THE "WAR HERO"
L. RON HUBBARD AND THE U.S. NAVY, 1941-50
Was L. Ron Hubbard a good officer? To the layman, his record would suggest a distinctly mixed conclusion. He received generally "average" or "above average" ratings in the many fitness reports submitted on him between 1941-45. But he was also relieved of duty three times, on the final occasion receiving a formal reprimand for disobeying orders. It should be emphasized that he was never actually disciplined, 1 since on all three occasions he was judged either to have acted with good though mistaken intentions or, probably, to have been the victim of a personality clash.
The best judge of whether this represents an overall favourable report is the military themselves. I presented a brief anonymised summary of Hubbard's record to three serving British officers, an Army Brigadier, a Royal Air Force Wing Commander and a Royal Navy Commander, inviting them to put themselves in the position of an officer reviewing Hubbard's overall performance:
You have an officer under your command, of lieutenant/captain/flight lieutenant rank [as appropriate], for a period of four years. He has had average-to-good performance reports for most of that period. However, over an 18-month period he is relieved of duty three times, twice for poor performance and once for disobeying orders, for which he is formally admonished. How do you rate him at the end of his service?
Their comments were revealing. The Army Brigadier said:
Being relieved of duty is a very serious matter. If it happened repeatedly it would normally result in the officer being sacked. An officer with that sort of record would hopefully see the writing on the wall before it reached that stage. However, the system can be merciful. People can be victims of personality clashes or unsuitable postings. Tours of duty can be terminated prematurely without ending careers.
The Air Force Wing Commander was stricter, commenting:
A very poor officer, obviously obstreperous and very difficult to manage. At that level you would expect to be able to give him tasks to do unsupervised. You would have to micro-manage him if you wanted to get good work out of him. If he is repeatedly relieved from duty in different posts, that is a clear message that he has a problem following commands from his superiors. I would not want him working for me. I would seek to give him an administrative discharge or perhaps a court-martial if he misbehaved again. Indiscipline is a court-martial offence, if you have clear and persistent evidence.
The Navy Commander highlighted the possible mitigations, saying:
He sounds like a poor officer. Average reports do not cancel out repeatedly being relieved of duty. You would need to supervise him closely. A lot depends on the circumstances. Perhaps he just had a bad spell - e.g. as a result of adverse personal circumstances, like a close relative being killed - which may offer some mitigation.
After I told them that the officer in question served during World War II, their reaction was mixed. The first and the third thought that the demands of wartime might make the service less willing to get rid of an unsatisfactory officer, instead placing him somewhere where he contribute to the war effort without risking harm. The Wing Commander was, as before, much stricter, suggesting that the increased need for competence might make the service more inclined to punitive discipline pour encourager les autres. (This difference of opinion may reflect different personal management styles, but might equally result from the far smaller margin of error inherent in air operations. It will be recalled that Hubbard originally applied to join the Air Corps.)
An Incompetent Cowardly Malingerer?
In the introduction, I commented that the "classic" critical view of Hubbard's naval service is that he showed himself to be an incompetent officer who did his best to avoid being put in danger and deliberately malingered in hospital with trivial physical complaints. Is this a fair reflection of the man?
The charge of incompetence is perhaps easiest to deal with, as it is dealt with directly in his performance reports. Hubbard was relieved of duty three times, on each occasion being found incapable of properly exercising unsupervised authority. Indeed, the Commandant of the Boston Naval Yard specifically commented that "he is not temperamentally fitted for independent command." The record shows that when Hubbard was assigned closely-managed duties, he performed satisfactorily or well. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that Hubbard was only incompetent for certain types of duty, not across the board. It is perhaps significant that as leader of Scientology, Hubbard appointed himself Commodore of his own private fleet - precisely the sort of post for which the US Navy had judged him unfit. Perhaps his self-appointment as Commodore and, later, Admiral was his belated revenge on the Naval bureaucracy.
In Hubbard's disciplinary record there is no suggestion, either explicit or implicit, that he behaved in a cowardly fashion. It was certainly something which was watched for very closely - cowardice in the face of the enemy was treated extremely seriously, potentially even with the firing squad. Hubbard, of course, never actually came in contact with the enemy. But there is every sign that - at least in the early days - he genuinely wished to "see combat first-hand", as Scientology puts it. He constantly requested deck duty aboard warships, wavering only in the last year of the war, and requested to be posted to at least three combat zones - the North Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Pacific.
In the first two he had a reasonable chance of coming into conflict with a German U-Boat. Hundreds of vessels, including patrol vessels such as his, were sunk by U-Boats just off the US East Coast and around the Caribbean islands; enemy U-Boats continued to operate in the region right up until the last week of the war with Germany. Admittedly he did face rather less risk aboard a patrol boat than, say, a destroyer, aircraft carrier or cargo ship - they were such strategically insignificant vessels that submariners rarely bothered to fire at them. But it cannot be proven that his desire to serve aboard patrol craft was motivated by a wish to stay out of harm's way. If he wanted that, why did he not apply for assignments ashore?
Hubbard's repeated requests to be posted to Pacific subchasers is a case in point. Although the Japanese submarine threat was far less than that posed by their German counterparts, and off the US coast was next to minimal, there was every expectation that Pacific subchasers would be sent to much more active regions than US coastal waters. PC class subchasers fought in the Aleutian and western Pacific campaigns; they ran convoys up to Alaska in the cold North Pacific and, though highly unsuitable for the task, down to South and Central America; they helped to protect Australian coastal waters from Japanese incursions. Although only a few were lost in the Pacific campaign, many nonetheless saw a busy and active career.
At the end of the war, however, Hubbard does seem to have tried to avoid an unwelcome tour of duty. Although he had specifically expressed a preference in his performance report for service aboard a Pacific Ocean cargo vessel, he requested a transfer to shore duty from the USS Algol just before she sailed for the recently captured island of Saipan. When he finished at the School of Military Government at Princeton, New Jersey, he was ordered to Monterrey, California, preparatory to serving as an administrator in the western Pacific - whereupon he promptly reported sick with a variety of mostly non-existent complaints. For the first time in the entire war, his performance reports show a preference for duty ashore, preferably at the Hydrographic Office (based in New York City). Why he acted in this way is unclear, as he had previously shown no qualms about moving around the country and abroad. But it is unlikely to have been cowardice: Saipan, the imminent destination of Algol, was firmly in Allied hands and he would have faced little risk there; he would have faced even less risk as an administrator on a reconquered island.
Again, Hubbard's file does not explicitly suggest that the Navy considered Hubbard to be a malingerer. He did spend a remarkably long time in hospital for what was eventually decided to be a duodenal ulcer - unpleasant, certainly, but hardly life-threatening. He also complained of a long list of other ailments, only two of which were eventually corroborated - arthritis and astigmatism (short-sightedness), both present only to a mild degree.
However, Hubbard's own statements suggest rather strongly that his medical complaints were motivated by rather more than simple concerns about ill-health. In his private papers he reportedly admits that his first complaint of "epigastic distress" was a ploy to avoid disciplinary action for the Coronados incident. (The veracity of this report cannot be confirmed, since the original papers are held under lock and key by Scientology.) In the correspondence preserved in his file, Hubbard evidently realises that his poor medical record may result in him being involuntarily retired from the service. He tells the Navy that while he is unwell now, his ulcer was much worse when he was aboard the USS Algol but it did not prevent him from doing his duty. In which case, why did he wait so long before applying for treatment and if he felt that he was capable of duty, why was he in hospital instead of taking up his assigned post as a military administrator? His words give the impression of a man trying to extricate himself from a hole which he has dug for himself.
While the evidence of his wartime file may be inconclusive on the question of his alleged malingering, it seems much more likely that his postwar medical complaints were influenced by non-medical concerns. The endless litany of undiagnosed problems and the sudden appearance of previously undisclosed injuries suggests that Hubbard's intention was to get the Veterans Administration to increase his pension. This was not malingering but could perhaps best be described as medical fraud.
Was Hubbard A Liar?
Here we come to a central question. Did Hubbard tell the truth about his service with the US Navy? The answer is that he demonstrably did not. Three specific claims, all from the same source, will suffice to illustrate this.
Hubbard refers to his naval career in his 1958 lecture The Story of Dianetics and Scientology (which is still required listening for Scientologists - they will play it for visitors on request). He claims that he "flew in from the South Pacific in the Secretary of the Navy's [personal] plane", that his broken ankle made him "the first [US] casualty returned from the South Pacific" and that after a week's stay in hospital, "they ordered this casualty to duty in command of a corvette in the North Atlantic". 1
All of these statements are directly disprovable. Hubbard's orders from the Naval Attaché to Australia instruct him to return to the United States via the USS Chaumont, not the Secretary of the Navy's private plane. Hubbard was hospitalised for conjunctivitis and is not recorded as having suffered any broken bones during his entire service career. And Hubbard never commanded a corvette in his life. On the latter point, L. Fletcher Prouty has tried half-heartedly to explain away Hubbard's statement:
In another context I have heard that L. Ron Hubbard mentioned something about this episode in his naval career while he was residing in Europe, where the Corvette is a well-known ship type. So he would use that term because of its familiarity with Europeans. So if he wrote while in Europe that he was running, commanding or deploying Corvettes during WW II, they would have understood that clearly and he would not have stretched the point. On the contrary he would have been stating things just as they were.
(Source: Prouty letter to CBS 60 Minutes, November 21, 1985)
The weakness of this argument is obvious, which may explain why Scientology does not appear to have deployed it. The defunct name "corvette" was resurrected by British prime minister Winston Churchill to refer to a class of small British warships. Corvettes were also built and operated by other nations of the British Empire, and the United States leased some to build up its own anti-submarine fleet. The class fell into disuse in most Western navies after the war; most small anti-submarine warships in use today are classed as frigates, rather larger than corvettes. Hubbard's North Atlantic command was definitely not a corvette but a gunboat. Is it really true that "gunboat" is less well understood than "corvette"? This proposition is so improbable that there is only one credible solution: that Hubbard claimed to have commanded a corvette simply because that sounded better than saying he commanded an armed trawler.
Hubbard's motives for lying about his naval service are a matter for speculation - he is now dead and he never publicly acknowledged that he might have misstated the facts. Critical biographies of Hubbard have quoted former aides and colleagues of Hubbard (as well as statements by the man himself) portraying him as a man with a big ego and small regard for literal truth. This is not, of course, a picture which the Church of Scientology recognises.
Is The Church of Scientology Lying?
Scientology likes to dismiss any dispute about Hubbard's past as a mere detail of history. "Any controversy about him is like a speck of dust on his shoes compared to the millions of people who loved and respected him," a Scientology spokesman told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "What he has accomplished in the brief span of one lifetime will have impact on every man, woman and child for 10,000 years." 2
However, there is absolutely no doubt that Scientology has issued numerous inaccurate accounts of Hubbard's military career. It has claimed that Hubbard fought on islands which he never visited; was awarded medals which he never won; commanded formations which never existed; and suffered injuries which he never sustained. Some of this can be put down to faulty research. Someone with no nautical knowledge might not know the difference between an armed trawler and a corvette or subchaser, for instance, though this does not excuse a failure to check.
However, since 1979 the Church has been in possession of a complete copy of Hubbard's personnel file. Some of the more outré claims (such as that he was a Provost Marshall in Korea in 1945) have disappeared from recent biographical accounts. Others have been modified - his ships have all now been named, for instance. But other wholly untrue claims continue to be made, such as that he saw action in the North Atlantic or that he conducted secret operations ashore in the Dutch East Indies.
The problem for Scientologists is that they believe (or are encouraged to believe, at least) that Hubbard was a paragon of honesty and truthfulness. But in cross-referencing his own statements, it is clear that he said different things to different people at different times - and contradicted himself. Imagine the dilemma for Dan Sherman, the Scientologist tasked with writing Hubbard's official biography. Hubbard says two directly contradictory things. Both are true, according to official Church policy. But the statements are contradictory, so logically one cannot be accurate. But Scientologists are not allowed to contradict Hubbard, even when he contradicts himself.
How can one resolve such a conflict between logic and dogma? Scientology's attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable has generated some amusing wriggling on its part. It has now accepted the assertion of the Boston Herald in March 1998 that the USS YP-422 was "a converted fishing boat" 3 which saw no action during the war (though its Internet site, produced in 1996, still insists that the vessel was a subchaser which made dozens of depth charge runs 4). But because Hubbard said explicitly in that 1958 lecture that he was "in command of a corvette in the North Atlantic" and claimed to have been wounded in that theater, Scientology now says that "Mr. Hubbard never claimed to have seen action aboard the YP-422. He did see action in the North Atlantic, but aboard a different vessel." 5 This is the first time that we have heard of a second North Atlantic vessel, but what ship, where, when? Scientology has not publicised any of these very basic and, one would imagine, easily obtainable details.
Scientology cannot claim that it does not know any better, as the reality of Hubbard's service career has featured heavily in court cases involving the Church: the Armstrong case in 1984 and unsuccessful attempts to block publication of the unauthorized biographies Bare-Faced Messiah and A Piece of Blue Sky in Britain, Canada and the United States between 1987 and 1990. Church lawyers went through the books in close detail for anything against which they could raise an objection, while Church public relations staff prepared and distributed "false report corrections" for the assertions made in the books. The latter is standard Church practice and the issue of Hubbard's naval career was specifically addressed by Church PRs when the Boston Herald newspaper raised it in a March 1998 article.
The Church's claims that Hubbard's records were falsified is also highly unconvincing. The only document presented in support of the "true" naval career of Hubbard turns out to be a probable forgery itself. The only outside "expert" supporting its claims has a reputation for inaccuracy and, sure enough, makes speculative and provably inaccurate claims about Hubbard's career. And even though the Church claims that the record is falsified, it has nonetheless accepted most of the significant events recorded in that record. The exceptions are Hubbard's three removals from duty, the adverse comments made upon him and his medical records. It simply does not mention these at all in official accounts of Hubbard's war years, though if specifically queried it explains that the record is falsified so the adverse or contradictory material cannot be trusted. In which case, why does it accept everything else? Another interesting point is that the Church has never actually said which records are supposedly falsified. Is the record largely or entirely falsified, as L. Fletcher Prouty has claimed? Or are only certain parts of it, maybe only individual documents, fabrications? We do not know; the Church has not told us.
The reader can judge for himself whether the Church of Scientology has repeatedly (though not consistently) lied about Hubbard's service with the US Navy. What is beyond dispute is that it has and continues to promote counterfactual information on the subject, that it is in possession of documentation contradicting its and Hubbard's accounts, and that it has completely failed to document most of its statements, even those verified in Hubbard's record. For an organisation which stresses the importance of truthfulness, honesty and the accurate evaluation of data, this is not an impressive performance. Hubbard's naval career is not a religious question subject to theological debate, but a simple matter of well-documented history. Others may guess at the reasons for the Church's behaviour; I have confined myself to documenting it.
I do not know whether this work will have any effect on Scientology's presentation of Hubbard's war years. But at least one significant benefit has been realised - the truth, as somebody once said, is now out there. Whatever else Lieutenant L. Ron Hubbard USNR might have been, he certainly was not a distinguished war hero.
1 Hubbard, lecture of October 18, 1958, The Story of Dianetics and Scientology.
2 Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1990
3 "Scientology Unmasked", Boston Herald, March 1, 1998
4 See L. Ron Hubbard: The Humanitarian, http://humanitarian.lronhubbard.org/respect3.htm.
5 "Correction of False Reports in 'Scientology Unmasked', Boston Sunday Herald March 1, 1998" - internal briefing document by Church of Scientology, March 1998.