A Sailor's Heritage

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Roscoe's answer to his own question was, "What you do today depends largely on what was done yesterday . . . the things you're doing now result from, and are a continuation of, things done in the past." He quoted American patriot Patrick Henry (best known for his stirring words, "Give me liberty or give me death"): "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging the future but by the past."

This is a good answer. But for me, there has always been an even better reason. Perhaps it's a little selfish in its origin, but it has served me well. In my many years of service in the Navy, I sometimes felt like quitting. Although I loved many things about the Navy, it was a tough life in a lot of ways, making demands on me that other people my age, who had chosen an easier life in the civilian world, did not face. Sometimes the hardships of life at sea, the separation from my family and friends back home, or the multitude of dangers that were never very far away would cause me to long for a quieter life, a more "normal" life, a less demanding life. But then I would stand before a mirror getting ready to shave, and look at the face staring back at me and say, "You work for the Acme Soap Company." And I did not like what I saw. I would try again. "You work for Smith & Johnson, Inc." And I still did not like what I saw. Then I would say, "You are a Sailor in the United States Navy." And I very much liked what I saw.

The reason the last statement worked when the others did not was because I knew I was part of something special. And what made it special were the great things that had been done in the past by Sailors like me. The uniform I wore with such pride—that made me instantly identifiable as someone special—meant little without the knowledge that other people wore that same uniform, or some form of it, when they fought the Barbary States of North Africa; when they charged into hostile Confederate fire at Mobile Bay, Alabama; and when they destroyed Nazi submarines and Japanese aircraft carriers when evil men were hell-bent on dominating the world.

Another thing that made being a Sailor special for me was using terms like "galley" and "starboard" and "scuttlebutt," a language that connected me with "iron men who sailed wooden ships," that made me part of a "club" that has been around for a very long time and whose initiation requirements—"honor, courage, and commitment"—were my own.

The lather-covered face I saw each morning was not unusual in any particular way. Yet it was was special because it had felt the sting of salt spray and had seen the wonders of a starry night at sea, just as sailors had done for many centuries before. It had been darkened by the sun while patrolling the waters of Vietnam, and weathered by heavy gales in the Mediterranean during the Yom Kippur War. It had known the bitter cold of patrols in the North Atlantic during the Cold War, and been streaked with tears of pride the first time I heard "Anchors Aweigh" played at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.

No doubt, I would have been proud of my service even if I had never known any of the history that had preceded me. But the more I learned about those Sailors who had gone before me the more special I felt, the more determined I became to measure up to the standards they had set. I could have served the Navy without knowing its history, but I sure wouldn't want to.

I have tried to capture some of the magic I experienced as I served in the Navy and discovered the exciting past that made my "club" so special. I have tried to make this a heritage book instead of a history book. To me, history is the stuff that scholars study for the good of the world. Heritage is the stuff that makes me stand a little taller and walk with a hint of a swagger.

Most history books start at the beginning and move forward through time. This book charts a different course. I have chosen to explore our heritage by way of themes rather than by chronology. For the most part, we will be traveling through time with few concerns about chronologies, focusing on the Sailors who gave us reasons to be proud.

The word sailor has many meanings, ranging from the iron men in wooden ships of yesteryear to highly trained technicians running nuclear-power plants in submerged submarines, from a young woman plying the waters of her hometown lake in a tiny sloop to a merchant marine captain carrying oil from the Middle East to Japan. The word has had different meanings even within the Navy; there was a time when it was used to differentiate enlisted personnel from officers. Today, however, sailor has come to have special meaning, with a bit of mystique to it—so much so that it is now capitalized, to make it clear that Sailor means a man or woman who is a part of the greatest Navy the world has ever seen, one who carries on the heritage we will sample in this book. It refers to officer and enlisted alike; to seamen, airmen, firemen, and corpsmen; to those who stand watches on decks and those who man the ramparts of a five-sided building near the nation's capital; to those who stay for 30 years and those who move on after a single hitch; to those whose names are distinguished by "USN" or "USNR."

Unlike most other histories of the Navy, this one focuses on all Sailors, in all their varied roles, from seaman to admiral. You will come to know Vernon Highfill, a fireman in the forward engine room of the USS Lexington (CV-16) in World War II, as well as Commodore George Dewey, commander of the squadron that defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. You will meet Civil War Lieutenant John Worden, who commanded the USS Monitor in her epic battle with the CSS Virginia , and Quartermaster Peter Williams, who steered that ironclad into history. You will fly with Petty Officer Alvin Kernan, submerge with "Doctor" Wheeler Lipes, and sail with Ordinary Seaman John Kilby.

Although this is a proud celebration of the greatness of our Navy and how it came to be great, it is not intended to be a whitewash. You will see some mistakes made; after all, our predecessors were human beings like us. There are defeats as well as victories, and you will see ships and aircraft and their crews lost. But despite the setbacks and the sacrifices, you will see a Navy that moves ever forward: avenging, learning, correcting, and growing stronger and smarter as tragedy is turned into triumph. This is a story that has no happy ending only because it is far from ended. But a story emerges that has a happy middle, one that is still being written as each day dawns.

If you are a Sailor reading this heritage book, never forget that you are one of the main characters of this ongoing story. Unlike the high-school or college student who can merely read history, you are writing history every day you serve in the U.S. Navy. The more you know about the Sailors who served before you, the better prepared you will be to do your job, and do it well. It is your turn to follow in the wakes of those who went before you, to lead the way for others who will follow you, and to make your contributions to the Navy's ongoing legacy of honor, courage, and commitment.

Don't forget to look in the mirror—you just might like what you see.

Editor's Note: A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004) is issued to all new Navy recruits.

Tom Cutler is a former gunner's mate and retired lieutenant commander whose service included patrol craft, destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft carriers as well as a combat tour in Vietnam. He is currently senior acquisitions editor with the U.S. Naval Institute Press, Fleet Professor of Strategy & Policy with the Naval War College, and the author of several books, including the current edition of The Bluejacket's Manual .


Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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Events and Conferences

Guest Lecturer
12:30pm, “Shifley Lecture Series,” U.S. Naval Academy Museum, 118 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD /... Read More
Videotape Interview
10:00am, “Veterans Oral Histories Series,” American Veterans Center, 1100 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington,... Read More


Conferences and Events

2016 Naval History Conference

Thu, 2016-09-08 - Fri, 2016-09-09

Join us for the 2016 Naval History Conference on 8 and 9 September at Alumni Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. The Athena...

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San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

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From the Press

Author Talk & Book Signing

Sun, 2016-08-28

Guest Speaker

Fri, 2016-09-09

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