The Duke – John Wayne – at sea with the Navy in long-lost photos

Filming “In Harm’s Way” aboard USS SAINT PAUL in 1964

“Hey I know, let’s get the Navy and make a movie! It’ll be great!”

Well, sometimes.

Hollywood and the U.S. Navy have had a long and often fruitful relationship and, just as in warfare, there are hits and misses. 1986’s Top Gun remains a classic on numerous levels, while the 2001 klunker Pearl Harbor was quickly (and rightly) consigned to the bargain bin, despite its tremendous publicity buildup and strong Navy support.

Blockbuster busts are nothing new. Back in the mid-1960s another megaproduction involving the Navy, a passle of major stars, and a famous director was getting the major-buildup treatment. With a cast topped by John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Patricia Neal, director Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way was expected to set a new standard for naval action flicks. 

Well, it did. Despite spending an enormous amount of money and effort to build a model fleet of U.S. and Japanese warships replicating (under a fictional name) the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Preminger managed to give the world some of the worst movie miniatures ever produced. They looked like just what they were – rowboat-sized craft driving around on a huge lake shooting toy guns with toy splashes.

And the plot – – – but we digress…

The Navy was fully on board with the picture’s production, and provided the USS SAINT PAUL (CA 73), one of the world’s last active heavy cruisers, as a set. The SAINT PAUL was a genuine World War II cruiser, having been commissioned in early 1945. She saw combat off Korea and Vietnam before finally being decommissioned in 1971.

Preminger and his crew came aboard in the late summer of 1964. The movie’s scenarios, while based largely on real events, changed the names of nearly everything. The cruiser’s name was never mentioned, only referred to by a nickname – Old Swayback or Swayback Maru.

Wayne, however, was the real thing, a true movie star. The Duke’s commanding presence is evident in these photos, taken by the ship’s photographer during onboard filming in August and September 1964. The photos – it’s believed that until now they’ve remained unpublished – were sent to Washington when the ship was decommissioned in the early 1970s. Your humble author scanned them a few years ago courtesy the fine folks at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

There are those who think this is a pretty good movie. I’m not one of them. But I’ll grant that the film – primarily because of its huge publicity campaign and cast – should always be mentioned when discussing movies about the Navy.

A note about these images. Scanned from contact prints (a staple is visible in a couple of the shots, giving an idea of the size of the originals), they contained only a minimum of information. It’s not known who many of these people are. If you think you know, please comment and let us know too.

Wayne is welcomed aboard by Vice Adm. Lawson Ramage, commander of the U.S. First Fleet and a Medal of Honor recipient for his World War II submarine service. Standing in the background at left with his arms folded is actor Tom Tryon.

We're not clear who the man in the middle is.

Wayne emerges from a stateroom wearing a dressing gown - a costume for the movie in a scene played with Kirk Douglas.

Wayne having a meal in the officer's mess.

The identity of the man in the middle is something of a mystery. Wayne is at left - cigarette as usual in hand - and at right is Capt. Gerald Sanford Norton, commanding officer of the SAINT PAUL. The original envelope identifies the officer at center as First Fleet commander Vice Adm. Lawson Ramage, but it doesn't quite look like him. The patch on his jacket is First Fleet, but he's wearing oak leaves - for a cameo role perhaps? Since publication, we have a number of votes for Bruce Cabot, who appeared in In Harm's Way, and one for Ward Bond, who did not. It looks like Cabot, but he played Quartermaster Quoddy in our movie, and this person appears to be wearing the uniform of a commander. So... if it's Bruce Cabot, why is he in this uniform? The floor is still open on this one.

For comparison, here's a shot from the Naval History and Heritage Command's online library showing Ramage with director Otto Preminger and actor Kirk Douglas.

Actor Burgess Meredith at left, with Tom Tryon behind him. It's not clear whether the officers are ship's company, other actors or extras. Note the saluting gun in the right foreground.

Director Otto Preminger, right, waits while his crew manhandles a film camera and tripod up the ship's boat crane.

Film magazines are not things to trifle with.

Going up or coming down, it wasn't an easy job!

Preminger stand by at left while things are made ready. Film making can be very much a hurry-up-and-wait affair.

Ears are covered as Preminger and others stand by for something loud to happen. The man at left seems to be filming with an 8mm camera.

Production crew and actors are jammed on the ship's starboard bridge walk preparing to shoot an action scene.

Actor Kirk Douglas, sitting, talks with director Otto Preminger.

Closeup of the same view.

The ship's band is playing, Marines are standing by, and at the top of the ladder Kirk Douglas looks out as a VIP arrival is about to be staged. The ship's forward eight-inch gun turrets are in the background.

The three-inch saluting gun is fired as Marines present arms for the VIP arrival.

One of the best-looking cast members, USS SAINT PAUL (CA 73). Seen a few years after the filming, on March 26, 1968. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Third Class D. R. Hyder)


Christopher P. Cavas
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Christopher P. Cavas

If it's on, over, under or around the water, I write about it. Ships and aircraft, units, tactics, leadership, strategies, acquisition, politics, industry. In the USA and around the world.
Christopher P. Cavas
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