In the late 1960s, when the Naval Institute's Proceedings was publishing articles on various aspects of naval history and on the Vietnam War then in progress, Roger C. Taylor had an idea for an additional way of documenting history. A Naval Reserve officer as well as the Institute's editorial director, Taylor wanted to do more than publish unsolicited manuscripts. He wanted the organization to be proactive as well in recording the first-hand recollections of those who had made history, both at sea and ashore.
The oral history discipline was still relatively young then; the repository that held the most sway in the field was Columbia University in New York City. Taylor discovered that for several years Columbia had been collecting oral histories of retired Navy admirals. The interviewer was John T. Mason Jr., an Episcopal minister whose wife, Betty, was assistant director of the Columbia program. Typically, after his service on any given Sunday, Mason traveled to the Washington, D.C., area and did his interviewing on Monday. Then it was back home to his parish for the rest of the week. Taylor concluded that Mason would be the ideal person to set up shop in Annapolis as a full-time oral historian. In 1969 the Naval Institute's program thus began and now celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Mason's original concentration was on flag officers who had served in World War II, and he particularly focused on individuals who had served with Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, during the war. Up to his death in 1966, Nimitz declined to be interviewed himself, so Mason's best avenue for getting the story about him was to interview those who knew him well: Nimitz' staff members and former shipmates. His wife and children also contributed, often including anecdotes about the admiral's memory and gift for telling amusing stories that made a point. E. B. Potter of the U.S. Naval Academy history faculty mined this wealth of raw material to write the celebrated biography Nimitz, which the Naval Institute Press published in 1977.
Mason's format in processing the interviews was to provide transcripts to the subjects, who then entered changes, corrections, and additions. After the revised transcripts were retyped, Mason then indexed the final version of each memoir. The index entries have proved to be valuable research aids ever since.
Mason broadened his scope well beyond the Nimitz project. He discovered that a number of his interviewees opened doors to others whose stories would be usefully recorded. He interviewed several Chiefs of Naval Operations. He had interviewed Admirals William Fechteler and Robert Carney for Columbia; he did Admirals Arleigh Burke, George Anderson, David McDonald, and Thomas Moorer for the Institute. In each case the format was to produce a memoir that included the subject's entire life and naval career. The result was readily available information to researchers on the individual's formative stages. These recollections have also proved invaluable for those researching specific topics. In Burke's case, for example, the interviews covered his World War II service with Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, his postwar role in the service unification battles, and many other topics.
Mason did some clusters of oral histories in specific areas: the directors of the women's sea service branches in World War II-Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps; Vietnam prisoners of war; commanders of the Navy's in-country warfare in Vietnam; and individuals with substantial roles in the Polaris ballistic-missile submarine program in the 1950s and 1960s. He also brought Coast Guard veterans into the collection, including some former Commandants: Admirals Alfred C. Richmond, Edwin J. Roland, Willard J. Smith, and Chester R. Bender.
On the West Coast, the Naval Institute had an able representative in retired Commander Etta-Belle Kitchen, who interviewed naval personnel in California. One of her notable contributions was the oral history of Admiral Stuart S. "Sunshine" Murray, which demonstrated the value of the whole-career format. Murray graduated from the Naval Academy during World War I and was among the earliest students at Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. In the early 1920s he was one of the first submariners stationed at Pearl Harbor, helped in the development of the fleet boat in the 1930s, directed submarine operations in World War II, and commanded the battleship Missouri (BB-63) when she was the site of the Japanese surrender in 1945. As a flag officer he headed an advisory group in China in the late 1940s, continued to be involved with submarines, and was Commandant of the 14th Naval District.
Basis for Books
When Mason retired to Connecticut in 1982, I took over the program and have been doing oral history interviews on its behalf ever since. I had served on active duty as a Naval Reserve officer during the Vietnam War and came to the oral history position from having been managing editor and senior editor of Proceedings. Since then I've conducted hundreds of interviews. Among those were the surviving members of the first group of African-American officers, the subject of the 1993 book The Golden Thirteen: Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, the first black flag officer; John W. Lee, the first black officer in the regular Navy; Wesley Brown, the first black Naval Academy graduate; Carl Brashear, the Navy's first black master diver; and J. Paul Reason, the first black four-star admiral. Brashear's oral history was one of the source materials screenwriters used for the movie Men of Honor, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Brashear.
The oral history of Captain Slade D. Cutter led to Carl LaVO's excellent biography of the World War II submarine legend. Captain Alex Kerr, counsel to several Secretaries of the Navy, drew from his oral history in the memoir A Journey Amongst the Good and Great. Senator John S. McCain III's coauthor dug deeply into the Naval Institute oral history collection for his book Faith of My Fathers, which included excerpts from his father's interview with Mason. Thomas Parrish used oral histories for his overall history of submarines, and former U.S. Representative Robert Mrazek consulted them as sources for his 2008 book A Dawn Like Thunder, which tells the story of ill-fated Torpedo Squadron Eight in World War II.
Captain Tim Wooldridge, a retired naval aviator and former curator of naval aviation and Ramsey Fellow at the National Air and Space Museum, brought together dozens of oral histories in creating a three-volume compendium of recollections on U.S. naval aviation. The late Dr. Clark Reynolds used several oral histories in his biography of Admiral John Towers, and the late Commander Thomas Buell found oral history interviews helpful in his books on Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King and Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. I also tied together oral memoirs in Naval Institute Press books covering the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the 1944 invasion of France at Normandy, and diesel submarines of the 20th century. And numerous excerpts from the collection's first-person accounts have appeared in both Proceedings and Naval History over the years.
The program has continued several of Mason's interviewee categories, including prisoners of war, CNOs, and Coast Guard Commandants. Included in the latter are Admirals Owen Siler, James Gracey, Paul Yost, Robert Kramek, and James Loy. We have talked with a number of commanders of the Sixth and Seventh fleets, the Navy in Vietnam, and superintendents of the Naval Academy. In addition to interviewing Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr., who brought about great change during his time as Chief of Naval Operations, I also talked to several of Zumwalt's staff members. And we've brought in the recollections of a number of enlisted personnel to add their perspectives on shipboard service. Included were Michael Bak, Roger Bond, and Richard Harralson, who served in World War II.
George Van, a 1950 graduate of the Naval Academy and a voracious reader, did valuable volunteer work on behalf of the program. He transcribed hundreds of hours of tape with great skill and put together the cumulative subject index, which is essential for researchers as they look into various topics covered in the interviews. For example, a number of individuals may have served in the same ship or battle; the index quickly identifies the oral histories relevant to the topic. Ann Hassinger, Sue Sweeney, Mary Ripley, and Janis Jorgensen of the Naval Institute staff have been most helpful in guiding researchers to the transcripts that serve their various needs.
Useful financial support for the Naval Institute's oral history program comes from the Tawani Foundation of Chicago and from donors who provide support on behalf of specific projects. The need for funding continues, particularly to facilitate the completion of transcripts not yet finished.
Learn more about our Oral History Collection.