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Callaghan, Daniel Judson (1890-1942)


Photograph of Daniel J. Callaghan

National Archives #80-G-11671

Cropped by author

"Fighting Dan" Callaghan was born in San Francisco, the son of a Roman Catholic banker, and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1911 (ranking 39th in a class of 193.) He served on battleship California and participated in the Nicaragua intervention of 1912. He served in convoy escorts in the First World War. Following the armistice, he was assigned to the Navy Department, where he first met Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1938 Callaghan became naval aide to President Roosevelt, who took a personal interest in the careers of promising naval officers. Callaghan was the captain of the San Francisco at the time of the attack at Pearl Harbor. San Francisco was part of the fire support group for the initial Guadalcanal landings, and shortly thereafter Callaghan became chief of staff to Ghormley, the South Pacific theater commander.

Promoted to rear admiral, Callaghan was placed in command of the American force at the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (November 12-13, 1942) where he was killed by shellfire on the bridge of his flagship. The battle was a bloody, confused affair with high casualties on both sides, but it was a strategic American victory, since, in the process of getting itself shot to pieces, the American squadron inflicted sufficient damage on the Japanese squadron to prevent the Japanese from shelling Henderson Field.

"Uncle Dan" was relatively inexperienced in combat operations, and he has been criticized for failing to broadcast a battle plan or make the best use of his radar advantage. It has been suggested that if the other admiral present, Norman Scott, had been placed in tactical command, the outcome would have been better, since Scott had recently bested the Japanese at the battle of Cape Esperance. However, Scott was a few weeks junior, and rigid navy regulations meant Callaghan was automatically in command. In any case, the ship dispositions chosen by Callaghan strongly resembled those used by Scott at Cape Esperance.

Historians ought to be generous in judging Callaghan. He was faced with a seemingly insoluble tactical problem, namely, meeting an enemy force known from Allied reconnaissance to contain battleships with his few cruisers and destroyers, and preventing it from bombarding Henderson Field. Hornfischer (2011) interviewed an officer from San Francisco who reported that both Callaghan and his flag captain believed this to be a suicidal mission:

"The wind carried their voices to me as I paced the deck and I was able to clearly observe the demeanor of each," Bennett said.  "They were discussing the unannounced fact that there were battleships in the Tokyo Express.... Captain Young ... was in an understandably agitated state, sometimes waving his arms, as he remarked 'This is suicide.' Admiral Dan Callaghan replied, "Yes I know, but we have to do it." As Bennett saw it, Callaghan was "calm, unemotional, resolute and perhaps resigned to his fate."

However, the admiral courageously led his squadron in a headlong charge into the enemy formation that brought his cruisers close enough to Hiei for their relatively light shells to inflict critical damage, and which threw the Japanese force into sufficient confusion to prompt the Japanese to withdraw. Callaghan accomplished his mission, albeit at the cost of his own life.

We want the big ones. Get the big ones first!

—Callaghan's last signal

Callaghan was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the second highest ranking American naval officer killed in action in the Pacific War. (The highest ranking was Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, killed on the bridge of the Arizona in the Pearl Harbor raid.) He had been popular with the crew of Portland while serving as her executive officer, a significant deviation from Navy tradition. It was rumored that his premature gray hair was the product of a court-martial in 1915 for mismanagement of engine room equipment (he was acquitted.) He was not a drinker, though he did not preach temperance. Morison described him as "austere, modest, deeply religious; a hard-working and conscientious officer who possessed the high personal regard of his fellows and the love of his men... There was something a little detached about his man, since his thoughts were often not of this world..."


Service record

1890-7-26     

Born in San Francisco, California
1911

Graduated from Naval Academy
1912-5-21     
Ensign

1915-5
Lieutenant junior grade     

1918

Navy Department
1920-10

Idaho
1923-6

Board of Inspection and Survey, Pacific Coast Section
1925-5-16
Lieutenant
Colorado
1926-4

Mississippi
1928-7

Board of Inspection and Survey, Pacific Coast Section
1933

University of California
1936
Commander
Executive officer, Portland
1938-7
Captain     
Naval aide to President Roosevelt
1941-5

Commander, San Francisco
1942-5
Rear Admiral       Chief of staff, South Pacific Area
1942-10

Commander, Cruiser Division 3
1942-11-13

Killed in action off Guadalcanal

References

Boatner (1996)

Coombe (1991)

DANFS

Dupuy et.al. (1992)

Hornfischer (2011)

Morison (1949)

Murphy (1954)
Pettibone (2006)

Prados (1995)



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