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Samuel Dealey, American Naval Hero

December 11, 2011

World War II is full of heroes, as all wars seem to be.  Still, given the scope, scale and especially the sacrifice of our entire nation, the heroes of World War II stand apart as even the average soldier and sailor would be heroic, judged by the standards of other wars.  Samuel David Dealey is just such a standout when it comes to heroes.  His story speaks directly to the spirit of America and the ability of Americans to put country above self.

Born September 13, 1906 in Dallas Texas, Samuel‘s father died when he was six, causing his mother to move the family to California for a time.  He returned to Texas and finished high school and spent two years studying at Southern Methodist University before transferring to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  Sam was not the most dedicated student to say the least.  His studies lapsed at Annapolis in 1925 for a time.  He buckled down in 1926 and graduated in the middle of the pack in the class of 1930.  By all accounts, Sam was a smart young man who simply did not apply himself.

Entering the fleet in 1930, Dealey served on several ships (including the USS Nevada (BB- 36) and the USS Wyoming (BB-32)).  In 1934, Samuel made a decision that changed his life; he joined the United States Submarine Service where both his talent and bravado served his needs as well as the Navy’s.  Rising quickly, in 1941 he took command of USS S-20 (SS-120), an experimental submarine, stationed in New London, Connecticut.  He was serving on S-20 when war broke out with Japan attacking Pearl Harbor.

Due to his success on S-20, Sam was assigned to USS Harder (SS-257) a new-construction submarine as its commanding officer.  Many of the improvements tested while he commanded S-20, including the diesel-electric drive, were used on Harder.  After commissioning and shake-down in New London, while in the Caribbean, Harder survived an attack by US aircraft that mistook her for an enemy submarine.  After that, she sailed to Pearl Harbor to join the fleet in mid-1943.

Movie lore often obscures the true acts of heroism as they usurp notable achievements to advance their plots.  Separating fact from fiction becomes very hard.  Such is the case when talking about Commander Dealey.  You see, Commander Dealey earned a nickname during his time on Harder.  He was known as “The Destroyer Killer.”  It seems a requirement for World War II submarine movies to include what is known as the “down the throat” shot.  This is when you fire at a contact that is heading right for you and dive under them as your torpedo slams into them.  Commander Dealey did not invent the maneuver, but it can be argued he perfected it.   During his fifth war patrol, Dealey and the crew of Harder sank five Japanese destroyers in four days.  His tactics we so successful the Japanese thought the island of Tawi-Tawi was surrounded by numerous submarines and abandoned it as a base of operations.  The fact is, the numerous submarines they feared turned out to be just one, USS Harder.  For his actions during this war patrol, Commander Dealey was awarded the Medal of Honor.  The citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the USS Harder during her fifth war patrol in Japanese controlled waters. Floodlighted by a bright moon and disclosed to an enemy destroyer escort which bore down with intent to attack, Cmdr. Dealey quickly dived to periscope depth and waited for the pursuer to close range, then opened fire, sending the target and all aboard down in flames with his third torpedo. Plunging deep to avoid fierce depth charges, he again surface and, within nine minutes after sighting another destroyer, had sent the enemy down tail first with a hit directly amidship. Evading detection he penetrated the waters of  Tawi Tawi with the Japanese fleet six miles away and scored death blows on two patrolling destroyers in quick succession. With his ship heeled over by the concussion of the first exploding target and the second vessel nose diving in a blinding detonation, he cleared the area at high-speed. Sighted by a large hostile fleet force on the following day, he swung his bow towards the lead destroyer for another “down-the-throat” shot, fired three bow tubes and promptly crash dived to be terrifically rocked seconds later by the exploding ship as the Harder passed beneath. This remarkable record of five vital Japanese destroyers sunk in five short-range torpedo attacks attests the valiant fighting spirit of Cmdr. Dealey and his indomitable command.

In another act of daring, Commander Dealey placed his submarine nose-first against a reef off the Woleai Island to rescue a downed and injured pilot.  Using he engines to keep the submarine against the reef, Harder faced continued sniper and machine gun fire, as well and horrific rip-currents along the reef.  The crew used a rubber raft to cross the reef and retrieve the pilot.  Without his and his crew’s extraordinary efforts, the pilot would have fallen into enemy hands.

In the end, Commander Dealey simply took the fight to the enemy.  He was well aware of the danger he faced with the tactics he used.  Though successful as they were, sadly, USS Harder was lost to enemy action during her sixth war patrol with a loss of all hands aboard, including Commander Dealey.

While much controversy surrounds the reasons for this sixth patrol, nothing can diminish the bravery and sacrifice of men such as Commander Dealey and his crew.  They join the fifty-one other submarines, 374 officers, and 3131 men lost in World War II.  During the war, the US Submarine Service lost a higher percentage of men and any other service.  Remarkably, the entire service only made up 1.6% of the sailors in the US Navy but accounted for over 54% of Japanese ships sunk.  The submariners of World War II put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis.  Commander Dealey exemplifies the spirit and love of country these special men had, to borrow from Winston Churchill “Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners.” 

During his time as Captain of Harder, Commander Dealey was awarded the Navy Cross with three gold stars, the army’s Distinguished Service Cross (presented to him by Gen. Douglas MacArthur), two presidential unit citations, and a Purple Heart, all in addition to the Medal of Honor.  He was responsible for sinking over 15,000 tons (16 ships) and damaging over 27,000 tons of enemy shipping.

Today, if you visit the submarine base in New London, you will see most buildings are named to honor a hero of the submarine fleet.  Dealey Center, the base cinema complex, is named in honor of Commander Dealey and dedicated to the memory of him, his crew and the USS Harder.

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2 comments

  1. Samuel David Dealey is my great-great grandfather and I just love reading about him. Thankyou for posting this.


    • It pleases me to no end you enjoyed reading my post. You great-great grandfather is one of my heroes. I served in the submarine service and use to love going to Dealey Center on the Navy base in New London, CT. Not sure if you are familiar with it, it served as the base theater, amount other things, and housed a tribute to the exploits of Cdr. Dealey and his men. It is named in his honor.



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