NHF Membership Spotlight: Meriwether Ball

Meriwether Ball at the June Annual Meeting at the Washington Navy Yard, DC (Photo by the author)

Meriwether Ball at the June Annual Meeting at the Washington Navy Yard, DC (Photo by the author)

By Matthew Eng

NHF Membership Spotlight
is a new segment for the Naval Historical Foundation blog where we showcase our loyal members. It’s important that we let our members know that they are as integral a part of naval history as the ships and sailors that continue to protect and serve today. If you are interested in becoming the next individual of our Membership Spotlight, please email Matthew Eng, NHF Digital Content Developer, at meng@navyhistory.org

Our first Membership Spotlight is for Mrs. Meriwether Ball, a recent member of the Foundation who took time out of her busy schedule to travel up to Washington from Portsmouth to attend the Annual Meeting this year. She became a member in May 2015.

Meriwether Ball: Lemonade from Lemons

Meriwether always knew how to make the best of a situation. She got some of that trait from her family’s experience in the U.S. Navy. Some of it came from her own time in the Naval Reserve in the late nineties. The Navy prides itself on honor, courage, and commitment. The same goes for Meriwether Ball, in good times and bad. She has always been one to make lemonade from lemons in her personal and professional life.

O. Talmadge Spence & Willette Spence (mother), Washington, D.C. Late 1945.

O. Talmadge Spence & Willette Spence (mother), Washington, D.C. Late 1945.

Meriwether grew up in the small NW DC suburb of Takoma Park, MD. She admitted that her childhood there was challenging. “DC was very stressful in the sixties and seventies,” she stated in her interview. Although the “Azalea City” grew to become a hotbed of social and political activism during that time, racial tension and economic disparities endemic to the greater DC metro area persisted. Traveling into the city was no different. Some of that social rigidity extended to the local military during a time when the public’s displeasure of America’s involvement in foreign wars reached fever pitch:

“I can recall seeing many uniformed sailors, soldiers and Marines being harassed the streets of D.C. on our countless journeys downtown during those war years. It had a huge heartbreaking impact on me and my childhood friends.”

Meriwether’s family history involved sea service long before she joined the Navy. In fact, Meriwether’s story begins with the Navy. Her parents met when her father was estimating contracts for the Hampton Roads-area naval bases and facilities as a mechanical engineer for Thurston’s Engineering in the 1950s and 1960s. Her parents briefly lived in Philadelphia before her father settled in as an Economist with the Department of Labor here in Washington, DC.

Her uncle, Dr. O. Talmadge Spence, was a petty officer assigned to USS Indianapolis during the Second World War. According to Meriwether, he was pulled off the ship for duty “literally moments before she sailed to her heartbreaking destiny.” He wrote a well-received short book, Saved by a Substitute, about his wartime experiences and the deep religious faith that came as a result of his “ merciful providence.” He was actively involved in the survivor’s association until his death in 2000.

Her family history was one of the deciding factors for her to serve herself. Meriwether entered the Navy Reserve in 1999 at 35 years old. To put it plainly, she was not your typical enlistee. Not only was she above the usual age of enlistment in the Navy, she was also a single mother with several years of experience in the field of journalism and writing. She enlisted as non-commissioned Public Affairs Officer (E-4). Weekends were spent out of the Quincy, MA and Newport RI USNR offices.

Meriwether Ball, 2000.

Meriwether Ball, 2000.

During her time in, she experienced everything from the daily activities aboard the carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) to “learning the incredible work the Navy does in Reykjavík, Iceland.” Unfortunately, an unforeseen circumstance involving round-the-clock medical care for her sick child did not meet the requirements of weekend drill. Family came first. She left the Navy with a General Under Honorable Conditions discharge, a decision she was contented to have made for her son. Although things did not work out as originally planned, she remembers her time in fondly years later. “Serving was a too-short yet pivotal season of my life.”

She came out the Navy a changed woman. Her brief career in the service helped with her other personal and professional pursuits as a writer and journalist.To Meriwether, the Navy was never a roadblock to her career – it served as a crucial stepping stone. “I learned that life takes unwanted turns at times,” said Meriwether. “I needed to learn to make lemonade from lemons.” It didn’t long for Meriwether to churn it out by the gallon.

Back in the civilian world, Meriwether continue to write feature stories as a correspondent for Associated Press-member newspapers in central Massachusetts and coastal Virginia where she lived with her son. Soon, her career in journalism and time in the military to intersect. “It created a call on my heart that I could not ignore then, nor now,” she said. Part of that defining moment came after reading a heartbreaking story published in the Marine Corps Times about former Marine Sergeant Major Michael Curtin, whose remains were found at Ground Zero after 9/11. Curtin, a Sergeant in the NYPD, died while attempting to rescue victims trapped in the World Trade Center. When I read it,” she said, “I marched the hardwood floors of my Massachusetts home with tears flowing like rainwater. This is my license!” It was. It was time for Meriwether to once again trust her instincts.

Using the support and guidance of her Uncle, a Marine Corps Captain, Meriwether began interacting with a local USMC Reserve Unit in town (3rd Battalion, 25th Marines). She began to write stories about the Marine Corps to local newspapers. Two months later, she developed, designed, and launched an online news outlet called Corps Stories. She remains the President and CEO to this day. Now a billion-readers-on, the 501 (c)3 organization remains a respected news source on Marine Corps matters. According to InternetLiveStates and Alexa web analytics, CorpsStories.com is in the top one percent of websites.

Meriwether is currently exploring a newfound love of being a book author. She felt the need to write about the extraordinary Marines and corpsmen she spent many years profiling. Most important, she wanted her new writing venture to specifically look at their home regions. Naturally, she focused in Virginia where she currently resides. The book series was both ambitious and intoxicating. “Dreaming up a 50-book series was the last thing I needed to add to my plate,” she admitted, “but like most calls on our hearts, it would not be ignored.” The first of three books on the subject, Puller Chronicles, discusses some amazing information about revered Marine Lewis “Chesty” Puller and his explorations into faith and family. She has also written a book about her experiences dealing with childhood-borne Post Traumatic Stress called Leaving Takoma Park under the pseudonym Eliza Goodwin. Both books are available on Amazon. Her upcoming original series Great Marines is expected to become available in mid-autumn of this year.

It is in this environment that Meriwether came to know about the Naval Historical Foundation. As a prospective member and budding author, she developed her interest in NHF after reading an edition of our monthly Naval History Book Reviews. As somebody who knows the value of time, she found that the relevancy of the Foundation to her own life and the personal care taken by staff members to her needs was a welcome surprise. “It was important that I would not feel lost in the shuffle,” she said.

Why is Naval History Important?

This is the question we will ask every NHF Member profiled in this series. It is important for members, readers, and prospective members to understand why these men and women help preserve naval history on a daily basis.

The Foundation’s member base included many extremely successful Navy officers and enlisted personnel. Not only by achieving high rank, but also by engaging in other passions and having those pursuits be of great importance to their community. So I personally am more connected those stories of Navy service than of event history.

What successes I have achieved by founding and maintaining CorpsStories, or by authoring books, which may inspire, has occurred only by my receiving great guidance. There are many young enterprising people in the Naval community who care deeply about the gains made by those who came before. Having my confidential advisors and Board members respond to my shaky questions and fearful dreams with stout support has made very tangible, unique visions come to be reality.

The NHF offers the wisdom of its supporters for our Navy’s current and future members. Additionally, former sailors and retirees, like me, are welcomed so graciously it’s very easy to feel useful and appreciated. At my first formal occasion, the annual member’s luncheon held at the Washington Navy Yard, not only was I incredibly impressed by the museum displays, but also my novice and armchair thoughts were welcomed. It does not get any better than that!

Special thanks to Meriwether for interviewing with me for this story. Semper Fi!

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An Early Warning in the Morning: The 2 July Navy Yard Incident

150702-N-ED767-103 WASHINGTON (July 2, 2015) Police officers walk past the Washington Navy Yard on M Street in response to a possible active shooter at the Navy Yard. (Oscar Sosa)

WASHINGTON (July 2, 2015) Police officers walk past the Washington Navy Yard on M Street in response to a possible active shooter at the Navy Yard. (Oscar Sosa)

By Matthew T. Eng

It was an early morning for me. Since the NHF moved into its temporary office location near the 11th and O St. entrance at the Washington Navy Yard, things had been quiet. The calm serenity of cubicle life seemed to fit me. Early mornings were for catching up with emails and writing copy on a number of blog stories I had in the backburner. I knew the day would be extra quiet, as it was the last day of work before the 4th of July holiday weekend. As a former government employee, I can attest to the idea that the day before a three-day weekend often stretched to four if possible.

As I sipped my coffee and mulled over some work items, I heard three dings on my cell phone in rapid succession. The time was 7:36am. It seemed a little early for a text message. With my wife on her way to work on the metro at that time, I highly doubted she needed me for anything. I looked over to my phone and saw it was a mass text email from the Navy. Odd. The first text messages received were almost cryptic. I learned from my experience going through several bad relationships that an all caps text message is never good:

Shelter in Place.


I walked over to Dr. Winkler, the only other NHF staff member yesterday morning, and inquired about the message. “It might be something with the weather,” he said to me. With all of the spontaneous thunderstorms in the area over the past week, the situation seemed likely. Then we started to hear the sirens. We looked at each other worryingly. We both looked our email inbox and saw what we feared. We were in a lockdown.

More sirens. Then came more text messages, several of which came from colleagues across the base asking if this was in fact real.

By the time I answered a few of them, Dave and I heard a knock on the door. A sailor from the NHHC front office upstairs directed us to the second floor where the rest of the buildings employees were located for the remainder of the situation. We dropped what we were doing and headed upstairs. At this point it all seemed real. We dropped what we were doing and joined the rest of the pre-holiday holdouts inside the Naval History and Heritage Command front office.

With so many people attempting to notify loved ones, cell phone coverage was spotty at best inside the room. I took a second to look around at the faces of the men and women crammed inside the office space with us. Some exhibited worry, while others showed the kind of calm resolved I attempted to paint on my face. After I reached my wife and family, I took to my phone to get some news. We all did. I overheard a lot of talk about the “last time this happened,” as there were several veterans of the 2013 incident. Eventually, the news started drifting in. The reports did not good. We could not see anything from our tiny building in the corner of the yard. The only thing that gave us any indication that we were in a serious situation was the sound of sirens and helicopters flying overhead. The sirens were constant.

News agencies began taking to social media. Reports were frequent, all of which had something different to say about the situation. The conversations that began when we first assembled slowly died off. We were not in prayer. We were all looking at our phones. We were looking for information. As the Digital Content Developer of the Foundation, I knew it would be best to monitor the situation as best as I could. Anything to occupy my mind was better than sitting there doing nothing.

shooting scare
At first there were reports of an active gunman. Nothing confirmed.

REFRESH the page.

Then there were reports of TWO gunmen inside the building. Nothing confirmed.

REFRESH the page.

I receive a text message around 8:30am of a confirmed shooter. Confirmed. Unconfirmed. Anxiety. Frustration.

REFRESH the page.

My fingers moved as fast as they could. The reports spread around the Internet reminded me of the fragile nature of social media and its power to inform and misinform the masses, whether it be intentional or not.

We stretched into the third hour of the lockdown. Roads were closed. We managed to stream CNN and saw M Street completely blocked with law enforcement and homeland security vehicles. Nothing confirmed still. Reports of confirmations an hour ago were now recanted. What was happening on the other side of the base? I sat there baffled. Which was it? Confirmed or unconfirmed. Were there two shooters or one? Was this all a false alarm? Two hours into the lockdown, nothing was firm as far as news information was concerned. The only thing we could rely on was that we were safe and secure inside our building. We only hope that courtesy was extended to everyone else at the Navy Yard.

I sat on a step leading up to a landing of cubicles in their front office and began to think about the situation I was in. All the page refreshing and texting took a toll on my slowly draining cell phone battery. Unfortunately, nobody in the room had a power cord for my phone model and my own was back downstairs in no man’s land. Either way, it was a good time to reflect.

This was the first time that I could literally see myself in headline news. I was there in the middle of it, albeit the very edge of the Washington Navy Yard. But I was there. It WAS happening. Certainly this scenario ran through my head almost two years ago when I came to interview for the position at the Foundation. I never thought it could happen again. I sat there on that step and thought about the times in the Navy’s history where these events had occurred. What if there were text message alerts to the men and women stationed at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th?   It’s easy to pontificate in today’s information age. History is what it was for its time period, plain and simple. I continued to occupy my mind

IMG_2724Eventually, it seemed that all the news outlets were singing the same tune. False Alarm. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Around 11:00, several of the surrounding buildings to ours began to release employees. Two NHHC employees who were locked inside the Dunkin Donuts across 11th street from us came in bearing gifts. I gratefully munched on my donut and waited patiently to go back to my office.

We received the official all clear at 12:03pm. In a time frame of four and a half hours, local police and law enforcement assessed and managed a potentially fatal situation. As it was, it all seemed a big misunderstanding. According to the official report, a call was placed at 7:29am for the possible sound of a gunshot near NAVSEA’s Building 197, the scene of the 2013 tragic shooting. After several hours of thorough searching, no evidence of a shooting or injured individuals were discovered. The only complications to the investigations were the reports of the Associated Press of two individuals jumping the fence of the Navy Yard around 9:20am. As DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier stated in the press conference, the various law enforcement agencies were “very well-prepared” for the situation. WNY employees are lucky to have avoided another situation, but are equally lucky to have such a well-prepared and effective force at the ready to protect us. The first responders and sailors who took control yesterday morning truly exemplify honor, courage, and commitment. BZ to you all.

Special thanks to the men and women of the Naval History and Heritage Command who hunkered down with Dave and I for a few hours on a Thursday morning, and for their sailors who took to protocol immediately.

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BOOK REVIEW – Defiant: The American POWs Who Endured Hanoi’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned

51NJoI4Z7UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_By Alvin Townley, Thomas Dunne Books and St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY (2014)

Reviewed by Captain Robert J. Naughton, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Defiant is an extremely accurate depiction of the miserable existence prisoners of the North Viet Nam (NVN) endured during the US war in Viet Nam. I know his description is accurate because I was held prisoner in NVN prison camps in and around Hanoi for almost six years, from May 1967 to March 1973. By choosing the 11 men held in the Hanoi prison camp called Alcatraz, Townley documents the worst of the worst torture and living conditions inflicted on the captured US airmen. The reader will learn about NVN short term torture methods of beatings and trussing a man up with ropes in way that pulls his joints apart but do not kill. The “Alcatraz 11” suffered many longer-term torture hardships from living conditions that defy the NVN claims of humane treatment of POWs. These men and others spent years in solitary confinement, months in leg stocks and tight hand cuffs, years in tiny cells without circulation and sunlight as well as constant harassment at quizzes (interrogations). A surprising revelation is the little known reason why American POWs were tortured. One would expect interrogation by captors to gain military information and intelligence that might aid the war effort. But that was not the case in NVN. The camp authority tortured to gain anti-war propaganda, confessions of war crimes, good treatment statements, betrayal of fellow POWs and, sometimes, just to be cruel.

Defiant provides insight into the motivational factors and resistance methods these men used to survive. Adherence to the spirit of the Code of Conduct as well as not letting your fellow POW down were constant driving forces for these men. Mutual support for each other became an attitude that permeated the NVN prisoner’s system. It was not unusual for one POW to risk torture in order to help a fellow yank. That support came in the form of having someone to say it is OK to make a confession when you can’t take the torture anymore, having someone to cry with when you feel low, having someone to make you laugh or having someone to pray with when all seems lost.

This book will give you a glimpse into the outstanding leadership demonstrated by the POW senior officers and CAG (Carrier Air Group Commander) Jim Stockdale in particular. Jim’s BACK US policy represents the best qualities of institutional values. Any CEO would be proud to have divined similar organizational rules. His BACK US acronym stood for:

Don’t Bow before cameras – avoid meeting foreign delegations

Stay off the Air-avoid talking on the camp radio

Keep Communications going-support each other and resist propaganda

Don’t Kiss them good bye-no good treatment statements when we go home-conveyed we are going home

And Unity before Self-also connotes we represent the United States

This policy was concise, memorable, spoke volumes about our mission. The policy stated the ideal and was a practical guide for conduct while we were imprisoned. And thanks to the internal communications effort every POW knew this policy and 99% of them tried to live by CAG’s guidance.

The book paints a little understood concept of prison camps. Namely “Who is controlling the camp? Is it the prisoners or the camp authority?” This struggle is the main reason there was an Alcatraz camp. Every test the POWs faced could be reduced to this conflict. Can the camp authority control your mind and will, or are you going to resist with all your strength? I’ll let the reader decide whose resolve prevailed.

A highlight of the book is the portrayal of the plight and strength of the POW’s wives. They suffered from their husband’s separation and from some of the ill-conceived policies of the US government. My wife raised our three boys by herself from ages one, two and three until I came home when the boys were eight, nine and ten. She did not know I was alive for two and one half years until I got to write a letter in December 1969. US policy changes that brought pressure on NVN were a direct result of the wives insistence that the truth be told. My wife was part of the movement to enlist support for our cause and headed a group called Iowans Care. She gave a lot of speeches around Iowa where she lived while I was in NVN. She was part of the National League but never held national office. I am proud of her actions as a wife, mother and spokesperson for our cause. Primarily due to the public awareness program of these brave women, the American populace demanded answers. This attitude hit the NVN government where it hurt because they thought they were fighting a propaganda war. But the wives turned the tables on them. These brave women did more than stand and wait.

Alvin Townley has done a remarkable job in portraying many aspects of the POW’s situation and capturing his resolve to return with honor. He has given a well-researched look into the hearts and minds of these men and their wives. Defiant will educate the serious military history student and the curious citizen. I believe it will also be an inspiration to many.


Captain Naughton served 26 years in the Navy including three commanding officer billets (VA 83, VA174 and NAS Dallas.)  After retiring from the Navy he spent 15 years with NASA running the Aircraft Operations at Johnson Space Center.


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BOOK REVIEW – Empire, Technology, and Seapower: Royal Navy Crisis in the Age of Palmerston

Fuller_Empire Technology and SeapowerBy Howard J. Fuller, Routledge, New York, NY (2013)

Reviewed by John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.

Howard Fuller’s work here has insights for naval thinkers and strategists today. It is a clearly revisionist work and he occasionally overstates his case particularly in the first “part” of the book. There are four parts encompassing an impressive thirty chapters plus a conclusion and introduction. However, it is a case that needs overstating, as Howard demonstrates.

In short, he challenges the idea of a confident Pax Britannica in the 19th Century based on British dominance at sea. Instead he posits, through the personality of the British politician Lord Palmerston, a façade of sea power covering over a kind of strategic angst, deeply felt and ingrained in the policies of the period. To some degree he is building, unintentionally perhaps, on the earlier three volume maritime meta-history of Peter Padfield that peeled back multiple layers to expose a far more complicated narrative of the relationship between maritime power, representative democracy, and the rise of market capitalism. Howard quotes fellow naval historian Jan Ruger to capture this relationship in his conclusions:

There is a curious relationship between the rise of this public stage and the decline of strategic influence and power. The weaker one’s own position seemed, the more intensive did the muscle-flexing, the projecting of empire and power, become. (246)

It is no accident that Fuller intends his readers (in English) to apply the object lesson provided by this book to the current American foreign and defense policy behaviors.

Fuller breaks his overall argument into four parts, thematic rather than chronological.   The first part consists of eight short, hard-hitting chapters that challenge both the efficacy, and the narrative of the efficacy, of the Royal Navy (RN) and Palmerston’s diplomacy of the period. The second part takes on the idea of the RN’s efficacy in more detail, looking at the Crimean and American Civil Wars against the back-drop of Anglo-French “balance of power.” (xi) Part III returns to the larger themes of strategy, grand strategy even, challenging Britain’s adoption of a policy of “Splendid Isolation” as something contingent rather than over-determined. (173) In Fuller’s view, was this policy decision really a matter of choice or was it a matter urgent necessity given the weakness of Britain’s position? Finally, the last part of the book consists of four short “chapters” and an equally short conclusion that returns to the idea of Britain as “paper tiger” rather than an “iron lion.” (xiii, 207) As Fuller plows through this rather cumbersome argumentative architecture, he not only challenges the notion of British Maritime Supremacy during this period (and after), but the entire notion of the efficacy of “command of the sea” itself. (249)

Returning to Part I, Fuller builds on his earlier work in Clad in Iron (2008), which one suspects led him onto the trail of what he now considers a false narrative of British Maritime triumph and confidence. In that book and here, Fuller describes the challenges faced by the RN that undermined the already shaky confidence of its leaders. He especially focuses on the up and coming commercial powerhouse of the United States, which chose an “anti-access” strategy of ironclad monitors to counter-balance the RN’s reputed superiority in its littoral waters. However, before getting to this and other “threats” that contributed to a British “uncertainty” in its sea power, he takes on the historiography of British maritime dominance in the 19th Century. His first, and most frequent, target is fellow naval historian Andrew Lambert, whom he practically accuses of historical malpractice in Part I of the book.

Again, Fuller overstates a case that needs overstating. This is because history and the collective attitudes about it are really a set of narratives, often not agreed upon, some more popular and widespread, others less in the limelight. The idea of the Pax Britannica and the rise of Britain to a secure maritime dominance is a very old and strong narrative indeed, old by modern standards, beginning with A.T. Mahan’s work in the late 19th Century. The problem as this reviewer sees it is that after the end of the Soviet-U.S. Cold War in 1989-1991 the public, such as it was interested in these matters, took a break from history, including maritime history.   When 9/11 brought history screaming back into people’s lives, maritime history remained the preserve of a special few naval historians and established narratives, when read, remained largely unchallenged in the larger public arena. However, with the rise of the People’s Republic of China this “holiday,” too, has ended. The problem is that the public, and many of the elites, have returned to the existing dominant narratives, which much new scholarship (like Fuller’s) has challenged. Fuller’s book is not so much for the public, as it is for historians and intellectuals, who must come to grip with its arguments and then go out revise what needs revising so that we may all move forward on as firm a base as possible. Fuller quotes, ironically, Andrew Lambert: “ ‘…a thorough understanding of the past is the best hope for the future.’ Exactly.” (33) Readers who wish to know why would do well to read this book.

The biggest drawback to the study is that it is a demanding read, even for a scholar.   Some scholars relish this sort of thing, but most people do not. One of my own rules states “never test the readers’ patience”—and this reviewer found both his concentration and patience tested. Part of the problem with Fuller’s approach has to do with the topic. It is a complex topic with a complex explanation. Fuller might have better “packaged” his narrative and arguments by combining some of the chapters and then providing tentative or initial conclusions, summaries and transitional language between the chapters. Too, he often uses asides to obscure events, assuming his reader is thoroughly informed of them. For example, his discussion of the capsize of the HMS Captain in 1870, (243) in his conclusions no less, was opaque to this reviewer, who had to research the event separately because of a lack of knowledge and no detailed discussion of the incident beyond its emphasis of the supporting argument that technology seemed to be leaving the Royal Navy, and thus Britain, in its wake.

That said, the applications to the United States supposed “maritime dominance” today and the strategy of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy of China in response make this book very relevant—but non-specialists may find the analogy too much work. Therefore, because of the book’s often dense text, I recommend this book primarily for naval historians and strategists. They will find it a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, read.


Dr. John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Chair for Historical Research at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He retired from the U.S. Navy 2004 at the rank of commander after 23 years of service as a naval flight officer in EP-3s and ES-3s. He authored Agents of Innovation (2008), A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century (2014), and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011. His latest book is Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns (2015, Praeger).

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BOOK REVIEW – 21st Century Sims

Armstrong_21st Centuary SimsEdited by Benjamin F. Armstrong, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2015)

Reviewed by Nathan D. Wells

In the evolution of the United States Navy from a small regional force to a capable global power between the later nineteenth century and the First World War, there are two Naval strategists that rank at the top: Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and William Sowden Sims.

Mahan called for the United States to follow Britain’s lead in constructing a modern fleet worthy of global strategy, whereas Sims stressed a climate of professionalism and open-minded thinking where effectiveness was measured foremost in combat performance, especially in effective gunnery. Both men also counted Theodore Roosevelt as a patron; unsurprising due to his interest in reforms and naval matters. Both naval officers are also enjoying a resurgence of interest in the last few years due to the centennials of the Great White Fleet and First World War, which saw the United States deploy a modern fleet in a global scale. Their resurgence is also thanks in no small part to Naval Officer and historian Benjamin Armstrong who has published compact volumes on both men; this being the second. Armstrong’s volume features several writings from the Admiral between 1906 and 1934. The final piece from a former subordinate dates from 1937, a year after Sims’ death.

Admiral William S. Sims is best remembered for turning the US Navy into a competent gunnery force. He also served as the senior Naval Officer in Europe during the First World War. Sims was as a product of the evolution of the US Navy throughout the nineteenth century. The American military was a step-child to that of her former colonial overlord Great Britain. This was advantageous for the Sea Services, as the Royal Navy and Marines were thoroughly professional forces. From the very beginning, the US Navy would be a much more professional organization than the militia-based Army. The nineteenth century would illustrate that while the Army might get funding; the Navy would often do more with less. The War of 1812 had illustrated that to effect; yet the century had seen very little real change, as the Spanish-American War showed. While the US Navy had demolished Spanish squadrons efficiently with a minimum of casualties, her gunnery was quite deficient. Had she faced a better foe at Manila Bay, Commodore Dewey’s force might have been shattered.

The Royal Navy faced much the same issue, albeit on a grand scale. On duty with the Asiatic Station, young Lieutenant Sims met Royal Navy Captain Percy Scott who was doing his utmost to improve the gunnery of the fleet that still ruled the waves. Early in Scott’s career he had been informed that “The chief things required in a man-of-war are smart men aloft, cleanliness of the ship, the men’s bedding and the boats. Her gunnery is quite a secondary thing.” This attitude had not changed in the ensuing decades. Sims had found a kindred spirit. When his letters to Washington on Scott’s gunnery improvements were ignored, the junior officer took an unprecedented step: he wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt. As a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and military reformer, Roosevelt had Sims recalled to Washington, promoted to Lieutenant Commander and appointed as the US Navy’s head of target practice. The US Navy soon matched British levels of gunnery, and then surpassed them. Sims’ career was on the rise, and his name was now circulated in corridors of power.

Not everyone in the naval or political hierarchy was an ally, however. The first chapter, “Professional Debate and Military Innovation” relates Sims’ debate with retired Admiral Alfred T. Mahan over the need for all-big gun capital ships, “Dreadnoughts.” Using the recent Japanese victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima (referred to as the Battle of the Japan Sea), Sims noted that, had American vessels been present at the battle, they would have been outmatched by the (British-designed) Japanese fleet. The second chapter, “a Proper Military Mindset” describes the type of officer that the Navy would require for service in the World War that the United States was soon to join. He recommended that training and professionalism was the key to distance the Navy from the era of “wooden ships and iron men.”

The third chapter “Preparing for Command and Preparing for War” begins the period when Sims had taken over at the Naval War College, and he relates how the Navy readied itself for the coming conflict by using Navy-Army football rivalry. For success “Efficient Material, Adequate Knowledge and Adequate Mental Training” are key to any chance of victory. In regards to individual officers, all “should be given the opportunity, either at the War College, or in War College Extensions, to study the art and practice of war.” Naval education beyond the Naval Academy and/or ROTC was paramount.

Chapters four and five, “The Forces of the Status Quo”, and “The Peace Dividend and the Professional,” respectively deal with the realities of drawing-down a military force when peace breaks out. The Washington Naval Conference added an extra element to this by restricting forces in the (vain) hope that it would prevent future wars of the Great War’s scale. As a gunnery officer, Sims was especially worried over the decade-long cessation of capital ship production, and the fact that his Navy still had no battle cruisers. There is some irony here in that while the two battle-cruisers in question, Lexington and Saratoga, would not join the fleet as designed, the resulting naval treaty opened a loophole in regards to aircraft carriers. The two large vessels would be converted into fleet carriers and help shape the war-winning strategy in the Pacific a generation later.

Chapter six, “A Century Old Promotion System,” calls for the updating of the method by which Naval officers earn promotions. Instead of simply using time in rank, a combination of merit and a board system should determine these rank increases. The method he describes would be adopted over the ensuing decades. The final chapter, “Mentorship from a Century Ago” uses the reminiscences of long-time colleague Captain Harry Baldridge to show how Sims shaped the Navy, and inspired those who would wield it in future conflicts.

This is a fine book overall. The major criticism that I have is that there are no illustrations; which would have been helpful to track the evolution of Sims and his Navy. I highly recommend the volume to anyone interested in the evolution of the modern US Navy, and Naval affairs in general.


Nathan D. Wells is an adjunct instructor of History at Quincy College in Quincy, Massachusetts.  

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BOOK REVIEW – 21st Century Ellis

Friendman_21st Century EllisEdited By B.A. Friedman, Naval Institute Press. Annapolis, MD (2015)

Reviewed by Nathan Albright

As part of the Naval Institute Press’ 21st Century series on notable naval thinkers, this book provides much of the body of work written by Marine Lieutenant Colonel “Pete” Ellis. Shortly after the Spanish-American War, Ellis enlisted with the Marines, and quickly rose through hard work and ambition from an enlisted private to a commissioned officer. With extensive experience as an adjunct for higher-ranking officers, he was eventually given a chance to study at the Naval War College. Later as an adjunct for the 4th Marine Brigade in World War I, he ran the brigade for its nominal commander. His postwar duty until his death was mostly overseas. His influential mentors included Marine Commandant William Biddle, his successor George Barnett, and noted Marine leader General John A. Lejeune. Despite his short life, his writings as a student in the Naval War College, as well as in in the Marine Corps Gazette, and his long essay Advanced Base Operations In Micronesia have been collected and lightly edited by B.A. Friedman in order to make them more accessible to contemporary readers.

This proves to be a short but essential work for those who are interested in the transition of Marines from snipers on-board naval ships to an amphibious assault force. As it happens, Ellis had experience in both aspects of the Marine mission. He gave insightful analysis about everything he witnessed, drawing parallels between the German prepared defenses in World War I and the sorts of defenses that could be made on various Pacific atolls, where the United States would defeat Japan in an island-hopping campaign. These insights turned Ellis into one of the 20th century’s most spectacular prophets. Ellis’ thinking was detailed enough that he was able to correctly predict the amount of Marines that it would take to seize a small island in the Pacific, an off-hand comment that betrays a mind of incredible depth and acuity.

In less than 150 pages, this book contains a biographical sketch of Ellis’ life, a substantial portion of all he wrote that has remained, including many of his student papers at the Naval War College, and a comment on his legacy and contemporary importance. To his credit, Friedman does not whitewash Ellis. This selection includes some of Ellis’ frankly racist comments about the Japanese and Pacific Islanders. Additionally, the book is blunt about Ellis’ struggle with PTSD in the aftermath of the horrors of World War I and also his ultimately unsuccessful battle with alcoholism that ended in a suspicious alcohol-induced death in the Japanese ruled Pacific Islands mandate that would become the battleground he prepared the United States for through his skillful analysis. Recognizing these flaws, though, does not in any way diminish the almost inconceivable practical intellect that Ellis brought to the Marine Corps and its mission. Ellis’ thoughts were wide-ranging and profound. Among his substantial achievements was the role he had in pointing the Marines towards developing unparalleled expertise in amphibious assault that would secure the survival and reputation of the Marine Corps during a time of transition. His observant eye and ability to synthesize his observations and experience and his ability to distill these thoughts into blunt, straightforward, and sound recommendations make him a continued guide for the conflicts and threats envisioned by contemporary military strategists.

Among the more striking aspects of Ellis’ thought was his encyclopedic knowledge of the multifarious aspects of military experience. His grasp of strategy, operations, and tactics allowed him to carve out for the Marines a useful purpose and provide the blueprint for American victory against Japan. He pondered the placement and logistical requirements of bases, analyzed anti-guerrilla tactics not only for military effectiveness but also for the morale of American troops and the front of the hearts and minds of the local population. He examined the importance of diplomacy in dealing with coalitions and also challenges involving combined arms. He had a sophisticated understanding of human as well as geographical terrain and its influence on the conduct of warfare, and provided insights that would have greatly helped American conduct in Vietnam and Iraq, among other places. Although he was clearly a man of his time when it came to racial views, and his exasperated comments about American and local politics, as well as his conception of technology, his writing was clearly far beyond its time in terms of its thoughtfulness and its combination of a wide range of military factors subordinated to clearly defined mission objectives.

This volume should make the task of reading Ellis’ profound strategic and operational thinking far easier for students and researchers of naval history and thought as well as intellectually inclined Marine and naval officers. In bringing the unjustly neglected writings of “Pete” Ellis in a single accessible and concise volume, Friedman makes Ellis’ thinking come alive again to prove its worth in our contemporary geopolitical situation, especially in the Pacific. While the editor thoughtfully places Ellis in the context of thinkers such as Mahan, Corbett, and Clausewitz, his work should also serve to give Ellis his proper place as a notable military thinker. It is not unreasonable to expect that this book will help make Ellis a required reading for Marines wishing to gain a greater understanding of service history as well as operational thinking and behavior towards local inhabitants during military campaigns. The lessons provided in this book remain in use, and the book will be of interest far beyond the Marine Corps to the wider naval historical audience as a whole both for its historical and for its strategic value.

A frequent contributor to Naval History Book Reviews, Nathan Albright lives in Portland, Oregon.

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BOOK REVIEW – Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond

51WxcTa+HIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_By Robert E. Curtis, Casemate Publishers, (2014)

Reviewed by Thomas Ostrom

In his 24 years in the service, Major Robert F. Curtis flew helicopters for the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Kentucky National Guard. Curtis flew in the United States, Britain (with the Royal Navy), Norway, and Vietnam from shore bases and the rolling decks of naval vessels.

Major Curtis did basic training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. He was a Warrant Officer Candidate at Ft. Wolters, Texas in 1969 and later flew a CH-47C in Vietnam in 1971. His Vietnam missions included delivering fuel and water in hanging bladders beneath the helicopter to American camps, enduring battle damage to his helicopter windshield, carrying artillery ammunition to fortified bases, gunship patrols, and flying over a fire support base in northern South Vietnam in landing zones that had been cleared with napalm bombs.

Curtis flew wooden and steel bladed rotor-wing helicopters, including the OH-13E, Chinook, Sea King, Sea Knight, and other models. Curtis explained the complex technologies and skill involved in helicopter aviation, and attributed good training, professional colleagues (including mechanics), and “luck and superstition” that kept him alive. Fifty of his aviator colleagues died in accidents and combat. More than 40% of the U.S. helicopters sent to Vietnam met destruction in accidents and combat.

The author’s time in Vietnam was action packed, flying over the DMZ, the Laotian border and Khe Sanh. During his time there, he heard NVA radar and radio signals, dodged enemy ordnance, and survived an enemy round through the helo windshield. Curtis also described the blood wounds he received when his Chinook and crew were shot down and the helicopter rescue that followed.

The danger of flying the aerodynamically complex helicopters in all kinds of rapid changing weather conditions and varied topographies required courage and skill. Curtis flew training, transportation, supply, and combat missions in climate regions from the Southeast Asian tropics to the storms, highlands, and ice of the Arctic.

Curtis exhibited drive, determination, eclectic interests and intelligence in life that included earning a BA degree from the University of Kentucky, Master’s Degree from Webster University, and duty at the Naval Air Systems Command in Washington, D.C. Major Curtis completed his distinguished career with 23 Air Medals, a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Distinguished Flying Cross.

Because this reviewer has written books about United States Coast Guard missions in the Polar Arctic, Greenland, and on Bering Sea patrols during World War II, I was interested in his descriptions of the challenges then Captain Curtis faced in Arctic Norway in January-March of 1984-1985.

Curtis described his time as a U.S. exchange officer in Britain, flying on and off British ships in the North Sea, and the hazardous weather of northern Europe. The descriptions of aircraft icing, snow-blind flying, locating a ship landing deck in icy fog and snow, watching gauges and calculating fuel supplies, flying West into the prevailing Westerly winds over the North Sea in trips back to the United Kingdom, were frightening to read about, let alone experience. The author reminisced about his aviator colleagues who died in their helos in combat, bad weather, and accidents.

As a Washington bureaucrat, Curtis had occasion to visit the Vietnam Memorial in 1989. Curtis became emotional as he located the names of deceased colleagues. “My Vietnam War friends on the wall,” Curtis concluded, “are still in their late teens, twenties…and thirties…and are still alive in my mind, just like they were in 1971.”

In 1992, Major Curtis retired from the military, “…surprised to still be alive.”


Thomas P. Ostrom, former member of the USCGR, and author of several USCG histories that include joint missions with the other U.S. Armed Forces.

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BOOK REVIEW – Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography: A Biography, 1806-1873

Grady_Matthew Fontaine MauryBy John Grady, McFarland, Jefferson, NC (2015)

Reviewed by Ingo Heidbrink, Ph.D.

While Matthew Fontaine Maury is without a doubt well known among historians of science and in particular historians of oceanography, the general public might not know his name. Many naval historians will not have a real idea about the man who is often credited as the “Father of Oceanography.” John Grady’s new biography of Maury not only helps provide Maury with well-deserved recognition as a leading oceanographer of the 19th century and an American and Confederate naval officer, but also as a publicist and advocate for the Confederate cause. He is the man behind the idea to re-settle the slaves of the South to the Brazilian Amazon region. He was also a private person who experienced a number of ups and downs throughout his life.

With most facts about Maury’s life already included in earlier biographies, notably those published in the 1960s, Grady’s main achievement is not so much unearthing new details about Maury, but combining existing details into a coherent story. Maury followed his scientific and professional visions and ideas throughout his whole life despite of a number of substantial setbacks, obstacles and disappointments. He also used the media in a way easily comparable to today’s blogging and use of social media. In doing so, Grady helps today’s readers understand that scientists of the 19th century could be equally interested in influencing the public opinion as some scientists of today, regardless if you agree with the idea of a scientist as a public advocate for certain political causes. While some of Maury’s ideas might seem today up to a certain degree bizarre, like for example his idea of re-settling slaves to the Amazon, Grady puts them into a contemporary context and more importantly, tells the story that these ideas never distracted Maury from his main idea to combine the knowledge of all seafarers into a body of knowledge on oceanographic topics available to all seafarers, or to use modern terminology to develop a method of crowd-sourced oceanography. Besides these achievements, Grady successfully manages to bring a historical person again to life with his book never becoming a dry scholarly read, but always remaining a book that has all the qualities of a good read. It is a book you would also read for its qualities as a well-written story even if you might not be interested in the history of oceanography.

The substantial bibliography included in Grady’s book does not only easily demonstrate that the book is based on solid research and knowledge of the wider historical framework, but is also a most helpful tool for anybody interested in naval history and/or history of oceanography during the 19th century. You might have wished for some more illustrations, in particular of the various charts produced by Maury over his whole career, reproductions of his scientific works, etc. Given the fact that the book is available for a reasonable price, this does not limit the positive impression of the book at all. Providing an index would have substantially improved the quality and usability of the book as a scholarly publication.

In the end, Grady’s new biography on Matthew Fontaine Maury, one of the most important marine scientists of the 19th century, needs to be recommended to all readers either interested in the history of science, the nexus between the navy and oceanographic research, or even only the maritime aspects of the Civil War.

Without any doubt, Grady needs to be credited for bringing one of the most interesting naval officers of the 19th century back to center-stage and for writing a book that is simply an enjoyable read.


Dr. Heidbrink is a maritime history professor at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Ship of the Line: A History in Ship Models

Lavery_The Ship of the LineBy Brian Lavery. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, Yorkshire, U.K. (2014)

Reviewed by John R. Satterfield, DBA

This slim, nicely illustrated volume by Brian Lavery, Curator Emeritus of the U.K.’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and one of the world’s most respected naval historians, describes the evolution of the ship of the line in the age of sail.

Since this epoch of naval history is not second nature to most (a sin in the eyes of this reviewer), some explanation is probably in order.

War at sea is as old as human kind. Ancient societies with access to oceans competed for control of maritime trade routes and developed warships to gain and maintain that control. The Battle of Salamis, fought in the 5th century BCE near Athens between the Greek city states and the Persian Empire was the largest naval engagement ever fought in terms of lives lost. Both sides used a type of galley known as triremes, long, narrow-beamed vessels with tiers or oarsmen who rowed in unison to propel the ship, equipped with a ram on the prow, into the enemy. Crewmen on the trireme’s main deck fought like infantry once in contact with enemy vessels. Large fleets of opposing ships fought in melees.

This mode of fighting continued for two millennia. The last major battle fought between rowed galleys was in 1571 at Lepanto, just 100 miles from Salamis in the Gulf of Corninth. Fought between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire, the battle involved cannon fire as well as small arms and larger ships, known as galleasses, that carried cannons mounted broadside as well as fore and aft. Improvements in casting technology and material greatly improved cannon reliability and enabled far larger and heavier weapons, signaling the galley’s demise as a viable combat platform.

English warship development reflected the Mediterranean approach. In addition to galleys, other English naval vessels often were converted cogs, broad-beamed and flat-bottomed, with a single mast and square-rigged sail used for maritime transport. They carried troops across the Channel during the 100 Years War and added cannons in the 15th century. By the early 16th century, the advent of the gun port ended the restriction of cannons mounted fore and aft, and larger warships, capable of carrying dozens of guns and propelled by square-rigged sails on multiple masts, came to the fore. The Mary Rose, raised from the Solent near Portsmouth and on display in that city’s Historical Dockyards, carried about 90 guns at the time of her sinking in 1545.

Even with guns installed broadside, however, the battle line tactic, with ships sailing in line ahead and firing guns in sequence at an enemy fleet, frequently at ranges of a quarter mile or less, would not be codified in formal fighting instructions until the mid-17th century during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Thereafter, the Royal Navy adhered so stringently to the battle line that Vice Admiral John Byng was executed by firing squad in 1757 for failing to direct his fleet to close successfully with the French off Minorca. With improvements in signals (transmitted by flag hoists), commanders gained flexibility in fleet disposition and officers, Horatio Nelson most notably, won major victories by departing from the line of battle tactic and taking full advantage of individual circumstances during engagements.

Ship models, the real focus of Lavery’s book, were indispensable tools in the development of naval architecture from the 16th through the early 19th centuries. They served two important purposes; as ship design and planning became more sophisticated, models assisted shipwrights in the manufacturing process in government and commercial dockyards, both of which produced naval ships. In addition, models helped members of Parliament, who often were reluctant to provide funding for ship orders known as Establishments over the years, to understand what their appropriations were purchasing and how more advanced hull designs improved maneuverability and fighting capabilities.

These requirements resulted in extraordinarily detailed – and beautiful – models, many of which, known as “Navy Board” models deliberately omitted planking so observers could study the structures of hulls. Other models were constructed from solid blocks of wood or fully planked over accurately rendered frames. In some cases, combinations of these techniques are utilized.

The book feature a number of full-color photos of the models Lavery’s history describes. Many of the early models remained property of the Royal Family or the Admiralty, and nearly all of these are now on display in museums and libraries around the U.K. In one case, however, a wealthy American railroad executive, Henry Huddleston Rogers, purchased a large private collection owned by Charles Sergison, a naval administrator who served the Royal Navy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a generation after Samuel Pepys. That collection, with many other models, now resides in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis. The museum completed a major renovation in 2009, and is open to the public.

Although it’s a bit pricey, The Ship of the Line will please anyone interested in the history of classic warships.


Dr. Satterfield teaches military history and proudly displays a fully rigged model of HMS Victory at home.

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NHF Building 57 Office Move

Beginning this week, the Naval Historical Foundation is temporarily moving its office from Building 57 to a new swing space located on the first floor of Building 218. The office space will also be shared with some members of the Naval History and Heritage Command (2nd Floor) and currently houses Navy Federal Credit Union (First Floor) and NAVSUPSALV. The building is located near the 11th and O Street Gate/Visitor Center inside the Washington Navy Yard. This move is prompted by a NAVFAC renovation project affecting the Building 57. For our offices on the first floor, we will likely be housed in our temporary space for a period between six months and one year.

Building 218, WNY

Building 218, WNY

We will be moving boxes and computers during the week of 22 JUNE 2015. The NHF Office is likely to resume day-to-day operations in building 218 on Wednesday, 1 JULY 2015. Once back online, our normal email operations and phone numbers will remain the same. For any questions, please contact nhfwny@navyhistory.org. Thank you for your patience during this process.

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A Tribute to My Father (In-Law): CDR John Harrison, USN (Ret.)

Angela Harrison Eng, Anne Harrison, and John Harrison at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC

Angela Harrison, Anne Harrison, and John Harrison at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC (2015)

By Matthew T. Eng

I was not born into a Navy family. Thankfully, one adopted me several years ago.

Although I have dedicated a third of my life to the study of the United States Navy, my personal connection to it outside of work was minimal. To be fair, I did have SOME family members who served in the Navy (I can remember a tiger cruise aboard USS George Washington with my uncle in the early nineties). Yet it was the deeply personal and daily connection I craved with the service I grew to love and admire. For a while, I thought I would remain on the other side of the glass, wistfully looking at others who shared their connection of the Navy’s rich heritage and traditions with loved ones. I prepared myself to become a bachelor of naval history in every sense of the word.

That is until I met my wife Angela Harrison back in 2010. We met at a conference in St. Louis even though we lived only minutes apart back in the Hampton Roads area. It was a match made in Heaven…well almost. I remember telling her about the historical significance of the Eads Bridge to the Civil War in one of the first conversations outside of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown St. Louis. Apparently this was not what should be said to gain the attention of a lady. Regardless of my awkwardly pitiful way of getting her attention, she eventually bought it, and I am eternally grateful for that. As an added bonus to the full package that was my future wife, her father had served in the United States Navy for over twenty years.


We both came back to Virginia Beach after the conference and began our relationship. It would only take me three weeks before I met her father for the first time. “Don’t take offense to anything he says,” she told me in the car going over to her parents’ house, “he likes to rip on people.” That first encounter did find me at the butt end of several jokes, but I survived. I knew Angela had to get her impeccable wit and charm from somebody. Over the course of the years that followed, I have come to love and admire my father-in-law, John Harrison, both for his service and dedication to this country and to his willingness to indulge my obsession with his former employer. Sometimes I call him John. Other people know him as Commander John Harrison, USN (Ret.).

In honor of today’s unofficial holiday, I wanted to write about my father-in-law and his time in the Navy. I enlisted (pun intended) the help of John’s friends and family to come up with my own unofficial history of CDR John Harrison and his impact on naval history during the late Cold War era. His story, like that of countless other fathers who have served or are currently serving in the United States Navy, is woven into the very fabric of the Navy’s ongoing narrative. Each story is equally important. This is John’s story.

Navy Tartans and White Sand Beaches: CDR John Harrison, USN (Ret.)

John Joseph Harrison was born on 24 January 1947 in St. Louis, MO. He grew up in Webster Groves, a suburb of the city. After spending several years at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, John got his draft notice. It was 1969, a benchmark year for the Selective Service System which planned to hold two draft lotteries in December. John graduated from Bradley that year and chose to cut out the middleman and join the United States Navy. Like most recruits from the land-locked Midwest, the allure of the open ocean seemed much more appealing as a choice. After some time training in San Diego, John did well on his tests and chose the rating of a Cryptologic Technician (CT). He then began training down in Pensacola to work in the now-defunct Naval Security Group (NAVSECGRU), one of the predecessors to today’s Naval Network Warfare Command (NETWARCOM).

The Naval Security Group was tasked with gathering intelligence and signals using methods of cryptology and information assurance. To a fast-thinking guy like John, it seemed like the perfect fit. In 1970, Seaman Harrison left the states and was sent to RAF Edzell in Scotland at the foot of the Highlands. RAF Edzell, in command of the United States Navy since February 1960, was chosen as a premier location for a newly established Naval Security Group Unit set up to monitor their Cold War adversaries using the Navy’s global High Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) network and CEW Radar Station in nearby Inverbervie. He met his wife in Edzell, Anne, and was married in 1971. The encounter must have been fate. Why else would two meet and fall in love at a meeting for a skiing club IN SCOTLAND.

John in Newport, RI, 1972

John in Newport, RI, 1972

Later that year, John was chosen for Officer Candidate School and arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in early 1972. He was sent to Pensacola again in the summer of 1972 after receiving his commission as an Ensign to get further training in naval intelligence. By the end of the summer, his wife was pregnant with their first child and they were now stationed at Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMMSTA) in Honolulu, Hawaii (now NAVCAMS EASTPAC), working mostly at Pearl Harbor. In the several years the young Harrison family was in Hawaii, they had their son, Kevin, and he was promoted to a LTJG. I can recall several stories of both Anne and John recalling a fondness for their time in Hawaii – Pineapple fields, lush white sand beaches, and a once in a lifetime appearance on a Hawaii Game Show (The Diamond Head Game). In the hot summer months of the swamp town my wife and I currently reside in, the pleasantly cool trade winds of Hawaii seem a dream away.

By 1976, LTJG Harrison could no longer avoid going to sea. He was assigned to USS Forrestal (CV 59) at an interesting time in her career. Recently designated as a “multi-purpose aircraft carrier,” Forrestal shifted her focus from her former designation as an attack aircraft carrier. LTJG Harrison served aboard the Forrestal when then President Gerald Ford visited her during America’s bicentennial. The ship changed their homeport to Mayport, Florida, during a nine-month overhaul. He visited as often as he could. One particular visit that year only lasted twelve hours. John was on the ship when an A-7 Corsair II from VA-81 crashed on the flight deck in January 1978, killing two deck crewman and injuring 10 others. Wife Anne recalls the event:

“It was Super Bowl Sunday. Families were called on the phone to let them know that their sailor was okay. They didn’t want them to find out about it firsthand from the television news. I can remember John telling me it was frightening to hear General Quarters call that it “was not a drill.” He said it was awful – blood donors were requested shortly after the accident. Thank God they were not far off the coast of Virginia.”

He also was onboard her (in what proved to be an unlucky year for Forrestal) when the rash of fires broke out in the spring of that year. Unlike the larger fire from the previous decade, these were put out “within seconds.” Thankfully, it was events like the disaster in 1967 that made sailors more equipped for firefighting and damage control.

There were also some amusing times aboard the carrier. One of the more amusing stories John once told me when Angela and I were dating involved payroll and a prospective car purchase:

“I can remember one time when a few of the Forrestal’s sailors stole the payroll the night before payday on the ship. Back then sailors were paid with cold hard cash. I had just finished my watch when it happened. The two sailors were later caught attempting to buy a car with the cash they had stolen!”

While on a Med Cruise in 1978, John received orders back to RAF Edzell. By then, it had been almost seven years since his wife had been back to Scotland. It was surely a welcome surprise for the family. By 1980, John was promoted to LCDR. A few months later, my wife Angela was born in Forfar, Angus.

Two years later, John was once again up for orders. He was invited to dinner by the base detailer who asked if he had ever been to Washington, D.C. Other than a school field trip, neither him nor his family had visited the Nation’s Capitol. Although he was sure to begrudgingly get his orders there, he was instead transferred to GCHQ in Cheltenham, England, a place that one historian called “Britain’s most secret intelligence agency.” Anne recalls the event as a “big sigh of relief” for his young family.

mount whitney
Cheltenham was an interesting duty station for the Harrison family. During his time there, LCDR Harrison was able to tour several English bases. He even had a chance to live aboard a submarine for several days. By 1985, it was time for the family of four to return stateside, this time in Virginia Beach, VA. LCDR Harrison was assigned to the Second Fleet Staff on USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), the flagship of the fleet. He also spent some time aboard USS Saipan (LHA 2), also homeported in Norfolk. His long-time friend Tony Morgan was a young ensign assigned to John’s wardroom aboard USS Saipan. He recalled during a phone interview the first time he met John in the mid-1980s. John thought his new roommate was actually dead the first few days they lived together because Tony “was always dead asleep” when John got off after his watches. In reality, Tony was a fresh Ensign unaccustomed to life aboard a ship. The seasickness made him tired, which John was unaware of. It is a amusing story John told at his retirement several years later. “If he started to smell,” John mused, “I was going to have to call somebody.”

John Harrison at OCS, 1972

John Harrison at OCS, 1972

His cruises stretched to weeks instead of months. Angela and Kevin were fortunate enough to be part of a Navy family that operated in close proximity, a reality the majority of Navy families today are not afforded. For that, they have always been thankful.

My wife does not remember much of John’s career during that time. “To be honest,” she told me, “a lot of what dad did was secretive so I only saw it as a ‘a job’ as a young kid rather than actual military service.” One thing she will never forget from that time in her life was the smell of the ship he always carried home:

“I remember when I was a kid my dad I would run to and hug my dad when he came home from work. He would always have that weird ship’s smell on it, that reminds me of a combination of tar, oil, and asphalt. I can still smell it if I think about it. It’s funny how I almost miss it now.”

John’s final duty station was at CSGLANTFLT at Naval Station Norfolk. While there, he was promoted to CDR. CDR John Harrison retired from the Navy in 1991 after 22 years of service. The family stayed in Virginia Beach. He went on to work as a contractor for the Navy for the next two decades until his official retirement the weekend of his daughter’s wedding – my own unofficial adoption date. He has now traded his Navy dress whites and medals for golf shirts and his grandchildren’s diapers. He thoroughly enjoys his well-deserved retirement playing golf, traveling, and taking care of his three beautiful grandchildren. There is no medal for becoming “grandpa,” yet he still wears it on his face with as much pride and satisfaction as the ones he earned in service of our country. He is an avid follower of the Naval Historical Foundation, which I am more than proud to admit.

So, here’s to John Harrison and all those out there who find the courage and sacrifice to hold the greatest rank of all: Dad. Thanks for adopting me.

Happy Father’s Day.

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A Game of Inches – Navy Intelligence Highlighted at 73rd Midway Celebration Dinner

Admiral John Richardson, USN addresses crowd at Midway Dinner (NHF Photo)

Admiral John Richardson, USN addresses crowd at Midway Dinner (NHF Photo)

VIPs, invited guests, active duty military, and veterans braved torrential downpours last Thursday to attend the annual Battle of Midway Celebration Dinner at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, VA. This year marks the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the pivotal World War II battle that changed the face of the Pacific Theater. The commemoration has been a major highlight for the Navy community since former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson signed a 1999 message to commemorate both the 13 October Navy Birthday and the Battle of Midway. Since then, a core group of dedicated Navy and Marine Corps heritage organizations have worked tirelessly to put on a celebratory dinner to honor the men who fought and died there over seventy years ago. It was truly one of the greatest gambles in naval history that may have gone differently had Admiral Nimitz decided to disregard his naval intelligence at Pearl Harbor, which was the theme of the dinner.

Admiral John Richardson, USN poses with Midway veterans, L to R:  Joe Miller, Hank Kudzik, Bill Fentress, Bill Norberg, Jack Crawford (USS Yorktown), and Earl Anderson (USS Yorktown). (NHF Photo)

Admiral John Richardson, USN poses with Midway veterans, L to R: Joe Miller (USS Hornet), Hank Kudzik (USS Nautilus), Bill Fentress (USS Yorktown), Bill Norberg (USS Enterprise), Jack Crawford (USS Yorktown), and Earl Anderson (USS Yorktown). (NHF Photo)

The weather did not dampen the spirits of dinner attendees, even if their clothing was. Many took advantage of the period before the dinner began to share a drink with old friends and shipmates. Some had the pleasure of talking to one or more of the six Midway veterans who were the guests of honor for the evening.

It was a special evening to recognize the efforts and sacrifice of each veteran. “Midway is something we all need to remember and remind ourselves,” said emcee RADM James A. Robb, USN (Ret.) to open the evening’s main festivities. The Naval Historical Foundation honored the life and legacy of CDR William Roy, USN (Ret.), who died earlier this year at the age of 95 in Lake City, Florida. The video tribute debuted during the dinner last Thursday. You can see the brief video below:

The Chief of Naval Operations tradition of supporting the Battle of Midway Celebration dinner continued this year. Naval Reactors Director Admiral John Richardson, USN, attended the dinner on behalf of CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert. Richardson, himself a career submariner, opened his brief introduction to the evening’s speaker with a brief historical retrospective of Nautilus’s (SS 168) engagement with the Japanese fleet at Midway. Admiral Richardson compared the engagement between Nautilus and the battleship Kirishima as a “knife fight between two ships.” It was a refreshing reminder to many that submarine and surface forces also played a pivotal role in the battle. “It boils down to one submarine doing what they’re paid to do.”

Author Elliot Carlson talked about U.S. Navy codebreaking efforts at the Battle of Midway. INHF Photo)

Author Elliot Carlson talked about U.S. Navy codebreaking efforts at the Battle of Midway. INHF Photo)

Although Admiral Richardson claimed to be only an amateur historian at heart, he framed the history and context of the battle well. “It’s one of my favorite times of the year,” he said in his introduction to the main speaker. “Every time it’s the beginning of June, I begin to get in the mood for Midway.” He went on to describe how the Battle of Midway was truly “a game of inches.” Each turn in the battle added slowly to the decisive victory at Midway. With the two Task Forces split apart during the battle, things were often disconnected and uncertain. Richardson believed that the men who bravely faced the enemy amidst the mounting uncertainty won the battle. The sailors on ships like Yorktown (and their damage control efforts) were an “example of people just doing their best [. . .] that takes perseverance and determination.” None of this, of course, would have been possible if it wasn’t for the efforts of cryptanalysts and cryptographers at Station HYPO in Pearl Harbor.

JN-25B worksheet from Station HYPO (Carlson)

JN-25B worksheet from Station HYPO (Carlson)

The highlight of the evening was Elliot Carlson’s keynote address about U.S. Navy codebreaking and the Battle of Midway. Carlson, a long-time journalist for several well-known newspapers and magazines around the country, has kept an interest in the Pacific War since the early 1960s. That interest propelled him to write the award-winning book, Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamato at Midway. Rochefort was the primary subject of his informative talk. He identified Midway as one of two major battles during the Second World War whose outcome was directly tied to Allied codebreaking. Carlson went on to talk about LCDR Joseph Rochefort, a rather “unusual officer” whose career path was as jumbled as the code he would eventually decipher at Pearl Harbor. Eventually Rochefort would rise in the ranks and good graces of men like Chester Nimitz, who grew to trust the intelligence fed to him regularly by Rochefort from Station HYPO, a drab basement located in an administrative building. Eventually, Rochefort and his team would push through the pain and frustration of twenty-hour days to eventually break the coveted Japanese JN-25 code, thus ensuring the element of surprise at Midway. Carlson noted the “excruciating mental effort” needed to break the code, which surprisingly was done by pen and paper, not machine like the German Enigma Code. That herculean effort eventually trickled down to every man serving off Midway on 4 June.

Carlson’s lecture confirmed Admiral Richardson’s comparison of the battle to a “game of inches.” Indeed, the heroism and sacrifice of the men we honor each year are literally the measuring stick of success for all servicemen and women today.


A Special Thanks to the Dinner Organization Committee for putting on another great event: Association of Naval Aviation, Association of the United States Navy, Naval Historical Foundation, Naval Order of the United States, Navy League of the United States, Naval Submarine League, Surface Navy Association, Tailhook Association, United States Naval Institute, United States Navy Memorial Foundation

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2015 Beach Award Winners Chronicle Battle off Samar

Midshipman First Class Philip Youngberg (left) and Midshipman First Class Dana Petersen (Right) pose for pictures with Mrs. Ingrid Beach at the 2015 Awards Ceremony.

Midshipman First Class Philip Youngberg (left) and Midshipman First Class Dana Petersen (Right) pose for pictures with Mrs. Ingrid Beach at the 2015 Awards Ceremony.

Executive Director Captain Todd Creekman joined Ingrid Beach, wife of the late Captain Edward L. Beach, Jr., a naval historian, author, and long-time NHF board member, to present Midshipman Dana Petersen and Midshipman Philip Youngberg with the Captain Edward L. Beach, Jr. Naval History Award at the United States Naval Academy’s annual History Department Awards Ceremony.

Petersen and Youngberg were two of twelve First Class Midshipmen to visit the Taffy 3 70th Reunion in San Diego, CA in October of last year. They were present to interact with survivors of the epic Battle off Samar during the Leyte Gulf campaign in October 1944 and record the veterans’ histories of service during the Second World War. For three days, more than two dozen veterans provided oral histories of their involvement in Taffy 3. The thirteen ships comprising Taffy 3, also known as Escort Carrier Task Force 77.4.3, are best known for their engagement with the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Center Force when their audacity turned back the Japanese battleships and preserved the landing forces.

LCDR Tom Cutler, USN (Ret.), U.S. Naval Institute; CAPT Todd Creekman, USN (Ret.), NHF; Mrs. Ingrid Beach; Midshipman First Class Philip Youngberg; Midshipman First Class Dana Petersen; CAPT Craig Felker, USN, History Department Chairman; COL Paul Montanus, Humanities and Social Sciences Division Director; Dr. Andrew Phillips, Academic Dean

LCDR Tom Cutler, USN (Ret.), U.S. Naval Institute; CAPT Todd Creekman, USN (Ret.), NHF; Mrs. Ingrid Beach; Midshipman First Class Philip Youngberg; Midshipman First Class Dana Petersen; CAPT Craig Felker, USN, History Department Chairman; COL Paul Montanus, Humanities and Social Sciences Division Director; Dr. Andrew Phillips, Academic Dean

Their documentation of the reunion provided the basis for NHF to honor them with the Beach Award. The genesis of the project came out of the midshipman’s participation in the Pacific War history research seminar last fall. The interviews gathered in San Diego last fall will be compiled and provide primary source information for future senior capstone research papers and other scholarship.

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Ditty Bag: Uncle Sam’s Latest, Greatest, Shortest War

Ditty Bag: Collections of the Naval Historical Foundation
An Artifact and Collections Blog Series

Ditty Bag: Uncle Sam’s Latest, Greatest, Shortest War

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This 1898 magazine depicts some of the United States new steal navy’s successes during the Spanish-American War. Uncle Sam’s Latest, Greatest, Shortest War: Superbly Illustrated by Photographs and Drawings from Leslie’s Weekly includes images of Spanish soldiers in Cuba, American sailors on duty, and the US Battleship Iowa. The 27 page magazine was produced by the Arkell Publishing Company. Arkell was responsible for the weekly publications of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News Paper which ran from 1852 – 1922. Uncle Sam’s Latest, Greatest, Shortest War was donated to the Naval Historical Foundation in September of 1931. This publication was part of a large donation of magazines, manuscripts, and lithographs pertaining to the Spanish-American War, Sino-Japanese War, and the new steel navy.


N.W. Ayer & Son, The American Newspaper Annual (New York, 1897) 1896: Journals of the Campaign.

05d807eDitty Bag: Collections of the Naval Historical Foundation is a new artifact blog written by Emily Pearce, NHF Middendorf Curator. She will periodically write posts about various artifacts and accessioned items in the Naval Historical Foundation collection and their impact on naval history. You can view all of the collections highlighted in Ditty Bag on our Flickr page HERE. To contact Emily or to inquire about NHF collections, please email Emily Pearce at epearce@navyhistory.org.

For previous releases of Ditty Bag, Please go HERE.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Supercarriers: The Forrestal and Kitty Hawk Classes

The SupercarriersBy Andrew Faltum, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2014)

Reviewed by Mark Lardas

They were the first aircraft carriers designed from the keel up to operate jet aircraft. When they appeared, they were so big a jump over their World War II predecessors; they were considered not just aircraft carriers, but rather supercarriers. And now they all are gone.

The Supercarriers: The Forrestal and Kitty Hawk Classes, by Andrew Faltum, tells their story. The book examines eight ships: four Forrestals, three Kitty Hawks, and John F. Kennedy (a fossil-fuel design that followed the nuclear-powered Enterprise).

The book offers a workmanlike introduction to these vessels, offering an overview of their development, and the operational histories of the classes discussed and the individual ships.

Faltum does a first-rate job describing the environment in which these vessels were created in. In many ways, the first four chapters, presenting design and development of these carriers, are the most interesting in the book. Faltum shows how the resulting design was a compromise between the goals they were to achieve and the limitations under which they operated.

The discussion is nicely bookended with an examination of the unbuilt United States in the late 1940s and the rise of the nuclear-powered carriers in the 1960s. The United States discussion bridges carrier design from World War II up to the Forrestal. The rise of the nuclear carrier reveals how the nuclear carrier superseded the oil-fired vessels.

Those expecting a detailed, nuts-and-bolts breakdown of the individual classes will be disappointed. Faltum keeps things at a high level. There are overhead and side views of Saratoga and Constellation on the endpapers, and three smaller drawings showing internal arrangements of the ships in one of the appendices. The book contains 85 pages of appendices. These too, are high level collections of data. The bulk of the appendices are a list of the composition of the air group of each carrier while in commission.

The Supercarriers also spend significant space describing the various aircraft, missiles, and weapons systems deployed on these ships. These comprise carriers’ weapons, much like battleship guns; make up its striking power. As such they form an important context for the operation history of a carrier. These tend to independent of the carrier, however. Someone interested in the ships rather than the carrier system may be disappointed. Of greater interest to naval architecture buffs are Faltum’s discussions of systems such as catapults and radar.

The result is a book that feels like a supersized Osprey New Vanguard, one with twice the pictures, six times as many pages, and no color plates. The greater size offers more scope for an expansive discussion on operational history, which those interested in history will appreciate.

The Supercarriers is great for those looking for a comprehensive introduction to this subject. Wargamers may find the technical specifications and air group listing useful. Model-makers or those interested in technical detail may not find much, but The Supercarriers should interest those whose primary focus is history.


Mark Lardas is a frequent contributor to Naval History Book Reviews

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