On the downhill slope of a long life, it's pleasant to remember certain outstanding people with whom you've come in contact. Balancing out these pleasures, though, is the regret you feel for some of the near misses, the times when your trajectory came so close to crossing paths with someone heroic, or brilliant, or extraordinary in some other way, but then veered off.
While a student at the Defense Language Institute many years ago, I became friends with, and later served with, a classmate who casually mentioned one day that his father was a retired Navy captain, a submariner who had sunk a large Japanese warship during World War II. I filed this away in the back of my mind in that repository of war stories I rarely ever revisit. Only later would I learn the fascinating details of the story.
Captain Joseph Francis Enright graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy the year before I was born. By the time I was two years old, he was a submariner. When I was a youngster in grade school, he was commanding a submarine in the Pacific, fighting a war. He had taught submarine warfare, he had commanded an aging, outdated sub, and now he was commanding a new one, the USS Dace, patrolling in Japanese waters.
Receiving instructions and tracking data to intercept a Japanese aircraft carrier, Enright did so, following tactics and procedures he considered in keeping with submarine doctrine, but was insufficiently aggressive and broke off the attack. He then found a Japanese tanker and prepared to attack it, but was depth-charged by the tanker's escorts and driven off.
Returning to base after 49 days of fruitless patrolling, including failure to attack successfully two lucrative targets, Enright assumed full responsibility for failure and took a highly unusual next step. He made an official request "to be relieved by an officer who can perform more satisfactorily." He was relegated to an administrative position at Midway.
Six months later, having suffered the pain of pushing papers, however necessary, while his peers sailed off to actively engage the enemy, he requested another submarine command. Probably at least as rare as his earlier request to be relieved was the action of the admiral under whom he served: he was again given command of a sub, this time the USS Archer-Fish. Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, Commander, Submarines, Pacific Fleet, would have reason to be glad he'd reinstated the officer he'd relieved six months before.
In late November 1944, Archer-Fish stood by in Japanese waters to perform rescue operations for B-29 Superfortress crews flying bombing raids on Tokyo. Informed there would be no raids on November 29, Captain Enright took his sub on a hunting expedition. And came upon the giant Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano, making its maiden voyage out of Tokyo Bay. He shadowed his prey for some six hours, managing to avoid actual contact with either it or its four escorts, until he was able to maneuver into the exact position he sought. The American submarine fired all six of its torpedoes, hitting Shinano solidly with four of them. Enright continued to follow and observe the wounded ship for eight more hours until it finally rolled over and sank.
The sub commander who had felt so guilty over failure to perform to his own high standards on the earlier patrol had sunk the largest warship ever sunk by a submarine. The Japanese had considered it unsinkable. It was the largest warship they'd ever built, and its destruction was a huge blow, both psychologically and tactically, to a determined enemy. The crew of the Archer-Fish received a Presidential Unit Citation. Captain Enright received the Navy Cross, second in rank only to the Medal of Honor.
Long after I retired from the Army, I was astonished to learn that, in one of those "isn't it a small world" cases, Captain Enright, widowed and remarried, had settled here in our local community. He was in poor health by the time I learned this, and I hesitated to visit him. But I did telephone him, tell him that I had served with his son, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Enright, Jr., and that I was honored to be able to talk to him personally. He was cordial and easy to talk to. I silently wondered if I might try to visit him later, after all.
Then Joseph the son died, too young, of cancer. And Captain Enright moved to a retirement home in Virginia and died not long after his son.
I'm pleased to have met and talked with many good people. This is one good person I came so close to meeting face to face. It was a near miss I sincerely regret.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."