In this issue of Naval History we're commemorating the anniversaries of two significant events in U.S. Navy history—the first a voyage that made world headlines 50 years ago, and the second a battle 65 years ago that's often overshadowed by World War II's bigger clashes.
Carl LaVO's article "Out-Sputniking the Soviets" recalls the USS Nautilus' daring under-ice trip to the North Pole. Meanwhile, Navy Captain Stephen F. Davis Jr.'s story "Perfect in Every Respect" describes how at the Battle of Vella Gulf U.S. destroyers finally bested their Japanese counterparts. A former member of the Naval Institute's Editorial Board, Captain Davis tragically passed away on 23 February 2008. He was blessed with an infectious passion for the history of the U.S. Navy and at a board meeting shortly before his death made clear his fervent wish that the service more fully embrace its rich past.
While Naval History revels in the heritage of the Navy, I wouldn't be surprised if this issue's cover painting of the USS Chesapeake after her capture by HMS Shannon raises some readers' eyebrows. Over the years, we've often recounted the Navy's War of 1812 victories on the high seas and Great Lakes. But now acclaimed historian Jeremy Black gives us a different perspective on the conflict. In "A British View of the War of 1812," he admits that defeats in 1812 frigate duels were humiliating but points out that the Royal Navy became increasingly effective during the war, in no small part because of its blockade of the United States, and the losses did little material damage to the service.
The painting on pages 16 and 17 that opens Dr. Black's article depicts the Chesapeake and Shannon's bloody, 15-minute battle on 1 June 1813. When its artist, Robin Brooks, learned we planned to include it in this issue, he wrote us that a May 1965 article in Naval History's sister publication, Proceedings, ("Don't Give Up the Ship!" by retired Army Reserve Major Hugh D. Purcell) had originally sparked his interest in the battle, which is the subject of several of his paintings.
A different perspective on Vice Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey comes courtesy of first-time contributor Alan Rems in his article "Halsey Knows the Straight Story." How the retired accountant came to write this illuminating, brilliantly researched story is a fascinating tale in itself.
During a Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Library program about the horticultural book collection of a local woman, passing mention was made of her Marine general son, Charles D. Barrett. According to Mr. Rems, his "mild curiosity . . . grew into intrigue after learning the circumstances of Charles Barrett's death and the unresolved questions it raised." Wondering if more information could be gleaned from the papers of the Marine commandant at the time, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, he discovered that Alisa Whitely at the Marine Archives had just finished compiling those documents. Discovered were two heretofore unpublished letters that fully resolved the mystery of Barrett's death.
At first blush, the findings cast Halsey in an unfavorable light; however, as the author points out, the admiral's personnel decisions, as controversial as they now seem, doubtless saved many lives. What's surprising is that more commanders under intense wartime pressure do not go the way of Barrett. As Marine Major General Alexander Vandegrift wrote Holcomb in one of the recently discovered letters, "there save by the grace of God goes any one of us."