Russell, Admiral James Sargent (1903-1996)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 6/26/2013
  • Essay 10412
See Additional Media

James S. Russell grew up on American Lake in Pierce County, where he developed a love of sailing. After graduating from Stadium High School in Tacoma at age 15, he tried to join the navy but was turned down as too young and became a merchant seaman. He gained an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and served 40 years in the navy. His distinguished career included combat flying in World War II, important planning assignments, and service as Vice Chief of Naval Operations. Russell earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit three times, and the Distinguished Service Medal twice. In retirement, living on his beloved American Lake, he worked to improve the lives of military personnel and to reconcile with former wartime enemies.

Sailing on American Lake

James Sargent Russell was born in Tacoma on March 22, 1903. His parents, Ambrose (1857-1938) and Loella (1864-1949) Russell, had come to Tacoma in 1892. Ambrose was a distinguished Tacoma architect whose works included the Rust Building (now Commerce Building), the Tacoma Armory, and distinctive homes. The family moved to American Lake in 1907.

James Russell attended DeKoven Hall on Lake Steilacoom, a school that emphasized the classics and proper moral behavior. This experience and family values created a gentle, polite young man who retained these qualities his entire lifetime. DeKoven Hall did not have traditional grade levels, so when James completed the program he took a test. He scored ahead of his years, and was ready for high school.

Growing up on American Lake had a dramatic influence on Russell's life. James was mentored by a retired ship's carpenter who built the family a boat and taught James sailing. The family returned to Tacoma when James entered Stadium High School, but spent the weekends at American Lake. He graduated at age 15 and tried to enlist in the navy, but was turned down as too young. Instead, he became a merchant seaman.

Pioneer in Naval Aviation

Russell became interested in attending the Naval Academy and with his father's assistance contacted United States Representative Albert Johnson (1869-1957), who obtained his appointment. He entered the Naval Academy in 1922 and graduated in 1926 ranked 15th in a class of 450. He served on the air unit aboard the USS West Virginia and then in 1928 was among the first academy graduates to enter naval aviator training at Pensacola, Florida. Following graduation in July 1929 he married Congressman Johnson's daughter, Dorothy (1909-1965) and they would have two sons. Back in Washington, his parents had moved permanently to American Lake, and whenever James had the opportunity, he returned there for inspiration and relaxation.

Russell served with various observation squadrons and became the first naval aviator to land on all six prewar aircraft carriers. In 1932, as a lieutenant, he attended the Naval Post Graduate School at Annapolis. Continuing his interest in aviation, he earned a master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology in 1935. This education was put to good use when he was assigned to the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, where in 1939 he helped design the Essex-class aircraft carriers. These served well in World War II as tough, powerful, and advanced carriers. Their advances included radar-controlled gunnery, armored hangars, and large turbines that drove them at 33 knots. Russell and the design team were an example of the innovation and problem-solving that helped win the war.

Wartime Flying

In early 1941, Russell was assigned to the Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle. This gave him an opportunity to spend time on American Lake, but it was a short tour. In August 1941, as commander of Patrol Squadron 42 (VP-42), Lieutenant Commander Russell took his squadron of PBY-5 Catalina flying boats to Sitka, Alaska, to fly patrols in the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutians. The fliers soon learned how difficult flying in the region could be.

Russell's squadron returned to Sand Point in October, 1941. Following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, it and other squadrons flew patrols along the Oregon and Washington coast. In January 1942 the unit turned in its six PBY-5 Catalina flying boats for 12 of the more advanced PBY-5A amphibians. ("PB" stood for Patrol Bomber and the "Y" represented the manufacturer, Consolidated Aircraft.) The better-equipped squadron was again deployed to Alaska. In May 1942, to better guard the Aleutians in anticipation of a planned attack detected by navy code-breakers, the squadron was split into detachments, with aircraft stationed at three Aleutian bases. The attack came on June 6, and confronted Russell and his squadron with two enemies -- Japanese forces and the formidable Aleutian weather. The aircrews often faced heavy fog, violent storms, icing, poor maintenance facilities, and navigational issues.

Russell had aircrews that went out on missions and never returned, having fallen victim to the weather or navigational challenges. Some loss of life was closer. On April 22, 1942, Captain Leslie E. Gehres (1898-1975), commander of Patrol Air Wing Four, arrived at Dutch Harbor to inspect Patrol Squadron 42, one of the squadrons in his wing. Russell suggested that the next day, to boost morale, Gehres join one of the patrol flights. When Russell woke up that morning, the wind was blowing and it had snowed. He canceled all flights. However, several pilots were already warming their engines and one, Ensign Frederick A. Smith (1918-1942), talked the duty officer into allowing him to make a short patrol flight. Smith hoped that he could demonstrate that a longer patrol with the wing commander aboard was feasible. He warmed up his engines but neglected to clear the ice off his Catalina, and when he applied full power his plane could not get airborne. At the officer's mess, Gehres and Russell were eating breakfast and heard the distinctive sound of a Catalina at full power, struggling to get airborne. They rushed out and heard the hiss of fire as it crashed. Russell rushed to a nearby warmed-up Catalina and taxied to the crash site, where he found three survivors and four dead in the flight deck. He also saw a bomb near the flames, and he and a crew member put a line on it and pulled the bomb free of the fire.

The dangers of Aleutian flight were apparent: During Russell's command from July 1941 to October 1942 eight squadron planes were lost, three to enemy action and five to the weather. For leading the squadron in extremely hazardous flying conditions during the Aleutian campaign Russell earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

In October 1942 Russell was promoted to commander, a rank too high for squadron command. He spent some leave time at American Lake and then reported to Washington, D.C., where he worked on plans for bases in the Pacific. This included preparing detailed lists of everything a base would need and organizing shipments of material and supplies so they could be effectively off-loaded at the new bases in the order needed. Russell demonstrated great skill in problem solving and innovation and was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work. The assignment ended in June 1944.

Russell next went to sea aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin as chief of staff for the task force air group. He was on the bridge on March 19, 1945, when Japanese planes made a low level attack on the carrier. The Franklin had many armed and fueled planes on the flight deck and the hangar deck. A huge explosion and fire ensued, killing 807 and wounding 487. It was the most severe damage to any carrier that survived the war. The ship was repaired and returned to service, but missed the rest of the war. Russell received a Gold Star in lieu of a second Legion of Merit for his performance with the task force air operations.

At the end of the war Russell was promoted to captain. Following the Japanese surrender he conducted investigations in Japan to evaluate aircraft designs. He also collected data for the Strategic Bombing Survey that evaluated the effectiveness of the Allied bombing efforts. His interviews allowed him to evaluate more fully combat events in the Aleutian Islands. In January 1946 he came back to the Aleutians to identify which bases might be valuable in the postwar defense of North America. When these inspections were completed, Russell was given command of the USS Bairoko, an escort carrier that had been built at the Todd-Pacific Shipyards in Tacoma. This command lasted until a special assignment to the Atomic Energy Commission during atomic testing in the Pacific. He was awarded another Gold Star for his work in the nuclear-testing program.

Cold War Duties

Captain Russell again applied his problem solving skills in 1952 and 1953 at the Navy Military Requirements and New Developments Branch, working on designs for a carrier aircraft. This important project was the development of the F8U Crusader, the first supersonic carrier plane. In 1956, in recognition of his contribution to that aircraft, Russell shared the prestigious Collier Trophy. On July 1, 1957, he was promoted to vice admiral. A year later, on July 21, 1958 he received his fourth star as admiral.

In August 1958, Admiral Russell reached the number two position in the active navy as Vice Chief of Naval Operations, serving under Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh "31-knot" Burke (1901-1996). Russell focused on the transition to a nuclear-powered, missile-firing navy. He also attended ship commissionings and testified before Congress. In February 1959 he was able to come home to American Lake for leave. He served as Vice Chief Naval Operations until November 1961, and received the Distinguished Service Medal for his performance in the post. He spent the month of November 1961 at home between assignments, and in December became Commander in Chief of Allied Forces Southern Europe. While in command he helped negotiate civil-military cooperation agreements between Greece and Turkey.

Retirement, Interrupted

After 39 years of active duty, Admiral Russell retired to American Lake on April 1, 1965, receiving a Gold Star in lieu of a second Distinguished Service Medal. Within days of the admiral's retirement, Dorothy Russell died on April 18, 1965. And the retirement proved short -- Russell was soon called back to active duty following two serious carrier accidents and served on a panel that recommended changes to improve safety. Russell married Geraldine H. Rahn (1909-2002) in July 1966, and built a new home on American Lake. He was recalled to active service a second time in 1968 and served as head of a special study group at the office of the Secretary of Defense.

Eventually Russell maintained a vigorous retirement, centered on American Lake. He was active in community affairs, serving as president of the Puget Sound Chapter of the United Service Organizations (USO), pushing for USO centers at Sea-Tac Airport and McChord Field, and working to improve the situation of military personnel.

War and Remembrance

In June 1982, the 40th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the Aleutians, Russell and other veterans of the Aleutian campaign, both American and Japanese, went to the port of Dutch Harbor in the city of Unalaska to dedicate a monument. The monument, a large granite stone, had an inscription written by a seventh-grade Unalaska student, Beth Routh. Her words honored those who suffered the pain of war and those who fought and died.

The final words inscribed on the monument were a dedication to Aleut civilians and American, Canadian, and Japanese military personnel. The monument ceremony brought together former enemies and advanced the reconciliation process, healing the wounds of war. Russell further advanced the healing in 1995 when he invited former Japanese foes to stay in his home.

Russell continued to live on American Lake until his death on April 14, 1996, in his home overlooking the lake that had been so important in his life.

In an unusual move, the army at Fort Lewis honored the navy's Admiral James Russell by naming a recreation center on the lake Russell Landing. The new marina, restaurant, and picnic area was dedicated on October 17, 1996, a fitting memorial that overlooked Russell's beloved American Lake. Also named in his honor is the James S. Russell USO lounge at Sea-Tac International Airport.

Sources: Troy Parker, Gentleman Jim: The Epic Story of Admiral James S. Russell (Tacoma: Brown-Line Printers, 2002); Elmer F. Freeman, Those Navy Guys and Their PBYs (Spokane: Kedging Publishing, 1992); Steve Dunkelberger and Walter Neary, Images of America: Lakewood (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2005); "64th Ship Rides Bay," Tacoma News Tribune, September 26, 1945, p. 1.; "Lakewood Veteran Opens Home to His Former Foes," Tacoma News Tribune, September 2, 1995, p. A-1.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You