“The captain goes down with the ship” is a naval tradition implying the captain holds the ultimate responsibility for both the ship and everyone in it and that if it goes down, he will do his best to save everyone before himself.

This tradition could be traced back to the nineteenth century, reflecting the Victorian ideal of chivalry. More than just social, this is also a legal responsibility as abandoning the ship and its passengers as a captain would result in legal consequences. In 2012, Francesco Schettino abandoned his stricken ship in the midst of the Costa Concordia disaster that resulted in the death of 32 people. As a consequence, he was referred to as “Captain Coward” by the press, which was the least of his worries because he was given a 16-year sentence due to multiple accounts of manslaughter, causing a maritime accident, and abandoning the ship before all passengers and crew had been evacuated. On the other hand, here are three captains who didn’t:

Commander William Lewis Herndon

While on a voyage from Aspinwall (now Colón, Panama) to New York on September 12, 1857, Commander Herndon’s SS Central America was met with strong winds at sea off Cape Hatteras. On the 8th of September, they left Havana with 575 persons— 474 men, women, and children, 101 crew, and $2,000,000 worth of gold. The wind started to blow harder on the 9th as they were sailing, and by noon of the 11th, the wind did not hold back and started to shake the ship violently. SS Central America was still holding fine despite this until a leak was discovered and by 1 PM, the water had reached and extinguished the fires on one side of the engine. Both the crew and passengers worked tirelessly, pumping and scooping the water out of the ship. On the morning of the 12th, the storm became even stronger.

SS Central America. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Commander Herndon did not let the morale of his passengers and crew sink before the ship did. Knowing that they were in a frequented part of the ocean, he told them that a passing vessel might come and rescue them if they could keep the ship afloat until the storm subsided. The storm abated by about noon. The Marine of Boston heard and saw their distress signal at 3 PM and immediately came to the rescue. The ship continued to sink, and as one of the last boats left, he gave his watch to one of the passengers and asked that it be given to his wife. As written by Naval History and Heritage Command:

He tried to send her a message, but the only words he could say were “Tell her—.”

After this he went to his stateroom, put on his uniform, removed the oilskin covering which concealed the band around his cap, threw it on deck, took his position by the wheel-house, holding on by the rail with his left hand. A rocket was sent up, the ship gave a last lurch; and as she went down he lifted his cap in a fairwell gesture and sank with his ship.

Captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto

During the Battle of Midway on June 4-6, 1942, the Japanese carrier fleet suffered heavy losses—losing four aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and then one that made its mark on Japanese naval history, the carrier Soryu.

The Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu underway in January 1938. (Donation of Kazutoshi Hando, 1970, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Its captain, Rusaku Yanagimoto, ordered everyone to abandon the ship as it burned. When they noticed that  Captain Yanagimoto remained aboard, Chief Petty Officer Abe was ordered to go back for him. When he did, he found the captain standing on the ship’s bridge with a sword in his hand. Seeing his captain’s will and determination written all over his face, Abe decided to leave Yanagimoto, who was calmly singing their Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo. As she sank, Yanagimoto moved to the signal bridge and shouted encouragement to his men in the water with “Long Live The Emperor!” and then he vanished into the smoke never to be seen again.

Rear Admiral Giovanni Viglione

On May 30, 1918, the Italian streamer ship Pietro Maroncelli was part of s convoy from Bahia Blanca to Genoa when it was torpedoed by the U-boat UB-49 led by Kapitänleutnant Hans von Mellenthin. She was damaged and sinking, and Rear Admiral Giovanni Viglione as convoy commander quickly ordered all the survivors into the lifeboats. He, on the other hand, remained on his post and chose to sink with the ship.

There is also a rather famous example in the US Navy of a captain going down without his ship.

In February 1943, the submarine Growler was on her fourth war patrol and attacked a Japanese convoy on the surface at night. Out of the gloom, a Japanese escort vessel appeared and tried to ram the submarine.  Her captain, Howard W. Gilmore ordered her hard to port and managed instead to ram the escort, mangling the Growler’s bow and disabling her torpedo tubes. The stricken escort then unleashed a shower of machine-gun fire onto the bridge killing the junior officer of the deck and one of the lookouts.  Gilmore and two others were wounded.  Gilmore ordered the bridge cleared and the rest of the bridge party dropped down the hatch into the control room.  Captain Gilmore was last seen badly wounded and clinging to a frame trying to remain on his feet.  Then he shouted down the hatch, “Take her down!” as he remained in the conning tower under fire knowing he could not make it down the hatch himself in time to save his ship and crew.  His Executive Officer and later admiral Arnold Schade ordered the Growler to dive.

After treating the wounded and repairing her damage, the Growler returned to the surface to attack the convoy and the escort vessel again and found the seas empty of ships.  Captain Gilmore’s body was never recovered and he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice.