Herbert Whitwell Underwood was born in Joplin, Missouri, on 11 September 1886, son of Stephen A. and Anna Whitwell Underwood. He was graduated from Westport High School in Kansas City in 1903, and attended the University of Missouri for a year prior to his appointment to the US Naval Academy from the Fifth District of his native state in 1905. He was graduated with the Class of 1910, and after the period of sea duty, then required by law before commissioning, he was commissioned Ensign to date from 7 March 1912, when the law was changed. He subsequently advanced to the rank of Captain, to date from 13 February 1939. He was retired in that rank on 2 June 1939, but had continuous active service during the Emergency and World War II period, from 16 October 1939 until 9 January 1946.
After graduation from the Naval Academy on 3 June 1910, he was assigned to USS Maryland, in which he served from 9 July that year, until 4 April 1915, participating in four summer cruises to Alaska. He then served on board USS Stewart, commanding that destroyer briefly before his detachment on 7 September 1915 for temporary duty at the Navy Yard, Mare Island, California. He returned to the Naval Academy later that month, for postgraduate instruction in steam engineering, and from 26 September 1916 to 20 March 1917 continued the course at Columbia University, New York, New York. While a student at Columbia University, he had additional duty in connection with inspection of machinery (F-class submarines) at the works of James M. Craig Machine Works, Jersey City, New Jersey.
He joined USS Walke on 24 March 1917, and during World War I, from 15 December 1917 until 11 October 1918, he commanded that destroyer, on submarine patrol in the Atlantic. He was awarded the Navy Cross “For distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the USS WALKE, engaged in the important, exacting and hazardous duty of patrolling the waters infested with submarines and mines, in escorting and protecting vitally important convoys of troops and supplies through these waters, and in offensive and defensive action, vigorously and unremittingly prosecuted against all forms of enemy naval activity.”
He reported on 25 October 1918 to the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation’s plant at Squantum, Massachusetts, to assist in fitting out USS McDermut, but was detached on 10 February 1919, prior to her commissioning in March of that year, for a tour of duty as an instructor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Physics at the Naval Academy. As such, he went on the Midshipmen’s Summer Practice Cruise on board USS Kentucky from 6 June to 29 August 1919. After brief duty in the Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department, Washington, DC, from 30 August to 29 September 1921, he served as Engineer Officer of USS Connecticut for eighteen months, and of the USS Seattle from her commissioning, 1 on March 1923 until 26 August 1924.
Another tour of duty at the Naval Academy, this time as an instructor in the Department of Engineering and Aeronautics, preceded his command of USS Hart, a unit of the Asiatic Fleet’s Yangtze Patrol in 1926-1927. He remained on Asiatic Station as Commander Mine Detachment and Commanding Officer of USS Rizal, until 21 May 1929, and on 10 July that year, reported to the Navy Mine Depot, Yorktown, Virginia, where he served until March 1932. Fourteen months’ duty as Navigator of USS Utah and eleven months’ duty as Executive Officer of USS Dobbin preceded his tour of shore duty at the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, Rhode Island, from 30 June 1934, to 1 July 1936. The next year was spent as a student at the Naval War College, at Newport, Rhode Island.
On 15 June 1937 he assumed command of Destroyer Division 17 of the Scouting Force, later Battle Force, the first 1850-ton division organized in 1937. When detached on 30 April 1938 he was ordered to Headquarters, Eleventh Naval District, San Diego, California. From 30 June that year, until 1 June 1939, when he was transferred to the Retired List of the US Navy and relieved of active duty, he served at the University of California at Los Angeles, as Professor of Naval Science and Tactics, US Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Unit. He was recalled to active duty later that year, due to the National Emergency which preceded World War II, and from 16 October until 18 December 1939, served as Port Director, Naval Transportation Service, Eleventh Naval District, San Diego, and had similar duty at San Pedro, California, until 11 September 1940.
He reported as Professor of Naval Science and Tactics, NROTC, at the University of Texas, Austin Texas, on 18 September 1940, and after almost two years there reported in August 1942 as Commanding Officer of the US Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, where the WAVE officers received their indoctrination. When the school was decommissioned in December 1944, he was awarded the Legion of Merit, with the following citation:
“For exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States as Commanding Officer, Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School, Northampton, Massachusetts, from August 13, 1942 to December 21, 1944. Enthusiastic and thorough in executing a mission unique in Naval history, Captain Underwood initiated the project of training and commissioning women as officers of the Naval Reserve, establishing and developing a curriculum and attendant program of activities identical in purpose with no other Naval Officer school. Starting with 28 women enrolled semi-officially, Captain Underwood successfully handled the tremendous problems of quarters and adequate facilities and through his marked organizational ability and outstanding leadership, was prepared to accept the first official class of 900 entered on October 6, 1942, with a staff of 100 male officers and a scant complement of newly commissioned women officers. During the ensuing period of urgent Naval expansion, a total of over 9,000 members have been commissioned in the Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard, splendidly indoctrinated in the customs and traditions of the Naval Service in spite of limited time to meet the extremely high standards of conduct and thoroughly trained to assumed administrative duties in order to relieve men for service afloat."
On 22 January 1945 he reported as Commanding Officer of the US Naval Barracks, West Potomac Park, Washington, DC. In that assignment he was in command of most of the enlisted men and women on duty in the Navy Department, and for nine WAVE Quarters in and near the District of Columbia. He remained in that command until 9 January 1946, when he was relieved of all active duty.
In addition to the Navy Cross and the Legion of Merit, Captain Underwood had the Mexican Service Medal; Nicaraguan Campaign Medal; World War I Victory Medal, Destroyer Clasp; Yangtze Service Medal; American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; and World War II Victory Medal. He received nineteen personal letters of commendation during his Naval career.
He was married in 1914 to Miss Frances Ramsay of Alameda, California, and had a son. Captain Underwood passed away 8 February 1964 in Pebble Beach, California.