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Beneath the Surface Portrait: James Calvert, admiral, survived submarine duty in Pacific to turn around the Naval Academy, among other things.


Vice Adm. James F. Calvert was a very young, very green ensign just out of the Naval Academy when he joined the crew of the USS Jack in 1942. He quickly learned that a World War II attack submarine was no place for the faint of heart -- or those with vivid imaginations.

A vivid imagination is definitely not a good thing when your submarine is lying as deep as it can go with depth charges detonating around it like ash cans of exploding death.

The Jack once hovered at 350 feet for five hours while 39 depth charges burst around it; another time a Japanese destroyer stalked it with 42 depth charges.

Admiral Calvert describes the sound as "Click BANG!" The boat shook and lurched and bounced. Light bulbs burst, glass shattered, equipment moved, pipes broke, seams opened, water seeped, streamed and gushed in.

"Anybody who isn't scared by that is not human," says Admiral Calvert, who writes about his years on the Jack in "Silent Running," his new book. "You're way down, in a little, tiny tube. And you're being rocked around, and light bulbs are breaking, and you know these guys are trying to kill us."

He laughs the small, mirthless laugh of the tested survivor.

The Navy lost 52 submarines out of about 250 that fought in World War II, all but two in the Pacific. Thirty-six hundred men died.

"Of my submarine school class of officers," Admiral Calvert says. think about 25 percent of them didn't live through the war."

He's talking in the library of his fine, roomy home on San Domingo Creek in Talbot County. He's a long, easy man, polished and sophisticated, elegantly affable in his country clothes. He looks too tall -- something over 6 feet -- to fit comfortably in a World War II sub. He's surrounded by books and Oriental porcelains and the artifacts and mementos of the seaman's trade. He's 75, lean, fit and handsome.

People who have served with him can hardly find enough accolades to describe him.

"He was the most intelligent, dynamic and articulate naval officer I've met in my life or served with," says Rear Adm. Thomas Lynch, director of naval staffing, who served under Admiral Calvert when he was superintendent of the Naval Academy. "He is probably the most outstanding superintendent the Naval Academy ever had. He was there during the most trying, demanding and challenging times of the Naval Academy."

Admiral Calvert was head of the Naval Academy from 1968 to 1972, the years of the greatest turmoil and protest over the Vietnam War. The prestige of the Academy was low among the very young men it needed to attract.

"When I reported there in 1968, we came within a very small number of not being able to fill the whole class with fully qualified people," he says. "That's a far cry from today, when last year I think they had something like 19,000 qualified applicants."

Many people credit him with the turnaround.

"They were seminal years for the Naval Academy in its transformation from a military school to a university," says Clifford Bekkedahl, a retired captain who was Admiral Calvert's executive assistant at the academy.

Admiral Calvert sought a balance for the academy between what he likes to call the Spartan and the Athenian, between strict military discipline and accountability and the intellectual and cultural.

During his tenure at the academy, the rigid "core" curriculum that allowed midshipmen little choice was transformed into the present majors program. He banished traditional hazing of plebes, relaxed some of the more rigid discipline.

He also streamlined management at the Academy, advanced a building program, found private money for such things as the student union and the sailing center, restyled the sports program and even spruced up the landscaping.

Most people agree that Admiral Calvert's changes laid the foundation for the Naval Academy as it is today.

"I think that during his four years here he did a great deal in moving the Academy in the direction it had to go," says Vice Adm. William P. Lawrence, who was superintendent from 1978 to 1981.

Although Admiral Calvert actually graduated from the Naval Academy in 1942, hurried along because of the wartime need for officers, he was a member of the Class of 1943.

He went immediately to submarine school in 1942, which was rare until World War II. Before, the old Navy liked to season its officers with sea duty before putting them on subs.

He then was assigned to the Pacific and made nine war patrols in the Pacific. Eight were aboard the Jack, where Ensign Calvert was the guy who barked "Fire One Fire Two Fire Three."

He operated a device called the Torpedo Data Computer, which plotted speed, course, range and bearing to guide torpedoes to their targets. With Jim Calvert at the TDC, the Jack once sank four tankers in a five-ship convoy, one of the gunnery feats of the Pacific War.

Admiral Calvert also served as the executive officer on the Haddo. Just after the sub left base in Fremantle, Australia, it received word that the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.

The Haddo was in Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri. Admiral Calvert witnessed the ceremony through binoculars. He was 23 years old.

Like most World War II veterans, he has no doubts about the bomb. He believes an invasion would have been "a bloodbath."

"I had good friends and classmates who were Marines who were getting ready to go in," he says. "Anybody who wants to talk to me about that bomb not having been a good thing, I'd like to have a chat with them."

"Silent Running" also recounts his touching "romance" with a young Australian woman he met just before the end of the war. He was a young married sailor half a world away from home. She was a smart, pretty college student with "a sort of refined oomph."

He stayed at her home, danced with her, played tennis with her, even went to church with her and perhaps inevitably found himself very much attracted to her. But they never, as he puts it, "yielded to passion." He wept when he left Fremantle on his last war patrol.

"We took morality pretty seriously in those days, and I think we were happier because of it," he says.

He returned home to his wife, Nancy, who died in 1965. He married Peggy Harrison Battle in Athens, Greece, 27 years ago while he was commanding a 6th Fleet flotilla during his final tour in the Navy. His book is dedicated to her.

After the war, he became modestly famous as the skipper of the nuclear submarine Skate, which became the first vessel of any kind to surface at the North Pole. And he also spent two years working with Adm. Hyman Rickover, the renowned, irascible head of the Navy's nuclear program.

When they first met, Admiral Rickover wanted to know where he stood in his Annapolis class.

"I was 105 out of 620," Admiral Calvert says. "I thought that was pretty good. He said: 'What's the matter? Are you dumb or lazy?' "

Admiral Calvert left the Navy in 1973. He became active in business for 22 years. He's now chairman of the board emeritus of Aqua-Chem Inc., a Milwaukee manufacturer of boilers and water treatment equipment.

Business, he says, was as satisfying as the Navy.

"I may have been fortunate," he says. "But I would say, in the three companies I was involved with, the level of morality and decency and gentlemanliness was every bit as good as any that I saw in the service."

Maybe. But he hasn't yet written a book about business, and when he says "we" he's talking about the Navy.

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