Thursday, June 15, 2023

Hollywood and the Navy: Operation Petticoat

By Brenda Hale
HRNM Volunteer

Art imitates life in the 1959 movie Operation Petticoat, which managed to be realistic and humorous in one story. The movie was set in World War II, after Pearl Harbor, with a fictional Navy submarine, USS Sea Tiger. Several of the Pacific Fleet's submarines were used in the filming of this movie, with some real Navy events recreated. The movie portrayed a Balao-class submarine, with Cary Grant as Lt. Cmdr. Sherman and Tony Curtis as Lt. Nick Holden. The story follows Capt. Sherman and his crew, who were tasked to evacuate and billet five stranded female nurses, brought aboard unexpectedly while the sub was at Marinduque, Philippines, for supplies. On May 3, 1942, a real evacuation took place at Corregidor for one Navy nurse and several Army nurses by submarine USS Spearfish (SS 190), commanded by future Navy Cross recipient James C. Dempsey. In Operation Petticoat, fictitious events between the all-male Navy crew and female nurses are played out in humorous scenes.

USS Spearfish received ten battle stars for World War II service. (I. R. Lloyd print,

The technical advisor on the film was retired Navy admiral Lucius Chappell. He brought a wealth of knowledge to his role in this movie. In 1937, Chappell was Executive Officer and navigator aboard USS Snapper, and in 1941 he assumed command of USS Sculpin, which completed eight war patrols during the first two years of World War II. For heroism and distinguished service, Chappell was awarded the Navy Cross and a Gold Star, along with two Letters of Commendation with Ribbon.

Rear Admiral Lucius Chappell (

In Operation Petticoat, when the nurses first arrive aboard, Lt. Dolores Crandall, a well-endowed, clumsy nurse, gets her high heel stuck in the upper deck. Capt. Sherman tells her to take off the other shoe, and she trots up the steps barefoot. Then Sherman tells Lt. Watson, his executive officer, “Please assemble the crew. Instruct them to ignore that our passengers are women. That may require some readjustment, but I want every man to understand, our objective is Cebu [Philippines]. If any man has any other objective in mind, he’d better forget it.”

In another scene from the film, Lt. Crandall shows up on the bridge right when the captain has a torpedo loaded to sink an enemy supply ship. When Sherman yells at her to go below, she accidentally pushes the wrong torpedo button and blows up a truck on land, instead of the supply ship. In Sherman’s journal, he writes, “Can Lt. Crandall possibly be an enemy agent?” Filmmakers borrowed this event from a real-life incident involving Balao-class submarine USS Bowfin (SS 287). On July 16, 1944, Bowfin left Hawaii and headed for the Ryukyu Islands. On August 9, four ships were sighted heading for Minami Daito, Philippine Sea. After the ships had moored, Bowfin fired torpedoes, blowing up two ships, and a stray torpedo hit a dock, sending a bus into the water.

Later in the movie, Captain Sherman tells all the nurses, “Just don’t touch anything. For the next few days we’ll all be living in fairly close contact with each other. You being women, and the crew being men, being confined like this could create situations not usually consistent with normal submarine operations.” The nurses’ major says, “We’re well acquainted with the facts of life.” The captain replies, “So are the men. I’m simply trying to avoid any exchange of information.”

USS Balao (SS 285) painted pink for Operation Petticoat (

One of the movie’s most humorous plots is the painting of Sea Tiger with pink paint due to a shortage of proper paint supplies. In January 1941, the Navy issued a new manual for camouflage painting. It was generally referred to as SHIPS-2, the second issued by Bureau of Ships. In it, various camouflage designs were assigned 'Measure' numbers. Overall, black became camouflage Measure 9 and had actually been applied to all U S submarines by the end of 1940. The humor-filled, fictional movie events were too numerous to mention here, and most of them portray actual Navy events in a skewed manner. At the end of the movie, two shipboard connections that resulted in romance and marriage are revealed. Capt. Sherman and Nurse Lt. Crandall married, despite all the mishaps created on the ship by Lt Crandall. Lt. Nick Holden married Nurse Lt. Barbara Duran, whom Holden pursued from the time the nurses came aboard. Those are two scenarios that could represent real life.

“Twenty-five years of women aboard combatant vessels”, Adam Bisno NHHC Communication and Outreach Division, Mar 12, 2019.

“Women in Submarines: 10 years later”, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cameron Stoner, SUBLANT Public Affairs, June 25, 2021.

Modern Biographical Files in the Navy Department Library, Modern Bios, Lucius Henry Chappell.

Wikipedia: Operation Petticoat.

Naval History and Heritage Command, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

NavSource Online: A Brief Pictorial History of Submarine Camouflage.

U.S. Forces Began Main Battle For Philippines 75 Years Ago, by David Vergun, DOD News, Jan. 8, 2020.

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