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First Name: William

Last Name: Callaghan

Birthplace: Chevy Chase, MD, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Navy (present)


Middle Name: McCombe

Date of Birth: 08 August 1897

Date of Death: 08 July 1991

Rank or Rate: Vice Admiral

Years Served:
William McCombe Callaghan

Graduate, U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1918

•  World War I (1914 - 1918)
•  World War II (1941 - 1945)
•  Korean War (1950 - 1953)


William McCombe Callaghan
Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy

William McCombe Callaghan was born on 8 August 1897 in Chevy Chase, MD, the son of businessman Charles William Callaghan and Rose Wheeler Callaghan. The family had a devout Roman Catholic foundation. His elder brother, Daniel Callaghan (1890-1942), would later become a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and posthumous Medal of Honor recipient. Both brothers studied at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco; William graduating in the Class of 1914. He subsequently attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1918.

Military Career

Callaghan served on a destroyer during the last six months of World War I. He received a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University in 1925. He later became a Knight of Malta. In the mid-1920s, he served as Assistant Engineering Officer on board the light cruiser USSĀ Concord, which was then performing scouting duties. From 1932-33, he was a Lieutenant aboard the aircraft carrier USSĀ Saratoga.

At the rank of Commander, Callaghan captained the destroyer USS Reuben James from June 1936 to March 1938, and subsequently joined the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations in 1939. Before the U.S. entered World War II, he was stationed in London in a logistical role.

During the first part of World War II, he served as a Logistics Officer on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz. He received the Legion of Merit for this work.

On 11 June 1944, Callaghan became the first Captain of the USS Missouri, the last battleship commissioned by the U.S. Navy. He commanded the Missouri in engagements at Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Tokyo.

Attack on the USS Missouri

At 2:42 PM on 11 April 1945, off the coast of Kikaijima Island, a Japanese fighter pilot in an A6M5c Zero launched a kamikaze attack on the USS Missouri. Bill Obitz, a Seaman at the time, recalled that the attacking plane approached at an extreme angle and estimated that it was 20 feet above the water. Although struck by intense antiaircraft fire, the plane survived and struck the ship's starboard side at frame 169 below the main deck. While the impact of one of the plane's wings started a fire at 5-inch mount number 3, its 500-pound bomb did not detonate, so the damage was minimal. There were no American casualties, but the Japanese pilot died. Parts of the plane's wreckage and the top half of the pilot's body landed on board the Missouri. The plane's wing was turned over to the crew to be cut up for souvenirs.

Despite protests from some of his crew, Callaghan insisted that the young Japanese airman had done his job to the best of his ability, with honor, and deserved a military funeral. Stephen Cromwell, a Corpsman at the time, later recalled, "I was able to recover his body and I called up to the bridge to ask if I should throw it overboard ... Captain Callaghan said, 'No, when we secure, take it down to the sick bay, and we'll have a burial for him tomorrow.'"Ivan Dexter, another crew member, gave his account of events to Herb Fahr, recalling that the top half of the Japanese pilot's body was scattered over the deck, while the bottom half fell with the rest of the plane into the sea. What remained of the body was brought to sick bay for examination, and various Missouri crew took souvenirs from the clothing, including the helmet, scarf, and jacket. Following examination, the remains were placed in a canvas bag with dummy shell casings to weigh it down.

The following day, the Japanese pilot received a military funeral at sea. An improvised Japanese flag, sewn by one of the ship's bosun's mates, covered the bag holding the man's remains. The ship's chaplain committed the body to the sea and the six pallbearers let it slide overboard, accompanied by a volley of rifle fire. Fahr wrote, "There was still much bitterness on the part of many in the crew, but now, the honorable thing was done." According to Lee Collins, visitor operations director for the Battleship Missouri Memorial, Callaghan said that the ceremony was simply a tribute to "a fellow warrior who had displayed courage and devotion, and who had paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life, fighting for his country."

On 14 May 1945, Callaghan passed command of the Missouri on to Captain Stuart Murray, who had been a classmate of his at the US Naval Academy.

Senior Commands

In 1946, Callaghan held the rank of Rear Admiral and gave a presentation to the Naval War College on his experience in the Naval Transportation Service before the war. On 1 October 1949, he was appointed as the first commander of the Military Sea Transportation Service, which would later become the Military Sealift Command. He was promoted from Rear Admiral to Vice Admiral around this time. From 1953 to 1954, during the Korean War, he commanded the Amphibious Force of the US Pacific Fleet. From 1954 to 1956, he served as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Far East. He then replaced retiring Vice Admiral Francis Low as Commander of the Western Sea Frontier.

Callaghan retired from the Navy at the rank of Vice Admiral in 1957.

Medals and Honors

Legion of Merit
Order of the Rising Sun (Japan)
Order of the White Elephant (Thailand)
Order of the Boyaca (Columbia)


A transport ship was named in his honor: the GTS Admiral W. M. Callaghan (AKR-1001).

In Retirement

After retiring from the Navy, Callaghan served as Vice President of American Export Lines, and then as Chairman of the Maritime Transportation Research Board under the National Academy of Sciences.

Late in life, Callaghan resided in Chevy Chase, MD.


Callaghan's decision on the Japanese pilot's funeral in 1945 would receive praise years later, although a memorial service aboard the Missouri in April 2001 attracted controversy. Leading up to the service, Callaghan's son said, "My father believed a burial at sea for the pilot was the right thing to do. He felt it would set a good example for the crew in showing respect for the life of people, even for the people you are opposing."

Junko Kamata, a niece of one of the Japanese pilots killed in the April 1945 battle, said, "I want to thank Captain Callaghan for his humanitarian consideration for kamikaze soldiers." Minoru Shibuya, Japanese Consul General, called Callaghan's actions "a glorious deed, to salute the [pilot's] bravery." Daniel Inouye, US Senator from Hawaii, reflected that "from the dawn of civilization, warriors respected their adversaries; it was an unspoken code of honor. When Callaghan saw the broken body of his sworn enemy lying upon his ship, he saw him not as an enemy, but simply as a man."

At a 1998 reunion of Missouri veterans, many of those present who had served during World War II felt that, on reflection, their captain had acted correctly. Robert Kihune, a retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral, said, "In wartime, courage is measured as much by one's actions as their strength of leadership during the heat of battle ... I think the leadership qualities showed by Captain Callaghan illustrate the ideal of what we want our military leaders to follow."

Death and Burial

Vice Admiral William McCombe Callaghan died from stroke-related complications on 8 July 1991 at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He was 93. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA.

His first wife, Helen Brunett Callaghan (1896-1970), and second wife, Martha Rawlins Callaghan (1905-1973), both predeceased him. He was survived by his third wife, Sarah Duerson Callaghan (1914-2011), and two children, William M. Callaghan Jr. (a retired US Navy Rear Admiral) and Jane Callaghan Gude (c. 1925-2008), as well as eight grandchildren. Callaghan's grandchildren include William Callaghan III, Chad Callaghan, and A. Carey Callaghan. His great-grandchildren include Caitlin Callaghan, Larkin Callaghan, and Connor Callaghan, and many others.

Honoree ID: 2305   Created by: MHOH




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