By Capt. Harry Thetford
Serving in the Nation’s capital offers many opportunities to shape the Navy and participate in military events and ceremonies. On October 18th, 2012, I was honored to serve as the escort officer at a Full Honors Funeral in Arlington National Cemetery for retired Navy Capt. John Joseph Rowan, age 93.
Rowan is a great American hero. A 1942 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he survived the sinking of two Navy ships, USS VINCENNES (CA 44) and USS DE HAVEN (DD 469), in action at Guadalcanal. He was wounded on both occasions. While serving aboard USS BLUE (DD 744) he was the senior officer of the boarding party that accepted the surrender of the Japanese submarine I-400, the world’s largest submarine at the time.
It was a particular honor to serve in Rowan’s funeral as his service is remarkably tied to my family history. It is humbling to serve in the U.S. Navy knowing that two ships, including one on which Rowan served, were named after relatives from my mother’s side of the family — the Blues.
Victor Blue was born in North Carolina and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1887. As a young officer, he earned notice in the Spanish-American War by sailing behind enemy lines to verify the presence of the Spanish fleet in Santiago, Cuba. He went on to command the battleship USS TEXAS (BB 35) before retiring as a rear admiral in 1919.
A Navy destroyer was named for Admiral Blue. The USS BLUE (DD 387) was commissioned in May 1937. The BLUE was in port at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th, 1941. When the Japanese planes swept in, the BLUE was able to get underway, escape the bombs and make it out to the open seas.
Less than a year later, USS BLUE and USS VINCENNES were patrolling the same waters near Guadalcanal; Rowan was aboard VINCENNES. Both ships were supporting the Marines ashore during the day while dueling with the Japanese ships patrolling the area at night. VINCENNES was sunk August 9th, 1942, with the BLUE not far away. On August 22 th, 1942, USS BLUE joined VINCENNES at the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound.
This isn’t the only connection the Blue family has to the Navy, or the waters off Guadalcanal. Nor is it the only the connection Captain Rowan had with the Blue legacy. Admiral Blue had a son, John Stuart Blue. John was born in 1902 and, following in his father’s footsteps, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1925.
After several assignments, including a stint as the commanding officer of the Presidential Yacht, SEQUOIA, Lt. Cmdr. John Blue was assigned to the brand new light cruiser USS JUNEAU (CL 52) as the Navigator.
The JUNEAU pulled duty in the Pacific, including picking up more than 1,000 surviving sailors from the sunken aircraft carrier USS WASP (CV 7) not far from Guadalcanal in September 1942.
After numerous firefights with Japanese ships, JUNEAU was struck by two Japanese torpedoes on the night of November 13th, 1942. A huge explosion followed, with the JUNEAU breaking in two and sinking in 20 seconds according to witnesses.
Fearing further submarine attacks and mistakenly thinking no one could have survived the terrible explosion, the other U.S. ships sailed on through the dark night. Of the 700 crew members aboard JUNEAU, approximately 100 sailors survived the initial attack. By the time rescue ships arrived eight days later, only 10 remained alive.
JUNEAU’s Navigator, John Blue, was one of the men who perished that night. Among the others who died with him were five brothers who enlisted in the Navy under the condition they could serve together. The five Sullivan brothers all died — two in the initial explosion, and the other three a few days later.
In 1944, another destroyer (DD 744) was commissioned USS BLUE, this one named in honor of Lt. Cmdr. John Blue. The second USS BLUE saw much action in the Pacific, supporting the Marines on Iwo Jima and escorting the battleship USS MISSOURI (BB 63) into Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender.
In August 1945, the second BLUE captured Japanese submarine I-400. Rowan led the boarding party from USS BLUE that took control of the enemy sub en route to Truk Lagoon within Mircronesia.
As the mournful sound of taps rolled across Arlington on a sunny October day, it occurred to me that the Rowan – Blue family connection had come full circle. As a Blue descendant, I knelt and humbly presented the flag of the United States to the widow of Rowan, culminating more than 60 years of family connection with the burial of this hero.
It was a tremendous honor to pay homage to Rear Adm. Victor Blue, Lt. Cmdr. John Blue, and Capt. John Rowan. May these Navy Blue heroes rest in peace!
Captain Thetford is an active duty Supply Corps Officer currently serving on the Chief of Naval Operations staff.