“The captain goes down with the ship” is a maritime tradition suggesting that a captain is honor-bound to stay on a sinking ship until all passengers and crew members have been safely evacuated.
In 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia came under fire for allegedly leaving the ship while passengers were still on board when the vessel crashed off the coast of Italy. Thirty-two passengers died, and Schettino was sentenced to sixteen years in prison: ten years for manslaughter, five years for causing the shipwreck, and one year for abandoning his passengers.
The expectation that a ship’s captain would stay on board until everyone had been evacuated developed in the mid-19th Century, but it could be argued that the sentiment has gone too far. What about ship captains that go down with their ship even after they’ve ordered it abandoned?
Here are four notable cases of captains who went down with the ship:
Rear Admiral Giovanni Viglione
On May 30, 1918, the U-boat UB-49, captained by Kapitänleutnant Hans von Mellenthin, torpedoed the Pietro Maroncelli, an Italian steamer ship off the coast of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea. Rear Admiral Giovanni Viglione, who was on board as the convoy commodore, ordered all the survivors into the lifeboats, then chose to stay aboard and go down with the ship.
Capitano di Corvetta Lorenzo Bezzi
On June 27, 1940, an Allied destroyer group spotted the Italian submarine Console Generale Liuzzi while she was on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea. Her captain, Capitano di Corvetta Lorenzo Bezzi, determined that the submarine was unable to flee nor fight the destroyers, so he therefore, ordered his crew to abandon and scuttle the ship. Bezzi, however, decided to go down with the Console Generale Liuzzi, for which he would be posthumously awarded the Gold Medal.
Captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto
On June 5, 1942, U.S. naval forces launched an attack against the Japanese Imperial Navy that would turn the tide of World War II in the Pacific. The Japanese carrier fleet was crippled with multiple losses, including the Akagi and Kaga, and later the Hiryu, but it was the loss of the Soryu — and her beloved captain — that would strike at the hearts of the Japanese sailors.
After Captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto gave the order to abandon the burning ship, it was discovered that he had remained aboard. When Chief Petty Officer Abe was chosen to retrieve the captain, Abe found Yanagimoto standing on the Soryu’s bridge, sword in hand. Abe reported that the “strength of will and determination of his grim-faced commander stopped him short.” Abe left Captain Yanagimoto, who calmly sang Kimigayo, the Japanese national anthem.
He watched with the other survivors as the Soryu sank along with the bodies of 718, including her captain.
Commander Howard W. Gilmore
On Feb. 7, 1943, a Japanese gunboat attacked the American submarine USS Growler, captained by Commander Howard W. Gilmore, who gave the order to clear the bridge. Two Americans were shot dead while Gilmore and two others were wounded — and time to save the crippled sub was running short. When the survivors entered the sub, Commander Gilmore gave his final order: “Take her down.”
His executive officer closed the hatch and submerged the USS Growler to safety. Commander Gilmore posthumously received the Medal of Honor:
“For distinguished gallantry and valor above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the USS Growler during her Fourth War Patrol in the Southwest Pacific from 10 January to 7 February 1943. Boldly striking at the enemy in spite of continuous hostile air and anti-submarine patrols, Comdr. Gilmore sank one Japanese freighter and damaged another by torpedo fire, successfully evading severe depth charges following each attack. In the darkness of night on 7 February, an enemy gunboat closed range and prepared to ram the Growler. Comdr. Gilmore daringly maneuvered to avoid the crash and rammed the attacker instead, ripping into her port side at 11 knots and bursting wide her plates.
“In the terrific fire of the sinking gunboat’s heavy machine guns, Comdr. Gilmore calmly gave the order to clear the bridge, and refusing safety for himself, remained on deck while his men preceded him below. Struck down by the fusillade of bullets and having done his utmost against the enemy, in his final living moments, Comdr. Gilmore gave his last order to the officer of the deck, ‘Take her down.’ The Growler dived; seriously damaged but under control, she was brought safely to port by her well-trained crew inspired by the courageous fighting spirit of their dead captain.”