Capt. Frank J. Coulter, submarine commander, dies

Baltimore Sun reporter

Capt. Frank J. Coulter, a retired decorated career naval officer who commanded the submarine USS Skipjack in the Pacific Theater during World War II, died June 21 of respiratory failure at his Severna Park home.

He was 93.

The son of a police officer and a homemaker, Captain Coulter was born in Baltimore and raised in Canton, and later in the 1600 block of N. Broadway.

After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1935, he earned his bachelor's degree from the Naval Academy in 1939.

He also did postgraduate studies at the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and George Washington University.

Captain Coulter began his naval career as an ensign aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific Fleet, and later joined the destroyer-minesweeper USS Perry as an engineer.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the day that Japanese enemy aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, Manila and Malaya, Captain Coulter was aboard the destroyer USS Alden in waters off the Philippines and Indonesia.

Promoted to lieutenant and serving as engineering officer on the Alden, Captain Coulter participated in the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942, when the Japanese Imperial Navy defeated an allied fleet.

At the end of the seven-hour naval battle, five Allied vessels had gone to the bottom.

"My father was fortunate to have been aboard one of the few ships that survived the Battle of the Java Sea," said his son, Frank J. Coulter Jr. of Vienna, Va.

"Among the U.S. Navy losses was his four-year roommate at the Naval Academy, Lt. Jg. Kenneth Kollmyer, who was serving aboard the cruiser USS Houston when it was sunk following the main action in the Java Sea," his son said.

Captain Coulter's 17-month duty aboard the Alden ended in late 1942 when he was assigned to the Navy's Submarine School in New London, Conn., and after graduation, he joined the crew of the USS Skipjack in the Pacific.

"My father liked to say one of the reasons he asked to join the Submarine Service was the food on board," his son said.

Mr. Coulter said his father was being recruited for submarine service and when aboard a submarine based in Hawaii, they immediately left port and dove below the surface.

"He immediately felt a change in attitude — that is, there wasn't the constant rocking that he was accustomed to on the small ship to which he was then assigned," he said. "That was especially evident when it was time for lunch — the glasses and plates stayed in place. And the food was great, with steak and fries featured on the menu."

During his 42 months aboard the Skipjack, he participated in several war patrols as torpedo and gunnery officer and later as executive officer.

In March 1944, he was promoted to lieutenant commander, and in December assumed command of the vessel, which he held for 20 months.

"He was just 27 years old and out of the Naval Academy for just over five years" when he took command of the Skipjack, his son said.

"My father participated in five war patrols, two of which were deemed successful enough to merit the Submarine Combat Patrol insignia," he said.

"He survived depth charge attacks during several of the war patrols and earned a Bronze Star and a Navy Commendation Medal for the part he played in making successful attacks and evasive maneuvers during two patrols," Mr. Coulter said.

The Bronze Star citation said that Captain Coulter, then a lieutenant, "rendered invaluable assistance to his Commanding Officer, in conducting torpedo attacks which resulted in the sinking of a 1,500-ton enemy destroyer and a 6,938-ton freighter."

After the Skipjack's 10th and final wartime patrol, the vessel was sent to New London, Conn., where it became a training vessel.

Captain Coulter fully expected to decommission the Skipjack on the East Coast when he received orders in 1946 to sail the sub to the Pacific, where it was to be used as a target ship as part of Operation Crossroads, or the Bikini atoll atomic bomb test as it is more commonly known.

It survived the first aerial blast, which was detonated about 500 feet above the Skipjack.

"The second blast, 'Baker,' was detonated under water, and my father and other crewmembers were allowed to witness the now-iconic blast through darkened glasses. Baker sunk the Skipjack and seven other vessels," Mr. Coulter said.

"The Skipjack was raised and towed to the West Coast, where it was used as a target ship and sunk again," his son said.

One of his prized souvenirs from his days aboard the sub was an engraved napkin ring and a cribbage board, Mr. Coulter said.

He later commanded the submarine USS Bugara before he was assigned to the Naval Academy, where he was a battalion officer and leadership instructor.

He returned to sea duty when he commanded the destroyers McCord and Willard Keith and the Landing Ship Dock San Marcos, before being sent for shore duty in Washington. From 1963 to 1965, he was commanding officer of the Naval Advisory Group in Korea.

His final assignment was director of recruiting in New York and New England before he retired in 1969.

Captain Coulter moved to Severna Park in 1970, and from 1969 until 1984, he worked for Baltimore City finance director Charles L. Benton.

In his retirement, he volunteered at the Naval Academy Clinic and was an active member of the Naval Academy Alumni Association. He also enjoyed attending Navy football games. He was a former president of the Severna Park Rotary Club.

Captain Coulter was an active member, usher, Sunday school superintendent and ministry leader at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church in Severna Park, where services were held June 25.

Also surviving are his wife of 62 years, the former Marie Sutton; a daughter, Cynthia Dougherty of Washington; a brother, Jack Coulter of Severna Park; and four grandchildren.

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