The Crommelin Brothers

USS Crommelin Alabama’s five Crommelin brothers—John, Henry, Richard, Charles, and Quentin— served in some of World War II‘s most famous battles in the Pacific theater. All graduated from the United States Naval Academy (USNA), and for their collective heroic efforts during the war, Time Magazine dubbed the brothers the “Indestructibles” in January 1944. Richard and Charles would die later during the conflict, however.

The brothers were born to John Geraerdt and Katherine Vasser Crommelin and had three sisters, Elizabeth, Katherine, and Lucie. The Crommelin family traces its roots in Alabama to the 1820s through a line of successful planters. During the brothers’ childhood years, the family maintained a home in Montgomery and a plantation, Harrogate Springs, that fronted the Coosa River near Wetumpka, Elmore County, next to present-day Fort Toulouse National Historic Park.

John Crommelin

John Crommelin John Geraerdt Crommelin Jr. (b. October 2, 1902) was the oldest brother and the first to attend the USNA, graduating in 1923 after spending a year at the University of Virginia. John married Lillian E. Landis in 1930, and the couple would have three children. He served aboard the carriers USS Lexington (CV-2), USS Ranger (CV-4), and USS Enterprise (CV-6), for which he was the ship’s executive and air officer during the decisive U.S. victory in the June 1942 Battle of Midway. Later that year, during the Solomon Islands Campaign in the South Pacific, the Enterprise suffered several bomb hits during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October. In this latter battle, John lost all his belongings, including his dress sword. While serving as the chief of staff of the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56), he was badly burned when the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk off Makin Island on November 24, 1943, during the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Campaign. John became known as “Bomb Run John” for his aggressive tactics in commanding carrier-based dive bombers. For his prowess as a carrier sailor, he was selected for the Carrier Hall of Fame, which is located aboard the retired carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) at Patriot’s Point, South Carolina, and was rated in the Top Five of Carrier Aviation’s Fighter & Bomber Pilots in the pre-World War II era. After the war, he took command of the light carrier USS Saipan (CVL-48).

In 1949, while serving as a naval aviation expert on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John became a central figure in an episode that came to be known as the “Revolt of the Admirals.” As the various U.S. military services were advocating for their budgets and roles in the post-World War II era under the newly created Department of Defense, now-Captain Crommelin, publicly and without authorization, expressed his strong views in opposition to attempts to eliminate the role of naval aviation in strategic warfare in favor of the U.S. Air Force. Although his opinions were shared privately by high-ranking Navy personnel, he made some of their views public. These views ran counter to other top military and civilian leaders, including the Secretary of Defense, and Crommelin was reprimanded, relieved of duty, and had his pay cut. His actions, however, would help preserve the carrier forces that the U.S. Navy continues to rely on to project American power overseas.

After promotion to rear admiral and retirement, John helped manage the family plantation and entered politics. He supported disgraced Wisconsin senator Joseph R. McCarthy and unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1950, 1956, 1960, 1962, and 1966, and for governor in 1958. In 1960, he was nominated as the vice-presidential candidate on the segregationist National States’ Right Party (NSRP) ticket led by former Arkansas governor Orval A. Faubus. Crommelin himself became known as an outspoken anti-Semite in political speeches. Another presidential run in 1968 ended with the New Hampshire Democratic Primary and fewer than 200 votes. He died on November 2, 1996, at age 94.

Henry Crommelin

Henry Crommelin Henry Claiborne Crommelin (b. August 11, 1904) graduated from the USNA in 1925. He chose a career in surface warfare because his poor eyesight prevented him from flying. Early in his career, he served on several battleships. During World War II, he commanded destroyers and participated in the North African Invasion in November 1942. Transferred to the Pacific, he was awarded the Silver Star for his command of Destroyer Squadron 50 in November 1943 when he closed his ships in on the islet of Betio, part of the Tarawa Atoll, where they shelled enemy shore batteries while under fire. He later was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat ‘V’ for valor as commander of a destroyer group during the amphibious assault to recapture the key Pacific island of Guam in July 1944. After the war, he served as Chief of Staff to Rear Admiral William K. Phillips, Commander Destroyers, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and he later rose to command the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. He was promoted to vice-admiral, the highest rank achieved by any of the brothers. Before retiring from the Navy in 1959, he commanded a battleship division and the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island. He died of cancer March 2, 1971, at his Elmore County home and is interred in Arlington National Cemetery. He was married to Sally Huntress Crommelin, with whom he had four children.

Charles Crommelin

Charles Crommelin Charles Laurence de Berniere “Charlie” Crommelin (b. March 16, 1909) was in the USNA Class of 1931 and rose to fame flying F6F Hellcat fighter planes in the Pacific, earning the rank of commander. Early in the war, he survived a crash landing test flying an aircraft. He was later awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for action over the Japanese-held Marcus Island in August 1943. During the air battles near the Marshall Islands in November, Charles ran into antiaircraft fire that inflicted severe wounds and severe damage to his aircraft. His successful landing was captured on film and became part of the war propaganda film Fighting Lady; medical personnel discovered more than 200 particles of glass and metal in his face and body. According to an often-repeated anecdote, he exited the ambulance in Pearl Harbor and headed straight for the officer’s club for a drink. Flying off the USS Randolph (CV-15), he commanded Carrier Air Group 12, known as “Crommelin’s Thunderbirds,” which engaged in the first carrier air strikes against Japan. He was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism while leading a February 1945 attack near Tokyo. During a mission while on temporary duty with the USS Hornet (CV-8), Charles’s plane went missing over the sea near Okinawa on March 28, 1945, and he was declared killed in action. Charles is memorialized at the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Richard “Dick” Crommelin

Richard “Dick” Crommelin Richard Gunter “Dick” Crommelin (b. January 8, 1917) graduated with the Naval Academy Class of 1938 and was highly decorated during his brief naval aviation career. As a Lieutenant Junior Grade, he served aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-5) in 1942. He was credited with shooting down two of six Japanese Zero fighter planes he encountered during the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, was shot down, and successfully executed a belly crash landing in the ocean. Like his brother John, he also fought in the Battle of Midway, defending the Yorktown against Japanese aerial attacks, although it sunk three days later. He was awarded the Navy Cross and, in lieu of a second Navy Cross, a Gold Star for extraordinary heroism in those two crucial battles. Later in the war, he was promoted to Senior Squadron Commander and Skipper of a fighter squadron (VF-88) based on the USS Yorktown (CV-10). Richard was killed in a mid-air collision with another American aircraft on July 14, 1945. The Navy posthumously awarded him the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his activities in World War II.

Quentin Crommelin

Quentin Crommelin Quentin Claiborne van Wickervoort Crommelin (b. September 26, 1918) graduated with the USNA Class of 1941. He spent his first two years of college at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta until he was able to get into the Naval Academy in his junior year. On December 7, 1941, Quentin was serving as a 40-mm antiaircraft gunnery officer on the carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3), which was at sea, and arrived at Pearl Harbor a week after the attack. The Saratoga was hit by a torpedo in January 1942 while at sea and returned to Hawaii and then sailed to the U.S. Navy base at Bremerton, Washington, for repairs. Quentin and the Saratoga, along with John on the Enterprise, participated in the Solomon Islands Campaign, in which the ships’ aircraft provided protection for the landings at Guadalcanal in August 1942. The Saratoga also participated in the sinking of a Japanese aircraft carrier during that campaign. In early September, the Saratoga was again torpedoed and returned to the United States for repairs. Quentin received orders to go to flight school and served as an instructor in Jacksonville, Florida, although he had no combat experience. About this time, he married Priscilla Scott on May 5, 1943, with whom he would have two children. He later led squadrons of F4U Corsairs in raids over Tokyo. After the war, Quentin returned to the USNA, where he created and instructed in its first aviation department. He then served in several official capacities in Washington, D.C., commanded a five-squadron air group, and served as commanding officer of the USS Lexington (CV-16) from June 1964 to June 1965. Crommelin retired at the rank of captain from the Navy in 1970 and returned to the family homestead in Wetumpka. He engaged in several business ventures until his death from cancer on April 30, 1997.

On May 23, 1970, in an event celebrating Alabama’s Sesquicentennial, a memorial sculpture honoring the five Crommelin brothers was dedicated at USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile. The front features reliefs of each of the five Crommelins, and the back bears an inscription. The memorial suffered heavy damage during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, but it was repaired and replaced on its former site. On April 27, 1979, the U.S. Navy honored the brothers by naming an Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigate the USS Crommelin (FFG 37). After more than 30 years of service, the vessel was decommissioned in October 2012. The brothers are also honored by the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame, the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, and the Alabama Military Hall of Honor at Marion Military Institute.

Further Reading

  • Bruce, Roy, and Charles R. Leonard. Crommelin’s Thunderbirds: Air Group 12 Strikes the Heart of Japan. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1994.
  • “Armed Forces: Revolt of the Admirals,” Time Magazine, October 17, 1949, 21-23.
  • “Heroes: The Indestructibles,” Time Magazine, January 24, 1944, 61.
  • Scott, John B., Jr. “The Crommelin Brothers.” Alabama Heritage, 46 (Fall 1997): 6-17.

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