The year 1939 was a busy one-filled with events that are still discussed 70 years later: movie classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, the beginning of World War II in Europe, world's fairs in New York and San Francisco, the end of Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak for the New York Yankees, the sinking of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, African-American singer Marian Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and a summer visit to the United States by the King and Queen of England.
The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, now in its 18th edition, traces its heritage back to that year, when it was first published and cost 50 cents. The man who developed what turned out to be the long-running series was James C. Fahey, a New Yorker who had been turned down for military service for medical reasons but loved the Navy nonetheless. In time he served in the merchant marine and worked as a taxi driver. He also wrote naval articles for various publications. But he felt stymied, his widow recalled many years later, by the "butchering" editors did to his manuscripts. As an independent-minded perfectionist, he concluded that the best way to get his work into print was to serve as his own publisher.
In pulling together the 1939 edition of Ships and Aircraft, which comprised 48 pages, Fahey produced a snapshot of the Fleet in one of its last peacetime years. He included write-ups on each class of ship and type of aircraft and photos of many of them. Adept at presenting a great deal of information in compact tables and paragraphs, Fahey was also his own editor and proofreader, which was remarkable because the type was tiny and he had only one good eye. He gathered facts and figures from a variety of sources and had a fetish for accuracy.
Among the information in that first edition was a three-page chart that showed the entire organization, including homeports, of the U.S. Fleet itself and the much smaller U.S. Asiatic Fleet that operated out of China and the Philippines. It was a time of transition for a U.S. Navy that included holdovers from the World War I era and the emergence of modern ships that would be the nucleus for the World War II Fleet. Battleships still held primacy; the most recent in service was the USS West Virginia (BB-48), commissioned in 1923. New battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines were coming along to take their places in the Fleet. Specialized amphibious warfare ships were still a few years away.
As he began selling copies of his handy reference work, Fahey commuted from his home in the Bronx to his office near Times Square in Manhattan. A youngster named Frank Uhlig, a ship lover himself, used to visit the office. Fahey told Uhlig that he left home each day with two nickels in his pocket-one for each leg of his subway trip. If the incoming mail contained money for ordering a book, he could afford lunch that day.
The lean times would not last long. In 1940, stimulated by the German successes in Europe, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act that opened the spigot of funding for a massive building program of ships and aircraft. Fahey responded with updated editions in 1941, 1942, 1944, and a "Victory Edition" in 1945. His work produced a bonanza of sales because of public interest in the war; a 1942 Time magazine article about him was a considerable boon to his business.
In his work, Fahey wanted to say as much as he could in an open source and still pass security review by the Navy. He concluded that the only facts the Navy would let him publish were the ones the Germans and Japanese already knew. Another of his frustrations was that as soon as each edition came out, it was already obsolete because the Fleet was changing so rapidly.
After the war, Fahey continued his self-publishing work with editions in 1950 and 1958 and periodic supplements. The Naval Institute published his final edition, the eighth, in 1965. Following Fahey's retirement, John Rowe and Samuel L. Morison coauthored the ninth and tenth editions. Norman Polmar has been the author from the 11th edition to the present. Over that time, the guide has grown from a small handbook to an encyclopedic tome with far more information and illustrations than Fahey's works.
Not long before his death in 1974, James Fahey made one more contribution to the legacy that had started with his first guide. He sold his vast collection of ship and aircraft photographs to the Naval Institute. Patty Maddocks, who ran the photo library for many years, cataloged thousands of pictures into the archive, and they have been appearing in Naval Institute publications ever since. The acorn of 1939 has blossomed considerably.