On 21 January 1943, a Pan Am clipper operating for the Naval Air Transport Service was on a flight from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco. On board the transport aircraft was Rear Admiral Robert H. English, Commander, Submarines, Pacific Fleet, headed for a conference at Mare Island, together with three of his senior staff officers. Once matters had been completed at San Francisco, English and the others were scheduled for inspection trips to U.S. submarine facilities at Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, and then San Diego.
Bob English, a 1911 graduate of the Naval Academy, was a veteran submariner. Awarded a Navy Cross as Commanding Officer of the submarine O-4 during World War I, English also had received a Letter of Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy, while stationed at the New York Navy Yard in October 1918, for entering the after battery compartment of submarine O-5 following an internal explosion, in order to rescue her disabled skipper Lieutenant Commander G. A. Trever from being burned to death. Assigned as Commander, Submarines, Pacific Fleet in May 1942, Rear Admiral English had experienced a rocky eight months in command. A tough taskmaster, he had relieved a number of his submarine skippers for their repeated failures to sink their Japanese merchant shipping targets, unaware that a significant part of the problem had to do with the faulty Mark XIV torpedoes they were using. Yet he was seen by many of his contemporaries and his seniors as a hardworking officer who was achieving positive results with his submarine campaign.
As English’s plane approached San Francisco that morning, it ran into a bad storm, with high winds, stinging rain, and fog, and radio contact with the control tower was lost. When next heard from, the aircraft, still in the storm, was located well north of San Francisco, over Bell Valley some 115 miles away. Navy authorities later surmised that the crew was trying to find Clear Lake to make an emergency landing. But this was not to be. The Pan Am clipper struck a 2,000-foot ridge near Boonville, California and exploded, killing its ten passengers and nine civilian crewmen instantly. It took ten days for the bodies and the wreckage to be found in the rugged hills. Admiral English was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on 9 February 1943. Just over a month later, Navy Secretary Frank Knox presented his widow with the Distinguished Service Medal Admiral English had been posthumously awarded for his “exceptionally meritorious service” as Commander, Submarines, Pacific Fleet.