Pop quiz: Which 18th-century war included the most large-scale fleet battles? The American Revolution, I was surprised to learn from Sam Willis’ cover story, “American Independence and the Naval Factor.” There’s the Battle of the Chesapeake, as well as other Age of Sail classics such as Ushant and the Saintes.
But instead of dwelling on them, Willis focuses on ways the naval dimension pervaded the conflict—from Washington crossing the Delaware (several times) to how locals reacted to the appearance offshore of a Royal Navy fleet. I first heard of Willis several years ago from Naval History and Heritage Command historian Charles Brodine, who recommended the British writer’s 2008 book Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century. After receiving a review copy of his latest work, The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, I asked if he would contribute an article.
Once past Willis’ piece, you’ll recognize a U.S. Coast Guard theme in this issue. Michael Tougias’ article, “Triumph and Tragedy off Cape Cod,” is adapted from his best-selling book The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, which is now a Disney movie. And in “Hot on the Opium Smugglers’ Trail,” Captain Daniel Laliberte recounts how the U.S. Revenue Marine Service Cutter Oliver Wolcott won an 1886 race north to Alaska that resulted in a record-setting bust.
What was commonly called the Revenue Cutter Service was more formally known as the Revenue Marine Service for much of the 19th century. In 1894 the name was officially changed to the Revenue Cutter Service, and 21 years later it merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to form the Coast Guard.
William Thiesen’s article, “The Coast Guard’s World War II Crucible,” focuses on how the service’s responsibilities expanded exponentially immediately before and during the global conflict and its servicemen and servicewomen rose to the challenge. The piece is one of three World War II articles in this issue.
The others are based on interviews with veterans. Fred Allison crafted retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Roy Elrod’s recollections of leading a 37-mm gun platoon on Tarawa’s Betio Island into “‘We Were Going to Win . . . or Die There.’” Elrod and his men played a key role during First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman’s famous assault on one of Betio’s most formidable fortifications.
The remains of Bonnyman, who was mortally wounded in the attack and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, were missing on Betio until recovered by an archaeology team in 2015 (see “Bonnyman Found on Tarawa,” October 2015, pp. 12–13). But one of Elrod’s men killed in the battle, Private First Class Joe Ault, is still listed as missing in action. Lieutenant Colonel Elrod, who also fought on Guadalcanal and Saipan, remains active at age 97.
Rear Admiral Hans-Rudolf Rösing, who passed away in late 2004 at age 99, was one of many U-boat veterans Melanie Wiggins has interviewed. “Pages from a U-boat Commander’s Career” features his naval-service memories as well as photographs from his collection. After leading U-48 on two war patrols, Rösing commanded all U-boats based in France and worked closely with Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, whom he greatly admired.
Preserving the recollections of U.S. Sea Service men and women has been a key mission of the U.S. Naval Institute since 1969, when the organization launched its Oral History Program. Beginning with this issue, Naval History will tap into this ever-expanding historical resource by featuring an Institute oral-history excerpt in the new “As I Recall” department. First up are retired Naval Reserve Captain Mildred McAfee Horton’s memories of serving as the first commander of the WAVES during World War II.
Richard G. Latture