Morton Tinslar Seligman:  Naval Hero, Part I

Midshipman Morton Tinslar Seligman c. 1918  Courtesy of Arthur Scott

Midshipman Morton Tinslar Seligman c. 1918
Courtesy of Arthur Scott

The story of Morton Tinslar Seligman is a fascinating one.  Morton, the son of James Leon and Ruth Seligman and my first cousin twice removed, was a decorated Navy hero in World War I and in World War II, but his name is also clouded by accusations that he leaked important classified information to a member of the press after the Battle of the Coral Sea during World War II.

Morton was born on July 1, 1895, in Salt Lake City, but grew up in Santa Fe, attended the University of New Mexico and then the US Naval Academy, from which he graduated in June, 1918, as described earlier.  After he graduated from Annapolis, he was commissioned as an ensign and was assigned to the U.S.S. Manchuria transport service.  By July, 1918, he was overseas engaged in submarine patrol off the coast of England and France.  After the war ended, he was promoted to lieutenant j.g., and from December, 1918, until October, 1919, he was engaged in an operation to clear the North Sea of mines.  He returned to New York in November, 1919, having overseen twenty subchasers in his command. Of those twenty, one was lost at sea due to explosions and fire, one was damaged so severely that it was not safe to sail it back to the US, and one was damaged but did eventually return.  No crew members were lost as a result of these damages, and his mission was completed successfully.

Morton Seligman WW 1 service history page 1

Morton Seligman WW1 service history

New Mexico Commission of Public Records, State Records Center and Archives; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Series Title: Service Reports; Series Number: 18.1.6; Box Number: 10899; Collection Name: New Mexico Adjutant General Records; Collection Number: 1973-019

For his service, Morton was awarded the Navy Cross for distinguished service.  (“Servicemen Cheer Hero at Canteen,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 1943, p. 18)  His commendation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. C-272, engaged in the important and hazardous duty of sweeping for and removing the mines of the North Sea Barrage during World War I.

http://projects.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=10339

I am not sure where Morton was stationed once he returned to the US, but as of August 19, 1925, he was stationed in Honolulu as part of the aviation corps, according to a wedding announcement in the San Francisco Chronicle.  On that date, Morton married Eleanor Reynolds, the daughter of Ziba Wells Reynolds, who had been a pay director in the Navy; her brother Lieutenant Stewart Reynolds was also serving in the Navy.  The article, reprinted below with a photograph of the bride, reported that Morton was assigned to Honolulu for the next three years.  (Another article stated that his Honolulu assignment was for two years, and that appears to have been more accurate.  “Sail from San Pedro,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 2, 1925, p. 14)

Morton Seligman marriage article 8 19 25

San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 1925, page 14

On August 29, 1925, Morton and Eleanor sailed out of Los Angeles to Hawaii on the SS Calawaii, arriving in Honolulu on September 5, 1925. (National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii, compiled 02/13/1900 – 12/30/1953; National Archives Microfilm Publication: A3422; Roll: 083; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787 – 2004; Record Group Number: RG 85)

Two years later they returned to California on the SS City of Honolulu, departing June 18, 1927, for Wilmington, California, where Morton was assigned to V.F. Squadron 6, a fighter squadron, part of the US Navy Battle Fleet. (Ancestry.com. U.S., Military Registers, 1862-1985[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.)

Although he is listed as residing in San Diego in the 1929 San Diego city directory, he must have been reassigned during that year to Washington, DC, with the Bureau of Aeronautics. (“Mrs. Seligman Leaves for Washington, D.C.,” San Diego Union, September 23, 1929.)

It seems that the marriage did not survive long thereafter because by April 3, 1930, the date of the 1930 census, Morton was divorced, and he was living with a fellow Navy aviator in Washington, DC.  He was still with the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1931, according to the Washington city directory of that year, although he was temporarily attached to the US Marine Corps as part of a special assignment to transport aircraft to Port au Prince, Haiti, in October, 1931. ( Ancestry.com. U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.)  He returned from Haiti on November 2, 1931, giving the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington as his address. (Year: 1931; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 5067; Line: 7; Page Number: 64.)

Lt. Morton Seligman c. 1932  Courtesy of Arthur Scott

Lt. Morton Seligman c. 1932
Courtesy of Arthur Scott

By 1933, Morton was living in San Diego and was remarried to a woman named Adela.  I cannot find a marriage record or any other document that reveals Adela’s birth name, but she is listed with him as his wife on the 1933 San Diego city directory. He was now a Lieutenant Commander with the VF-1-B squadron, according to the U.S. Military Register for the year.  He and Adela were still living in San Diego as of 1939, according to that year’s directory, and Morton was still serving in the US Navy. According to the US Military Register for 1939, Morton was now a commander at the Naval Air Station in San Diego.  The 1940 census also has Morton and Adela living in San Diego, Morton’s occupation still as a naval aviator. By this time, Morton was 44, Adela was 41.   Morton had been serving in the Navy for over 20 years.  (Ancestry.com. U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.)

In October, 1941, Morton risked his life in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue two naval aviators who died when their plane crashed into the bay off the coast of San Diego.  According to the San Diego Union:

“Comdr. Morton T. Seligman, Naval Air station executive officer, made a dramatic attempt to rescue the fliers a few minutes after the crash.  Speeding to the scene of the accident in a crash boat, Cmdr. Seligman discovered that no one aboard was a diver.  Despite the fact that he had never donned a diving helmet in his entire navy career, the officer put on the helmet and diving suit, instructed the crew of the crash boat how to operate the air pumps and then dived overboard. 

“In 25 feet of water, Cmdr. Seligman discovered the bodies of the airmen in the smashed plane.  In trying to extricate them, Cmdr. Seligman suffered severe cuts on his left hand from jagged pieces of metal and wood.”  (“Two Fliers Die As Navy Plane Falls Into Bay,” San Diego Union, October 5, 1941, p. 1)

Two months later, the US would enter World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a place where Morton had once served.  Not long after, Morton was an officer on the USS Lexington, which was destroyed during the Battle of the Coral Sea, which took place from May 4 through May 8, 1942.  The battle was described as follows on the official US Navy website Naval History and Heritage Command:  http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/wwii-pac/coralsea/coralsea.htm


“The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands and eastward from New Guinea, was the first of the Pacific War's six fights between opposing aircraft carrier forces. Though the Japanese could rightly claim a tactical victory on "points", it was an operational and strategic defeat for them, the first major check on the great offensive they had begun five months earlier at Pearl Harbor. The diversion of Japanese resources represented by the Coral Sea battle would also have immense consequences a month later, at the Battle of Midway.  ….. 

“Preliminary operations on 3-6 May and two days of active carrier combat on 7-8 May cost the United States one aircraft carrier, a destroyer and one of its very valuable fleet oilers, plus damage to the second carrier. However, the Japanese were forced to cancel their Port Moresby seaborne invasion. In the fighting, they lost a light carrier, a destroyer and some smaller ships. Shokaku received serious bomb damage and Zuikaku’s air group was badly depleted. Most importantly, those two carriers were eliminated from the upcoming Midway operation, contributing by their absence to that terrible Japanese defeat.”

English: Battle of the Coral Sea

English: Battle of the Coral Sea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The website also notes that “The U.S. Navy [was] tipped off to the enemy plans by superior communications intelligence” that helped them in their fight against the Japanese in this battle.

As for Morton’s role, a US Navy Cruise Book described the battle and the USS Lexington’s role in that battle in great detail.  According to this source, on the morning of May 7, 1942, the aircraft carrier was hit by five torpedoes and numerous bombs.  Although seriously damaged, the ship did not sink, and by 1 pm it was on even keel and only had one fire burning.  Then another major explosion occurred, caused by gasoline vapors igniting below the deck.  Several fires started, and by 5 pm the commanding office of the ship, Admiral Fitch, ordered the crew to abandon ship.  After the admiral and the crew had left, “Captain Sherman and his Executive Office, Commander Morton T. Seligman made a final inspection of their vessel amid flying debris, smoke and flames.  They then slid down a line, with the commanding officer being the last to leave—just as the torpedo head locker exploded, shaking both from the line and into the sea.  All but 26 officers and 190 men were rescued (including seven brothers aboard named Patten), and it is thought that none of these casualties occurred by drowning after abandoning ship.”

(Ancestry.com. U.S. Navy Cruise Books, 1918-2009 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2011. Original data: United States Navy. Various U.S. Navy Cruise Books. Navy Department Library, Washington, D.C.)

English: USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sin...

English: USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. Note planes parked aft, where fires have not yet reached. Removed caption read: Photo # NH 51382 USS Lexington burning during the Battle of Coral Sea, May 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For his service and heroism aboard the Lexington, Seligman was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross.  His citation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Navy Cross to Commander Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of this profession as Executive Officer of the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. LEXINGTON (CV-2), in action on 7 and 8 May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea. During and after that battle Commander Morton directed the damage control and fire fighting parties, inspecting and visiting all critical parts of the ship. He personally assisted in removing all the wounded in many places. His distinguished leadership and timely decisions contributed greatly to the success of our forces and was largely responsible for the small loss of life that occurred when the ship was abandoned. Commander Seligman’s conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Navy of the United States.

http://projects.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=10339

Navy Cross

Navy Cross

A month later, Morton Seligman would be caught up in a controversy involving another major Pacific battle, the Battle of Midway.  More on that in Part II.

14 thoughts on “Morton Tinslar Seligman:  Naval Hero, Part I

    • Sorry, but this one got so long I now have had to divide it into three parts! Just lots of things to read and cite to give it a fair shake. It’s actually a sad story, as you’ll see.

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  1. Pingback: Morton Tinslar Seligman:  A Heroic Career Ending in Accusations and Controversy, Part II « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  2. I am sure I am somehow. my father talked about him when I was younger. there was a model airplane kit of a biplane he flew in the 1930’s. that’s how I came to know about him.

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  5. Amy

    Thanks to an email from Lawrence Brennan I was made aware of your blog,. I have made a study of a number of pre second world war Caterpillar Club members (mostly in the UK, where I am based. But also occasionally in the US when I have time. A Caterpillar Club member is one who life is saved by use of a Parachute and you may or mat not be aware but your cousin Morton Tinslar Seligman is on this list.

    On October 21, 1929 1st Lieut Morton Tinslar Seligman 0-34590 of the USN was flying a Vought Corsair Biplane (serial number unknown to me at the moment) over Freeport, Long Island, New York. At the time he was attached to Mitchel Field when his aircraft entered a tailspin from which he could not recover. It appears that the control stick of the plane jammed and he was unable to right his craft. In this way he dropped about 3,000 feet, doing from 60 to 100 spins, before he cut his ignition switch and put the key in his pocket, fastened the control stick to keep the craft in the spin and then jumped with his parachute. He jumped from the plane at 2,000 feet with his parachute and wrenched an ankle on landing. A picture of the aircraft apparently is in the Lincoln Evening Journal from Lincoln, Nebraska Friday, October 25, 1929, Page 22 showing the Plane buried nose in ground, But I do not have a copy. (Note the pilot is listed incorrectly as ‘Lieut. John Seligman’ but I have absolutely no doubt it was your cousin as other contemporary papers correctly identify him and he is the only Airman Seligman in the US Navy at the time
    Kind Regards
    Paul McMillan

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Paul, Thank you so much for this information. I had not found this story, but will look for the news article you mentioned. I think my cousin Morton got a raw deal in the end—he was quite a serviceman until the code-busting story. Thank you!! I will also check out your website.

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