Secular Historical Writings

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[Outline for presentation to Wetumpka Rotary Club by John E. Enslen.]

  • Brief Statement of the Historical Significance of the Crommelin Brothers of World War II
  • Provide Ancestral Background for the Brothers beginning with the First Alabama Pioneer
  • Very Brief Biography for Each Brother from oldest to youngest
  • Due to Time Constraints, more detailed biography of Only One Brother [the middle brother Charles]

[I am hopeful that
future programs will deal with each of the other brothers in detail, and where possible, I would like to have a direct descendant to assist me and take a major role in any future presentations.]

If time permits:

  • Personal Observations regarding the Crommelin family’s charitable, civic, and business contributions to Wetumpka
  • Personal Observations regarding what I perceive to be the longstanding prevailing local attitude toward the Crommelin family

Primary Sources of Information

I have relied upon
Alabama Heritage Magazine, Fall 1997; Crommelin’s Thunderbirds, 1994 by Bruce and Leonard, which has over 40 eye-witness accounts of various events involving Charles Crommelin; several Internet sites; interviews and e-mails with children of the brothers; my own personal relationship with family members, including two of the brothers; and an avid watching of The History Channel.

Historical Significance

The parents of the 5 brothers, John and Katherine Crommelin, are the only parents in all of American history to have 5 sons, in this case all 5 of their sons, to graduate from the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Those graduations took place over an 18 year span between 1923 and 1941, perfect timing for military service in World War II. By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 4 older brothers were all married and had children.

It has been said that Wetumpka is the only city in the United States to have had 5 native sons from one family to graduate from the U. S. Naval Academy. But that is not technically correct for two reasons. The Crommelin family did not live inside the corporate limits of Wetumpka, and some of the brothers were born in Montgomery at a second home, and not in the Wetumpka area. But Elmore County and Montgomery County can accurately lay claim to being the only counties in the United States to have had 5 resident brothers to graduate from the U. S. Naval Academy.

The brothers probably have an unchallengeable claim to being the most decorated family in the history of the United States Navy based upon the shear number of medals, citations, and awards garnered by the five brothers during World War II and thereafter.
There may be no single family in American military history that can lay claim to having commanded more U. S. Naval vessels, although the brothers’ major contribution collectively is probably in naval aviation.

They are probably the only family to have four sons to be awarded their wings at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.

At least one Crommelin brother participated in every major battle in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. At least one or more Crommelin brothers saw life-threatening action at Marcus, Wake, Guam, Tarawa, Guadalcanal, Midway, Juluit, the Gilberts, Mille, Iwo Jima, Hachijo Jima, Hokkaido, Tokyo, and other major Japanese cities prior to the dropping of the two atomic bombs.

During the war, they were the subject of a comic book series called “The Dixie Demons.” Shortly after the war-time deaths of Charles and Richard, the
New York Times referred to them as America’s “most famous flying family.” Earlier in the war, because of their uncanny ability to survive, Time Magazine had dubbed them “the Indestructibles.”

In 1983, the United States Navy commissioned a guided-missile frigate with the name USS Crommelin in honor of all 5 brothers. It has been retrofitted from time to time with the latest technology, has served several missions in the Persian Gulf, and presently operates from an assigned home port at Pearl Harbor.

Modern Ancestral Family History

1. Charles Crommelin

There is a noteworthy old-world French and Dutch ancestry in the Crommelin family line. They were a family of wealth, and were involved in the banking business and other major commercial enterprises. But time and purpose do not permit a discussion of their distinguished extended ancestry.

I will begin with the first Crommelin to come to the State of Alabama. His name was Charles Crommelin. He was born in Saratoga, N.Y. in 1800, and he was a graduate of prestigious King’s College of New York City, which is today called Columbia University.

Charles was an adventurous, forward-thinking soul. He made a careful study of where he wanted to stake out his claim in life. In those days, Alabama was actually referred to as the “western frontier.” In 1820, only six years after the Creek Indian surrender at Ft. Toulouse and during Alabama’s first year of statehood, 20-year-old Charles deliberately chose, over second-choice Chicago, a location which was about 4 miles upstream from, and lying between, the confluence of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers. This was more than a decade before the nearby area would be incorporated and given the name “Wetumpka.” It was only known as the “Falls of the Coosa” in reference to the rapids just above the older downtown bridge. It was not until the great flood of 1886 that the confluence of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers would move three miles upstream nearer to Ft. Toulouse, creating what has come to be known as “Parker’s Island.”

Young Charles established his homestead on high ground within site of Ft. Jackson. This was Montgomery County, and the proposed site for a platted town to be named Jackson. Elmore County did not come into existence until the post-Civil War racially motivated gerrymandering that took place beginning in 1866 as part of the Jim Crow system.

After 10 years in the area, and at age 30, Charles married a daughter from a neighboring family. According to family legend, the couple was married within a month of their meeting one another. The bride-to-be had evidently been living with relatives or attending school in Mobile. Charles saw her for the first time when she walked down the gangway of the riverboat coming from Mobile. He watched with particular interest as the young lady with long blonde hair rode away from Crommelin landing on her horse. Shortly thereafter the two of them inadvertently met while out riding horses.

They built their dogtrot home at the site of their happenstance meeting, the same site as the present home of Priscilla Crommelin on Ft. Toulouse Road. That original dogtrot home stood until it burned about 1890. The present home was built by Quentin and Priscilla in 1970.

Charles’s bride was Parthenia Ross, the daughter of revolutionary war soldier Isaac Ross who lived on what we know as the Abie Landers property near Ft. Toulouse. Issac’s marked grave site is located in a private cemetery near the fort. Issac fought as an 18 year old in Francis Marion’s cavalry and was present in Yorktown at the surrender of Cornwalis to American forces, the last major military conflict of the Revolutionary War. Isaac became Alabama’s first post master.

In addition to farming, Charles established a successful law practice in Montgomery where he built a second home on prestigious North Hull Street. This commenced a long-held family pattern wherein the Crommelins occupied two residences, maintaining their primary social associations and business connections with the Montgomery community. Children also received their educational training in Montgomery.

Charles would eventually over time acquire more than 3,000 acres between the two rivers, extending northward to the DeBardelaban property where the Indian casino is now located, southward to the Moore estate, and eastward to the John Jacob Enslen property on Trotters Trail or Harrogate Springs Road and the Fitzpatrick property in Blue Ridge. He owned a third home in Pensacola and substantial properties in Manhattan and Queens.

Charles died at age 57 in 1857, 11 years after Montgomery became the capital of the state, and 4 years before the commencement of the Civil War, or if you prefer, the War Between the States. By then he had lived in Alabama 37 years and his family was well entrenched in the southern plantation culture of that day.

2. Charles and Parthenia had two sons, John and Henry.

2A. John Crommelin (Son of Charles)

John, the son of pioneer Charles, served in the Civil War in the 6th Alabama Regiment. After the war, he graduated from Washington College in Virginia, his diploma being signed by Robert E. Lee. He remained a bachelor and preferred the city life of Montgomery to the plantation. As evidence of the family’s strong connections in Montgomery, John served two terms as Mayor of the City of Montgomery.

2B. Henry (son of Charles)

Henry, the son of pioneer Charles, also fought in the Civil War in the same Alabama Regiment. After the war, he too received a similarly signed diploma from Washington College which later became Washington and Lee University.

By the way, I am told that the Crommelin properties in Manhattan and Queens were confiscated by the federal government during the Civil War because of their owner’s treason in supporting the confederacy.

Henry married and raised a family on the now Elmore County plantation. He acquired his more politically-minded brother’s interest in the plantation lands. He died about 1900. To create additional confusion with the names of male descendants, he had a son named John, to whom he left the plantation when he died.

3. John (son of Henry who was son of Charles)

John, the son of Henry who was the son of Charles, became the father of the five famous brothers. John and his wife Katherine Gunter alternated their living quarters between a house in Montgomery on South Decatur Street in the winter months when school was in session, and the plantation in Elmore County during the warmer climate when tilling, planting, cultivating, and harvesting were major agricultural endeavors. After the dogtrot home burned in 1890, John and Katherine built a large new residence further from the river in the area generally called Harrogate Springs. This they considered to be their “home,” and it was the place where John and Katherine raised 5 sons and 3 daughters, although some of the children were born in Montgomery. The wife and mother, Katherine, died in 1930 when the youngest child Quentin was 12 years of age.

Please keep in mind as we discuss the five sons that there was no U. S. Highway 231 which came in the mid-1950’s. That land was just part of the plantation where crops were grown and livestock ranged. The narrow dirt farm road which eventually came to be commonly known as Ft. Toulouse Road had its eastern origin at the Old Montgomery Highway. [go look]

The five barefooted sons had full access to a virtual young boy’s paradise: springs, ponds, creeks, rivers, woods, hills, and barns where they could hide, play, hunt, fish, ride ponies, and chase rabbits. As they got older, quail hunting with their father replaced rabbit and squirrel hunting. They would later attribute their expert gunnery marksmanship to the skills they had developed while shooting quail.

Very Brief Sketch of Each Brother from Oldest to Youngest

1. John, Jr. was born in 1902. He was the first to attend the naval academy, but that was not the original plan. John’s freshman year at the University of Virginia demonstrated a clear lack of self-discipline. As a corrective treatment, he was sent to a tough military school. John began the tradition by graduating from the Naval Academy in 1923. He later earned his wings at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola in 1926 when naval aviation was still in its infancy. Many of us here in this room knew colorful and somewhat eccentric John Crommelin who stayed very connected to this area. We swam in the almost unbearably cold, continuously spring-fed waters of his pool which competed with the Willow Springs pool. We walked on his imported white sand beach in front of the canteen store. We danced with our date at his open-air pavilion to the music of Hank Williams. We fished in his ponds and talked with him at the post office and on the streets. He died in 1996 at the age of 94.

2. Henry was the second son. He was born about 1904 and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1925, only two years after his older brother John. Henry was unique from his brothers in one respect. He had a problem with his eyesight and thus was the only brother who did not earn his wings as a naval pilot. He made his mark in the navy commanding destroyers. Henry died in 1971 at age 67.

3. The third son, Charles, was born in 1909. He graduated from the academy in 1931 and received his wings in 1933. He was declared “missing in action” on March 28, 1945, in the Pacific Ocean. I will feature him in more detail later.

4. The fourth son, Richard, whose photo appears on the front of Alabama Heritage Magazine, was born in 1917. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1938. He earned his wings at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in February 1941, 10 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was declared “missing in action” over the Pacific on July 14, 1945.

5. The fifth son and 8th and last child, was Quentin. He was born in 1918. One of the plantation hands announced at the community store: “They had um anuthin, but this looks like hit. Theyze callin’ him ‘Quittin.’ Actually, Quentin was named for Quentin Roosevelt, the son of Teddy Roosevelt. Quentin Roosevelt, a pilot, was killed in World War I on the same day that Quentin was born. The Crommelins were related by marriage to both Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fact which did not hinder their ability to obtain five senatorial appointments to the Naval Academy. Quentin graduated from the academy in June of 1941, six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He earned his wings in 1942 while his torpedoed air craft carrier was being repaired.

Quentin was the consummate officer and gentleman and was well known to several of us in this room. Quentin, Bill Gray, Watt Jones, and I were founding directors of Elmore County National Bank, and we met together monthly over a period of 14 years. Quentin died at age 79 in 1997. He was the last living brother, and his lovely wife Priscilla is today the last surviving widow among the wives of the five brothers.

Detailed Biography of Charles Crommelin

I want you to know that there is sufficient interesting information regarding each of the five brothers to well justify a separate talk on each. I chose to speak about Charles simply because he was the first to give his life in the war effort, dying on or sometime after March 28, 1945, about five months before the end of the war.

The two greatest revengeful battle cries in American military history are “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember Pearl Harbor.” In beginning my discussion of Charles, I want to do a flash forward in his life to 1945. Imagine the intense infuriation felt toward the Japanese for their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, for their unpardonable treatment of American POW’s, and for the enormous loss of life and limb in dislodging them from one Pacific island after another as we made our way ever so closer to the Japanese mainland, where we could inflict by air some much-desired retribution. In fact, for the entire war, we had yet to conduct a round-trip bombing run on mainland Japan. Early in the war, Doolittle’s one-way symbolic, morale-boosting raid had garnered much publicity, but had inflicted no real damage.

The date is February 13, 1945, and the weather outside consists of a cold, wet, windy, winter storm. The place is the air craft carrier USS Randolf, having survived Kamikaze attacks and now strategically located within striking distance of Japan. All of the pilots are assembled in the largest ward room to await their commander’s instructions. The men clearly sense that they are a part of history in the making. There are some thoughts of “Remember Pearl Harbor,” but their biggest thought, as always, is “Will I make it back from this one?”

Into this room will walk Charles Crommelin, the commander of the ship’s entire Air Group which carries the nickname “Crommelin’s Thunderbirds.” By this time, Charles, age 36, has deservedly become, as you will learn later, the classic, quintessential war hero. He is much beloved by his subordinates whose safety he has consistently placed above his own. He is known for assigning himself to be the first to fly over intended targets to smoke out the location and intensity of the enemy’s anti-aircraft defense. He is seldom seen without his trademark cigar. He is not enamored with rank. He wears the same old battle-scarred flight jacket, despite the fact that the jacket’s insignia indicates a lesser rank that he had held more than two years earlier.

Charles enters the briefing room and immediately announces, “Well, fellows, we’re on our way to Tokyo.” There was a brief moment of totally stark silence, and then a spontaneous eruption of thunderous applause that Tokyo Rose herself could almost have heard. Such was the announcement of the first carrier air strike against mainland Japan. Charles would lead them on their first mission through that same winter weather three days later on February 16, 1945, as Pearl Harbor was avenged with a highly successful surprise attack on the industrial complexes in and around Tokyo.

In the second day’s attack on February 17, 1945, Crommelin led another large strike force against the Japanese mainland, targeting air craft engine plants. They had to fly through snow squalls to reach their targets, and the freezing weather caused problems with the propellers. On the way back three Zeros were on Charles’ tail pounding him. He called a nearby section leader for help. The section leader made a high speed turn pulling six G’s and shot the closest Zero off his tail. Another American pilot responded to the call and scored a hit on the second Zero. The third one scattered. Charles was known for his calm temperament under fire, and his total lack of fear. This section leader would later write:

It was difficult to believe he was in troublewhen he called [and said], ‘I could use alittle help,’ with little or no sense of urgency.It was then [that] I got a glimpse of ... threeTony’s raking his plane with gunfire. It wasjust his way of doing things.

After Charles returned to the carrier from his five-hour plus mission that day, the flight deck crew were astounded to count 54 holes in one wing tank alone, and the fuselage of his Hellcat appeared as though it had been used for target practice. They marveled that the plane could have been landed in one piece.

Also taking part in these air raids on mainland Japan were brothers Richard, a squadron leader assigned to the Yorktown, and Quentin, a squadron leader assigned to the Antietam.

Have you ever seen a photo of Tokyo following the bombing? One can hardly distinguish the city from Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But once the atomic bombs were successfully dropped, the pre-atomic, conventional Crommelin-led bombing of Tokyo and other cities took a far back seat in the history books. One can only wonder what the heroic status of Charles Crommelin would be today in the annals of American military history had there been no atomic bomb.

With that flash forward in our minds, let’s return to the earlier military life of Charles Crommelin.

After obtaining his wings in 1933, he was assigned flying duty aboard America’s first air craft carrier, a converted coal hauler called the Langley. His outstanding flying abilities earned him considerable recognition, as did his attitude of fearlessness. Thus, he was selected for the dubious honor of “test pilot.” He was engaged in this dangerous occupation for several years.

Shortly after the war commenced, he was assigned to fly an experimental fighter plane that had killed its two previous test pilots. Undeterred, Charles dutifully took his turn at the controls. In keeping with its well-earned reputation, the experimental plane’s engine failed. Charles crash landed, breaking both legs and badly injuring an arm. Long months of rehabilitation delayed his entrance into World War II.

Charles was finally deemed fit for service again in August of 1943. He was given command of a fighter squadron assigned to the new carrier Yorktown, named in honor of the prior sunken carrier of the same name.

With Charles’ arrival to the war effort, all five brothers were then serving across the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean. Brother Henry was at this time commanding a division of destroyers which were providing close support for waves of marines hitting the island beaches.

In his very first combat engagement on August 31, 1943, fighter pilot Charles earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He led his squadron in a night strike against a heavily fortified Japanese air base on Marcus Island, strafing the anti-aircraft positions with his guns while his bombers deployed their bombs. Charles decided to hang around in the air until daybreak. In the earliest morning light he spotted seven Japanese bombers on the runway of the airfield. He commenced a series of very low-level strafing attacks with his machine guns, bouncing off of the enemy runway himself to get point blank range. He continued those strikes until he and his wingmen had destroyed all seven of the Japanese planes, as well as the Japanese pilots attempting to board them.

Charles was promoted to the command of the carrier air group on the Yorktown. In this position he led strikes against the Japanese entrenchments at Wake, the Gilberts, and Juluit. But then, in November of 1943, on the very same day that brother John’s ship was torpedoed, Charles came very close to losing his life.

Charles was conducting a low-level strafing attack on the Japanese airfield at Mille Atoll when his fighter plane was hit by a shell that exploded in his cockpit. He lost vision in his left eye, his right wrist was broken, he sustained a severe wound to his right chest, and his face, arms and torso were covered with abrasions and free flowing blood. More than 1,000 pieces of metal would later be extracted from his body. His forward visibility through his somewhat good eye had been reduced to near zero as a result of the damage caused to the cockpit. He was over 100 miles from the Yorktown, and his instrument panel had been shattered. Charles miraculously flew his plane back to the carrier and made a perfect landing. He stumbled out of the cockpit and rolled off the plane onto the deck where medics commenced their treatment.

The successful landing that Charles had made, his dramatic exit from the plane, and his blood drenched face and body were recorded on film by navy photographers. This film footage became the highlight in the famous combat film “The Fighting Lady” which won an academy award for the best documentary in 1944. I have read many local newspaper articles trumpeting Wetumpkians being involved in various movies, but I have never seen mentioned once this live, academy-award-winning performance. One naval historian, reflecting on the day in which John’s ship was sunk by a torpedo and Charles’ plane took a direct hit by exploding anti-aircraft ordinance, wrote: “They grow tough airmen in Wetumpka, Alabama.”

Charles was later flown to Pearl Harbor for medical treatment. In route to the hospital, he ordered his ambulance driver to stop in front of the officer’s club. Covered in bandages to the extent that he looked like an Egyptian mummy, he painfully limped unaided into the bar filled with young aviators. He ordered his favorite, a stiff Old Fashion, and downed it in one quick gulp like a thirsty cowboy returning from a long trail drive. He then silently limped unaided back to his ambulance. He told the driver that he just wanted to show the young guys that it really wasn’t so bad to get shot up. (I think he meant bullets and not liquor, but perhaps both.) His legend was still growing.

In mid-1944, about the time Charles’ body had basically mended from the trauma, the movie I mentioned, “The Fighting Lady,” was being shown throughout the United States to help increase the sale of bonds to support the war. Charles decided to go with a friend to watch the movie. As he and his fellow airman were exiting the movie theater, they heard a couple of WAVES talking about the unfortunate fighter pilot in the movie who had been so terribly shot up. Commander Crommelin taped one of the girls on the shoulder, probably the best looking of the two, and asked: “How do I look now?” The poor girl’s countenance became bug-eyed, her mouth dropped open, and she almost collapsed.

Charles received orders to go to Jacksonville, Florida to train more new pilots. It was there that Charles made a significant contribution to the manner in which the navy was to train its future pilots. He instituted a new plan whereby the fighter pilots, the dive bombers, and the torpedo planes would train together as a single team, instead of separately, and under the tutelage of a veteran pilot. It was this group that would become known as “Crommelin’s Thuderbirds.”

By memorizing the eye chart, Charles was able to return to combat again. He shipped out of San Francisco on the new carrier Randolf in January 1945. He was then on his way to Japan but would not arrive until he had fought Kamikaze attacks and supported the ground invasion of several islands. This brings us full circle back to the flash forward with which we began.

It seems that the enemy could never claim life and death power over Charles. But on March 28, 1945, Commander Charles Crommelin was involved in an accidental mid-air collision with another friendly plane over the Pacific Ocean. He was never seen again. Thus ended the life of one of America’s most charismatic fighter pilots.

Observations Regarding the Families Local Civic and Business Contributions [separate document]

Observations Regarding Local Attitudes Toward the Crommelin Family [separate document]

My hope in undertaking this historical analysis has been in large part to create a long overdue unification between the Wetumpka community and the extended Crommelin family. Perhaps some seeds have been planted.

In conclusion, I will simply say that in our midst, almost unnoticed, there was produced in its purest sense a band of brothers who valiantly and fearlessly fought in World War II to preserve our nation, our values, and our way of life. They and all like them deserve not only to be remembered, but rather, at the least, never to be forgotten. Thank you for your kind attention.

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