Leadership 'somewhere south of hell'
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.
April 5, 2010; 2:33 PM ET |
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