“Attention must be paid.”—Arthur Miller
That exhortation from playwright Arthur Miller’s masterwork, Death of a Salesman, is one of the most famous lines in the American theater, and it immediately came to mind when I learned that a naval officer of singular distinction, Commander William F. Bundy, USN (Ret.), a member of “The Centennial Seven,” had suddenly passed away on 15 December 2019. In that spirit, I headed north on a sunny December day a little over a year ago to attend a funeral with full military honors.
Driving from northern Manhattan to Rhode Island takes about four hours, plenty of time to retrace the extraordinary life of my USS Sturgeon (SSN-637) shipmate and friend, whose journey took him from the projects of West Baltimore at the height of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s to become one of the U.S. Navy’s foremost theoretical strategists. To understand the significance of the present, we must revisit the past.
I first met Will Bundy when he reported aboard the Sturgeon in early 1969, as we were preparing for a “northern run” deployment. As the boat’s yeoman, I was one of the first people Will met when he reported. Besides his formidable physical presence, there was something about him that set him apart. He was quiet, confident and a lot more measured in manner than the rest of the crew. He immediately disappeared into the sonar shack as we went north on an incredibly successful deployment that led to several individual crew commendations, a Meritorious Unit Commendation, and a Legion of Merit for the captain. At the end of the year, I was transferred to the USS Dogfish (SS-350). Seven months later, I was out of the Navy and lost track of many of my shipmates, including Will.
Almost four decades later, when the Naval Institute Press published my book Stealth Boat: Fighting the Cold War in a Fast Attack Submarine, a memoir of life on board the Sturgeon in the late 1960s, several old shipmates reappeared out of the mist, and Will was one of them. At first, I could not “put a face to the name,” but when I saw a photograph of him in the crew’s mess my immediate response was, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy!” I was delighted that he had reached out, and we agreed to stay in touch.
In January 2010, the library in my hometown of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, asked me to do a reading from my book to announce they were placing it in the stacks. The event was listed on public bulletin boards statewide. Will saw the listing and sent me a note saying, “I’ll be there.” I had just begun my remarks when the back door to the room opened—and in walked a man I had not seen in 40 years.
I interrupted my planned speech to say, “And there is my shipmate, Will Bundy.” Even though we had both changed over the years, it was if we were back on board the Sturgeon. As Will approached at the end of the presentation, he was somewhat ambushed by my cousin Kelly Murray, a state employee, who was in attendance. “Hi, Mr. Bundy! Do you remember me?”
Will’s response stopped me in my tracks, “Of course, Kelly . . . how are you?” When I asked Kelly how she knew Will, she said she had worked for him when he was the director of transportation for the state. I stood, stunned, trying to imagine how my former sonarman shipmate, who was not from Rhode Island, had become the director of the Department of Transportation! Suddenly, a man from my past was very much part of my present. Will told me he was living in Bristol and working at the Naval War College in Newport. We exchanged business cards and promised to stay in touch.
In December of that year, I organized an informal gathering of old Sturgeon shipmates who lived in the Groton area, and I invited Will. Informally called “Lunch with the Captain,” we met at the Subvets Clubhouse on School Street in Groton on a Saturday afternoon—a casual gathering of old shipmates recalling humorous anecdotes and celebrating memories of service on board one of the best boats of that time, with one of the best captains of that time. Present were the Chief of the Boat, the Yeoman, the Head Steward, an A-ganger, a Sonarman, a couple of “nucs” from the Electrical Division, and our Commanding Officer, Captain William L. "Bo" Bohannan.
Animated conversations crisscrossed the table as they had 40 years earlier in the crew’s mess. Old and familiar topics such as money and women wove together with inquiries about current health problems, accidents, surgeries, and concerns for shipmates who had not been heard from for some time. The humor was sharp, pointed, quick, and the laughter genuine, loud, and deep. A story about trading on “the Market” for silver dollars very quietly and unexpectedly segued into a remarkable moment when former sonarman Will Bundy said “Speaking of coins…” and then he recalled his experience on board the Sturgeon, pointedly stating that the quality of leadership under Captain Bohannan’s command had inspired him to pursue a career in the Navy—a career that led him to become the first African American to advance from the enlisted ranks to earn a full commission, and the third to command a submarine in the U.S. Navy, the USS Barbell (SS-580).
Will then then produced a coin specially commissioned to memorialize “The Centennial Seven,” the seven African-Americans who rose to submarine command during the first hundred years of the submarine service. He explained that they present the coin in a very specific manner to those who were especially inspirational to them during their careers. In perhaps the most appropriate setting for the occasion, a quiet, dignified, sincere exchange between two extremely accomplished men transpired in front of us as Will placed the coin in the palm of his right hand, and passed it to the captain with a handshake and a statement of gratitude. The rest of us were struck dumb. Until that very moment we were totally unaware of our shipmate’s achievements.
In January 2013, Will invited me to tour the War College, and it was there he revealed the rest of his career path. It began on board the Sturgeon when the operations officer, Lieutenant Commander Guy Curtis, my qualification officer, who had observed the confident competence and measured demeanor that set Will apart from the rest of the crew, approached him and said, “The Navy has a program for you.”
That was the beginning his extraordinary journey. He finished his enlisted career as chief sonarman and then became the rarest of us all: a first, a person of singular, unprecedented achievement. As the first African-American to rise from the enlisted ranks to full commissioned officer, that moment alone was enough to gain him nominative recognition in the U.S. Navy historical narrative—but for Will, it was only the beginning.
After receiving his commission, he served several positions as a junior officer, including assistant weapons officer on board the USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609), before taking command of the USS Barbel (SS-580) in 1988. Later, he directed the U.S. Naval Officer Candidate School. While on active duty he earned a Defense Meritorious Service award and more than 20 personal, unit, campaign, and service medals. He garnered the 1993 Black Engineer of the Year Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government and received the U.S. Navy League’s Dalton L. Baugh Award for inspirational leadership in recognition of his professional accomplishments during his service in the Navy. He retired from the service in 1994 at the rank of commander.
Will was a 1964 graduate of Baltimore City College, received an associate degree from Leeward Community College in 1970 and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii in 1973. He earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies at the Naval War College, and a PhD from Salve Regina University in 2005. At the War College, he served as the chair of the Warfare Analysis and Research Department, where he focused on the challenge of integrating technology in the Navy and became one of the foremost theoretical strategists of his generation. As the head of the Gravely Group, his impact on the development of the U.S. Navy Officer Corps for the past decade and a half is immeasurable.
In the private sector, Will was a FleetBoston Financial Executive prior to assuming his civilian position at the Naval War College. Besides his tenure as director of the Rhode Island State Department of Transportation, he also served on numerous local and national boards of directors. As an adjunct professor at Providence College and Salve Regina University, he taught leadership, business organization, and ethics courses. Mike Ritz of Leadership Rhode Island said this about him: “It’s rare that a military officer is so intimately linked to community as Dr. Bundy was.”
In December 2018 Will and I spoke at length on the telephone about a project of my own, and then we met for breakfast in Bristol a month later. Will was, of course, beyond helpful, and even when he couldn’t answer a question directly, he would suggest source material that would give me what I needed to know. When he was in his “War College Sage” mode it always seemed like he was answering from a different dimension entirely. I have a couple of theoretical math friends who talk about functioning on multidimensional levels of cognizance, and I felt Will was like that. Sadly, that was the last time I spoke with him. I was stunned by his sudden passing.
Will Bundy was laid to rest in a Mass of Christian Burial on Saturday, 21 December 2019, at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Bristol, and interred with full military honors in the Veteran’s Cemetery at Exeter, Rhode Island. He is survived by his wife Jeanne, sons William and Raymond, daughter Andrena, and three grandchildren, Matthew, Eleanor, and Annalise.
Of his father, former naval officer William F. Bundy Jr. said this: “My father did not always have it easy coming from West Baltimore. He transcended the systems of oppression. His vehicle was the U.S. Navy. Through his dedication and work ethic he was able to achieve what a person of his birth was not meant to achieve. He was and is what makes America great. He was relentless. His mind was always working, thinking through the next thing, how to make it better, how to be better, how to innovate and create the next breakthrough. However, what I most remember was his dignity and presence. You would see and feel his greatness in his presence, his confidence, his subtle humor, and his sage wisdom. He coupled that with a gentlemanly manner which respected everyone’s personal dignity. He was a role model for all.”
Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris, president of the National Naval Officers Association, spoke of “the wisdom and counsel of Dr. William Bundy. He was more than a life member of the National Naval Officers Association. Dr. William Bundy was the intellectual North Star of NNOA. He was the wisest and most humble guide to us all. And Dr. Bundy has a legacy that will live on in the students from the Gravely Group at the Naval War College and all who seek excellence in the application of advanced research to warfighting in the maritime domain. We all mourn the untimely passing of our dear friend, esteemed colleague, and terrific mentor. His legacy lives on in all of us.”
On that tour of the War College back in 2013, Will revealed that he wanted me to work with him on a project. He said, “I’m not free to talk about it. It’s something for the future.” I assumed it was a “look back” that would be impossible while he was still on the faculty and subject to security restrictions. Initially, I wondered why a man of such accomplishment would want my assistance, but now I realize it all went back to our shared experience on board the Sturgeon. We were young men together, petty officers who did serious things in serious situations together, often in direct communication with each other, he in the sonar shack and I in the control room. Our paths may have diverged 50 years ago, but submariners are shipmates forever.
Will’s path led him to become a “first,” and that path began on board a “first.” The motto of the Sturgeon was “first in her class, finest in the fleet,” and when he and I served on board together she was exactly that. My path led to the world of storytelling, mostly as an actor and, later in life, as a writer. That last part makes sense in that I was always “the Scribe” in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and on board the Sturgeon as the yeoman—the man who eventually would tell the boat’s story in a book. I must believe Will wanted me to help him tell his story, and what a story it is.
The improbable journey of a young man from the projects of West Baltimore at the height of civil rights struggle to become one of the Navy’s foremost theoretical strategists is most worthy of Arthur Miller’s exhortation: “Attention must finally be paid to such a man.” To attempt that I must borrow from Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark to say this about my Sturgeon shipmate and friend, Will Bundy: “He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.”