L. Ron Hubbard's Military Service
March 31, 2015
With the Church of Scientology in the public spotlight due to the recent HBO documentary "Going Clear," numerous claims about the Church and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, are being debated by both Scientology-watchers and the general public. Most of these center around allegations against Scientology, counter-allegations by the Church and the alleged cult of personality that revolves around its high-ranking figures.
But there's another way to look at Scientology, beyond the controversies about Xenu, billion-year contracts, punishment details, beatings and movie stars. And it starts before Scientology even existed, with the military career of L. Ron Hubbard — both what he did and what he didn't do during the Second World War.
While Hubbard's naval service is usually a footnote in profiles of the man and his writings, it's actually a vitally important component of the Church's origin story. Indeed, Hubbard claimed to have refined the healing techniques of Dianetics while recovering from debilitating wounds suffered in combat in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters.
Hubbard's war wounds, then, are much more than a reference point — they're the pivot from which everything afterwards flows. In his New Yorker profile on Hubbard and the Church, author Lawrence Wright (who subsequently wrote the book "Going Clear" that the HBO documentary was adapted from) gets Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis on the record confirming as much. Davis told Wright:
"[I]f the injuries that [Hubbard] handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; [then] Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie."So what were Hubbard's wounds? What did he do during World War II?
It's important to note that there are two versions of Hubbard's war record. One is the record borne out by naval documents (indeed, according to Wright, Hubbard's record in the National Archives is 900 pages long), eyewitness testimony and established historical fact. The other is the record put forth by Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, which is based on Hubbard's own anecdotes, documents provided by the Church and various autobiographical materials.
Both of these versions can't be true, as they massively contradict each other. But they do have some commonalities, which we can use as a starting point.
L. Ron Hubbard first served in the military as a teenager, with stints in both the Montana Army National Guard and the Marine Corps Reserve. Ten years later, in 1941, he joined the US Navy, being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He served in various administrative positions before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was subsequently ordered to the Philippines, served in Australia for a time, then went back to New York, and was soon promoted and given command of an armed trawler, USS YP-422.
After commanding this ship for a brief time, he was transferred to the Pacific and given command of another vessel, the submarine chaser USS PC-815. While leading this small vessel, he was involved in a coordinated attack against a target thought to be a Japanese submarine. Later, in 1943 and 1944, he was an officer aboard the transport ship USS Algol. He spent much of 1945 in a naval hospital, and was mustered out of the Navy in December, 1945.
While this is a bare-bones account of Hubbard's service in the War, it's not the one Hubbard himself gave. Indeed, Hubbard's account of his military service involves numerous heroic battles, command of entire fleets of ships, horrific wounds, dozens of medals, an ability to go wherever he pleased without consulting the chain of command, sinking an experimental Japanese submarine, deep involvement in intelligence activities and personally working with high ranking officers like Douglas MacArthur.
Among the loftier of Hubbard's claims, made in interviews, biographical writing and Church documents, are that he was:
• "Machine-gunned by invading Japanese" on the island of Java.
• "the only anti-aircraft battery in Australia in 1941."
• The commanding officer of numerous Navy vessels, including a submarine chaser, a trawler called USS Mist and the destroyer USS Howland.
• The first "returned casualty" of the war.
• Commanded the "Fourth British Corvette Squadron" in the Atlantic.
• Responsible for "drop[ing] the I-76 or the Imperial Japanese Navy Trans-Pacific Submarine down into the mouth of the Columbia River, dead duck."
• Behind the relief of MacArthur's beleaguered force in the Philippines, sending "four cargo ships loaded to the gunwales with machine gun ammunition, rifle ammunition and quinine" to his aid.
• Wounded in numerous and horrific ways, including "blinded with injured optic nerves, and lame with physical injuries to hip and back," having both feet broken, having his ship shot out from under him four times, riddled with shrapnel, suffering from bone infections and twice being pronounced dead.
However, the records on file for Hubbard mention virtually none of this. The documented events of Hubbard's career are:
• A variety of postings in Naval administration.
• Command of YP-422, during which he saw no combat, and was relieved after only a few weeks due to a superior officer believing he was unfit for the position.
• Command of PC-815, where he was involved in the above-referenced battle against a Japanese submarine, known colloquially as the Battle of Cape Lookout. Except there was virtually no evidence it was a submarine, only a known magnetic anomaly. While the attack was a good-faith effort to sink an enemy vessel, Hubbard likely wasted dozens of depth charges and shells coordinating an attack by multiple ships and blimps against air bubbles.
• Another incident where he took his ship into Mexican waters and shelled a small island for gunnery practice. He lost command of PC-815 for this.
• An undistinguished stint on the Algol, and a subsequent hospitalization for an ulcer.
The Church of Scientology has backed away from most of Hubbard's lofty braggadocio. His official biography on the Church's website has only a short paragraph about their founder's service, and it's kept vague and mostly limited to information confirmed in Navy records. There's a good reason: most of the details Hubbard gave about his war record are either obviously wrong or can be easily disproven by looking at available records.
For example, Hubbard's service record lists him being assigned to the Philippines shortly after Pearl Harbor, but that he only made it as far Australia — and was only there a short time before being sent back to the US for disciplinary reasons. There has never been a "USS Howland" in the US Navy at any time, nor was there a "USS Mist" serving in the Navy during World War II, though YP-422 was called Mist before it was requisitioned by the Navy.
Furthermore, there was never any such thing as the "Fourth British Corvette Squadron" (Allied naval units never used any designation like that) nor any reason why an American junior officer would be commanding British warships. Finally, the Japanese submarine I-76, which Hubbard claimed to have sunk in the mouth of the Columbia River, was actually sunk — but in 1944, in the Western Pacific by four US destroyers. No physical evidence has ever been found of a submarine sunk anywhere in the rivers of Oregon — presumably, someone would have taken a picture.
In official statements and interviews, spokespeople for the Church have attributed the discrepancies to Hubbard having two sets of records in the National Archives — the real ones, which the Church has, and fake ones that the government cooked up to discredit Hubbard. But this is special pleading — the demand of special considerations in service of a story that otherwise doesn't ring true.
It is true, however, that Hubbard was in a Naval Hospital for parts of 1945, and later appealed for a Navy pension on the basis of a variety of injuries suffered in the service. If not the result of war wounds (which, again, US Navy records point out Hubbard never received, nor had any opportunity to receive, as he never served aboard a ship that took enemy fire), what put him in the hospital and gave him these wounds?
It was common for military personnel being shuttled from post to post, eating bad food, sleeping little and spending time in unhygienic environments, to come down with various minor ailments and injuries. This appears to be true for Hubbard. His "eye injury", which he claimed once to have sustained during the attack on Pearl Harbor, was probably pink eye. The broken feet are thought (though not known) to have been caused by a fall off a ladder. Finally, the injury that put him in and out of the hospital for the final year of the war is recorded in Navy records as a duodenal ulcer. Painful, certainly. But crippling and blinding? Most likely not.
As for the wounds Hubbard used to justify a disability pension? According to publicly available records, they were:
Malaria, Feb 42, Recurrent;It's not hard to see how an imaginative writer like L. Ron Hubbard could have turned a bad back, ulcer issues and poor eyesight from pink eye into crippling war wounds. They were bothersome and they were sustained during the war, ergo, they were war wounds. And maybe, in his mind, he vanquished these maladies with the power of Dianetics.
Or maybe they did what many minor maladies do: cleared up over time.
No author digging into the history of Scientology has ever found credible evidence that Hubbard's injuries were the result of the combat he claimed to have been in constantly for years. Nor have they found any credible evidence that Hubbard saw combat at all, except one time, when he fired his ship's guns at what he thought was a submarine. And yet, Hubbard clearly suffered physical issues because of the war.
So I go back to Tommy Davis' quote to Lawrence Wright, printed in the New Yorker, and let the reader make their own judgement:
"[I]f the injuries that [Hubbard] handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; [then] Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie."
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