Featured Oral Histories

Paul Stillwell, Dr. Mason's successor in the Oral History Program, at the Naval Institute's Annual Meeting in 1985.

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The U.S. Naval Institute's Oral History program began in 1969 with a mission to preserve a permanent record of the stories—in their own words—of those individuals whose contributions to the sea services have made history. Their words, transcribed, edited, footnoted, and indexed, have proven a valuable resource for scholars ever since.

The clips featured below are selected from the thousands of hours of taped interviews in the Naval Institute’s archive that have been digitized to better preserve them for the future. The transcripts that accompany these selections are taken from the published oral history volumes. Because these printed transcripts have been edited to improve flow and for accuracy, the words spoken in the clips may differ slightly from what is printed. But nevertheless, the voices of the individuals featured speak to us again to remind us of the great effort they gave to posterity.

Digital Audio Files from the Naval Institute Oral History Collection are Made Possible by a Gift from Captain Roger E. Ekman, USN (Ret.).

Admiral John S. "Jimmy" Thach, USN (Ret.) (1905-1981)

Volume I

Based on five interviews conducted by Commander Etta-Belle Kitchen, USN (Ret.) from June 1970 through March 1971, the volume contains 461 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1977 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the restrictions originally placed on the transcript by the interviewee have since been removed.

This is a delightfully told memoir from the man who was probably the Navy's foremost fighter plane tactician of World War II. He is best known as the inventor of the "Thach Weave" whereby U.S. fighters could successfully combat Japanese Zeros. Thach tells of devising the maneuver at home with kitchen matches. In a series of enjoyable tales, Thach describes his Naval Academy years, graduating in 1927, early experience in patrol planes and fighters, flying with Butch O'Hare, early combat operations against the Japanese, culminating in the Battle of Midway, teaching tactics at the Navy's Operational Training Command, making training films to indoctrinate new pilots, and then acting as operations officer when he returned to the combat theater on the staff of Vice Admiral John S. McCain, Commander Task Force 38.

The index to Volume I can be viewed here (.pdf).

Volume II

Based on five interviews conducted by Etta-Belle Kitchen from May 1971 through August 1971. The volume contains 393 pages of interview transcript plus an index and appendices. The transcript is copyright 1977 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the restrictions originally placed on the transcript by the interviewee have since been removed.

This second volume contains Thach's account of service on the staff of CTF 38, culminating with his presence on the deck of the Missouri for the Japanese surrender. After the war, he was director of training at Pensacola and special assistant to Vice Admiral "Black Jack" Reeves in fighting off attempts by the Air Force to take over naval aviation. He commanded the escort carrier USS Sicily (CVE-118) in the early stages of the Korean War as Marine Corsairs provided close air support, then was senior naval aide to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air, John Floberg. Thach commanded the large carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) during a Mediterranean deployment and had a tour as commander of naval air bases in the Sixth Naval District. After serving as senior member of the Weapon Systems Evaluation Group, he commanded Carrier Division 16/Task Group Alfa in hunter-killer ASW Work. As a vice admiral, he commanded Anti-Submarine Warfare Force Pacific Fleet and was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air). After being promoted to four stars, he served as Commander in Chief U.S. Naval Forces Europe.

The index to Volume II can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this selection, taken from his second interview with Commander Etta-Belle Kitchen, USN (Ret.) at his home in Coronado, CA in August 1970, Admiral Thach relates his first meeting with future Medal of Honor recipient and fighter ace Lieutenant Commander Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare in 1940.

Admiral Thach: So, I established what we called a "humiliation team." It was composed of myself, my executive officer, Don Lovelace, Noel Gayler and my gunnery officer whose name was Rollo Lemon. We would take these newcomers to the squadron, take them up and give them all the altitude advantage they wanted. Then we'd fly towards each other and see if they could come down and get on our tails and stay there long enough to shoot. A pilot who has just achieved the wonderful accomplishment of getting his wings is usually rather full of himself and sometimes a little cocky. So this was a good thing to let them know that they didn't know everything right off the bat and show them that they had a lot of work to do. We could even eat an apple and lick these kids, or read a newspaper. I used to take an apple up and eat it just to . . .

Commander Kitchen: Show them!

o-hare thach wildcatAdmiral Thach: Well, anyway, this was true with one exception. One person who came to my squadron fresh out of the training command was a young man by the name of Butch O'Hare, and the first time I took him up and gave him altitude advantage, he didn't make any mistakes and I did everything I could to fool him and shake him, and he came right in on me and stuck there and he could have shot me right out of the air. So I came down and I got hold of Rollo Lemon and I said, "Well, I've had one of these new youngsters up but I want each member of the Humiliation Team to go up with him and give him a chance. He's pretty good, and I'll just wager a little bit, that he'll get on your tail the first time and stay there.” "Oh,” he said, “they never do.” I said, "I know that.” "Well," he said, "where is he?" Up they went and, sure enough, Butch did it again. It wasn't long after that before we made him a member of the Humiliation Team, because he had passed the graduation test so quickly.

Commander Kitchen: How did he gain that skill? Were you able to evaluate that?

Admiral Thach: I think Butch O'Hare, when he learned how to fly an airplane, he learned how to fly it real well. He was a good athlete. He had a sense of timing and relative motion that he may have been born with, but also he had that competitive spirit. When he got into any kind of a fight like this, he didn't want to lose. He wanted to win. He really had a dedication to winning, and he probably had worked a lot of this out in his own mind, then read as much as he could, and when he first got to the squadron he studied all the documents that we had on aerial combat and he just picked it up much faster than anyone else I've ever seen. He got the most out of his airplane. He didn't try to horse it around. He learned a thing that a lot of youngsters don't learn that when you're in a dog fight with somebody, it isn't how hard you pull back on the stick to make a tight turn to get inside of him, it's how smoothly you fly the plane and whether you pull back with just enough of turn on your aircraft so that it remains efficient and isn't squashing all through the air causing more drag, which defeats the purpose of what you're after, to get around in the shortest time, that is the tightest turn consistent with not losing ground due to rough handling of the aircraft or working the controls in such a way that they cause a drag on the forward motion of the aircraft.

General James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle, USAF (Ret.) (1896-1993)

Based on one interview conducted by Paul Ryan in February 1983. The volume contains 53 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1987 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee has placed no restrictions on its use.

General Doolittle describes in detail the background and preparation for the air attack he led on Tokyo in April 1942, the famous Doolittle Raid. Among aspects he covers are mechanical difficulties, crew training, and the personalities he dealt with in bringing off this daring attack.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).


In this excerpt from his Feburary, 1983 interview with Captain Paul B. Ryan, USN (Ret.), General Doolittle describes the preparations for the famous Raid and accomadations aboard the USS Hornet (CV-8) as the raiders steamed for Japan.

General Doolittle: When we went aboard, there was perhaps just the least bit of coolness between the Navy people and the Army people. We felt a little out of place on a carrier, and they felt a little out of place having us there. But when we went under the San Francisco Bridge, over the radio said, "Hear ye, hear ye." And everybody aboard was told not exactly where we were going, not exactly what we were going to do, but that this was a mission against Japan. From then on, there was complete rapport. There was no--as a matter of fact, the Tokyo fliers were given the best of everything. If they were rooming with a chap, he gave him the best place in the room, the best bed. Captain Mitscher, as you say, gave me his quarters, because he said, "You will want to be holding meetings from time to time with either all of your people or some of them at a time, and consequently it would be more convenient for you to have a place where you can do that. My quarters makes that possible, and that's the only place on the ship," whereupon he moved into the smaller quarters himself and made his quarters our meeting place. So we could not have had better cooperation from then on. As I said, the boys felt a little out of place on a carrier, and the carrier people felt a little out of place, they felt they were a little out of place, but after that first "Hear ye, hear ye," there was complete and utter cooperation at every level. I don't know whether any of the books said, but prior to Admiral Halsey leaving San Francisco in the Enterprise, he and I had met in a little restaurant where we had a table way back in the corner.[1] And we discussed the operation from every point of view. We tried to think of every contingency that might possibly arise and have an answer to that contingency.

One of the things that we considered was being apprehended before we got to Japan. And the plan was that if we were within range of Japan, we would go ahead and bomb our targets, fly out to sea and hope, rather futilely, to be picked up by one of the two submarines that were in the area. If we were within range of the Hawaiian Islands–say, Midway–we would immediately clear their decks and proceed to Midway so they could utilize the task force properly.

If, on the other hand, we weren't within range of anyplace we could go, we would push our aircraft overboard so that the Hornet's deck would be cleared, and they could protect themselves. I believe that Admiral Halsey and I really sat down and considered every possible eventuality--one of which eventuated.

[1] Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., USN, Commander Carriers   Pacific and, at the time of the Doolittle Raid, Commander Task Force 16.

Other Oral Histories with Audio Selections

In addition to the selections featured above, audio highlights and indexes are available for the following Oral Histories:


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