Letter from Robert Rowe Thompson to his family while en route to Annapolis, March 6, 1908.
Letter from Robert Rowe Thompson to his family while en route to Annapolis, March 6, 1908.

Guide to the Robert Rowe Thompson Papers, 1907-1991

MS 345

A collection in the
Special Collections & Archives Department,
Nimitz Library

Naval Academy Seal

United States Naval Academy
589 McNair Road
Annapolis, MD 21402-5029

Prepared by: David D'Onofrio
(Original Guide by Mary R. Catalfamo, 1999)

January 2010

Descriptive Summary

The Robert Rowe Thompson Papers were donated to the Special Collections & Archives Department by CAPT H.A. Seymour, Jr., USN (Ret.). Accession Nos. 99-70, 99-73, and 99-83.
8 linear inches.
Access to the Robert Rowe Thompson Papers is unrestricted.
The Robert Rowe Thompson Papers are the physical property of Nimitz Library. Copyright belongs to the authors or creators of the works, or their legal representatives. For further information, consult the Head, Special Collections & Archives.
It is the responsibility of the researcher to secure written permission to publish, reprint, or reproduce material from Special Collections & Archives. The researcher assumes responsibility for infringement of copyright or literary or publication rights. Please contact the Head, Special Collections & Archives for permission to publish and for further information
Preferred Citation:
Robert Rowe Thompson Papers, MS 345
Special Collections & Archives Department
Nimitz Library
United States Naval Academy

Biographical Sketch

Robert Rowe Thompson, son of George W. and Emma Thompson, was born on August 24, 1889 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A native of Lewiston, Idaho, Thompson briefly attended Lewiston Business College before enrolling in R.L. Werntz's U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School in 1908. Upon passing the requisite entrance exams, Thompson entered the United States Naval Academy, graduating with the Class of 1912.

Thompson's first assignments after graduation were aboard U.S.S. South Dakota (Armored cruiser: ACR-9) and U.S.S. New Orleans (Protected cruiser: CL-22). In 1916, Thompson was transferred to U.S.S. Charleston (Protected cruiser: C-22), which was serving as a submarine tender to the First Submarine Division Atlantic. Later in 1916, Thompson was selected as a member of the first class of Submarine School in New London, Connecticut.

Upon graduation from Submarine School in June 1917, Thompson was ordered to U.S.S. D-2 (Submarine: SS-18), where he served as executive officer, navigator, first lieutenant, torpedo officer, and engineer officer. Following D-2's foundering while docked in New London, Thompson was transferred to U.S.S. L-3 (Submarine: SS-42). Serving aboard L-3 throughout World War I, Thompson ultimately became her captain, serving in that capacity until early 1919, after which he was given command of U.S.S. S-17 (Submarine: SS-122).

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Thompson served in various division level posts and vessel commands, including engineer and repair officer for Submarine Divisions, Asiatic Fleet; commander, Submarine Division 14; commander, Destroyer Division 14; captain of U.S.S. Monaghan (Destroyer : DD-354); and captain of U.S.S. Cuyama (Oiler : AO-3). Thompson also served a tour in the executive department at the United States Naval Academy.

In 1941, Thompson attended the Naval War College. Within weeks of America's declaration of war on Japan, Thompson received command of U.S.S. Portland (Heavy cruiser: CA-33), and served in that capacity until he was injured in May 1942. Although he recovered from his injuries, Thompson ultimately retired before the war's end, being transferred to the retired list in 1944. Thompson remained on active duty until February 1946, serving as secretary of the Naval War College.

Following his retirement from the U.S. Navy, Thompson worked in the real estate business in Southern California. Robert Rowe Thompson died on August 5, 1968.

Selected Bibliography

"Robert Rowe Thompson '12." Shipmate, November 1968, 71-72.

Scope and Content Note

The Robert Rowe Thompson Papers, comprising 8 linear inches of documentation, span from 1907 until 1991. The papers, consisting primarily of letters from Thompson to his family and a typewritten memoir, focus on Thompson's experiences at R.L. Werntz's Naval Academy Preparatory School and as a submariner during World War I.

The collection is arranged alphabetically by document type into a single series with no subdivisions. The letters, written almost exclusively by Thompson, are addressed to Thompson's parents, and often include sections with replies to correspondence from siblings, such as his brother Howard. The letters, spanning from March until April 1908, are the product of Thompson's time as a student at R.L. Werntz's Naval Academy Preparatory School in preparation for the Naval Academy's entrance exams. The letters focus primarily on Thompson's continuous studies, feelings of homesickness, resolve to pass the entrance examinations, speculation and rumors regarding the difficulty of said exams, living accommodations with the Naval Academy's Associate Librarian, and events back home in Idaho. Also included are several letters to Thompson's parents from prep school headmaster R.L. Werntz and the wife of Thompson's sponsor, Elizabeth Spencer, as well as a letter from the Naval Academy announcing Thompson's passing of the entrance exams. The undated memoir, entitled "Down to the Sea in Subs: An Account of American Submarines in World War I, 1916-1919," spans Thompson's experiences as a submariner, and includes descriptions of American C and L class submarines, the wartime service of U.S.S. L-3, and Submarine School in New London, Connecticut.

Container List

Box Folder  
1 1 Correspondence, March 5 - March 8, 1908

En route to Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of train travel from Spokane to Annapolis, Thompson's emotional state, and instructions for care of his pigeons (March 7). Also includes one letter from R.L. Werntz (March 5).

2 Correspondence, March 9 - March 15, 1908

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of homesickness, lessons, methods of study at the preparatory school, difficulties with algebra (March 12-13), and the desire to be a farmer (March 13). Also includes one letter from R.L. Werntz explaining Thompson's accommodations (March 11).

3 Correspondence, March 16 - March 23, 1908

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of prep school teachers (March 16), constant studying (March 17), fears about initiation by fellow students (March 18), stories of USNA students failing out on purpose (March 19), and cheating at the prep school (March 21).

4 Correspondence, March 25 - April 8, 1908

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of Episcopal Church services (March 26), taking extra classes in algebra (March 30), low opinion of Werntz's school (March 31), introduction of street cars in Annapolis (April 2), and advice from a midshipman named Lewis (April 4). Also includes one letter signed by Admiral George Dewey.

5 Correspondence, April 9 - April 23, 1908

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of constant studying, dining with family friend Mrs. Cooper, the benefits of USNA over Oxford (April 16), and events back home.

6 Correspondence, April 24 - April 30, 1908

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of classmates' USNA entrance exam experiences (April 24), the 1908 local (Idaho) elections (April 28), and the role of Academy candidate political affiliation in the appointment process (April 30).

Box Folder
2 1 Correspondence, May 1 - May 20, 1908

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of local (Idaho) elections and sporting events (May 7-14), visit to Washington, DC and Senator Heyburn (May 17), and the drowning of a midshipman (May 18).

2 Correspondence, May 21 - June 2, 1908

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of continued studies, possible bouts with malaria, and the appointment of an alternate by Senator Heyburn (May 29). Attached to the letter of May 23 is the graduation program for Alexandria High School and a visiting card for Earnest E. Thompson.

3 Correspondence, June 3 - June 21, 1908

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of a railroad accident between Washington and Annapolis (June 7), Annapolis as the slowest town in the country (June 9), and Naval Academy entrance examinations (June 16-21).

4 Correspondence, June 25 - June 29 and July 24

From Annapolis, MD. Descriptions of completion and passing of academic exams and initial failure on physical exam (June 26). Includes letters from R.L. Werntz and the Naval Academy announcing Thompson's passing of the entrance exams, as well as a letter from Elizabeth Spencer (the wife of Thompson's sponsor) to Mrs. Emma Thompson.

5 Correspondence - Photocopied Compilation, 1907-1908 and 1991

Includes appendix featuring letters from R.L. Werntz, Elizabeth Spencer, Lewiston Business College (regarding Thompson's withdrawal in 1907), H.G. Thompson (regarding preparations for Robert's entry into prep-school), and the United States Naval Academy, as well as press clippings announcing Thompson's passing of his entrance exams, and a 1991 letter conveying the materials.

6 Memoirs (Introduction and Chapter 1), undated

1916. Description of Thompson's assignment as Engineer Officer aboard U.S.S. Charleston, tender to the First Submarine Division Atlantic.

7 Memoirs (Chapter 2), undated

Description of American C Class submarines.

8 Memoirs (Chapter 3), undated

Descriptions of Thompson's additional duties as engineer and repair officer for the C Class submarines, efforts to make Charleston a more effective tender, and the needs of the First Submarine Division.

9 Memoirs (Chapter 4), undated

Descriptions of marriage to fiancé Lulette and early married life.

10 Memoirs (Chapter 5), undated

Descriptions of continued duties aboard Charleston and selection as member of first class of Submarine School in New London, Connecticut.

11 Memoirs (Chapter 6), undated

1917. Descriptions of Submarine School curriculum and activities, including gaps in curriculum and lack of attack doctrine, as well as the impact of the United States' declaration of war, and graduation from Submarine School.

12 Memoirs (Chapter 7), undated

Descriptions of service aboard U.S.S. D-2, including Thompson's duties, diving tests, sinking of a schooner in Long Island Sound, and D-2's sinking while docked. Also includes Thompson's transfer to U.S.S. L-3.

13 Memoirs (Chapter 8), undated

Descriptions of American L Class submarines, overhaul of U.S.S. L-3, and Thompson's duties as executive officer, navigator, diving officer and engineer officer.

14 Memoirs (Chapter 9), undated

1917-1918. Descriptions of L-3's training routine, mid December voyage to Bermuda, January 1918 voyages to Punta Delgado and Bantry Bay, and training it wartime submarine tactics by the British.

15 Memoirs (Chapter 10), undated

1918. Descriptions of L-3's wartime record and lack of engagement with German U-boats, and the dangers of friendly coastal defense fire.

16 Memoirs (Chapter 11), undated

Descriptions of L-3's wartime routine and experiences, equipment installations during Queenstown overhaul, Thompsons's experiences at British Periscope School, adoption of British Submarine Attack Course Finders (Is-Was), and Thompson's command of L-3.

17 Memoirs (Chapter 12), undated

Descriptions of delays in returning to the United States, American crew's efforts to sail captured German U-boats to Portland, and Thompson's temporary command of a German U-boat.

18 Memoirs (Chapter 13), undated

1919. Descriptions of L-3's voyage from Portland to Punta Delgado, the Azores, Bermuda, and Philadelphia, hostile treatment by the head of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and Thompson's transfer to San Francisco to serve aboard a new S Class submarine under construction.