Tribute to Walter Lord: He Had an Eye for Humanity

Edited by Scott E. Belliveau

In tribute to this great American author, Naval History asked a number of prominent authors and historians how Walter Lord and his works influenced them.

Thomas B. Allen , author of many works of military and intelligence history, including Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995)—Walter Lord's historical narrative style was a model for me when I started writing on military subjects. Whether his book was about a lost ship or an epic battle, Lord found passages to the past and returned with a vision that he gave to us of the present. To me, he was like an arson detective who goes to a gutted scene and, working from clues found in the remnants of disaster, recreates its human reality. His eye was always on people rather than theories, and the result was fine history as captivating story.

Commander Thomas B. Buell, U.S. Navy (Retired) , author of Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995), The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987), and The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War (New York: Crown Publishers, 1997)—When I was writing Admiral Spruance's biography, I wanted to reveal the true roles of Spruance and his inherited chief of staff, Miles Browning, during the Battle of Midway. Browning had been given undue credit by historians for recommending an early launch on 4 June, with Spruance finally agreeing. My sources said the early launch was entirely Spruance's initiative. Lord, in his Incredible Victory had credited Browning. I wrote, asking his source. He responded quickly, saying he had it in his notes somewhere, but he conceded he may well have been wrong and I was right. I thought this was the mark of a gentleman and a scholar.

Lieutenant Commander Thomas Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired) , author of Brown Water, Black Berets (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), The Battle of Leyte Gulf (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, Bluejacket Books, 2001), and the 100th Anniversary edition of The Bluejacket's Manual (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002)—Walter Lord proved that the pen can be as mighty as the sword. His Incredible Victory and Day of Infamy were two of the earliest books I read as a young man, and they had a profound effect on me, being largely responsible for my joining the U.S. Navy and remaining for a full career that is still continuing in many ways. I particularly remember a passage in Day of Infamy :

In the plotting room far below, Ensign Merdinger got a call to send some men to fill in for the killed and wounded. Many of the men obviously wanted to go—it looked like a safer bet than suffocating in the plotting room. Others wanted to stay—they preferred to keep a few decks between themselves and the bombs. Merdinger picked them at random, and he could see in some faces an almost pleading look to be included in the other group, whichever it happened to be. But no one murmured a word, and his orders were instantly obeyed. Now he understood more clearly the reasons for the system of discipline, the drills, the little rituals . . . all the things that made the Navy essentially autocratic but at the same time made it work.

In those few words, Lord captured the essence of leadership and of responsibility in such a way that I never forgot. I quoted them as an introduction to the chapter on Leadership and Discipline in the 100th anniversary edition of The Bluejacket's Manual in hopes that Lord's insights will have the same effect on young sailors that they once had upon me.

James P. Delgado , Director, Vancouver Maritime Museum, and author of many books, including Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage (New York: Checkmark Books, 1999) and Lost Warships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea (New York: Checkmark Books, 2001)—Walter Lord brought history to life because he wove the fabric of memory and the human experience into his books in a way that allowed you, as the reader, almost to feel as if you were there. His books were an inspiration and one of the threads that led many, myself included, into history, archaeology, and exploration. The accessibility of his writing and the essential humanity of Walter Lord made his books classics. Years from now, readers aged 9 to 90 will still feel a connection to the past as they read Walter's books. I still re-read my copies, carefully retained since youth, on special occasions. While diving on the wrecks of both the Arizona (BB-39) and Titanic , what often came to mind were the pictures that passed through my mind when I first read Walter Lord's books.

Richard Snow , Editor-in-Chief, American Heritage magazine—I have read most of Walter Lord's books, and I've enjoyed and admired them all. But I find the one that lodges most firmly in my memory is The Good Years , his 1960 chronicle of American life between the century's turn and World War I, especially the chapter on the siege of the diplomats of the Western legations in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion of 1901. It made a tremendous impression on my 15-year-old self, and when I learned of his death I read it again and discovered that (in this narrow field, at least) my youthful instincts were entirely sound. The chapter seems to me a distillation of Lord's powers: a relaxed, idiomatic narrative that is nonetheless elegant and always gripping—and often very funny (in the confusion of the first hours of the fighting "Captain Thomann, skipper of the Austrian cruiser Zenta , assumed command by virtue of seniority and a vile temper;" he handles the job badly until "it dawned on the ministers that they weren't bound by the seniority rules of the Austrian Navy. . ."). The book has bite, color, a clear-eyed patriotism, and a deep understanding of the ways in which our ancestors are at once wholly different from us—and just the same.

Paul Stillwell , editor of Air Raid: Pearl Harbor! (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981) and author of several books, including Battleship Arizona (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991)—My first contact with Walter Lord's work came when I was in junior high school and read serialized installments from Day of Infamy , his ground-breaking book on Pearl Harbor. In 1969, as my ship steamed to Pearl during a summer cruise, I reread his book so I could prepare for my first visit to the battle sites. When I did my own later research on the events of 7 December 1941, I encountered veterans whom Walter had interviewed earlier. They said he never took a note or used a tape recorder, because he felt those things would be intrusive. Even so, they said he was completely reliable in reporting the contents of the interviews. What distinguished Walter's work was his ability to describe a complex historical event through individual human experiences. He had an eye for the telling anecdote and the delightfully worded quotation. In the early 1990s I had several occasions to be with Walter as part of symposium programs and found him invariably gracious and gentlemanly. He was a shining role model for those who have written about naval and maritime history.

Jack Sweetman , author of many works, including comprehensive histories of the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as American Naval History: An Illustrated Chronology of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, 1775-Present, Third Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002), and former Professor of History, U.S. Naval Academy—I was 15 when I read A Night to Remember . It was the first book I encountered in which the author evoked an event in large part by interweaving personal accounts of it, many of which Walter Lord had rescued from oblivion by seeking out survivors. I thought it was a great idea, and, years later, when I began the research that eventuated in The Landing at Veracruz: 1914 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1968), one of my chief objectives was to make contact with veterans of the action. That the recollections they furnished were rescued from oblivion was in a real sense thanks to Walter Lord.

Barrett Tillman , author of many works on aviation history, including Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002)—One of the most influential books in my life was Incredible Victory , published during my senior year in high school. Walter Lord's Midway narrative immediately captured my imagination. With the naive confidence of a teenage aviator, I assimilated its essential veracity—a sense of the time and place lacking in many other treatments. Walter Lord was among the most versatile and effective historians of his generation, and perhaps the epic drama of Midway represented his highest attainment. That's no small achievement considering his other topics, including the Alamo, the Titanic , and Pearl Harbor. I still regret that I only met him once.

James G. Zumwalt , son of the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and author of dozens of articles in publications such as Parade , The Washington Times , and the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine—Having read many of Walter Lord's great works over the years, I often wondered if he had read The Art of War by Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, a book that emphasized the import of knowing one's enemy before engaging him in battle. In reading books such as A Night to Remember and Incredible Victory , I sensed Lord took a very similar approach in writing his works, ensuring he had intimate knowledge of his subject matter before undertaking the task of writing about it. The minutest details appearing throughout his many historical contributions became a Lord trademark for enjoyable reading.

Mr. Belliveau is a former editor for the Naval Institute Press, Naval History , and Proceedings . He now is the Director of Communications of the Virginia Military Institute Foundation, Inc. in Lexington, Virginia.

 

Mr. Belliveau is a former editor for the Naval Institute Press, Naval History, and Proceedings. He now is the Director of Communications of the Virginia Military Institute Foundation, Inc. in Lexington, Virginia.

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