In the book Starship Troopers, Colonel Nielssen is discussing the chain of command with Juan Rico and two other cadets:

If you go back to the Second Global War, you can find a case in which a naval junior officer took command of a naval ship and not only fought it but sent signals as if he was an admiral. He was vindicated even though there were officers senior to him in the line of command who were not even wounded. Special circumstances -- a breakdown in communications.

Is Heinlein referring to a real incident and, if so, can you identify the ship and battle where it took place?

  • 1
    It may be a reference to a future war (from his perspective at time of writing); We've had two World wars, but neither has been commonly referred to as a "Global" war.
    – Anthony X
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 18:04
  • 15
    @AnthonyX That's a SciFi world-building trick -- the characters are so far in the future that the 20th century names of things have changed slightly, events hundreds of years ago are misremembered, and so on. Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 4:37
  • 2
    @AnthonyX it's a trick Heinlein in particular was fond of. I'm reading Time Enough for Love at the moment and have spotted a couple of examples in the last couple of days.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 10:43
  • @AnthonyX Unless I missed a war, it'd still be a future war from our perspective too. Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 22:48
  • @AzorAhai-him- I said "his perspective" because it could be a war imagined at a time in what was his future but is now our past... like the "eugenics wars" imagined in the original Star Trek.
    – Anthony X
    Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 23:05

1 Answer 1


This may be a reference to the actions of Lt. Commander Bruce McCandless during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Quoting the linked Wikipedia page:

He was serving as communications officer of the cruiser USS San Francisco when the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. On November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Japanese gunfire killed Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan1 and his staff, including Captain Cassin Young and all other officers on San Francisco's bridge, except Lieutenant Commander McCandless, who took the conn for the rest of the battle.

Another account clarifies that the ship's XO (and hence above McCandless in the chain of command) was still acting, but passed command to McCandless so he could focus on keeping the ship afloat. After the battle command passed to the captain of another ship who would normally have been the one command devolved to, except there was no time to sort that out during the battle.

  • The senior officer (after said incident) of San Fransisco stayed in the engineering spaces.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 21:18
  • 3
    @Joshua Yes, the XO was also the ship's Damage Control Officer (which I gather was not unusual), and chose to focus on that job instead of command of the overall battle. I think I have more details in a book somewhere and I'll edit them in if (a) I can find it and (b) it has a reasonably solid basis (it's been a while, I don't recall).
    – DavidW
    Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 21:38
  • If there's only one officer on the bridge then they should be in command, regardless of rank of anyone else on board. Isn't that the rule? If the CO leaves the bridge they always designate another commander don't they?
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 23:44
  • 2
    @OrangeDog But at least in Heinlein's telling, besides conning the San Francisco, McCandless also "sent signals as if he was an admiral", i.e. issued instructions to other vessels in the action who might have had officers senior to McCandless in command. Assuming that McCandless had a good tactical head on his shoulders, this would be a perfectly commendable thing to do -- other ships might be looking to the admiral's flagship for instructions. I've gotta go read up on this incident now... Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 3:57
  • 12
    @RussellBorogove the citation for his Medal of Honour includes "With his superiors in other vessels unaware of the loss of their admiral, and challenged by his great responsibility, Lt. Comdr. McCandless boldly continued to engage the enemy and to lead our column of following vessels to a great victory." (emph mine). Based on that Heinlein's description was fairly close to the official one.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 14:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.