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.