To his followers, L. Ron Hubbard was bigger than life. But it was an image largely of his own making.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge put it bluntly while presiding over a Church of Scientology lawsuit in 1984. Scientology’s founder, he said, was “virtually a pathological liar” about his past.
Hubbard was an intelligent and well-read man, with diverse interests, experience and expertise. But that apparently was not enough to satisfy him. He transformed his frailties into strengths, his failures into successes. With a kernel of truth, he concocted elaborate stories about a life he seemingly wished was his.
There was his claim, for example, of being a nuclear physicist. This was an important one because he said he had used his knowledge of science to develop Scientology and dianetics.
Hubbard was, in fact, enrolled in one of the nation’s early classes in molecular and atomic physics at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., where he unsuccessfully pursued a civil engineering degree. But he flunked the class.
Church of Scientology officials deny that Hubbard claimed to be a nuclear physicist and point to a taped lecture in which he admits earning “the worst grades” in the class. But they fail to mention contradictory statements Hubbard made when it suited his needs.
Perhaps Hubbard’s most fantastic -- and easily disproved -- claims center on his military service.
Hubbard bragged that he was a top-flight naval officer in World War II, who commanded a squadron of fighting ships, was wounded in combat and was highly decorated.
But Navy and Veterans Administration records obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act reveal that his military performance was, at times, substandard.
The Navy documents variously describe him as a “garrulous” man who “tries to give impressions of his importance,” as being “not temperamentally fitted for independent command” and as “lacking in the essential qualities of judgment, leadership and cooperation. He acts without forethought as to probable results.”
Hubbard was relieved of command of two ships, including the PC 815, a submarine chaser docked along the Willamette River in Oregon. According to Navy records, here is what happened:
Just hours after motoring the PC 815 into the Pacific for a test cruise, Hubbard said he encountered two Japanese submarines. He dropped 37 depth charges during the 55 consecutive hours he said he monitored the subs, and summoned additional ships and aircraft into the fight.
He claimed to have so severely crippled the submarines that the only trace remaining of either was a thin carpet of oil on the ocean’s surface.
“This vessel wishes no credit for itself,” Hubbard stated in a report of the incident. “It was built to hunt submarines. Its people were trained to hunt submarines.”
And no credit Hubbard got.
“An analysis of all reports convinces me that there was no submarine in the area,” wrote the commander of the Northwest Sea Frontier after an investigation.
Hubbard next continued down the coast, where he anchored off the Coronado Islands just south of San Diego. To test his ship’s guns, he ordered target practice directed at the uninhabited Mexican islands, prompting the government of that neutral country to complain to U.S. officials.
A Navy board of inquiry determined that Hubbard had “disregarded orders” both by conducting gunnery practice and by anchoring in Mexican waters.
A letter of admonition was placed in Hubbard’s military file which stated “that more drastic disciplinary action ... would have been taken under normal and peacetime conditions.”
During his purportedly illustrious military career, Hubbard claimed to have been awarded at least 21 medals and decorations. But records state that he actually earned four during his Naval service: the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal, which was given to all wartime servicemen.
One of the medals to which Hubbard staked claim was the Purple Heart, bestowed upon wounded servicemen. Hubbard maintained that he was “crippled” and “blinded” in the war.
Early biographies issued by Scientology say that he was “flown home in the late spring of 1942 in the secretary of the Navy’s private plane as the first U.S.-returned casualty from the Far East.”
Thomas Moulton, second in command on PC 815, said Hubbard once told of being machine-gunned across the back near the Dutch East Indies.
On another occasion, Moulton testified during the 1984 Scientology lawsuit, Hubbard said his eyes had been damaged by the flash of a large-caliber gun. Hubbard himself, in a tape-recorded lecture, said his eyes were injured when he had “a bomb go off in my face.”
These injury claims are significant because Hubbard said he cured himself through techniques that would later form the tenets of Scientology and Dianetics.
Military records, however, reveal that he was never wounded or injured in combat, and was never awarded a Purple Heart.
In seeking disability money, Hubbard told military doctors that he had been “lamed” not by a bullet but by a chronic hip infection that set in after his transfer from the warm tropics of the Pacific to the icy winters of the East Coast, where he attended a Navy-sponsored school of military government.
Moreover, his eye problems did not result from an exploding bomb or the blinding flash of a gun. Rather, Hubbard said in military records, he contracted conjunctivitis from exposure to “excessive tropical sunlight.”
The truth is that Hubbard spent the last seven months of his active duty in a military hospital in Oakland, for treatment of a duodenal ulcer he developed while in the service.
Hubbard did, however, receive a monthly, 40% disability check from the government through at least 1980.
Government records also contradict Hubbard’s claim that he had fully regained his health by 1947 with the power of his mind and the techniques of his future religion.
Late that year, he wrote the government about having “long periods of moroseness” and “suicidal inclinations.” That was followed by a letter in 1948 to the chief of naval operations in which he described himself as “an invalid.”
And, during a 1951 examination by the Veterans Administration, he was still complaining of eye problems and a “boring-like pain” in his stomach, which he said had given him “continuous trouble” for eight years, especially when “under nervous stress.”
Significantly, that examination occurred after the publication of “Dianetics,” which promised a cure for the very ailments that plagued the author himself then and throughout his life, including allergies, arthritis, ulcers and heart problems.
In Hubbard’s defense, Scientology officials accuse others of distorting and misrepresenting his military glories.
They say the Navy “covered up” Hubbard’s sinking of the submarines either to avoid frightening the civilian population or because the commander who investigated the incident had earlier denied the existence of subs along the West Coast.
Moreover, church officials charge that records released by the military are not only grossly incomplete but perhaps were falsified to conceal Hubbard’s secret activities as an intelligence officer.
To support their point, a church official gave the Times an authentic-looking Navy document that purports to confirm some of Hubbard’s wartime claims. After examining the document, though, a spokesman for the Naval Military Personnel Command Center said its contents are not supported by Hubbard’s personnel record.
He declined further comment.
Hubbard’s biographical claims were not confined to the events of his adult life.
He claimed, for example, that as a youth he traveled extensively throughout Asia, studying at the feet of holy men who first kindled in him a burning fascination with the spirit of man.
“My basic ordination for religious work,” Hubbard once wrote, “was received from Mayo in the Western Hills of China when I was made a lama priest after a year as a neophyte.”
Hubbard did, in fact, tour China while his father was stationed in Guam with the Navy. However, a diary of that period makes no mention of his spiritual awakening. Rather, it portrays him as an intolerant young Westerner with little understanding of an unfamiliar culture or race.
He described the lama temples he toured as “very odd and heathenish.”
After visiting the Great Wall of China, Hubbard remarked: “If China turned it into a rolly coaster it could make millions of dollars every year.”
He described the “yellow races” as “simple and one-tracked.” Wrote Hubbard: “The trouble with China is there are too many chinks here.”
Hubbard also claimed that he spent many of his childhood years on a large cattle ranch in Montana, where he grew up.
“Long days were spent riding, breaking broncos, hunting coyote and taking his first steps as an explorer,” according to a Hubbard-approved biography issued by the church.
But Hubbard’s aunt laughed when asked whether he had been a pint-sized cowboy.
“We didn’t have a ranch,” said Margaret Roberts, 87, of Helena, Mont. “Just several acres (with) a barn on it. ... We had one cow (and) four or five horses.”
Hubbard’s biographical claims took center stage during the 1984 Superior Court lawsuit in which the church accused a former member of stealing the Scientology founder’s private papers. Ex-member Gerald Armstrong said he took the documents as protection against possible church harassment.
Judge Paul G. Breckenridge Jr. found in Armstrong’s favor and, in his ruling, issued a harsh assessment of the church’s revered leader.
“The evidence portrays a man who has been virtually a pathological liar when it comes to his history, background and achievements. ...”
“At the same time,” Breckenridge continued, “it appears that he is charismatic and highly capable of motivating, organizing, controlling, manipulating and inspiring his adherents.”
Hubbard, the judge said, was “a very complex person.”
The church and Hubbard’s widow, Mary Sue, have appealed Breckenridge’s decision, saying that it was based on “irrelevant, distorted and, in many instances, invented testimony” of embittered former Scientologists.
“Any controversy about him (Hubbard) is like a speck of dust on his shoes compared to the millions of people who loved and respected him,” a Scientology spokesman said. “What he has accomplished in the brief span of one lifetime will have impact on every man, woman and child for 10,000 years.”