By Cmdr. Scott McGinnis, USN

Although we have not fired a torpedo in combat since World War II, our main responsibility as a submarine force remains to prepare for—to be ready for—undersea combat. While we typically look at the commanding officer (CO) as the personification of the characteristics we want a combat submarine crew to adopt, the CO’s personal characteristics seem less important than the CO’s ability to inspire collaboration, build a cohesive team, and foster a supportive environment. This environment typically results in the submarine displaying the qualities that we know are valuable for undersea combat such as innovation, aggressiveness, and ethics.

Our WWII statistics show that teams with the same equipment can have dramatically different outcomes. The July 2011 Commander, Submarine Forces (SUBFOR) document titled “Undersea Warfighting” outlines:

Of the 465 submarine COs who served during World War II, it was the top performing 15 percent who accounted for more than half of the ships sunk. Out of these 70 COs, only four were killed in action (Morton, Dealey, MacMillan and Gilmore) and only four of their ships were lost while they were in command (Wahoo, Harder, Thresher and Tang). This means the most successful COs and their crews as a group had a much higher survival rate than the submarine force as a whole. The submarines under the most successful 15 percent COs were three times as likely to return safely from patrol as were the submarines under the other 85 percent. Competence in pressing home the attack tended to co-exist with competence in surviving to return home again.2

Assuming the WWII COs, like our current COs who graduate from the Submarine Command Course (developed as a result of WWII), all had a base level of tactical competence, how were the 70 most successful COs in WWII different and how can we use this knowledge today?

Let’s begin by referencing the same SUBFOR document, “Undersea Warfighting,” which outlines seven characterizations of a professional undersea warrior. Two of these seven characteristics are highlighted below and combined with a third characteristic from Adm. Stockdale’s writing on combat leadership. These characteristics are then demonstrated using practical examples from Adm. Fluckey and USS Barb (SS 220). Overall, Fluckey’s writing in “Thunder Below” shows that, while he was in charge aboard, he knew he did not have a monopoly on good ideas and that, by routinely taking a “quick trip through the boat to feel the pulse,”3 he received substantial recommendations, pulled the team together, and fostered a feeling of unity. Fluckey’s engagement with his team showed that he understood that, just as the crew cannot increase the number of torpedo tubes they go to war with, the CO cannot change the environment he goes to war with overnight. The CO must build that environment over time and work hard post combat commencement to maintain it. In other words, the team-building aspect of warfare must be practiced and gun-drilled prior to combat operations. The top 15 percent of WWII COs recognized this and began fostering a positive, collaborative environment that resulted in success in the attack and a safe return home.

In general, operators do not have a choice in the hardware they are using; however, innovation in tactics and material solutions to that hardware is one of the three most important characteristics of a successful wartime team. If you look at Barb’s battle flag carefully, you will find at the bottom center a picture of a train, which is unique among WWII submarine battle flags. The train symbol is for a 16-car train blown up by men sent ashore who placed one of our self-scuttling charges underneath the tracks. On Fluckey’s final wartime patrol, a series of events led to his team blowing up the train, impacting Japan’s wartime logistics.

If we break down the series of events leading up to the train’s demise, we see that they were not a result of luck or fate. These innovations were direct results of the way Fluckey motivated his crew, created an environment of shared prosperity, and had a supportive chain of command above him. To the casual observer, the Barb’s train attack may seem more providence than a seized opportunity. However, Barb’s attack was the result of deliberate planning and, in Fluckey’s words, the existence of an “environment where serendipity can be quickly identified and exploited.”4 Serendipity occurs to overcome a problem with unbounded solutions inside of a supportive environment.

The Barb’s crew, on their 12th war patrol, loaded rockets and launchers (a submarine first) in order to attack Japan’s infrastructure. This provided a problem that needed to be creatively solved. It encouraged the crew to experiment because there were no tactics, techniques or procedures associated with the new hardware. Fluckey had early established a philosophy onboard of “we don’t have problems, only solutions.”5 Ashore, due to earlier successes in four previous war patrols, Fluckey’s chain of command was supportive and allowed him to take risks, even if success was not guaranteed.

When there were no more train ferries to sink, Fluckey was faced with the challenge of continuing to bring the enemy’s logistics to a halt. He accessed the creativity of the crew by leveraging the collaborative environment he had already fostered. In this case, after unsuccessfully polling his wardroom, he engaged his chief gunners mate who helped design the attack using a ship scuttling charge and activation switch. Once the call for ideas was passed through the boat, an electrician who had worked on the railroad suggested using a microswitch from the radar to activate the charge using the train’s own weight to complete the switch’s circuit. As a result of Fluckey’s positive demeanor with his crew, the crew had humanely treated their POW, “Kamikaze”; therefore, the POW was willing to assist in the operational planning for the mission and translation of Japanese charts. Both of these aspects were vital to the mission’s success. To understand Fluckey’s approach to his demolition landing party, he selected men based foremost on diversity of thought and talent. Strength, experience, and skills were his metrics. He looked at his crew as an experience base to leverage, not a collection of collar devices to organize.

Every current-day submarine deployment and patrol results in some story of an incredible, against-all-odds Sailor solution to a material problem that kept the boat on station. Whether it’s using the ice machine and Tygon® tubing as a replacement heat exchanger for a cooling system or a torpedo room roller nut to replace the dishwasher’s rotary gimbal, we all know this spirit still exists and is mandatory to retain the operational autonomy we require. From Fluckey’s example and our current experience, we can see that this type of ingenuity requires a problem, time constraint, and a supportive environment that fosters innovation. To prepare your team for combat, how are you encouraging collaboration across your divisions, departments and boat? When Sailors bring you unfavorable news, do you have the emotional discipline to take it in stride and allow them the opportunity to correct the issue? When necessary, will you be able to leverage the creativity of the entire crew?

For the command decisions that provide the opportunity for the team to weigh in, some commanding officers go around the table and require everyone at a minimum to physically turn his or her thumb up or down. They also require those who disagree with the decision to say why they disagree. By making everyone weigh in, the team buys in. By encouraging dissent, you remove group think and expand the solution set. Innovation comes from a team, led by someone who allows for innovation, not merely an innovative leader whom everyone just follows. How do you build your teams (watchteams, divisions, or departments)?

The COs at the beginning of the war were not aggressive enough and took “extreme stealth precautions” to the point of hindering their boats’ performance. Aggressiveness is the cornerstone of undersea warfighting. As is apparent from the WWII CO statistics quoted above, those COs who were aggressive were more likely to accomplish the mission and get their team back safely. While this is true, it may be more nuanced than just that the new COs had a spirit of aggressiveness. The new COs were unencumbered by a peacetime culture that rewarded being overly conservative. If we believe that being a submarine CO is (and was) the definition of a successful career, then the earlier COs valuing stealth to a fault may demonstrate that the skills required to be successful in a peacetime navy, may not be the same as the ones that make you successful in a wartime navy. If we look at today’s peacetime deployments, some may define success to be no liberty incidents, no incident reports, and at least an average on inspections. While these are valuable metrics to ensure access to foreign ports and a healthy materiel condition, they may not be as valuable in combat. While additional specifics on what defines a successful peacetime deployment today may be a topic for a future issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine, the lesson remains: we should ensure that the metrics that make us successful in combat are the same ones we value in peacetime.

Using another example from “Thunder Below,” the Barb’s U.S.-issued charts were not accurate enough to have allowed the Barb to get in close enough to send Sailors ashore. Fluckey had both the risk tolerance and a willing, aggressive Sailor to recover 17 charts from the sinking pilot house of a 1,000-ton enemy cargo ship that they had recently disabled. Additionally, when the Barb carried out the attack on this cargo ship, she used a new homing torpedo that required the submarine to be below 150’ for safety due to the torpedo arming above 100’. During the approach, however, the Barb could not get below 135’ due to a negative temperature gradient. Despite the safety restriction, Fluckey gave the order to fire. This demonstrates two aspects of successful aggressiveness. First, the fine line between recklessness and aggressiveness is separated by a deep understanding of a requirement’s basis. Second, significant preparation is required before aggressively attacking the target. An aggressive leader inspires their team to perform the detailed planning ahead of time so that, when faced with a difficult challenge, it is seen as an opportunity, not something insurmountable.

As with innovation, we like to personify the trait of aggressiveness in the personality of the CO but, by looking deeper into what made Fluckey successful, it may not be his personal aggressive attribute but rather his discipline in preparation and engagement with his crew that allowed him, when challenged, to know that his team was prepared. Aggressiveness as a ship attribute is fostered by the environment aboard. How much risk are individuals allowed to take? How much autonomy does the team know that they have? How does the command team react when it perceives that Sailors are taking too much risk? Aggressiveness as a submarine trait is without question required for combat, but how you get your team aggressive is much more than an example of bravado. Each decision, reaction, and engagement you have with your team will build (or destroy) an environment that rewards measured risk and inspires preparation.

Let’s start this part of the discussion by revisiting Adm. Stockdale’s view on leadership and morality:

“In all that I’ve been saying, I’ve made the points that leaders under pressure must keep themselves absolutely clean morally. They must lead by example, must be able to implant high-mindedness in their followers, must have competence beyond status, and must have earned their followers’ respect by demonstrating integrity.6

Leaders know this intrinsically, but based on unfortunate, recent examples, some might not fully understand the connection between integrity, combat, and efficiency of orders. To reiterate Stockdale’s two points above: (1) leadership in combat cannot be transactional and (2) the virtue of positional authority will not carry the water to efficiently deliver and execute orders. In our daily peacetime operations, transactional leadership, or the giving and following of orders, seems infallible but, in combat (or under pressure as Stockdale describes it), transactional leadership “finds itself floundering.” He says that “inputs” are needed from the leader in these circumstances. What he found is that the leader needs to inspire his team to remove their self-centered goals, inspire in them a higher purpose, and persuade them to become their better selves. To be effective in combat, therefore, a CO’s positional authority must not be viewed as sufficient to eliminate the need for these inputs. The CO needs to work on these inputs before combat begins.

Fluckey understood this reality of warfare. From his actions in combat, we can ascertain what he taught his team. He emphasizes in “Thunder Below” that he took extra risk by staying on the surface to look for survivors; he treated all people floating on the sea as humans, not distinguishing between enemy or ally. He displays empathy throughout the war: “All our hearts bleed for our mission of mercy... All of our hearts bleed for the poor wretches, wherever they may be, imprisoned on their flotsam for this their sixth day.”7 Contrast this with the actions of the USS Dubuque (LPD 8),8 whose captain failed to save Vietnamese refugees stranded at sea in June of 1988, and the poor treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The message is quite clear: how you treat people in garrison filters down to the way your team treats people on the battlefield. Fluckey gives us one more view of how he sees humanism in warfare. After many of his friends died at the hands of the Japanese, Fluckey wrote, “I do not hate Japanese Naval personnel. They served their country well and proudly the same as I, as professional warriors whom I admire.”9 He viewed his enemies the same way he viewed his own crew—as passionate people acting on their beliefs in a professional manner.

The time to inspire your people to a higher purpose and persuade them to become their better selves is now. Once you’re in combat, there is no time to discuss ethics, and the example you provide while preparing for combat is all that your team will be left with. How you handle your team today will determine how they act on the battlefield. The more transactional you are today, the less effective your team will be in combat tomorrow.

There are obvious ways that our submarines can be used effectively in combat. What may not be so obvious, however, is that, while the traits that bring about success in combat are thought to be personified in the CO, they actually reflect the CO’s engagement with the crew and the environment aboard. Just as we shift the time burden of warfare from the point of engagement by gun drilling, we must also front load the building of an environment that supports collaboration, innovation, and risk taking. Today is the day to analyze whether your daily interactions with your team foster aggressiveness and creative ideas. Through Command Management Equal Opportunity surveys, submarine cultural assessments, and squadron rides, we spend a lot of time trying to understand our environment. We know that crews who are treated like equipment will not aggressively achieve the boat’s goals, will not be innovative, and are more likely to compromise their integrity. Conversely, we know we get the best results in warfare when we challenge our crews with problems and allow them to experiment. We have an incredibly rich heritage to pull from; a heritage of passionate people acting on their beliefs in a professional manner. Shift the time burden of warfare to today, drive yourself to engage your crew, and your crew’s attributes in warfare will reflect those of our most successful WWII COs.

  • COs, review the 2011 COMSUBFOR document “Undersea Warfighting” as a training topic with your wardroom and chief’s quarters. Make your dolphin qualifiers lead the discussion on one of the attributes or the history lessons presented throughout.
  • COs, use the Army’s Center for the Army Profession and Ethic case study on My-Lai or the USNA Hugh Thompson’s “Moral Courage in Combat” as a CPO selectee case study. Cover this with your team during “integrity/ethics” training as an example of how some will use combat as an excuse to justify immorality.
  • N1’s, focus part of our Submarine Cultural Workshops and assessments as a way to measure collaboration aboard.
  • Squadrons, prioritize feedback to command triads on their environment aboard, evaluate those attributes that reward peacetime success versus wartime success, identify operations that we need to do in wartime but don’t take the risk of doing in peacetime (i.e., post-sunset harbor movements).
  • Continue to align deployment and patrol metrics to those attributes outlined in “Undersea Warfighting” and the “Design for Undersea Warfare.”
  • NLEC, SOAC, and SOBC, focus a portion of the course on how to foster a collaborative environment.
  • PCOIs, evaluate and provide feedback to PCO/PXO students on their ability to inspire collaboration, develop crew talent, and allow risk taking among the crew.
  • COs, consider, when operationally feasible, requiring all people weighing in (thumbs up or thumbs down at a minimum) on operational decisions,
    possibly at ops briefs.
  • COs, read L. David Marquet’s “How do we give people more control?”10 and practice it.
  • UWDC, continue to encourage experimentation in tactics to maintain the spirit of innovation.
  • School houses, continue to hold “fight clubs” in the Submarine Multi-Mission Team Trainer to inspire warfighting or gain the capability to do so.


1 Handwritten note on a copy of “Thunder Below,” May 22, 1997.
2 “Undersea Warfighting,” July 2011, Commander Submarine Forces, p. 5.
3 Fluckey, Eugene, “Thunder Below,” University of Illinois Press, 1992, p. 374.
4 Pamphlet accompanying signed copy of “Thunder Below,” 1992.
5 Fluckey, “Thunder Below,” p. 369.
6 Stockdale, Vice Adm. James B. (Ret.), “A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection, Machiavelli, Management and Moral Leadership,” p. 44.
7 Fluckey, “Thunder Below,” p. 133.

8 UPI Archives, “Navy captain’s court-martial set in refugee case,” Feb. 9, 1989,
9 “Shipmate,” January/February 1993, p. 35.
10 Marquet, David L., “How Do We Give People More Control,”