Sailing, what he portrayed as “the indescribable delight of sea transport,” lofted Samuel Eliot Morison from a sheltered Boston Brahmin boyhood to high repute as the United States’ foremost maritime historian.1 Over a 60-year career, Morison, who died in 1976 at age 88, wrote more than 50 books, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and, in 1963, earned the prestigious, lucrative Balzan Prize for History.2 But fully a third of his professional years centered on experiencing naval warfare firsthand, then producing the extraordinary, enduring 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.
A Harvard history professor steeped in academia, “Sammy” Morison nonetheless strove, as biographer Gregory M. Pfitzer notes, to engage a broader audience. While deploring journalist-historians who often sacrificed accuracy for drama and increased sales, he was inspired as well by Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 admonition to “write history that people would read.”3
As World War II unfolded, Morison perhaps was best known as Christopher Columbus’s biographer. Three years ahead of his 1942 best-selling, Pulitzer-winning Admiral of the Ocean Sea, he appealed to Harvard to underwrite an ambitious project to duplicate the 15th-century explorer’s voyages. “Had I been Columbus,” he wrote, “I should have asked for the blessing of the Cardinal Archbishop and the Church.” In his case, “approval of the [Harvard] President and [Harvard] Fellows will have the same effect.”4
The spring 1939 commissioning of the Harvard Columbus Expedition delivered a vital institutional imprimatur. Subsequent donations enabled the purchase of the Captina, a 140-foot steel-hulled barkentine named for the last of Columbus’s flagships. Not least, the project prompted a presidential “blessing”: Franklin D. Roosevelt, another Harvard alumnus, encouraged State Department officials to fête the expedition during port calls. Now Morison could retrace Columbus’s transatlantic paths between the Old World and the New.5 His idea had blossomed into a full-scale, sophisticatedly outfitted professional operation crewed by two dozen sailors, scientists, and maritime experts.
Ahead of the scheduled August 1939 departure from New London, Connecticut, “Commodore” Morison attempted to impose Age-of-Sail discipline. Fed up with it all, four crewmen abruptly quit, and worse setbacks lurked. A fierce late-August storm fouled the Captina’s rigging. Then, just hours after the expedition finally embarked on 1 September, war broke out in Europe.
Wary of possible submarine activity, the Harvard Columbus Expedition fell behind schedule and curtailed some planned research. Still, by its conclusion off Jamaican shores on 26 January 1940, Morison’s venture had covered more than 7,000 miles and gathered unprecedented information about Columbus’s explorations. “Columbus Upheld by Trip in his Path” headlined a 2 February New York Times article.6
Joining the Navy
When the United States finally entered the war, the historian lobbied for active duty, in part to expunge a bitter World War I embarrassment: being denied Army artillery officer training when a cousin by marriage falsely labeled him a German sympathizer.7 A quarter century later, his age (54) disqualified him for general duty, but Morison audaciously petitioned Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to engage him to write an “insider’s” history of U.S. naval operations.8
Morison’s draft prospectus attempted to parlay his Columbus credentials: Though much research could be conducted ashore, “I [also] need to sail on naval vessels of all types, in various combat areas . . . to get the feel of modern naval warfare. In other words, using my Columbus technique for naval warfare.”
Anticipating a commission “directly under the orders of the Secretary,” Morison pronounced himself “in fine physical condition, ready to drop everything for this, and able to make myself as useful as assistant to navigating or executive officers.” Finally: “If there is nobody in the Navy today with the time or aptitude to write this history, why not appoint me?”9
Spurned by Knox, Morison promptly took his case to Knox’s boss. A note from FDR muted all Navy objections. In May, Lieutenant Commander Morison, U.S. Naval Reserve, wielded a Knox memo addressed to “All Naval Activities Afloat and Ashore.” Subject: “Preparation of a history of the U.S. Navy”; “Those concerned will cooperate fully with Lieutenant Commander Morison in the prosecution of his work.” As Morison later admitted: “Some men entered the Navy through the hawse hole . . . but I entered through the cabin window.”10
Off to War
High-level backing may have gone for naught had the historian not somehow gained the inside track on forthcoming operations. FDR primed the pump by dispatching him to the USS Guinevere (IX-67), a 500-ton, diesel-powered former yacht then scouring Maine’s coast for U-boats.11 When that monthlong tour proved inconsequential, Morison leapt at the opportunity to serve on board the destroyer Buck (DD-420), one of 16 warships escorting 9 troop-laden transports from New York to Britain.
While no U-boats penetrated this convoy’s heavy screen, the July 1942 crossing introduced Morison to the Battle of the Atlantic and launched a fruitful relationship with Destroyer Squadron 13 commander Captain John B. Heffernan. In the late summer, as Morison toured antisubmarine warfare (ASW) shore facilities, Heffernan clued him in to Operation Torch, the forthcoming Allied invasion of Northwest Africa. “[I]f you are about to visit Washington,” read Heffernan’s cryptic note, “I suggest you . . . say [to Knox’s staff] that you would like to take a ‘cruise’ on an interesting ship very, very soon. But do not mention me.”12
Heffernan’s timely tip brought Morison to Norfolk, where he joined the light cruiser Brooklyn (CL-40), part of the 100-ship Western Naval Task Force. Attending a pre-embarkation Army-Navy strategy session, he first encountered a “tough, sandy-haired Major General Patton,” who warned those present, “Tell your friends about this if you want to come back shark’s meat.”13 In late October 1942, when the fleet reached Moroccan waters, Morison first glimpsed combat. “I would really like to go below . . . to muffle the horrible roar of our guns,” he scribbled in his notebook during the preinvasion bombardment, “but I’m here to record a battle.”
Despite Torch’s tactical missteps—not least uncertainty on whether Vichy French forces would oppose or welcome the invasion—Morison gained respect for the Navy’s emerging expertise in amphibious warfare. His own actions earned the historian a letter of commendation. “He was as much a member of the . . . crew as any officer or man regularly assigned,” wrote Captain Frederick C. Denebrink, the Brooklyn’s skipper.
Returning to Washington in early 1943, Morison could be encouraged by Battle of the Atlantic progress: While the Allied navies had not yet solved the U-boat menace, convoys got through, and ASW tactics and weaponry steadily improved. Moreover, U.S. Navy ships had successfully landed troops on the periphery of Adolf Hitler’s empire.
For his own part, Morison could be pleased at what he had been able to witness and the acceptance he had gained within Navy ranks. Still, he needed to recalibrate his original assertion that his history of naval operations should be “the job of one man.”14 Already he had missed out on Coral Sea, Midway, and the six major engagements in the waters adjacent to Guadalcanal. Accordingly, Morison began adding research colleagues.
First to join was Henry Salomon Jr., 25, a Providence, Rhode Island, native; Harvard graduate; and former freelance journalist and NBC radio writer. Salomon, now a reserve lieutenant, had produced Victory Hour, a Navy-sponsored network radio series. “I accepted [Morison’s invitation] almost before the words were out of his mouth,” asserted Salomon.15
Busy Pacific Schedule
On 14 March 1943, bearing orders signed personally by Navy Under Secretary James Forrestal, Morison set off for an extended Pacific war tour, including encounters with Admirals Chester Nimitz and William Halsey and General Douglas MacArthur. As with Knox’s earlier directive, Forrestal specified that “every opportunity be afforded you, as historian of naval operations in this war.”16
There would be little respite in what became a four-month land, air, and sea odyssey.17 From San Francisco, Morison flew to Honolulu for a five-day stay at Nimitz’s Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CinCPac), headquarters. Flights to Palmyra Atoll, Canton Island, and Fiji next brought him to the Noumea, New Caledonia, headquarters of Halsey, Commander, South Pacific Area (ComSoPac). Based there, Morison sandwiched a 12-day Guadalcanal inspection tour between two voyages (totaling 17 days) on board a “U.S. ship” (likely the Washington [BB-56]) on carrier escort duty.
Departing New Caledonia on 19 May, he flew to Brisbane, Australia, for commutes by rail and plane to Sydney, Newcastle, and Melbourne. A 12 June audience with Mac- Arthur, Commander, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA), crowned this leg. Fully resplendent for what was supposed to be an interview, MacArthur instead delivered a 30-minute monologue portraying the terrifying strength of the Japanese and arguing—tellingly—“that a theater commander should be allowed to act, with no orders from President, United Nations, or anyone.”18
Morison took up MacArthur’s parting offer to “put the Army at my service,” flying to Port Moresby, New Guinea, and then to staging points for Operation Cartwheel, coordinated SWPA/SoPac operations to breach the Bismarck Archipelago. On 7 July at Espiritu Santo, Morison boarded the USS Honolulu (CL-48), Rear Admiral Walden L. “Pug” Ainsworth’s flagship, to witness Operation Toenails, the captures of Rendova and New Georgia.
With Allied forces battling for control of New Georgia’s Munda Point airfield, Japan’s “Tokyo Express” (destroyers loaded with reinforcements and supplies) repeatedly steamed down the “Slot” (New Georgia Sound). The early hours of 13 July brought the chaotic Battle of Kolombangara, in which one Japanese destroyer was sunk, but at considerable cost: the destroyer USS Gwin (DD-433) sunk, and crippling Long Lance torpedo hits to the Honolulu and companion cruisers St. Louis (CL-49) and HMNZS Leander. Morison now appeared more accustomed to the “tossing [of] red balls” between combatants. According to a Honolulu sailor, Morison sat “calmly jotting down notes . . . while more anxious shipmates adjusted lifebelts . . . for any eventuality.”
A Seasoned Sailor
The historian found vast changes on the European front when he finally returned to Washington in late July. Tactics, technology, air supremacy, and the May 1943 establishment of the Tenth Fleet had turned the Battle of the Atlantic decidedly in the Allies’ favor. Ashore, meanwhile, after expelling Axis forces from North Africa, the Allies had conquered Sicily and were poised to invade mainland Italy.
An early October letter from Pug Ainsworth disrupted Morison’s hopes to catch up on research. As Henry Salomon later recalled, “Morison . . . inferred . . . it might be a smart thing to . . . shove off for California.”19
His resulting billet for Operation Galvanic, the Navy and Marine Corps’ first central Pacific amphibious thrust, was on board the USS Baltimore (CA-68). By now a seasoned judge of ships and skippers, Morison found the newly commissioned heavy cruiser wanting. The ship “is built very badly,” he confided to his diary. He also thought little of the vessel’s skipper, Captain Walter C. Calhoun, (“doesn’t bother keep the ship . . . clean”) and even less of flag-level passenger Rear Admiral Carlton H. “Bosco” Wright (“There is no sense having an admiral on this ship”).20
Realizing there would be scarce let-up in central Pacific operations, Morison arranged for Salomon to cover the remainder of Galvanic and Operation Cataract, the January and February 1944 Marshall Islands invasions. Meanwhile, Morison returned to the United States, both to resume writing and to sniff out news on the long-anticipated invasion of Europe’s mainland.21
This big show was coming—but where and when? Morison shared his concerns with Lieutenant George M. Elsey, the officer in charge of President Roosevelt’s White House Map Room. Confidentiality prevented Elsey from revealing the secret, but Morison sensed an opportunity. Once again leveraging his FDR connection, he arranged for Elsey (yet another former Harvard student) to be his eyes and ears for the cross-Channel invasion.22
This matter settled, Morison returned to the central Pacific, splitting time between the Montpelier (CL-57) and the newly repaired Honolulu during Operation Forager, the spring/summer invasions of the Marianas. Back in Europe, meanwhile, Elsey indeed witnessed Operation Overlord, first from the command ship Ancon (AGC-4) off Omaha Beach, then ashore interviewing ground combatants. And Lieutenant Henry D. Reck, a February 1944 addition to the history project team (and one of Morison’s former students), became the historian’s proxy for Navy operations off Italy and southern France.
That autumn, with Salomon on the scene for MacArthur’s storied return to the Philippines, Morison—now a commander—again crossed the Atlantic, this time on board the Coast Guard cutter Campbell (WPG-32), lead escort for a Gibraltar-bound convoy.23 After December and January tours of continental beachheads, he flew back to Washington in early February.24
Even as the Navy’s two-ocean war hurtled toward conclusion, Morison kept up a peripatetic pace. Orders dated 22 February returned him to Hawaii, then, on 15 March, dispatched him to Commander, Battleship Squadron One, Vice Admiral Jessie Oldendorf, whose flagship USS Tennessee (BB-43) happened to be skippered by John Heffernan. The “Rebel Ship,” resurrected from Pearl Harbor and a veteran of the Aleutians, Gilberts, Marshalls, Carolines, Leyte Gulf, and Iwo Jima, supported Operation Iceberg, the massive April invasion of Okinawa.
A target of Japanese aerial kamikazes since her second day offshore, the Tennessee faced her biggest challenge on the afternoon of 12 April, when multiple suiciders swarmed the battleship. Gunners shot down five, but a determined sixth, coming in on the port bow, targeted the Tennessee’s bridge. “Just then,” Morison recalled, “somebody hollered ‘Duck,’ and I did, with no questions asked.” Taken under fire by two 40-mm quad mounts and numerous 20-mm guns, the plane was deflected from its intended course by a 40-mm burst. The flaming kamikaze crashed through one of the quad mounts and ended up abreast 14-inch gun turret No. 3, in the process releasing its 250-pound bomb to explode below decks. Twenty-three officers and enlisted men died, including all 12 Marines of the quad mount’s gun crew.25
This, Morison’s closest brush with death, was followed the next day by the tragedy (both personal and professional) of President Roosevelt’s death. “I have lost . . . a dear personal friend,” he eulogized in his notebook. “The Navy has lost its greatest champion.”26
In the spirit of FDR, Morison carried on, that same day flying to Guam (Nimitz’s forward headquarters) and, from there, to inspection tours of Iwo Jima, the Philippines, and Kwajalein. A month-long Honolulu stay concluded the itinerary. Morison was back in Washington by mid-June, very likely expecting a westward return for the invasion of Japan.
Instead, with Japan’s 15 August surrender, Samuel Morison’s “World War II Expedition” effectively “dropped anchor.” The prodigious task of writing History of United States Naval Operations in World War II suddenly lay before him. This scholarly, lengthier odyssey ultimately would reach a masterful conclusion. But it would begin in tragedy, then endure a host of delays, disputes, and controversies.
1. Gregory M. Pfitzer, Samuel Eliot Morison’s Historical World (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), 12; Wilcomb E. Washburn, “Samuel Eliot Morison, Historian,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 36, no. 3 (July 1979): 325–52.
2. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 262.
3. Pfitzer, xix, 45.
4. Pfitzer, 153.
5. Samuel Eliot Morison, “Life Sails Columbus’ Route,” Life, 25 March 1940, 102–6.
6. “Columbus Upheld by Trip in His Path,” The New York Times, 2 February 1942.
7. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 65–66.
8. Pfitzer, 171.
9. Undated document in Box 1 Office Files of Rear Admiral Samuel E. Morison, USNR, 1911–1969, Naval History and Heritage Command Archives (hereafter NHHC).
10. James D. Hornfischer, “Revisiting Samuel Eliot Morison’s Landmark History,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2011.
11. Wikipedia, “USS Guinevere (IX-67).”
12. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 175.
13. Pfitzer, 176.
14. Undated document, NHHC.
15. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 179.
16. Temporary duty orders, 9 March 1943, NHHC.
17. “Accounts of travels of Lieutenant Commander Samuel Eliot Morison, U.S.N.R., for purposes of refund for mileage and air transportation allowance,” 28 July 1943, NHHC.
18. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 180, 211.
19. Pfitzer, 181.
21. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Battle of the Atlantic 1939–1943, vol. 1, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (New York: Little, Brown, 1959), xv.
22. George M. Elsey, An Unplanned Life: A Memoir by George McKee Elsey (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 48–49.
23. Morison, Battle of the Atlantic 1939–1943, xv.
24. “Account of Travels of Commander Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR,” 12 February 1945, NHHC.
25. Samuel Eliot Morison, Victory in the Pacific, vol. 14, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 227–30.
26. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 182.