BOOK REVIEW – Fire On The Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific

Fire on the WaterBy Robert Haddick, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2014)
Reviewed by Nathan Albright

This book is one of several (including the essay collection Rebalancing U.S. Forces) books published this year by the Naval Institute Press that encourages a greater awareness, interest, and focus on the serious strategic problems China presents to the security and well being of the United States and its treaty and informal partners in the Asia-Pacific region. Fire on the Water provides the extended argument for a coherent strategy in dealing with the rise of China. The author seeks to deter Chinese aggression against the United States or its allies through strength while providing incentives for China to cooperate in peaceful global trade. This in turn provides heavy potential costs if they choose to behave aggressively in pursuing territorial claims against Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and other neighbors through its “sliced salami” policy.

Fire On the Water is systematically organized and thorough. The author shows the hallmarks of a strategic thinker aware of the gravity of the task at hand. He is concerned to make the strongest possible case for a solution to a serious problem requiring massive effort and considerable change. Readers will see how strategic reasoning is used a full rhetorical appeal to commit a realistic view of a serious threat, as well as the plan of combat it.

Despite the effort, Fire On The Water has some major difficulties. Specifically, problems arise in regard to the change in thought and behavior on the part of the American populace and political/military leadership and their behavior towards China and our allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Haddick argues that China will be a military threat in the moderate term by the end of the decade, in some respects to scare people into taking action. These are actions that he wishes others to take. They also include inspiring Americans to maintain the political will to stay involved with the Asia-Pacific region, encouraging the military to increase the development of cheap and autonomous long-range missiles, long-range bombers and reconnaissance craft, and sharing military capabilities to help increase the strength of our allies in the area to resist China’s threat. These are extremely challenging tasks, even with the best rhetoric.

Another hurdle Haddick faces is his own advice. Even if it represents a plausible case for preserving peace and security for the United States, he cuts against a lot of tendencies in both the United States and beyond. For example, his strategy would require the United States to change its focus on expensive, multi-purposed ships and planes with short-range tactical strength to long-range capabilities. Additionally, it would require the abrogation or renegotiation of a treaty with Russia nearly twenty years ago. It would also require the American people to be willing to spend “blood and treasure” on defending small reefs and islands in the South China Sea. It would also take the people from nations like the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea to actually believe that the United States will support them in defending their legitimate claims without giving them a blank check to start a war with China or another nation.

Readers with an interest in military or business strategy and are open to blunt and provocative rhetoric will appreciate this book. The author is deeply knowledgeable about American and Chinese military strategy and capabilities, domestic and foreign politics, trade and business concerns. He has a definite agenda that he advocates with considerable skill and passion. Fire On The Water should provoke thought and discussion about China and its strategy, with reflections on the similarity between 1914 Europe and East and Southeast Asia today. These sobering thoughts should at least awaken people to the potential dangers. They also warrant the need to think and act effectively in order to preserve peace and well being through involvement and wise diplomatic and military strategies.

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Nathan Albright lives in Portland, Oregon, and has also lived in Thailand.

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BOOK REVIEW – MacArthur and Halsey’s “Pacific Island Hoppers”: The Forgotten Fleet of World War II

MacArthur and HalseyBy David D. Bruhn, Heritage Books, Inc., Berwyn Heights, MD (2014)
Reviewed By Christopher B. Havern

Through well-executed strikes by its land and naval forces, the Japanese Empire conquered vast stretches of Southeast Asia, the Southwest Pacific, and the Central Pacific in the six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the process they built an extensive defensive perimeter. If Japan were to be defeated, that perimeter would have to be reduced through an arduous amphibious campaign. While the exploits of the marines and soldiers who landed on the hostile shores are generally well-known, the amphibious vessels and craft which put them ashore are less so. Even more unknown is the story of those unheralded vessels that transported the vital supplies that logistically sustained these landings that defeated Japan. David D. Bruhn’s book MacArthur and Halsey’s “Pacific Island Hoppers”: The Forgotten Fleet of World War II fills that gap in our understanding of the Pacific War.

A U.S. Navy veteran of twenty-four years, Bruhn seemingly specializes in writing histories of lesser known and certainly under-appreciated classes of ships. In this particular volume he recounts the service of those supply vessels that plied the waters of the Southwest Pacific. It began with the “Catboat Flotilla” which MacArthur gathered upon his arrival in Australia from the Philippines. This ad hoc force of US-flagged, but Australian-manned emergency acquisitions, was eventually replaced by the Small Coastal Transports (APc), Freight Supply Ships (FS), Large Tugs (LT), Small Tugs (ST), Harbor Tugs (TP), and Coastal Tankers (Y) built once the fully mobilized US could construct them. It was these vessels which helped feed the effort that resulted in the US and its allies driving the Japanese back from the apogee of their success. Whereas in the summer of 1942 the Japanese threatened the supply-lines to Australia, three years later the Japanese were desperately fighting on Okinawa at the very doorstep of the Japanese Home Islands. It was these “Island Hoppers” that supported the multiple landings of the largely unknown campaign which liberated New Guinea and helped break the Bismarcks Barrier. Their support enabled MacArthur to return to the Philippines and the Allies to retake oil-rich Borneo. Along the way, many of the vessels earned battle stars in conventional engagements with Japanese aircraft, ships, and troops. As the war dragged on they were even subject to suicide attacks from the Japanese special air and naval squadrons.

The strength of the book is Bruhn’s recounting of the island hopping campaign and these logistics ships support of it. In order to tell their story he clearly conducted a good amount of primary research, citing war diaries, ship’s logbooks, etc. In doing so he helps to fill a gap in our knowledge regarding the conduct of the war in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Another strength of the book is the appendices which not only provide statistical data for each of the vessels in the different classes that saw service in World War II, but also acknowledgment of personal awards and those won by these vessels in subsequent conflicts. That having been said, Bruhn’s book is not without its issues. Foremost among these is the maps. While it is appreciated that the author attempted to include maps of the islands around which these operations were conducted, many of these are illegible. As such, they are of limited utility and detract from the book’s quality. Another problem is the editing. In multiple locations there are errors of grammar, agreement, or awkward sentence structure that might have been corrected with better editing. Also, there was a number of instances where there were jarring factual errors. The foremost of these is Bruhn’s mention of the Japanese having lost three, not four, aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway (page 19). Lastly, in a volume in which the author clearly conducted primary research, it is a little disheartening that he also cites Wikipedia articles in his notes.

While Bruhn’s intent to educate the reader on these less well-known, but vital vessels and their service in World War II should be lauded as the contribution to the narrative of the Pacific War that it is, the book would have benefitted from better maps and a bit more editing. These, however, are not fatal flaws. In the event of a second printing, these shortcomings, it is hoped, would be corrected.

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Christopher B. Havern is with the USCG Historian’s Office in Washington, DC.

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BOOK REVIEW – Axis Midget Submarines: 1939 – 1945

Axis Midget SubmarinesBy Mark Stille and Jamie Prenatt, Osprey Press, Great Britain (2014)
Reviewed by James H. McClelland Sr.         

Senior Defense Department analyst Jamie E. Prenatt collaborated with retired Navy Commander and frequent Osprey author Mark E. Stille to research and write Axis Midget Submarines. Prenatt, who has taught military history, war gaming, and historical miniature painting at the Smithsonian Institution, provided his expertise on German and Italian submarines. Stille, an Imperial Japanese Navy expert, covered the Japanese midget boats.

Although small in size, this book provides a great deal of information concerning the development design and use of these small but effective weapons of war and the brave men who sailed in them. The well-researched information, photographs and drawings, and beautiful full-color artwork by Illustrator Paul Wright, a member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, helps bring the book alive.

The authors provide an overview of midget submarines, the mysterious, little known, and often tragically effective naval weapon. Axis Midget Submarines is broken down into three chapters: Italy, Germany and Japan with each chapter packed full of information concerning the development, wartime service, and the men who fought in these machines. Each chapter begins with the history and doctrine of the nation’s midget submarine programs. Chapters then progress effortlessly into development and designs. The final half of each section covers each nation’s midget submarines wartime service spanning the Japanese in the Pacific, the German war effort in the North Atlantic, and the Italian efforts centered in the Mediterranean.

There are differences in the design, use, and environments in which they were deployed. When it comes to the men who fought, however, they were the same. Each man who entered their boat did so knowing it might be the last time. They were strong and brave, true to the spirit of their country. This book brings out this spirit of adventure. By the end of the book, you will understand each boat and the kind of men who operated them. This is an exceptional book that makes one hunger for more information.

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World War I Centennial Symposium: The Thirst is Real

Visible evidence of "the thirst" in Dr. Dickinson's presentation (NHF Photo/Released)

Visible evidence of “the thirst” in Dr. Dickinson’s presentation (NHF Photo/Released)

By Matthew Eng

“History never repeats itself. Sometimes, it rhymes”
– Dr. Sean McMeekin

A packed crowd huddled into the MacArthur Memorial Theater in Norfolk, VA yesterday to listen to several well-known authors and historians speak on various topics surrounding the First World War. The Memorial graciously hosted the World War I Centennial Symposium (2014-2018) in partnership with Old Dominion University, the MacArthur Memorial Foundation, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, and Southern Bank. The Naval Historical Foundation also partnered in the event at a private function held for the Conference speakers on the 13th of November. As an official conference partner, I was delighted to go back to my old stomping grounds in downtown Norfolk to see old friends and colleagues and learn more about the Great War. Adding to the event’s own celebrity status, C-Span was on hand to televise each of the speakers throughout the two-day event.

Coming into the day, I had two simple questions that I hoped would be answered. For any student of history and memory, they are generally the ONLY questions you want to hear:

1. What do we remember about the war?
2. What do we WANT to remember?

My own knowledge of World War I is rather limited. As an American navalist, there are a select few instances where the United States Navy clearly shines within the grand war historiography. For others like myself, the United States Navy wins a grand victory against Spain in 1898 and skips directly to the Washington Conference in 1921-1922. There simply isn’t much to talk about in between. With that in mind, I kept an open attitude to the presentations and dove in headfirst.

DSC_5980After a few presentations, I realized that I could answer my own questions. What do we remember about the war? We remember only those simple facts that help us frame a timeline of events. For me, that was easiest. Although this can go for any war or series of events, it seems more likely with World War I. We know there was an assassination, then alliances and conflict. This ultimately leads to a stalemate that lasts until 1918. In between, there is death. Unless you are a specialist on the subject, such grand synthesis of those facts seems impossible. It is simpler to use that “skeletal” model of the war to get to the Paris Peace Accords. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200 dollars. Thankfully, each of the four speakers today took those simple concepts and gave it a body to work with.

I wanted to remember more about the war itself. Any aspect. Every aspect. It was not about the navies alone anymore. As the day progressed, my own thoughts about the war grew both conflicted and complicated. The simple war that began with tangled alliances slowly became a complicated web of political misgivings and shortcomings, military strategy, and bitter, unprovoked rivalries.

Serious and thoughtful conversation occurred. The audience was as good at asking questions as the presenters were answering them. It was wonderful and refreshing for a long-time historical conference attendee. If anything, I silently wished this type of discourse would “break the Internet” with its might of wisdom. But alas, the Internet stayed intact, celebrity debutantes still have the spotlight, and World War I remains on the chopping block. History is indeed the well we come to draw from in our time of need. We were all thirsty today. Thankfully, the four presenters offered plenty of historical knowledge and insight to quench each attendee’s thirst.

Catrine Clay, A Royal Countdown to War

Catrine Clay, A Royal Countdown to War

Noted author and BBC producer Catrine Clay gave a wonderful talk about the complicated relationship between the three royal cousins (Russia, Germany, England), arguing how that peculiar dynamic “led to the labyrinth of the First World War.” Ms. Clay admitted that her subject was but “a small strand in an incredibly large story.” That being said, her presentation gave rich detail into the lives of the three rulers, particularly Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.

Dr. Holger Herwig, The Battle of the Marne 1914: One Hundred Years Later

Dr. Holger Herwig, The Battle of the Marne 1914: One Hundred Years Later

It was almost as if she knew each of them personally. Ms. Clay went in depth into their personal lives and their reasons behind WHY they did what they did once war seemed imminent in 1914. If anything, her subject matter would make for a compelling Hollywood drama. Given her background, there is a strong possibility!

Dr. Holger Herwig’s presentation on the Battle of the Marne was deeply compelling and fact-filled. Dr. Herwig argued that the Marne was the “most decisive battle of the war.” His discussion centered around the horrific beginnings to the war and the realizations and pitfalls of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan. For Herwig, the Marne set about the military and political precedent for the middle of the twentieth century. “Without the Marne,” he said, “there would be no Hitler.” Perhaps he is right.

Dr. Sean McMeekin treated us with a well-rounded and compelling discussion on the origins of the war itself. Lecturing attendees with full attention, McMeekin argued that the war itself was an “avoidable catastrophe.” Using the simple recall of facts and incidences (again going back to the skeleton argument), he builds his body around the inevitability of war between countries like Greece and the Ottoman Empire, not England and Germany. He thankfully mentioned the tripartite naval race in the Mediterranean between Greece, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, and how that itself helped shape the gravity of conflict in Sarajevo on a warm summer morning in 1914. Unfortunately, through a laundry list of circumstances, the “political striptease” between the great nations ultimately ended in total mobilization.

Dr. Sean McMeekin, The War of 1914: An Avoidable Catastrophe

Dr. Sean McMeekin, The War of 1914: An Avoidable Catastrophe

The last speaker, Dr. Frederick Dickinson, discussed the role of Japan in the First World War and the early twentieth century world stage. His goal was to answer the question: “Why should we be worried about Asia at this conference?” Thankfully, he answered in kind. Likening the conflict in the Balkans with the Ottoman Empire to China in Asia, Dickinson masterfully followed the story behind the meteoric rise of Imperial Japan from nineteenth century agrarian hamlet to twentieth century industrial powerhouse and global threat. His talk was a careful reminder that the First World War was a WORLD WAR, not just a European conflict.

Dr. Frederick Dickinson, The Great War as World War: Japanese Belligerence and the Dawn of an Asia/Pacific World

Dr. Frederick Dickinson, The Great War as World War: Japanese Belligerence and the Dawn of an Asia/Pacific World

My brain swam with new facts and information when I left the building. How to process it all?

Had my opinions on the war changed or stayed the same? This was, after all, a highly publicized conference with some of the world’s foremost authorities on the war. With so much information projected to attendees (and so little involving the United States Navy), I struggled to find a happy medium for a conclusive answer. For inspiration, I put on Beethoven’s String Quarter No. 14 (C Sharp Minor), by far the saddest and most heartbreaking of all classical compositions, and began to think. If anything, the sad and eerie strum of violins would put me in a mood to contemplate the war itself.

Trench warfare. Sweeping land offensives with mass casualties. Political rivalries. The U.S. Navy? How does it all fit? Could it fit?

Then it came to me. Henry Reuterdahl.

In 1917, American import artist Henry Reuterdahl began painting a series of propaganda posters to support the U.S. war effort. One of his more famous pieces was 1917’s “All Together – Enlist in the Navy.” In the painting, sailors are happily standing in line as allies. Representatives from Japan, France, United States, Britain, Russia, and Italy are sharing a camaraderie and esprit de corps only long-held friends would share. Politically, it is a rousing call for Allied intervention against the Central Powers. Of course, Henry Reuterdahl would have no recollection of the political chess match that occurred in the early part of the century which ultimately led those countries to bond together as allies. Thankfully for us, hindsight has a going rate of 20/20.

All Together! Enlist in the Navy, By Henry Reuterdahl

All Together! Enlist in the Navy, By Henry Reuterdahl

Looking at the painting, I am struck by its diversity and message. Each of the authors would have something different to say about the image.

After listening to Dr. McMeekin, I began to ponder if it all could have been avoided? That answer becomes even harder to answer when placed in context to Catrine Clay’s presentation on the tenuous and ultimately tragic relationship between the three royal cousins. Would that wonderful work of art above even be necessary in a world where Dr. McMeekin is right? Dr. Dickinson’s lecture gives the inclusion of Japan in the image a very new and interesting meaning. Why is their position small and in the background? What about the love affair between Russia and England? Should they be the ones clasping arms in the middle of the painting? Are they smiling because they are sailors, far removed from the hell witnessed at battles like the Marne? I began to thirst for more answers again, even if it could be found in a nearly century old painting.

Tomorrow is the second day of the conference. I plan to bring a glass of water.

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Stakeholders of Naval History: Veterans Day 2014

navyneedsWhat forces a man or woman to enlist in the Navy? What compels them to accept a commission as a naval officer? Where does that kind of dedication come from? When the sounds of gunfire can be heard on the horizon, why do they selflessly march towards it and meet it head on?

Many of us will ponder each of those questions today. Veterans Day is a time when Americans can reflect on the service and sacrifice of our nation’s military men and women.

For historians, it is vital for these questions to remain open-ended. If we had all of the answers now, what need would there be for studying history?

  • When defeat seemed inevitable, what compelled John Paul Jones to stick it out against HMS Serapis?
  • What forced John Lawson to continue the fight against Tennessee at Mobile Bay, even though he was badly wounded?
  • What forced CDR Evans to take on a Japanese battleship of David and Goliath proportion during World War II?
  • When all seemed hopeless, how did our prisoners of war keep the faith while waiting in camps in Vietnam?

I don’t want to talk about how great and wonderful the Navy is or was. From my experience talking to veterans, the experience continues to stay at an even keel. What matters to me is that you veterans did it.

It’s all about stakes. At the time of the American Revolution, independence was at stake. During the American Civil War, slavery was at stake. For World War II, the preservation of democracy hung in the balance. Today, the Navy endeavors to remain a global force for good, while at the same time remaining the pointed tip of the spear in the name of what is right and just.

U.S. Navy USS Arizona survivor, retired Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Langdell pauses to collect his thoughts during an interview by a FOX News correspondent as he visits the USS ARIZONA Memorial Visitors Center. One hundred Sailors and Marines assigned to the Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyers USS PAUL HAMILTON (DDG 60) and USS RUSSELL (DDG 59) and part of Combat Service Support Group 3, made up the honor cordon, which rendered honors to the survivors as they entered the USS ARIZONA Memorial Visitors Center at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

U.S. Navy USS Arizona survivor, retired Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Langdell pauses to collect his thoughts during an interview by a FOX News correspondent as he visits the USS ARIZONA Memorial Visitors Center. One hundred Sailors and Marines assigned to the Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyers USS PAUL HAMILTON (DDG 60) and USS RUSSELL (DDG 59) and part of Combat Service Support Group 3, made up the honor cordon, which rendered honors to the survivors as they entered the USS ARIZONA Memorial Visitors Center at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Thankfully, our stakeholders are our veterans – Those who looked danger head on and answered the call. Today is for those who consistently choose service and sacrifice over themselves.

There are many things you can do today if you are a veteran. There are countless deals on meals around the country. Maybe somebody will buy you a free drink. For vets, coffee at Starbucks is free tomorrow, as is the film Fury. That is only a small portion of thanks we can give to you. We owe you our lives.

Congress originally wanted to raise an Army in an emergency. There was always a need for a Navy to be present. As an island nation, we rely on the Navy to protect us at home and abroad. This cannot be done without the hard work and dedication of our sailors. The United States Navy will continue to be there so long as our veterans remain as the core and elite set of truly American men and women.

In the most humble way (and with most humility), I want to personally thank every man and woman who has served in our armed forces. For going above and beyond the call of duty. To do what I cannot. I salute you. We salute you. Thank you for your contributions to naval history.

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By the Gouge: Publication Archive


Volume 1, Issue 2

Volume 2, Issue 1

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Please click on the images below to read the blog stories:


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Inaugural Dunn Prize Winners Announced

This year, the Naval Historical Foundation launched the Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn NROTC History Essay Competition to select the best essays written for the “Introduction to Sea Power” course at units around the nation.  The Naval Historical Foundation has a long record of recognizing naval history excellence from middle school students at National History Day through lifetime achievement awards for the leaders in the field. Vice Admiral Dunn, who had a distinguished 38-year career in naval aviation, served as President of the Foundation for 14 years and remains active on the Foundation’s Board.

With the support of the Naval Service Training Command, the NHF initiated yet another recognition program in late 2013 – the Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn Awards in support of NROTC units across the country.

MIDN Jasper Burns Receives his Dunn Award Certificate.

MIDN Jasper Burns Receives his Dunn Award Certificate.

The $2,500 grand prizewinner of the Vice Admiral Dunn NROTC Essay Competition for 2014 is present this evening with the NROTC delegation from Boston University. The title of his essay was “The Merits of Corbettian Doctrine Pre-WWI.”

Three regional prizes of $500 were presented to Midshipman Diana Vought of the University of Idaho, Brad Bosserman of Texas A&M University, and Midshipman Grant Knox of the University of Minnesota.

University of Idaho Dean of Students, Dr. Bruce Pittman, present MIDN Diana Vaught her award with Seapower & Maritime Affairs course instructor LT Nathan Greenwood.

University of Idaho Dean of Students, Dr. Bruce Pittman, present MIDN Diana Vaught her award with Seapower & Maritime Affairs course instructor LT Nathan Greenwood.

Regional winner Midshipman Knott receiving the award from Devin Bastemeyer.

Regional winner Midshipman Knott receiving the award from LT Devin Bastemeyer.

For the 2014-2015 the monetary prize levels will be adjusted to a $1,000 Grand Prize and first and second place regional prizes of $500 and $250 to enable more midshipmen to receive awards.

For more information on the Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn NROTC History, please go HERE.

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Bats Against the Axis PART IV: 11 Days in September

A Four-Part Blog Series
By Matthew T. Eng

Baseball in Norfolk radically changed the lives of the countless sailors stationed there during World War II. As a means of diversion, sailors at NTS Norfolk created their own private baseball utopia amidst the horrors of war waiting for them in the European and Pacific Theaters. The final part of our four part series. 

Read Part I
Read Part II
Read Part III

PART IV: 11 Days in September

“Confidence reigned supreme today in both the Naval Training Station and Naval Air Station baseball camps on the eve of the opening of the Fifth Naval District ‘World Series’ at the spacious NTS Stadium Sunday afternoon.”
– Norfolk Sea Bag, 11 September 1943

Everybody on base was excited for the final games to begin. The NTS World Series was scheduled to begin on the afternoon of 12 September at Naval Training Station Norfolk. The games would run on consecutive days until a four game winner was declared. The feeling on base was tense and anxious. It was also crowded. By 1943, 16,000 sailors called the Fifth Naval District their home. Word spread about the game like an epidemic. The station newspaper referred to the upcoming contest between the Blue Jackets and Flyers as “post-season warfare.” For the sailors on station who had never seen combat, this was the closest thing to it until they shipped out. With so many sailors on base, the scheduled games were the hottest ticket in town.

NTS World SEries

Hugh Casey helped the Flyers shutout the Blue Jackets 3-0 at the opening series game that Sunday. More than 5,000 sailors were present. The Flyers had a big first inning, scoring two runs off a few expertly hit balls by Pee Wee Reese and Murray Franklin. The Blue Jackets bounced back in the second game to tie the series, thanks in part to Phil Rizzuto’s inspired base running early on.

Both teams continued to trade wins. Two games went into extra innings, due in part to the excellent pitching by both sides. Hugh Casey once again proved to be the thorn in the side of the NTS Nine. His pitching in games four and six propelled the Flyers into a final game seven decision.

(HRNM Photo)

(HRNM Photo)

The final game on 22 September ended in a shutout win for the Blue Jackets. Local pre-war Portsmouth Piedmont League player Maxie Wilson won his third pitching contest against the formidable Flyers. Hugh Casey lost his third of the series.

Over 29,000 sailors came to the stadium during the series, averaging sold-out attendance each game. According to Virginian Pilot reporter Rich Radford, only a small blurb about the series made it to major publications like the New York Times. The series that drew record crowd quietly made baseball history on a series of afternoons in September 1943.

NTS Legacy

One team. One Season. 250,000 spectators. No service team would equal those numbers during the war. Maybe Captain McClure was right – those statistics did matter. For a community built around the purpose of preparing for war, the diversion and entertainment value of the 1943 Blue Jackets season cannot be paralleled.

The 1944 ball club was good. They were not better than the 1943 team. The 1943 NTS Blue Jackets were great. While most major league teams lacked aptitude, players in Norfolk bled talent. The Sea Bag often mentioned the glory days of the 1943 season in 1944 and 1945. In honor of the win and Captain Henry McClure’s support, the station renamed NTS Field as “McClure Field” in 1944. The field still exists today.

1944 Service World Series Team (Baseball in Wartime)

1944 Service World Series Team (Baseball in Wartime)

Most of the 1943 NTS team went off to war shortly after the series ended in September. Phil Rizzuto shipped off to the Pacific to play baseball at Pear Harbor. He was later in charge of a 20mm gun crew on a ship. He caught malaria in New Guinea and subsequently coached a team in Australia while he recuperated. He would later leave the Navy and continue on his path to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. Other players had similar stories and travels, but Rizzuto was the biggest star on the team.

The 1943 Blue Jackets had a bit of a reunion in 1944 at the Service World Series at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Players like Dom DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto were flown in from Australia with other veteran players from Great Lakes and Maryland to play the Army All-Star team. Navy soundly beat Army in nine of eleven games played at Furlong Stadium at Hickham Field, nearby where the Japanese strafed the area on 7 December 1941. Baseball in Wartime noted the large spike in attendance: approximately 20,000 servicemen came to each contest.

The 4 February 1944 edition of Yank magazine addressed media criticism over service teams keeping ball players in “cold storage” and building up athletic prestige:

“What the critics forget is that the no-so-talented guys ain’t complaining. Perhaps these critics have never read a sailors letter, telling his folks with a great deal of pride that he is in a company commanded by Johnny Rigney or that he is taking small-boat instruction from Johnny Mize.”

McClure Field Today (Photo by Elijah Palmer/HRNM)

McClure Field Today (Photo by Elijah Palmer/HRNM)

Baseball did not transform the United States Navy. The Navy, however, helped transform baseball into what it is today, with the help of hundreds of brave men who answered the call to serve during America’s darkest hour. Their service helped countless sailors find comfort in their pre-war fascination with America’s most popular sport. In no place was this seen better than at NTS Norfolk. Players there created their own private baseball utopia amidst the horrors of war waiting for them in the European and Pacific Theaters.

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Bats Against the Axis PART III: The Beginning of a Rivalry


A Four-Part Blog Series
By Matthew T. Eng 

Baseball in Norfolk radically changed the lives of the countless sailors stationed there during World War II. As a means of diversion, sailors at NTS Norfolk created their own private baseball utopia amidst the horrors of war waiting for them in the European and Pacific Theaters. Part three of the four part series.


PART III: The Beginning of a Rivalry

Naval Training Station Norfolk’s weekly wartime newspaper, the Norfolk Seabag, had a six-page, four-column spread. On average, each page contained four to five news items. The paper functioned to provide sailors with any and all information related to the functioning of one of the United States’ most powerful naval facilities. News snippets were also dedicated to the various goings-on around base. A sailor could read the latest updates on a weekend liberty pass or find out when next USO concert came to downtown Norfolk. Gossip and cartoons occupied a great deal of the paper’s back matter.


News from the outside world at war remained relatively minimal by comparison. Of the approximately thirty news snippets included in each Sea Bag issue, only a small two-column section (half a page) was devoted to war news. The “War Fronts the World” segment usually took stories from other newspaper feeds like the Boston Post, Associated Press, and Chicago Daily News. In 1943, the American public absorbed information on the impending Allied push into occupied Europe and the ongoing struggle with cracking the Japanese sphere of influence. For some, the “War Fronts the World” section was the only way they knew what was happening to their friends or family members forward deployed. 

During the 1943 season between April and September, baseball stories appeared weekly. In some editions, information about the NTS Nine appeared five or six times. Stories highlighted star player bios with helpful tips for upcoming games. The base CO, Captain Henry McClure, took time out of his busy schedule to write to his sailors about the necessity for their continued support on and off the baseball diamond. Hearing about the Blue Jackets was inescapable. The paper even published each player’s ongoing season statistics. Sailors could keep track of their favorite players’ batting and earned run averages each week, just like they did at ball games before the war.

First Base Line Crowd, May 1943 (HRNM Photo)

First Base Line Crowd, May 1943 (HRNM Photo

The majority of main articles were quick to point out each successive record-breaking attendance record at McClure field. It was as if the attendance was some invisible statistic everyone silently monitored for its prestige. Attendance rarely dipped below the 3,500-seat capacity. Analyzing each Sea Bag edition its content and subject matter would be another blog series in itself. That being said, Captain McClure kept his sailors in a tiny vacuum, with his namesake stadium as the center. King McClure had indeed carved out his kingdom.

Bats for Bonds

The season moved forward. The NTS Nine continued to win game after game against a slew of military and civilian opponents. Playing baseball outside of their commanding officer’s cocoon was a rarity, but it did occur. The NTS squad would also play the occasional war bond game. The bond games helped raise funds for the war effort while providing much needed entertainment and diversion from the horrors of war. Unfortunately, the United States government mandated the ration of gasoline. As a result, the NTS Blue Jackets never strayed far from their baseball utopia in Norfolk.

Although war bond drives were not a rarity in 1943, these games were. This was especially true for Hampton Roads audiences. One of the first bond games held in the area featured the area’s two best service teams, the NTS Nine and NAS squad. Led by players like Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese and coached by future Hall of Famer Bill Dickey, the NAS service team, occasionally referred to as the “Flyers,” was the most formidable foe to face the NTS Nine in their existence. Because of their similar celebrity status, they were also their most frequent foe.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 7.15.23 AM

The two teams squared off for a bond game on 26 April 1943 at nearby Norfolk Tar’s ballpark. Local media hailed it as an “All-Star” game of sorts. The Sea Bag called the prospective matchup “the most interesting series between two Service teams.” The price of admission for the game came in the form of U.S. War Bonds and stamps. War bond tickets ranged from the lower $1 bleachers and $3 grandstands to the deluxe $25 reserved seats near the field (The $25 seat equated to $18.75 in 1943 dollars). For Hampton Roads baseball fans, this was the closest they would get to see these stars without trekking to Washington, D.C. Residents jumped on the opportunity. Sea Bag reported the likelihood of “a goodly portion” of sailors “rooting for their respective favorites.” Tickets sold out well before the day of the game.

According to Norfolk historian Peggy Hail McPhillips, more than 4,000 fans attended the game. The sold out crowd helped generate close to $200,000 in bond money. NAS pitcher Hugh Casey stunned attendees with a no-hit, no-run shutout, beating the NTS Nine 4-0. Any doubt of a service rivalry before was quickly extinguished at the end of that game.

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Bats Against the Nats

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The greatest war bond game the NTS Nine played in happened one month later in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capitol hosted the “Washington Post Game” on 24 May to an expected sell out crowd of thousands. The hometown Washington Senators were set to square off against the famed Blue Jackets.

The impending excitement drew more press than anything else going on in Major League Baseball at the time. The Washington Post’s began a rigorous campaign began for the game. The paper ran at least one story about the game during that time period. Many articles made the front-page headlines. The post projected the game to be the largest “gate” in the history of baseball.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 12.28.09 PMA total of 29,221 war bond buyers came to D.C.’s Griffith Stadium to watch the Nats play the Blue Jackets, falling short 4 to 3. The Nats had a hard time competing with the “best conditioned team” in the country. In all, the game raised nearly two million dollars under the moniker, “Baseball Fans Will Help Build a Battle Cruiser.” In attendance at the game was crooner Bing Crosby and Kate Smith, the “first lady of radio.” Both made appearances and sang to the beaming crowd of war supporters. The event was so successful that team owner Clark Griffith urged other teams around the country to do something similar to raise money.

Rounding Third

The Blue Jackets turned heads and got the attention of newspapers around the country. That is, when news outlets got their hands on information about the team. You could see passing mention of them in brief snippets in major publications like the Washington Post and New York Times. They also made it to small papers such as the Ottawa Citizen and Lawrence Journal World. Because games were closed to the public, any information the public had about their favorite players was welcome.

The team continued to perform better than expected. A NTS record 7,000 sailors came to see their beloved Blue Jackets beat the Boston Red Sox in a “10-inning thriller.” Over 15,000 attended their game against Ted Williams and the NC Pre-Flight Cloudbusters. The Blue Jackets won that game. They continued to play other professional teams like the St. Louis Browns (Baltimore Orioles) as the season progressed. Many teammates even felt were treated better than in the major leagues. According to a recent interview with first baseman Eddie Robinson, major league clubs couldn’t afford the kind of equipment that the Navy gave to their VIP sailors.


The NTS Nine consistently won games. In fact, the only team the Blue Jackets could not beat regularly was their rival, the NAS Flyers. The Blue Jackets ended their season only losing twenty-five games. Of those losses, nineteen came from the Flyers, the majority of which were attributed to Hugh Casey’s arm.

The two teams met a total of forty-four times during the season, with plans to draw it out for seven more in the 1943 Navy World Series scheduled for the middle of September.

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Bats Against the Axis PART II: King McClure and His Loyal Subjects

Baseball in Norfolk radically changed the lives of the countless sailors stationed there during World War II. As a means of diversion, sailors at NTS Norfolk created their own private baseball utopia amidst the horrors of war waiting for them in the European and Pacific Theaters. Part two of the four part series. READ PART I HERE.

PART II: King McClure and His Loyal Subjects

Navy baseball players worried about what was going on in the field directly in front of them. Sailor-spectators watching those games in 1943 had the entire deadly expanse of ocean in the Atlantic and Pacific waiting for them once they completed training. Although the Battle of the Atlantic had quieted considerably after the U.S. Navy figured out an effective convoy system, the threat of German U-boat attacks was ever-present. By 1943, the German Navy was losing a quarter of its U-Boat flotilla at a time. The Battle of the Atlantic had effectively climaxed. Thirty-four German subs were lost in May 1943 alone. Germany could not make up for the losses, and the Atlantic war came to a relative trickle in the remaining war years.

The Pacific was another animal altogether. The Navy fought intensely from 1941 until the end of the war in 1945. With the Guadalcanal Campaign beginning to wrap up, stakes in the Pacific were never higher. CNO Admiral Chester Nimitz sought to involve thousands of new sailors and nearly every type of warship in the impending offensives in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. There would be little time between a sailor’s training and baptism by fire.

With so much possibility to see combat, sailors needed something to divert them from the harsh reality of war. Baseball filled that aching void.

“Baseball Can Do a Good Job in 1943”

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 9.43.02 PM

Major League Baseball was also looking to fill a void – its players. Despite the setbacks, owners and stakeholders still anticipated big crowds for the 1943 season. Newspapers around the country ran a story before spring training began with an optimistic headline about the sport’s future: “Baseball Can Do a Good Job in 1943.” The article mentioned how bad “the boys in service” wanted to see baseball played.

They were right. Servicemen DID want to see baseball. The main problem was location. Could anybody and everybody attend these games? What was the proximity of the nearest stadium to training stations in Norfolk, VA or Pensacola, FL? Would games fit in with most weekend liberty passes? The article neglected to answer these questions. The “boys in service” had to see it where they could and when they could. Would any G.I. want to go to a game where the best players were already gone, anyway? According to baseball historian and author Bill Nowlin, all that remained by 1943 were teams “with players who wouldn’t have been good enough to play in the big leagues otherwise.” NTS Norfolk skipper Captain Henry McClure was more than aware of the favorable situation at his fingertips. McClure knew he could bring a high quality of game to his sailors. Baseball was king in 1943, and Captain Henry McClure controlled its kingdom.

Baseball was not so good for the major league that year. Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton reported a lackluster season start in April:

“The opening-day major league scores lead us to wonder whether the 1943 model baseball is dead, or just the hitters.” (Hugh S. Fullerton, Jr.)

So, the American public was sadly cut off from its most beloved players. Civilians might hear about them mentioned in the passing newspaper article or radio broadcast. Otherwise, their details were as closed to the public as the stations themselves. In the meantime, one would have to enlist to see them play. Norfolk, the most unlucky station for duty, now became one of the best places to train before being sent off into the theaters of war.

Professional team owners now had to find a way to bring service players back to stadiums. This was a near impossibility with war rationing in full effect. All American Girls Professional Baseball was an important step to boosting morale, but it did not draw the kinds of crowds and notoriety most owners wanted. The vast majority of owners located nearby training stations and bases would have to trade their usual proceeds for purely patriotic purposes. By the time the 1943 season came around, teams planned to use their large stadiums for War Bond games. Teams like the NTS Nine had a chance to play in the national spotlight once again.

The 1943 NTS Nine 


Captain McClure was right when he once said that his 1943 squad was “loaded.” The Tuscaloosa News ran a story before the season began about the state of the team. Coach Gary Bodie was more than optimistic about their prospects, declaring his team “had so much pitching” that they “don’t know what they are going to do with it all.” Only the Great Lakes baseball club, often called the “largest athletic plant” of any service team, compared to the NTS Nine. The Great Lakes Blue Jackets had star Tiger catcher Mickey Cochrane at the helm as their coach. Cochrane received a commission as a Lieutenant to run the Great Lakes squad. Great Lakes and Norfolk had high hopes to play each other during the 1943 season. 

Pee Wee Reese, 1943 (HRNM Photo)

Pee Wee Reese, 1943 (HRNM Photo)

Things started to take shape in Norfolk in early 1943. Two Navy teams in the area began to emerge: the NTS Blue Jackets at Naval Training Norfolk and the Norfolk Naval Air Station (NAS) club. Both teams became one of the best rival stories in the history of professional baseball.

Like Great Lakes, nearly all of the players of the NTS and NAS teams had professional experience. Looking at the roster of the 1943 NTS Nine, two players who recently enlisted in the Navy played in the 1942 World Series (Jeff Cross and Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto). Fairness became an issue. The NTS team looked so good that their future Navy opponents began to lament their lineup. When it looked like Dodger all-star Pee Wee Reese would join the NTS Nine in 1943, NAS CO Captain James Marshall Shoemaker took it up with his counterpart to object. After much debate, Captain McClure begrudgingly sent Reese to play for the NAS ball club. One author stated that McClure did this gesture out of respect: Captain Shoemaker was the commanding officer at Pearl Harbor when they fell under attack in December 1941.

Opening Day 

Opening day came for the NTS Nine Blue Jackets in early April. Due to the need for exposure and the necessity for practice, the Blue Jackets’ first opponent was the Washington Senators. The Senators were the closest professional team, and McClure wanted to showcase the talent on his club in grand fashion. The Senators opened their Grapefruit preseason by traveling down to Norfolk to square off against the Blue Jackets in a two game series.

McClure field was not large by major league standards. For a naval base, it far exceeded most with a capacity for 3,500 spectators. Over 5,000 sailors came to the sold out opening day games on 2 April. The NTS Nine won the first game and lost the second to the Senators. Either way, the NTS Nine were off to a good start for their 1943 season. The Navy invited a Virginian-Pilot photographer to take pictures of the game and the crowd. It was one of the few times a civilian photographer was allowed to capture the team playing during the war. The majority of those images are now digitized on the Norfolk Public Library’s website.


Opening Day, 1943 (Norfolk Seabag)

Opening Day, 1943 (Norfolk Seabag)

Captain McClure seized the opportunity to capitalize on his newfound talent in Tidewater. He often wrote in the station’s publication, The Seabag, urging his sailors to come to the games. In truth, his passion and devotion to the team closely resembled of current Dallas Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban. Although he had very little knowledge of the game himself, he loved every minute of it. He also knew the value of baseball to raise the morale of his sailors in a way no USO show could dream of. There is a story that is often circulated about Captain McClure and the baseball team in 1943. According to some sources, Captain McClure was attending to base business and would be late for the opening of a baseball game. He told his subordinates that the team could start on time, but “not to score until he got there.”

[Next in PART III: The 1943 Season and the Beginning of a Rivalry]

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Bats Against the Axis: Diversion, Community, and Heritage at the 1943 Navy World Series (PART I)


A Four-Part Blog Series
By Matthew T. Eng

In the summer of 1943, the best baseball in the United States was played in Norfolk, VA. Unfortunately, you couldn’t just buy any ticket to see diamond stars like Fred Hutchinson, Dom DiMaggio, and Phil Rizzuto play that year – you had to enlist. This four part blog series will examine U.S. Navy baseball teams during the war and the role that the 1943 NTS Nine squad played in entertaining and transforming the culture of Hampton Roads sailors on station in Norfolk, VA. 

Baseball in Norfolk radically changed the lives of the countless sailors stationed there during World War II. As a means of diversion, sailors at NTS Norfolk created their own private baseball utopia amidst the horrors of war waiting for them in the European and Pacific Theaters.


In the fall of 1941, the New York Yankees played the Brooklyn Dodgers in New York City’s first “subway series.” Fans from both boroughs huddled in seats and bleachers together to watch the country’s two best teams battle it out on the playing field. Manager Joe McCarthy’s defending champion New York Yankees defeated the Dodgers solidly in five games.

1941 World Series (NYT Photo)

1941 World Series (NYT Photo)

It would be the last time Americans saw a World Series in a world without war. For many others, it would be the last World Series they would ever know. The world undoubtedly changed a month and a half after the series ended, and the peaceful enjoyment of America’s pastime would be forever changed. America itself was in the batters box, waiting anxiously to step up to the plate.

To War

When the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941, Americans around the country woke up to the stark reality of a world transformed by war. Conflicts far away in Europe and Asia were now at the doorstep of Main Street. Isolationism and neutrality became impossible. It was time to fight. Norfolk, VA was not swept up in the fever of war panic that followed the attack. In direct contrast to many cities along the east coast, Norfolk was relatively prepared for the coming of war. Norfolk was on the front line of the Lend-Lease agreement between the United States and fledgling Allied powers. As historian Melvin Schlegel suggested in his masterful history of Norfolk, the town became a “conscripted city” in the early 1940s.

Thousands of men and women joined the armed forces in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Few were exempt. Famous actors, writers, politicians, musicians, and athletes also enlisted. Of this group of influential individuals, Americans looked up to those athletes who enlisted the most. Due to their mass appeal to the general public, baseball stars consistently made headlines around the country when they signed up with Uncle Sam. Their sacrifice served as a reminder that nearly anyone could fight the Axis. Many of those who signed up to serve in the United States Navy ended up at Naval Training Station Norfolk.

FROM MLB to Class I-A

The 1942 Major League offseason was a rough one for team owners. Hundreds of baseball players, members of the country’s most popular sport, served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine – not their old teams. The necessity for G.I.’s became evident in the early months of 1942. Rosters were depleted of top-level talent seemingly overnight.

Numerous stars of the recent World Series traded pinstripes for olive drab dungarees. The image below shows what service the 1941 World Series champions went to throughout the war:

Slide04Most baseball players were relegated to the “special services” of each military branch. Their primary duty in this capacity was to boost G.I. morale by playing baseball. Joe DiMaggio, arguably the most popular sports figure in the country, went to the Army Air Corps. World Series pitcher Hugh Casey joined the United States Navy to play ball. Others like Ted Williams played a limited time on service teams before being shipped off into their respective theaters of warfare. The Triple Crown winner retired in the United States Marine Corps as a decorated Captain following the end of the Korean War.



According to Baseball in Norfolk, Virginia authors Clay Shampoe and Thomas Garrett, one of the first ballplayers to enlist in the Navy was Cleveland Indian pitcher Bob Feller. “Rapid Robert” joined up only days after Pearl Harbor. After spending a brief time at Norfolk Naval Training Station as a fitness instructor and player for the 1942 squad, Feller transferred as a Gun Captain aboard Battleship Alabama, where he saw action extensively in the Pacific Theater. Feller remained active in his ship’s reunions until his death in 2010.

The majority of new sailors during the war were sent to either Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago or the Naval Training Station in Norfolk. Of the two locations, most sailors would rather choose the Great Lakes cold weather over the doldrums of Hampton Roads. It would only take an influx of some of the nation’s most talented athletes to Norfolk to turn its perception around seemingly overnight.

Our Worst War TownScreen Shot 2014-09-09 at 7.46.38 PMMost prewar sailors considered Norfolk as “bad duty.” A scathing report written in the February 1943 edition of H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury hailed Norfolk as “Our Worst War Town.” The article’s author spent time examining real life conditions of several congested defense towns along the East Coast. Although the author identified Norfolk as the East Coast’s “number one war zone,” Norfolk was still regarded to have the worst conditions and quality of life of any town along the Atlantic.

“There were too many people with too little to do.” – Dick Hanna

The article listed many stereotypes of Navy sailors – drunk, disorderly, loud, and promiscuous. The countless bars and brothels nearby the base did not help this perception. By 1943, the Navy ordered its sailors off the streets between 1:00am to 5:00am. The claim was made that the forced curfew would get “responsible servicemen” off the streets during the most dangerous hours. It also broke up the numerous “parasitical” business enterprises previously mentioned. According to Hampton Roads Naval Museum volunteer and long-time local Captain Dick Hannah, “There were too many people with too little to do.”

As a major terminus for war, Norfolk looked bad. Locals were concerned by their long-held reputation. With over thirty families arriving each day by 1943, it became necessary to make some changes. The July 1943 edition of Our Navy magazine published an article to rectify Norfolk’s tarnished perception often heard around town:

“Several years ago if you were transferred to Norfolk all your friends gathered around to offer condolences and you wondered what you had done to deserve such a horrible fate.” (Our Navy, July 1943)

The article mentioned several new places where sailors could find the best means for wholesome diversion, including Fleet Recreation Park, various movie theaters, a YMCA Beach Club, and the Norfolk Center USO Theater, located where the Harrison Opera House is today.

Our Navy StoryThe luxuries listed above were a vast improvement to the area’s previous accommodations. Soon enough, Norfolk became desirable. However, these locations were not the reason why sailors wanted to come to Norfolk during the war. Sailors didn’t necessarily want a slice of the good life; they wanted some semblance of what they craved before the war started. For many, that piece of the past came in the form of baseball. Due to the shortage of stars in the Major Leagues, service teams played the best baseball. For the Navy, the best team in the country called Norfolk’s Naval Training Station their home.

Baseball in the past drew little fanfare at Norfolk’s training station. Clubs at the facility were formed to give sailors a diversion from training. That being said, few paid attention. There was little interest for sailors to see their fellow bluejackets spar on the baseball diamond. Once the war started, however, teams went from amateur to “all star” status virtually overnight. Navy leadership promoted players like Bob Feller to Chief Specialist Athletic to train sailors in physical fitness and play on the station’s league teams. Buzz about the prospect of top-level talent spread quickly in Norfolk:

“The often-ignored Norfolk Training Station (NTS) team now created quite a stir on the base, as most of the players in uniform were fresh from the American, National, and minor leagues.” (Baseball in Norfolk, VA)

NTS Stadium/McClure Field (HRNM/NPL Photo)

NTS Stadium/McClure Field (HRNM/NPL Photo)

Sailors played at NTS Stadium, which would eventually become McClure Field. The field is named after the station’s WWII-era Commanding Officer, Captain Henry McClure. McClure Field was as good a venue as Yankee Stadium during the war years. Unlike other venues around the country, it was closed to the public due to the high security during the war. The brick stadium gave its sailors exclusive access to the best baseball in the country.

Managing the team of stars was Gary Bodie, a Chief Signalman in the U.S. Navy that knew a thing or two about “reading the signs.” Unfortunately, Bodie knew very little about the game. Bob Feller once said Bodie was one of the best coaches he had while in the Navy. Why? According to Feller, Chief Bodie would “stay out of the way and let us play” the majority of the time.

Bob Feller playing for the NTS Nine, 1942 (Norfolk Seabag)

Bob Feller playing for the NTS Nine, 1942 (Norfolk Seabag)

The NTS Blue Jackets, better known as the “NTS Nine,” became a baseball powerhouse. Led by players like Feller and Fred Hutchinson during their 1942 season, the team racked up an impressive 92 wins in 102 games. Unfortunately, the team did not play any major league opponents.

That would change the following season, when top-level talent from major league team and rival Navy ball clubs took to the field to dethrone the Navy’s best baseball team.

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The Anchored Roots of Naval History: American Export Explores Storied Family Past at Navy Department Library

Ben Talman discusses his family history with NDL staff member Alexandra McCallen. (NHF Photo by Matthew Eng/Released)

Ben Talman discusses his family history with NDL staff member Alexandra McCallen. (NHF Photo by Matthew Eng/Released)

By Matthew T. Eng

“Every family has a history. Every family has a story. This helps explain why you are the way you are.”

It’s fall here in Washington, D.C. The hot summer heat and brown grass are finally giving way to cooler temperatures and changing leaves. For some, this pleasant change in weather can mean only one thing: the slow approach of the holiday season. It’s that magical time of the year when friends and family gather together in living rooms and dining rooms around the country to reminisce about their time together. Stories of the past are shared around the table with the same frequency as baskets of warm dinner rolls.

Most of us endure this ritualistic remembrance into family history as a yearly occurrence. For American-born Australian resident Ben Talman, this deep insight into the past occurs daily. If Ben’s family tree were a living thing, he would have set up a house in its branches long ago. He is truly living it. Ben ‘s family history pops up in his everyday life more than he would like to admit. “I can’t escape this stuff,” he said during his visit to the Navy Department Library last Thursday. “What are you going to do when that happens? You have to study it.”

The New South Wales resident came to the states last week and decided to stop by the Washington Navy Yard to view naval documents that his father, Benjamin Long Edes Talman, donated to the Naval Historical Foundation in 1961. His father’s papers were eventually given next door to the Navy Department Library, who has cared for them ever since. The documents included several logs and correspondence of his father, a WWII-era Navy Captain, as well as the Navy commission papers of his great grandfather, LCDR Benjamin Long Edes.

In case you caught our post last week about the ever-changing role of digital naval history, Ben is living proof that this kind of passion, devotion, and expertise extends far beyond the walls of academia. NHF Curator Emily Pearce remarked how “beside himself” he was at seeing the documents up close. His level of enthusiasm for naval history was both infectious and uplifting. It was a pleasure to sit and talk with Mr. Talman about his own life and the extraordinary story of his naval heritage.

Ben’s extraordinary quest to discover his family’s past began back in 1975. “I noticed that I had this very long middle name, and I wanted to find out more about it.” That initial interest led Ben down a rabbit hole of his family’s history he has yet to crawl out of ever since. His family’s story has taken him all over the world. From Gallipoli to Washington, D.C, he has no plans of stopping anytime soon. Mr. Talman described studying his family’s history “like a drug” that you can’t get enough of:

“Every family has a history. Every family has a story. This helps explain why you are the way you are.”

The roots of Ben’s family tree are built on a strong foundation of America’s history. His 18th century ancestor, Boston resident Benjamin Edes, is considered by many to be the “Poet of the American Revolution.” Other close relatives have ties to the National Weather Service and the United States Army. The most interesting of family members, however, touch the very fabric of nineteenth and twentieth century naval history.

The two commission documents of Benjamin Long Edes (NHF Photo by Matthew Eng/Released)

The two commission documents of Benjamin Long Edes (NHF Photo by Matthew Eng/Released)

Indeed, the most interesting set of documents in the donated collection came from his great grandfather, Benjamin Long Edes. Two nearly identical U.S. Navy commissioning documents for his great grandfather were spread out on a table to view inside the Navy Department Library. Both are signed by then President Andrew Johnson in 1865. Although the documents are for his great grandfather’s commission, the last name and seal on each piece of paper are different. “His family wanted to keep the tradition of his family name alive,” he noted as he stared deeply into the black print of the document. “So, he had to go to the Navy Department and request another one made to reflect his family’s wishes (both Long and Edes).”

New York Herald, 29 AUGUST 1881.

New York Herald, 29 AUGUST 1881.

Benjamin Long Edes’s story really starts to get interesting after his commission in 1865. After spending several years with the European Squadron, Asiatic Squadron, and the Washington Navy Yard, LCDR Edes was transferred to the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, RI. It was there in 1881 that he died in a fatal torpedo accident. According to one account, the incident occurred when Edes and one other were directed to detonate a torpedo in the harbor. After looking around the Internet for more information of the unfortunate incident, Ben was elated to find that the accident made the headline news of the 29 August edition of The New York Times and New York Herald.

Ben’s father, Benjamin Long Edes Talman, served in the United States Navy during the Second World War in the European theater. Captain Talman was the commanding officer of a destroyer in 1943, and participated in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy. He also served with FDR, Jr. during his time in the U.S. Navy.

Naval history courses through Ben’s veins. He still wears Captain Talman’s 1935 USNA class ring on his ring finger as a symbol of respect and admiration of his late father’s accomplishments. Ben spent the majority of the early afternoon weaving more tales of his family’s history. Each story expanded on the history of the other. He laughed when I mentioned that he was in the “Forrest Gump” of U.S. Navy families. “If I lived here in D.C.,” he said in response, “I would be coming here every single day.” By the end of our conversation, I had no doubt he was telling the truth.

Captain Benjamin Long Edes Talman, USN

Captain Benjamin Long Edes Talman, USN

Ben is an active participant in discovering his family’s storied history online. “It’s too difficult to get the rest of my family to see the images.” Because his family stretches from Australia to the United States, he posts many of his finds on Facebook. “It’s nice that I can post something about our family history and the rest of my family can see it from around the world,” he said. Ben also posts regular updates on’s Fold3 platform about his family history, in particular his father and great grandfather. He hopes to post his recent finds from last week’s trip here on the website very soon.

Ben Talman came here last week with a deep admiration for what organizations like the Navy Department Library/NHHC and the Naval Historical Foundation are doing to preserve naval history. In his own words, Ben admitted how much of a “devoted fan” he was to these organizations. As he walked out of the gates of the Washington Navy Yard at the end of the day, he had a few fans and admirers of his own.

Special thanks to Emily Pearce (NHF) and Alexandra McCallen (NDL) for assisting Mr. Talman throughout the day. 

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BOOK REVIEW – THE ROYAL NAVY – A History Since 1900

The Royal NavyBy Duncan Redford and Philip D. Grove, I. B. Tauris, London, England (2014)

Reviewed by Charles Bogart

The book under review is the fourteenth book within the A History of the Royal Navy series sponsored by The National Museum, Royal Navy Section. The authors of this large book attempt to do the impossible: tell the story of the Royal Navy over the past 110 years. The pages of this history therefore do not offer a detailed history of the Royal Navy. It instead seeks to highlight various events that affected the Royal Navy between the years 1900 and 2010. The authors only devote sixty-three pages to World War I. The authors, limited by space, provide only a broad-brush look at that conflict. The authors do highlight most of the major activities of the Royal Navy during that world conflict, but numerous smaller critical events are ignored. Despite the above caveat, the book is a fascinating and enlightening read.

The book is divided into six sections, from the development of the Royal Navy at the end of the 19th century through the current world unrest. The chapters on the pre-World War I era and the interwar Navy contain a wealth of information concerning the development of a fleet, which the Admiralty used to gain control of the seas.

The authors devote ninety pages to the period from 1950 to 2010. The authors provide a well-rounded and balanced account of the trials and tribulations inflicted upon the Royal Navy by Parliament during the last half of the 20th century, and the operations and campaigns they successfully accomplished despite a continual depletion of ships and manpower. The authors’ post-World War II account of the Royal Navy presents remarkable facts on British Defense policy. It is interesting that, of the United Kingdom’s three armed services, the Royal Navy constantly suffered the greatest loss in the funding of capital projects during the budget battles of the Cold War era, yet is used increasingly as an instrument of power projection by the British government.

The book is well written and its text is supported by a number of maps, charts, photos (some in color), footnotes, and a bibliography. To understand the full measure of some of the events recounted in this book that cover the Cold War Royal Navy, one needs to acquire another of the books in this series, A History of the Royal Navy: The Nuclear Age.

This book is a great introduction to the naval events of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of the Royal Navy. It would serve well as a textbook in a survey course of world events, or as a vehicle to introduce the budding historian to naval events that still influence our lives today.


Charles H. Bogart

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BOOK REVIEW – Star-Spangled Sailors – A Novel of the Brave Watermen Defenders of Chesapeake Bay in the War of 1812

Star Spangled SailorsBy Carey Roberts, Self-Published, 2011

Reviewed by David K. Hildebrand, Ph.D.

Historical fiction provides a compelling call for the reader to go well beyond traditional history. I for one have been long happy to absorb the facts, theories, and analyses often well crafted into secondary sources, such as Steve Vogel’s excellent telling of the near cataclysmic summer of 1814 in Through the Perilous Fight – Six Weeks that Saved the Nation. Painstakingly researched and engagingly argued, this book is simply definitive on its topic.

Vogel’s mission differs from that of Carey Roberts, who takes some of Vogel’s real characters and breathes feeling and emotion into their actions. She also embraces historical figures less well documented than the American hero Joshua Barney and British Rear Admirals Cockrane and Coburn. She draws the reader into their reactions during such momentous events in Washington, Baltimore and thereabouts throughout the summer and early fall of 1814.

Take, for instance, the escaped slave Mingo Jones, torn between the needs of his colleagues during a time of war and his own sense of self-preservation.  While making up perhaps one-sixth of the crews of the American navy through the 1812-1815 period, the perspectives of Blacks and Native Americans have largely been ignored in traditional histories (excepting, of course, recent works by Alan Taylor such as The Civil War of 1812 and his 2014 Pulitzer-winning The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.)   By considering Mingo’s perspective and trying to imagine how a man coming from such lower and constrained circumstances would react in battle among fellow soldiers forces the reader to expand and consider events in a new and fresh way.  Likewise, through the voices of boys like Jason and Caleb (the drummer boy), readers are invited to re-live the immature yet vivid feelings of excitement, drive and duty held by young soldiers not quite men.

Star-Spangled Sailors tells most of its story through the voice of a young and promising white sailor-then-soldier named Jack Webster.  Webster, who feels shamed by the retreat of the Americans at Bladensburg, must overcome his own sense of failure in protecting Captain Joshua Barney through a journey of personal retreat followed by re-grouping and making a stand.  This, at the climax of the story, takes place not at the glorified venue of Fort McHenry itself, but at Babcock Battery, a small but important defensive post outside the fort. By taking command of a much smaller, and ostensibly insignificant post plagued by the terror of darkness and the knowledge of being vastly out-manned and out-gunned, Webster becomes the hero after all.  This brilliant American tactic of protecting Baltimore’s vulnerable tributaries as Webster did may well have turned the tide while more major and widely recorded assaults were taking place upon Fort McHenry and by the thousands of British marines who had landed at North Point the day before and were marching towards the city.

Carey C. Roberts portrays sailing-master Jack Webster’s character not just as self-sacrificing, brave and heroic, but as a man with real emotions. He is susceptible both to self-doubt and to the allure of an attractive farm girl, Rachel.  I’ll admit here as reviewer of this book that once the story line ventured into romance my antennae went up — but through the course of the story I got pulled in and thought — “Hey, why not factor in that we are all human after all . . . perhaps this is an under-represented aspect of history?”  The few romantic episodes are brief and to the point, driving the plot while not becoming distractions or sub-plots within themselves.  Even British Major-General Robert Ross’s demise takes on a fresher, more sympathetic mood. It brings to mind Benjamin West’s 1770 depiction of General Wolfe mortally wounded at Quebec, which evokes perhaps pity even more than hero worship.

As a music historian by profession, I admire the author’s attempts to invoke a sort of soundtrack into the narrative along with her visual and emotional imagery. “Serious” historians rarely draw upon musical cues or context, excepting the Canadian author Donald Graves who has taken to quoting lyrical excerpts from songs as chapter headings. I personally congratulate and thank Carey for being so culturally diverse.  The details of her musical allusions are not always precise, but I commend her open-minded inclusiveness than nit-pick over the choice of instruments, composers, or the like.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I admire the author’s success in keeping the narrative so very close to factual accuracy.  Other more strict scholars like Vogel, Don Hickey, or Ralph Eshelman would probably have noticed and argued details unknown to me, but I had the very strong sense that the author not only did copious homework but at no point felt compelled to deviate or exaggerate the story line.  Instead, Carey C. Roberts has flushed the story out believably and interestingly, and for that I would strongly recommend that you read this book as a way to feel as much as understand this rich moment in time.

Dr. David K. Hildebrand, is the Director of The Colonial Music Institute.

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