Used in combination with documentary sources, oral histories offer a richer understanding of naval history through candid recollections and explanations rarely entered into contemporary records. In addition, they help depict the atmosphere of a particular event or era in a manner not available in official documents.
The U.S. Naval Institute’s award-winning Oral History Program, among the oldest in the country, was launched in March 1969 by Dr. John T. Mason (1909–1998), a former U.S. Navy officer who had conducted interviews on the naval history of World War II for the renowned Columbia University Center for Oral History. Mason served as the Program’s first director until 1982, when he was succeeded by author and historian Paul Stillwell, who also had served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. Mason and his successor established a program renowned for the meticulous preparation, skillful interviewing techniques, and painstaking editing of its interviews.
They obtained, preserved, and disseminated a permanent record of the reminiscences of hundreds of significant leaders in 20th-century U.S. naval history, including staff officers and family of great commanders, such as those who served with Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, to influential postwar CNOs, such as Admiral Arleigh A. Burke and Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, to influential but less familiar figures whose important contributions to the U.S. Navy’s success in World War II and the Cold War might have gone unnoticed otherwise. Groundbreaking individuals such as “the Golden Thirteen”—the U.S. Navy’s first African-American officers—and several of the first female U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen also can be found in the Institute’s Oral History archives. Other pioneers whose memories are preserved here for future generations include Mildred McAfee, first director of the WAVES, and Carl Brashear, first African-American U.S. Navy Master Diver. These interviews are featured regularly in prominent works of military history, both scholarly and popular.
In 2015, the Program started a new chapter in its history. Under the leadership of Vice Admiral Peter H. Daly, CEO of the Institute, and charged with maintaining Mason and Stillwell’s high standards, experienced historians deployed nationwide to conduct interviews of noteworthy leaders from contemporary history. New interview subjects include Admiral Stanley R. Arthur, USN (Ret.); retired CNOs Vernon E. Clark, Jay Johnson, and Michael G. Mullen (who also served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff); Admiral James G. Stavridis, USN (Ret.) (among other posts, recently NATO Supreme Allied Commander); and Admiral Thomas H. Collins, USCG (Ret.), Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Additionally, in 2016, Stillwell completed the interview of CNO Carlisle A. H. Trost, USN (Ret.). Other interviews are planned and under way.
The Program also possesses some 40 valuable, previously unprocessed interviews conducted by Mason, Stillwell, and others from 1969 through 2004, a select number of which will be made available in nearly their original form as part of a “Legacy Series.” These and most interviews will be made available in multiple formats.
The nonprofit Naval Institute’s Oral History Program depends on contributed funds and gratefully accepts tax-deductible gifts of all sizes for this purpose. This support allows the Institute to preserve the life experiences of today’s service men and women so they may enlighten and inspire future generations. For information about opportunities to support the Oral History Program, please contact the Naval Institute Foundation by email at [email protected], by phone at (410) 295-1054 or by writing at 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21402.
The Naval Institute wishes to acknowledge the many donors who make this program possible, in particular, the generous support of the Pritzker Military Foundation of Chicago, Illinois, the late Jack C. Taylor, and Andrew Taylor of St. Louis, Missouri, and Capt. Roger E. Ekman, USN (Ret.) of Edina, Minnesota.
For further information about oral history at the U.S. Naval Institute, please contact:
Mr. Eric Mills
Oral History Program Manager