Operation Petticoat (1959)


Operation Petticoat is a 1959 American World War II submarine comedy film in Eastmancolour from Universal-International, produced by Robert Arthur, directed by Blake Edwards, that stars Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.

The film tells in flashback the misadventures of a fictional U.S. Navy submarine, USS Sea Tiger, during the Battle of the Philippines in the opening days of the United States involvement in World War II. Some elements of the screenplay were taken from actual incidents that happened with some of the Pacific Fleet’s submarines during the war.

The film was the basis for a TV series in 1977 starring John Astin in Grant’s role.


In 1959, US Navy Rear Admiral Matt Sherman, ComSubPac, boards the obsolete submarine USS Sea Tiger, prior to her departure for the scrapyard. Sherman, her first commanding officer, begins reading his wartime personal logbook, and a flashback begins.

On 10 December 1941, a Japanese air raid sinks Sea Tiger while she is docked at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. Lieutenant Commander Sherman and his crew begin repairs, hoping to sail for Darwin, Australia before the Japanese overrun the port. Believing there is no chance of repairing the submarine, the squadron commodore transfers most of Sherman’s crew to other boats, but promises Sherman that he will have first call on any available replacements. Lieutenant (junior grade) Nick Holden, an admiral’s aide, is reassigned to Sea Tiger despite lacking any submarine training or experience.

Holden demonstrates great skill as a scrounger after Sherman makes him the supply officer. He teams up with Marine Sergeant Ramon Gallardo, an escaped prisoner (caught misappropriating Navy property to run his own restaurant), to obtain materials desperately needed for repairs. What Holden and his men cannot acquire from base warehouses, they steal.

Refloated and restored to barely seaworthy condition, Sea Tiger puts to sea after a native witch doctor casts a protection spell on her. Sea Tiger reaches Marinduque, where Sherman reluctantly agrees to evacuate five stranded Army nurses. Holden is attracted to Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran, while Sherman has a series of embarrassing encounters with the well-endowed and clumsy Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall. Later, when Sherman prepares to attack an enemy oiler moored to a pier, Crandall accidentally fires a torpedo before the Torpedo Data Computer finishes transmitting the settings to the “tin fish.” It misses the tanker and instead “sinks” a truck ashore. Sea Tiger flees amidst a hail of shellfire.

Sherman tries to put the nurses ashore at Cebu, but the Army refuses to accept them without the proper orders, as the Japanese are closing in. Unable to obtain needed supplies from official sources, Sherman allows Holden to set up a casino in order to acquire them from soldiers. Chief Torpedoman Molumphry has been asking for paint. Holden manages to get some red and white lead primer paint, but does not have enough of either to prime the entire hull. Sherman reluctantly has the two mixed together, resulting in a pale pink primer that is applied. A Japanese air raid forces a hasty departure before the crew can apply a top coat of navy gray.

Tokyo Rose mocks the mysterious pink submarine, while the US Navy believes it to be a Japanese deception, ordering that it be sunk on sight. An American destroyer spots Sea Tiger and opens fire, then launches depth charges when the submarine crash dives. Sherman tries an oil slick and then launches blankets, pillows, and life jackets, but the deception fails. At Holden’s suggestion, Sherman ejects the nurses’ lingerie. Crandall’s bra convinces the destroyer’s captain that “the Japanese have nothing like this”, and he ceases fire. Sea Tiger, still painted pink, arrives at Darwin battered but under her own power.

Sherman’s reminiscence ends with the arrival of Commander Nick Holden, his wife (the former Lieutenant Duran), and their two sons. Sherman promises Holden command of a new nuclear-powered submarine, also named Sea Tiger. Sherman’s wife (the former Lieutenant Crandall) arrives late with their four daughters and rear-ends her husband’s staff car, causing it to lock bumpers with a Navy bus. When it drives away, dragging his car with it, Sherman reassures his wife that it will be stopped at the main gate. Commander Holden takes Sea Tiger out on her final voyage as the perpetually troublesome No. 1 diesel engine backfires one last time.


  • Cary Grant as Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Matthew T. “Matt” Sherman, USN.
  • Tony Curtis as Lieutenant, Junior Grade (later Commander) Nicholas “Nick” Holden, USNR (later USN).
  • Joan O’Brien as Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall, NC, USAR.
  • Dina Merrill as Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran, NC, USAR.
  • Gene Evans as Chief Torpedoman “Mo” Molumphry, USN, Chief of the Boat of the Sea Tiger.
  • Dick Sargent as Ensign Stovall, USN (billed as Richard Sargent).
  • Arthur O’Connell as Chief Motor Machinist’s Mate Sam Tostin, USN.
  • Virginia Gregg as Major Edna Heywood, NC, US Army.
  • Robert F. Simon as Captain J.B. Henderson, USN.
  • Robert Gist as Lieutenant Watson, USN, Sherman’s Executive Officer (XO).
  • Gavin MacLeod as Yeoman Ernest Hunkle, USN.
  • George Dunn as The Prophet (of Doom).
  • Dick Crockett as Petty Officer Harmon, USN.
  • Madlyn Rhue as Second Lieutenant Reid, NC, USAR.
  • Marion Ross as Second Lieutenant Colfax, NC, USAR.
  • Clarence Lung as Sergeant Ramon Gallardo, USMC (billed as Clarence E. Lung).
  • Frankie Darro as Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class Dooley, USN.
  • Tony Pastor, Jr. as Fox.
  • Robert F. Hoy as Reiner.
  • Nicky Blair as Seaman Kraus.
  • John W. Morley as Williams.
  • Ray Austin as Seaman Austin.


Curtis took credit for the inception of Operation Petticoat. He had joined the US Navy during World War II with the intent of entering the submarine service in part because his hero, Cary Grant, had appeared in Destination Tokyo (1943). After he became a star, Curtis suggested making a film in which Grant would stare into a periscope as he did in Destination Tokyo. Curtis very much enjoyed working with Grant.

Former Universal-International contract star Jeff Chandler was originally set to have played Matt Sherman, but pulled out to film The Jayhawkers (1959) instead. Tina Louise turned down the role of one of the nurses as she felt the film had too many sex jokes.

Operation Petticoat was produced with extensive support of the Department of Defence and the US Navy. Most of the filming was done in and around Naval Station Key West, now the Truman Annex of Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, which substituted for the Philippines and Australia. Filming for the period suggesting post-war 1959 was done at Naval Station San Diego, California.

USS Sea Tiger was portrayed by three different American World War II Balao-class submarines:

  • USS Queenfish, in the opening and closing scenes (circa 1959), in which the “393” on the conning tower is visible;
  • USS Archerfish, for all the World War II scenes where the boat was painted the standard gray and black; and
  • USS Balao, for all the scenes in which Sea Tiger was painted pink.

The attacking destroyer and, during the arrival at Darwin, the destroyer visible in the background is the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Wren .

Historical Accuracy

A plot error says that Sea Tiger is heading to Darwin to meet up with the sub tender USS Bushnell in December 1941; Bushnell was not commissioned until 1943.

Some of the plot points of Operation Petticoat were based on real-life incidents, such as:

  • The evacuation of one Navy nurse and several Army nurses from Corregidor to Australia by the submarine USS Spearfish, commanded by future Navy Cross recipient James C. Dempsey.
  • The sinking of the submarine USS Sealion at the pier at Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines.
  • The torpedoing of a bus by the USS Bowfin.
  • Captain Sherman’s letter to the supply department at Cavite on the inexplicable lack of toilet paper (based on an actual letter to the supply department of Mare Island Naval Shipyard by Lieutenant Commander James Wiggins “Red” Coe of the submarine USS Skipjack).
  • The need to paint a submarine pink because of a lack of enough red or white lead undercoat: Heat from the burning USS Sealion also scorched off the black paint on the nearby USS Seadragon; for a time, the submarine fought with only her red lead undercoat visible.
    • This led Tokyo Rose to disparage American “red pirate submarines”.
  • Another possible source for the “pink” submarine is the decorated USS Harder, commanded by Samuel David Dealey.
    • Under the belief that a pinkish tint would help with camouflage, especially near dawn and dusk, Dealey added pink to the light grey that was standard for the Navy’s Measure 32 paint scheme.


Operation Petticoat was a hit with audiences and critics.

Box Office

Operation Petticoat was a huge box office hit, earning over $9.3 million in theatrical rentals, which made it the third highest-grossing film of 1959, as well as the most financially successful film of Cary Grant’s career. For Grant, through his contract, his residuals topped $3 million, making Operation Petticoat his most profitable film to date.

1977 Television Series

Operation Petticoat was adapted as an ABC-TV series which ran from 17 September 1977 to 10 August 1979. Initially starring John Astin in Grant’s role of Lieutenant Commander Sherman, the TV series cast Tony Curtis’ daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, as Lieutenant Duran.

  • Most of the cast was replaced for the show’s second season, a decision that led to low ratings and cancellation.
  • Only 32 episodes of the series (22 for season 1 and 10 for season 2) were produced in total.


  • Jeff Chandler was originally offered the role that went to Cary Grant.
    • Grant himself was at first reluctant to take it, knowing he was much too old to play a wartime captain.
  • Bob Hope always said it was his biggest regret that he turned down this movie.
  • The “sinking” of a truck was inspired by a real incident that happened in 1944.
    • On 09 August USS Bowfin (SS-287) followed four Japanese ships into Minami Daito Harbour.
    • She fired her six bow torpedoes at the moored ships, hitting three and sinking two of them, but one torpedo went astray and hit a pier.
    • A bus parked on it was blown up and thrown into the water by the explosion.
  • Some of the plot points of the movie were based on real-life incidents.
    • Most notable were scenes set at the opening of WWII, based on the actual sinking of the submarine USS Sealion (SS-195), sunk at the pier at Cavite Navy Yard, the Philippines.
    • Commander Sherman’s letter to the supply department on the inexplicable lack of toilet paper, based on an actual letter to the supply department of Mare Island Naval Shipyard by Lieutenant Commander James Wiggin Coe of the submarine Skipjack (SS-184).
    • The need to paint a submarine pink, due to the lack of enough red lead or white lead undercoat paint.

Production & Filming Details

  • Narrator(s): Cary Grant.
  • Director(s): Blake Edwards.
  • Producer(s): Robert Arthur.
  • Writer(s): Paul King, Joseph B. Stone, Stanley Shapiro, and Maurice Richlin.
  • Music: David Rose and Henry Mancini (uncredited).
  • Cinematography: Russell Harlan.
  • Editor(s): Frank Gross and Ted J. Kent.
  • Release Date: 05 December 1959.
  • Running Time: 124 minutes.
  • Rating: U.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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