THE "WAR HERO"
L. RON HUBBARD AND THE U.S. NAVY, 1941-50
3.8 "Mister Roberts" and the USS Algol
Some of Ron's adventures at sea were later made into a Hollywood film, "Mr. Roberts", with the lead part played by Henry Fonda.
- A Short Biography of L. Ron Hubbard, "The Auditor" issue 63
Almost as soon as Hubbard been relieved of commanding the USS PC-815, he reported sick. On July 15, 1943 - the same day as Rear Admiral F.A. Braisted had sent a letter of admonition concerning the unfortunate shelling of Mexico's Coronados Islands - Hubbard was put on the sick list in San Diego after complaining of a variety of problems, ranging from epigastric pains to back pains to malaria. According to a doctor's report, Hubbard claimed to have suffered a previous bout of malaria sixteen months earlier in a "combat area". In January 1942, he had been in southern Australia - hardly a war zone - and had not been diagnosed with malaria then or thereafter; no diagnosis of malaria appears anywhere in his extensive medical files. In his private papers, he admitted that his claims of illness were prompted not by genuine symptoms but a desire to avoid disciplinary action. He wrote home to inform the family that he was in hospital because he had been injured when he picked up an unexploded shell from the deck of his ship; it had exploded in mid-air as he threw it over the side. 1
Hubbard remained on the sick list for seventy-seven days, until it was finally determined that he had one genuine complaint - a duodenal ulcer (DOCUMENT A). In later years he liked to tell a rather improbable story about his stay at the hospital:
I had earlier, in the San Diego Hospital where I had been for some back injuries, helped them with their problems with what is called "filoriasis" of which they knew nothing. As I had been in the South Pacific and knew something of it, they were very glad of any data concerning it. They were unaware of a French serum which existed for it and did not know that it did not make people impotent or sterile, and did not know that a spell in a cold country was all it really needed. They had a regiment of Marines there in San Diego who had all contracted the disease and had been shipped ashore. They then sent these to Alaska where I am sure they all recovered in the cold.
(Source: Autobiographical notes for Peter Tompkins, 6 June 1972)
While he was performing good deeds in San Diego, it was decided that he would be assigned to the Small Craft Training Center in San Pedro, California, which may have been an attempt by his superiors to remedy the failings exposed during his stint on the USS PC-815. Due to his long stay in the naval hospital, he did not report to the SCTC until 16 October, by which time he already wanted a change of scenery. Only three days after arriving, he sent a letter to the Chief of Naval Personnel requesting a reassignment:
1. It is requested that I be given orders to landing vessels such as LST's [Landing Ships, Tank], destined for any combat area.
2. It is believed that my services may be of greater use in the amphibious forces, although Commander McDaniel of the Sub-Chaser Training Center, Miami, has again recently recommended that I be given another command such as a PCE or PC, it appears to me that officers with sea experience are more urgently needed in landing vessels.
(Source: Letter from Hubbard to Chief of Naval Personnel, October 19, 1943)
He provided a somewhat exaggerated resumé of his own career, claiming that he had been "commander of three expeditions" and had acquired "a resultant understanding of the waters and beaches of various parts of the world". His claims about his brief service in the US Marine Corps Reserve - five weeks of training in 1930-31 - would have surprised his former superiors: "infantry training and understanding of landing tactics gained as 1st sergeant, USMCR, 1930/31 as well as in National Guard. Qualified in nearly all small arms and infantry weapons. Experience in thus handling up to a battalion of men." (DOCUMENT B)
Hubbard was well aware that the débacle in the Coronados would count against him. Accordingly, he attached a statement seeking to justify the shelling of the Coronados, saying that most of the crew of the PC-815 had asked to return to his command. He claimed to have been given permission to fire at his own discretion, and complained that other vessels had not been censured for anchoring off the Coronados. Hubbard added a somewhat unconvincing excuse - that although he knew that he was in the grip of a throat infection at the time, this could not excuse his error.
The commanding officer of the SCTC recommended approving Hubbard's request, but the letter was passed via Rear Admiral Braisted, Hubbard's nemesis in the Coronados affair. The Rear Admiral did not make any specific recommendations but drew the Chief of Naval Personnel's attention to the proceedings of the Board which had investigated Hubbard's case. The result was a foregone conclusion. Back came the note annotated with the CNP's comment: "No action - past record indicated not qualified to command." (DOCUMENT C) Rear Admiral Braisted had earlier recommended that Hubbard serve on a large vessel "where he can be properly supervised." Perhaps reminded by Hubbard's request, the naval authorities now moved to implement this recommendation by assigning Hubbard to duty in connection with the conversion of the SS Algol in Portland, Oregon (DOCUMENT D).
The Algol had originally been a cargo ship, the SS James Burns, launched from Oakland, CA in February 1943. The demands of the Pacific campaign necessitated the ship's conversion into a Victory Ship or, as the Navy more formally called it, an attack cargo ship (used to transport troops or cargo in battle conditions such as supporting an seaborne invasion). She was decommissioned at the Willamette Shipyard in Portland, Oregon on December 3, 1943 prior to her conversion into a US Navy vessel. Hubbard's post was as Navigator and Training Officer (also, later, Chief Ship's Censor), with duties connected with overseeing the training of the Algol's crew.
Judging from his own writings, Hubbard was not an overly keen member of Algol's crew and was somewhat depressed about the low trajectory of his career. "My salvation is to let this roll over me," he wrote glumly on January 6, 1944, "to write, write and write some more. To hammer keys until I am finger worn to the second joint and then to hammer keys some more. To pile up copy, stack up stories, roll the wordage and generally conduct my life along the one line of success I have ever had." 2
Hubbard remained with Algol for the next nine months, interrupted only by a week-long course on amphibious operation held in April at the Operational Training School of the 12th Naval District at Treasure Island, California. His performance was rated as satisfactory by the Supervisor of Ships at the Willamette Shipyard, who called him "conscientious and energetic" and appearing to "have the necessary qualifications for promotion to the next higher rank [i.e. Lieutenant Commander] and his promotion when due is recommended." Mysteriously, Hubbard's Fitness Reports aboard the Algol reveal a previously unrecorded proficiency in Japanese. As the date of the Algol's commissioning approached, however, Hubbard's preference for combat duties appears to have waned. Rather than subchasers or LSTs, he now stated a preference for serving on auxiliary vessels - Algol was classified as an amphibious ship, not an auxiliary - or with the Hydrographic Office on shore.
The news from the Pacific theatre may have had something to do with this. Throughout 1943 and 1944, fierce fighting had raged across the western Pacific as Allied forces fought their way from island to island. At the landings on Tarawa in November 1943, more than a thousand Americans were killed and two thousand wounded. The Gilbert Islands were assaulted in November 1943 and January 1944 saw landings on the Marshall Islands. The reconquest of New Guinea began in April 1944, while on 15 June, two divisions of US Marines began an assault on Saipan in the southern Marianas, and in the battle that followed 16,500 Americans were killed or wounded. Shortly afterwards, in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Japanese made a determined attempt to destroy the American fleet but were repulsed. For the first time, military censorship of US casualties was relaxed to bring home to the American public the deadly seriousness of the struggle in which the nation was engaged. Shocking pictures showing blazing ships and beaches strewn with dead Marines were splashed on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. Front-line duty in the US Pacific Fleet was becoming increasingly hazardous. Algol, as an attack cargo ship, was expected to operate close inshore to support amphibious landings - and so would not only be right in the action, but as a high-value, lightly-armed vessel, would be a prime target for enemy attacks.
On April 21, 1944, the USS Algol was commissioned, entering full service with the US Navy. She immediately put to sea for trials. Through August and most of September she conducted exercises at sea; as Navigating Officer, Hubbard signed the ship's deck log daily, but there was little to report except "under way, as before". He later claimed that while aboard Algol, he "wrote a textbook for his crew, not only greatly simplifying the technology of navigation and its terms, but making navigators out of men who would have otherwise floundered." 3 Algol's shakedown concluded on September 3, 1944 and she put into Oakland, CA to load cargo for transport to Saipan, scene of the recent bloody battle.
Hubbard, however, did not want to go to Saipan. On September 9, 1944 he wrote to the Chief of Naval Personnel (DOCUMENT E) requesting a transfer to the School of Military Government, following a general Navy request for applicants "for intensive training with eventual assignment to foreign duty as civil affairs officers in occupied areas." He claimed to have been "educated as a civil engineer" (though he did not mention that he had only done two out of three years of his course and had failed to graduate); claimed to be conversant in Japanese, Spanish, Chamorro, Tagalog, Pekin [sic] Pidgin, Shanghai Pidgin (no mean feat considering that he had been in Japan and China for only a few days, as a teenager, in the late 1920s); claimed that he was "familiar with the sociology and governments of North China, Japan, the Philippines"; and claimed that he was "experienced in handling natives, all classes, in various parts of world, as laboring crews, students or business associates". (His experience in "handling natives" in apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia would later be the subject of lectures which are, to this day, still in use in Scientology.)
Even if he was not quite so experienced as he had claimed, Hubbard's request was nonetheless supported by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Axton T. Jones, who had a favourable opinion of Hubbard. He gave Hubbard a generally favourable Fitness Report for his service aboard Algol, but added a caveat:
Lieutenant Hubbard is a capable and energetic officer, but is very temperamental and often has his feelings hurt. He is an above average navigator and is to be trusted. This officer is of excellent personal and military character. Recommended for promotion when due.
(Source: L. Ron Hubbard Fitness Report, 21 July 1944 - 28 September 1944) (DOCUMENT F)
On September 15, Hubbard received the welcome news that he had been accepted on the Military Government Program. But just before he departed from Algol, a very curious incident occurred. On Wednesday, September 27, at 4:30 p.m., the Deck Log of the Algol reports:
"[T]he navigating officer reported to the OOD [Officer on Deck] that an attempt at sabatage [sic] had been made sometime between 1530-1600. A Coke bottle filled with gasoline with a cloth wick inserted had been concealed among cargo which was to be hoisted aboard and stored in No. 1 hold. It was discovered before being taken on board. ONI [Office of Naval Intelligence], FBI and NSD [Naval Security Detachment?] authorities reported on the scene and investigations were started."
(Source: Deck Log, USS Algol, September 27, 1944)
The USS Algol after Hubbard
Algol left for Saipan on 3 October 1944, serving in the western Pacific for the next three years. She earned two battle stars: one for the invasion of Okinawa (1 April-10 April 1945) and one for activities in the Solomon Islands (10 July-3 August 1945). After the war she was deactivated, prior to decommissioning, but was pressed back into service for the Korean War, where she earned another five battle stars. She later participated in the US naval blockade of Cuba in 1963. The remainder of her career was spent on the US east coast and West Indies as an amphibious warfare training vessel. Algol was finally decommissioned in July 1970. In 1983 she was acquired by the New Jersey Artificial Reef Committee and in 1991 was sunk in 135 feet of water approximately 15 miles east of Manasquan Inlet, where today she is a popular diving site.
The log is signed by the navigating officer, L. Ron Hubbard. However, the log makes no further mention of the incident and no record has been yet discovered of the outcome of the investigations. Nor is there any explanation of what Hubbard was doing searching the cargo or how he managed to find this "gasoline bomb". There is not even any confirmation that the bottle was some sort of improvised incendiary device; the only known record of the incident is that entered in Algol's logbook. Shortly after 10pm the same evening a signal was received stating that "Lt Lafayette Ron Hubbard, D-v (S), USNR 113392, is this date detached from duty."
This incident has been the subject of some debate amongst Hubbard's detractors. L. Ron Hubbard Jr., claimed in an affidavit that his estranged father had been relieved of duty aboard Algol after he had "apparently concealed a gasoline bomb on board the USS Algol in order to avoid combat." Other critics have supported this claim. The Church of Scientology's official biographer of Hubbard, Dan Sherman, retorts:
L. Ron Hubbard was never relieved of duty from a Pacific-based USS Algol ... Not only is the statement false - for Mr. Hubbard discovered a concealed gasoline bomb aboard the Algol - but his services aboard the Algol terminated with a promotion to the United States School of Military Government at Princeton University. 4
Leaving to one side the inaccurate statement about the terms of Hubbard's transfer - he was not promoted, his rank remaining unchanged - Sherman is essentially correct. There is no suggestion in Hubbard's file that he was relieved of duty aboard Algol, nor that he was disciplined for any matter arising out of the discovery of the "gasoline bomb". If it had been traced to him there is no doubt that he would have faced very serious charges indeed under wartime military law, potentially even the death penalty. Moreover, it is hard to see what could have been gained by planting the device. He had already been notified that he was imminently due to be detached to the School of Military Government. His Captain had consistently given him satisfactory reports, recommending him for promotion. There was, quite simply, nothing for him to gain from such an exceedingly risky action, as he had already achieved a favourable report and the posting he desired. One cannot completely rule out his involvement, but the balance of factors suggests that he was not the culprit.
A final bizarre postscript to Hubbard's stint aboard the USS Algol comes from the man himself. In what was to become a minor legend within Scientology, he later claimed that the popular Broadway show "The Bucket", later a movie and TV series, Mister Roberts, was based on his experiences aboard Algol. The original show, written by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, centers on life aboard a military cargo ship during World War 2. Henry Fonda, in one of his best roles, plays the eponymous Lt (jg) Roberts, a dedicated naval officer who yearns for combat duty. James Cagney is memorable as the small-minded ship's captain more concerned with his treasured palm tree than with the anxieties of his men. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his comic turn as Ensign Pulver, the ship's laundry and morale officer. William Powell also stars as the worldly medical officer. The film was deservedly popular on its release in 1955 and spawned a less successful sequel, Ensign Pulver, and a TV series, also called Mister Roberts. It has recently been re-released on DVD by Warner Bros.
When his staff asked Hubbard in June 1972 about his alleged connection with the film, he said:
I frankly don't know how this came about. Many of my friends in New York were playwrights and when I was there after my return from the South Pacific in the middle of 1942, and as there were very few people who had been in the War so far, the story must have been passed around amongst playwright friends. Later, in 1944, I was again on the playwright beat and entertained my friends with the fabulous story of "The Bucket". Sometime later some of them told me I had been immortalized. I didn't know what they were talking about. This is all the connection I know of, and of course there may be no connection at all.
(Source: Autobiographical notes for Peter Tompkins, 6 June 1972)
His modesty was a little late in the day, as he had already told his followers that he was the prototype for the Mister Roberts character, with Lt Cdr Axton T. Jones as the vicious commanding officer played in the film by James Cagney. The tale was faithfully relayed by Hubbard's Public Relations staff:
At the end of the war, having been relegated because of his physical condition to the amphibious forces in the Pacific, he had the adventures which are reported on the screen in "Mister Roberts". "The Bucket" of that motion picture, stage play, and the novel is actually the A.K.A. 54, the U.S.S. Algol. The captain so brutally characterized in the picture is actually Lieutenant Commander Axton P. [sic] Jones. L. Ron Hubbard as "Mister Roberts" was with the ship less than a year, however, and contrary to the script, was not killed at Okinawa.
(Source: A Brief Biography of L. Ron Hubbard, 1960)
The characterization of Jones seems a little harsh, considering the complimentary Fitness Reports which he wrote for Hubbard. But concerning the claim itself, there is no evidence that it is true. Hubbard, it should be noted, had a weakness for claiming unverified association with successful movies; he had already claimed to have written the screenplays of John Ford's legendary Stagecoach and The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper. 5
1 Letter from L. Ron Hubbard Jr., 26 January 1973
2 Hubbard, of unknown date - see Ron The Writer (Church of Scientology, 1989), http://www.ronthewriter.org
3 See L. Ron Hubbard: Master Mariner/Yachtsman (Church of Scientology, 1996) - http://www.lronhubbard.org/yachtsmn/intro3.htm
4 "Merchants of Sensationalism: The Boston Herald Exposed" (Church of Scientology, 1997 - see http://news.scientology.org/mag/boston/page10a.htm.
5 Robert Macdonald Ford - interview with Russell Miller, September 1, 1986
|A. Notification of Hubbard's hospitalization with "diagnosis 371" (duodenal ulcer), 24 July 1943|
|E. L. Ron Hubbard request for transfer to US Navy School of Military Government, 9 September 1944|
|G. L. Ron Hubbard notice of posting to Naval Training School (Military Government), 17 January 1945|
|H. L. Ron Hubbard certificate of completion of Military Government course, 27 January 1945|