Stupid Question ™
April 8, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Was the captain ever really supposed to go down with the ship? Did any captains ever do so, and what happened if they refused?
A: There apparently has never been a rule requiring a captain to commit suicide by remaining on a sinking ship.
There certainly is no such rule today. In fact, the U.S. Naval War College says captains now have personal lifeboats (called GIGs) with which to escape and conduct rescue efforts.
Maj. Sean Griffin, a Marine officer instructor at Ohio State University’s naval science department, said “going down with the ship” may be a tradition that makes a virtue of necessity.
Griffin said that in the early days of sea travel, ships were often in bad shape, there was no life-preserving system, and most sailors couldn’t even swim.
“They were fatalists,” Griffin said.
Captains were usually the heavily indebted owners of their ships, which were uninsured.
“If the ship’s going down, what’s the point of surviving?” Griffin said. “If your livelihood is destroyed, it’s a psychological shock. Your entire world comes down.”
There can be other reasons for choosing an honorable-looking suicide. If they’ve made an error that will cost people’s lives, captains may be overwhelmed by guilt and grief—and fearful of public humiliation and legal action. Major shipwrecks often result in the captains being prosecuted.
Griffin said that the notion of obligatory suicide may also stem from an actual naval regulation: that the captain be the last man off a ship, including a sinking one.
The captain must be the last off because he or she has ultimate responsibility for the ship. And that surely increases a captain’s chances of becoming trapped on a sinking vessel—though they’re only required to be responsible, not foolhardy.
There are penalties for refusing to obey this regulation. “At minimum, it would be conduct unbecoming an officer,” Griffin said. “In the merchant line, they would probably pull his ticket [license to operate].”
Among captains who have gone down with their ships, the explicitness of the suicidal impulse varies with cultural norms.
The “Titanic’s” captain, E.J. Smith, wandered the decks until the ship sank it was apparently a passive form of suicide. I couldn’t find a single example of a Western captain consciously stating he would go down with his ship.
But when the Japanese aircraft carrier “Hiryu” was sinking at the Battle of Midway in 1942, Adm. Yamaguchi and Capt. Kaku lashed themselves to a railing and had the ship torpedoed.
Japan has cultural traditions attaching honor to suicide, but it wasn’t required even in this case. Toshio Abe, the captain of the ship that did the torpedoing, tried to convince Yamaguchi and Kaku not to kill themselves.
But then, Abe himself elected to remain standing on the deck of his sinking ship two years later.