There is something special about being a Sailor—as Gunner's Mate Second Class Charles J. Hansen knew when he personalized a memorial on his arms to shipmates lost in the USS Vincennes (CA-44) near the Solomon Islands in World War II. In this excerpt from A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004), the author explains why Sailors' stories are worth knowing.
More than half a century ago, Theodore Roscoe wrote This Is Your Navy, an informal history of the U.S. Navy written specifically for Sailors. On the first page he asked, "What's the good of going back to the old days, or even yesterday, when you've got your hands full with affairs in the present? You're kept jumping by what's going on around you here and now. You're busy with what you're doing here today." His comments are still true today.
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.