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Edward Ellsberg
Edward Ellsberg
Nickname "Commander Ellsberg"
Born (1891-11-21)November 21, 1891
Died January 24, 1983(1983-01-24) (aged 91)
Place of birth New Haven, Connecticut
Place of death Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1914-1926, 1942-1951
Rank US-O8 insignia.svg Rear Admiral
Unit Principal Salvage Officer
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Navy Distinguished Service Medal
Legion of Merit (2)
Order of the British Empire

Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg, OBE (November 21, 1891 - January 24, 1983) was an officer in the United States Navy and a popular author. He was widely known as "Commander Ellsberg."

Early years

Ellsberg was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up in Colorado. He was one of the very few Jews who were accepted into the United States Naval Academy,[1] which graduated him with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1914. He earned his Master of Science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1920. He received an honorary Eng.D. from University of Colorado at Boulder in 1929.

First service with the U.S. Navy

Ellsberg was commissioned in the Navy in 1914 and served on active duty until 1926. He became an expert in undersea salvage and rescue. In 1925, he raised the Navy submarine, S-51. For that success he was promoted to the rank of Commander by an Act of Congress and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the Navy Department, since which time he has popularly been known as "Commander Ellsberg," regardless of his rank. Ellsberg described the raising of the S-51 in his 1929 book, On the Bottom. On June 1, 1918, Ellsberg married Lucy Buck. In letters to her he signed his name as "Ned." Lucy Ellsberg bore their daughter Mary on 29 August 1921.

Return to civilian status

After leaving active duty, Ellsberg worked for the Tide Water Oil Company and began writing books about his exploits and about historical events. In December 1927, Ellsberg volunteered for active duty to rescue survivors trapped in the sunken submarine S-4. The rescue efforts failed and Ellsberg returned home in early January 1928.

Ellsberg's 1931 book, Pigboats, inspired the 1933 movie, Hell Below, starring Robert Montgomery, Robert Young, Jimmy Durante, and Madge Evans.

World War II Naval service

Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ellsberg rejoined the Navy. His first assignment was to conduct salvage operations at the newly liberated port of Massawa, Eritrea. Working in beastly heat with virtually no staff and poor administrative support, Ellsberg salvaged a large floating dry dock and several of the ships that had been sunk to block the harbor. Ellsberg returned the port to operation and the ships salvaged were added to the Allies' merchant fleets. During his work in Massawa, Ellsberg reported to the Lend Lease coordinator in Cairo, Egypt, US Army Major General Russell Maxwell. Ellsberg renamed the S.S. Liebenfels, a large German freighter, salvaged and refitted at Massawa, the General Russell Maxwell. He described the salvage of the port of Massawa in his book Under the Red Sea Sun. Ellsberg was promoted to Captain by presidential order on June 19, 1942. The next year he was awarded the Legion of Merit by FDR in honor of his salvage efforts in Massawa.

In Under the Red Sea Sun, Ellsberg complained that the American contractor that was assigned to give him administrative support was very unhelpful, but he did not name that company. The company, Johnson, Drake & Piper, Inc., itself claimed credit for clearing the port in the privately printed book, "Middle East War Projects of Johnson, Drake & Piper, Inc., for the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, 1942-1943" (New York: Johnson, Drake & Piper, Inc., 1943). That book contains beautiful photographs and drawings showing projects around the Middle East. From Massawa, Ellsberg went to North Africa to become Principal Salvage Officer in that theater. He worked under Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the British officer commanding naval forces in the area. Ellsberg's activities were detailed in No Banners, No Bugles. Ellsberg, worn out from constant work, was ordered home in early 1943 to recuperate. After a time inspecting ship construction activities, Ellsberg was sent to England in time for the Normandy Invasion, where he was instrumental in preparing 89 damaged or superannuated ships for scuttling to make artificial harbors. This operation gained him great admiration in Britain where he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.).


Gravesite of Rear Admiral Ellsberg - Willimantic, CT

He rose to the rank of Rear Admiral before he retired from active duty in 1951 to enjoy Maine and Florida with his wife of thirty three years. He continued to write, to lecture, and to consult on engineering projects. He died in 1983 at the age of 91, and is buried in Willimantic, Connecticut. [2]


Rear Admiral Ellsberg's ribbon bar:

Gold star
Bronze star
Bronze star
1st Row Navy Distinguished Service Medal Legion of Merit with Gold Star
2nd Row World War I Victory Medal American Campaign Medal European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two service stars
3rd Row World War II Victory Medal Officer of the Order of the British Empire Ecuador Order of Abdon Calderón, 1st Class


Writing was an Ellsberg hobby. He wrote many articles and reports. His books include

  • Report on Salvage Operations: Submarine S-51. (Washington: US GPO, 1927)
  • On the Bottom. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1929)
  • Thirty Fathoms Deep. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1930)
  • Pigboats. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1931) Made into the movie Hell Below.
  • S-54, Stories of the Sea. ( New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1932)
  • Ocean Gold. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1935)
  • Spanish Ingots. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1936)
  • Hell on Ice: the Saga of the 'Jeannette'. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1938) See the article on the USS Jeannette (1878).
  • Men Under the Sea. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1939)
  • Treasure Below. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1940)
  • Captain Paul. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1941)
  • 'I Have Just Begun To Fight!' the Story of John Paul Jones. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1942)
  • Under the Red Sea Sun. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1946)
  • No Banners, No Bugles. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1949)
  • Passport for Jennifer. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Compney, 1952)
  • Mid Watch, a Novel. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1954)
  • The Far Shore.(New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1960)

See related

  • John Alden. Salvage man : Edward Ellsberg and the United States Navy. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998)
  • "Ellsberg, Edward." The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography" (1942). F:116-117.
  • "Ellsberg, Edward 1891-." Contemporary Authors, 5-8(First Revision):347-348. 1969.
  • "Ellsberg, Edward 1891-." Something About the Author, 7:78-79. 1975.
  • "Edward Ellsberg, Naval Salvage Expert, Dies" New York Times. January 26, 1983. Page 17.

See also

  • Marine salvage


External links

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