed a trait difficult to identify or teach. Like his mentor, "Moke" Millican, he was an instinctive leader. That natural leadership saved the lives of five dozen men that night in the Makassar Strait, 500 feet south of hell.

By Don Keith

 |  April 5, 2010; 2:33 PM ET |  Category:  Books , Crisis leadership , Military leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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rossasmith. I fully understand what you are saying about the USs unpreparedness for war when it came on December 7,1941. But my point holds. The UK had been at war since 1939, which should have been the spur for the US to update its preparedness, since the maxim is that in peace you prepare for war.
My main criticism is against the author of the article, Don Keith. He complains that the commander of the sub had never fired a torpedo in anger, or suffered a depth-charge attack. But nor had, or has, any submarine commander until the day he is required to do so when at war. He goes on to ask: "Is training enough?". Which in terms of the military is a foolish question. For training is EVERYTHING. How else can a human being be conditioned to kill or be killed?
Although the actions of Charlie Rush were commendable, the greater story, surely (since the article is about leadership), is about the cowardice of the subs commander in the face of the enemy, which is an indictable offence. And Rush cannot have been the only other officer on board; what were they doing? To me, this only half a story.

Posted by: Boanerges1 | April 8, 2010 1:48 PM

In the crucible of war leaders are made and destroyed in the unforgiving environment where split second decisions must be made that affect men's lives. At the start of WWII there were many senior leaders that proved to be unworthy combat commanders in the heat of battle. For instance, in the battle of Kasserine in Africa 1942 the blustering American commanding general Fredendall was sacked because he was cowering in bunker far behind the lines. George Patton, took command and the rest is history.

Posted by: kschur1 | April 8, 2010 1:02 PM

Regarding boanerges1's comment, naval training and tactics were badly out of date when the war started. The long-held but incorrect assumption that battleships would be the primary naval weapon is a good example. Also, few if any commanders had combat experience, so there was no way to know how they would respond under fire.

Lastly, the size of the navy ramped up so fast after the war began that oftentimes men with minimal training were put into leadership positions, and essentially told 'sink or swim'. Some did, some didn't.

Posted by: rossasmith | April 8, 2010 11:23 AM

My original instructor was "Old School Navy". One of the finest in the world. I'm sure if I needed additional training he will send me a email or call. We have talked about some of these things.

1.Dive buddy should always check they're partners tank. At least that's how I was trained.

2. Clearly you're not familiar diving with "drunks" or those that have not slept. "Air" consumption calculations,tank capacity, overall fitness of the individual... I'm sure the dive "tables" takes this into consideration.

3. I was trained never pull the regulator from your mouth unless, unless a buddy breath situation. I had a base line octo. Should we enter a debate on the quality of base line octo's on the market? My primary is an old magnum, now my "octo" is an oasis.

4. It was good that she didn't choose an emergency ascent. I stand corrected. Ever see underwater panic at depth? My friend went for a ride because a novice got spooked by a shark( assigned buddy). I wanted to throw the novice over the side when I got up there.

She had an integrated system. All the bells and whistles. I'm "Resource"full primarily and base line stop watch clipped to my BC, mainly for deco. Two blades etc.

1.a Divers Discretion on what constitues a safety issue and whether to terminate a dive.

Would you like to talk about entanglements? Perhaps a discussion on fitness and the effects of watching a tank "needle" drop like a brick?

Or perhaps even, tactical plans, on rescue operations?
The "platform" is everything in a decompression dive.

Posted by: EarthCraft | April 8, 2010 10:18 AM

Is one to believe that military training in the US was so demonstrably bad prior to the entry of America into WW2 after Pearl Harbor that both a destroyer captain and a submarine commander were, according to this junior officer, incompetent in the first case and a coward in the face of the enemy in the second?
It's not as if the US was caught unawares of the fact that the real war had begun - together with the German submarine wolf-packs operating in the Atlantic - in 1939.

Posted by: Boanerges1 | April 7, 2010 1:31 PM

I apologize for being off-topic, but I can't ignore this comment. For the record, the book sounds very interesting and worth the read.

Earthcraft wrote:

1.I had failed to check my buddy's tank pressure. I dove with 100's. Her with 80's.
scubanut says: why didn't she check her own tank pressure? that's Open Water 1 right there.

2. I failed to take into consideration her bottom time at depth.
scubanut says: need more information. was this your first dive of the day? if so, your no-deco bottom time should have been the same as hers if you both were buddies diving similar profiles.

3. I gave up my primary and took the back up.
scubanut says: was this an out-of-air emergency? if so, a correct octopus ascent requires that the donor give up the primary 2nd stage and use the secondary 2nd stage.

4. I decided to do a full decompression instead of an emergency ascent. We were the last to the line and there was a train of people going up.
Atlas, about 116ft. Her dive computer was flashing "one".
scubanut says: it is always preferable to obey the 30 ft/min ascent rate over doing an emergency ascent if there is sufficient gas to support both divers for the duration of the ascent. an emergency ascent from 116ft would almost certainly prove to be fatal. it was good that you didn't choose emergency ascent. note sure what the significance of the flashing "one" is. hopefully, not a computer violation.

Divers often share experiences, it's how we educate each other, we consider experience/failures as training.
The sub? I popped the strap on the mask at about 65ft. The went to the bottom and "restrapped it". "Very difficult with the current" on the sub. And very foolish.
1. I had lost a strap clip and dove anyway.
Is confessional over?
scubanut says: i agree on the mask strap problem. you should have aborted the dive. always choose safety first. i am troubled by some of the things you say in this post. i help to teach scuba classes and i am experienced at deco diving. i never do deco diving without a redundant air source. i recommend that you go back for additional training so you can be a safer diver. please don't take my comments the wrong way...i want you to stay alive to dive another day!

Posted by: scubanut | April 7, 2010 1:25 PM

Where are the copy editors?? The first sentence is missing the word "would". Had to read it 2 times to make sense of it. Didn't read the rest of the article. WaPo: your loss!

Posted by: MoCoPride | April 7, 2010 12:56 PM

This story is very much like the account in "War and Remembrance." Did Herman Wouk know about the incident? The only difference is that Lady got the medal during the war.

Posted by: sle97 | April 7, 2010 12:54 PM

This is an incredibly uplifting story, but it needs to have a copy editor look it over. The number of sentence fragments, typos and other grammatical errors are actually distracting to the overall readability. Sorry for the criticism to an otherwise interesting piece.

Posted by: kablis | April 7, 2010 10:59 AM

Aye, had four failures at depth.
In my situation,

1.I had failed to check my buddy's tank pressure. I dove with 100's. Her with 80's.
2. I failed to take into consideration her bottom time at depth.
3. I gave up my primary and took the back up.
4. I decided to do a full decompression instead of an emergency ascent. We were the last to the line and there was a train of people going up.

Atlas, about 116ft. Her dive computer was flashing "one".

Divers often share experiences, it's how we educate each other, we consider experience/failures as training.

The sub? I popped the strap on the mask at about 65ft. The went to the bottom and "restrapped it". "Very difficult with the current" on the sub. And very foolish.

1. I had lost a strap clip and dove anyway.

Is confessional over?

Posted by: EarthCraft | April 7, 2010 10:30 AM

This sounds so much like the Caine Mutiny that it can't be coincidence

Posted by: bog1 | April 7, 2010 10:12 AM

Besides a great leadership example, this is a great story of brotherhood, between Officers and Petty Officers. Bonding like this rarely happens outside of the military.

Posted by: DonnyKerabatsos | April 7, 2010 9:20 AM

The captain showed good leadership, or at least good sense, in initially delegating some responsibility to Rush. He was honest and humble enough to admit he was out of his element, which is more than a lot of people would do.

Posted by: MiniSpare | April 7, 2010 9:14 AM

When it comes to learning, you can learn from those in charge that are lousy at the job as well as those who are great. Leadership comes from within. If you are given the proper training, which gives you security in your decisions, and have within you the ability to delegate and lead, success for all can be the prize.

Posted by: bobbo2 | April 7, 2010 7:47 AM

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