View From the Quarterdeck: Volume 15, Issue 1


We live in a world of change driven by technology and a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that medical scientists have not yet been able to curb.  There is much talk of quarantines of all sorts.  Perhaps that is a subtle reminder of the importance of a journal dedicated to encouraging academic scholarship in the field of international naval history.  The very word “quarantine” derives from the Venetian language quarantena, meaning forty days.  The term referred to the isolation imposed on ships arriving in Venice before passengers and crews were allowed to go ashore as a means of disease prevention for bubonic plague in the 14th-15th centuries.  Ultimately the Black Death wiped out an estimated 30% of Europe’s population. 

On 22 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the word took on a different meaning when President John Kennedy ordered and enforced a naval “quarantine” to prevent delivery of offensive weapons in the form of missiles the Russians were sending to Cuba.  The intent was to distinguish his action from a blockade which legally would have assumed a state of war existed between between the two countries.  As the United States Navy recently re-learned with spread of the novel coronavirus on the carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT while on deployment in the Western Pacific, medical quarantines are not yet part of history’s dustbin.    

Perhaps the hidden benefit of today’s pandemic is that technology of our Zoom era provides more effective tools for all of us to make more effective use of our quiet time for reading and reflection, not unlike an in port stand down before an upcoming deployment.  As a digital publication, we at the International Journal of Naval History hope to be more active in the coming months as part of the digital exploration of naval history which is open to us during this era.  As archives and documents become more readily available to scholars and writers worldwide, we have become increasingly aware of maritime and naval stories which deserve both telling and analysis.  A crucial part of our mission is to serve as an outlet for writing such as this, bringing openness and fresh scholarship to readers in the world of naval history.

In this issue we are reaching another long-sought goal of focusing on a particular topic; in this case the USS PUEBLO Crisis of 1968.  Here we take a somewhat unusual approach by offering two articles from independent scholar Bill Streifer.  Mr. Streifer contends that “both contain startling revelations.”  He says that according to Dr. Andrei Lankov, a Professor of History at Kookmin University in Seoul, a recognized authority on North Korea, the PUEBLO was “hidden” at some undisclosed location after the North Koreans seized the vessel in January of 1968.  He discusses U.S. efforts to locate the ship, where it was “hidden” for decades, and how U.S. reconnaissance discovered it (not by spy plane).   

The second article describes how, following the PUEBLO’s seizure, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee interviewed the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He asked why, despite the “availability” of aircraft in Japan, Guam, South Korea, and on an aircraft carrier, USS ENTERRISE, senior admirals did not send any warplanes to protect the PUEBLO.  In 1969, during the Navy’s Court of Inquiry, the Senator returned to review his questions and their answers. He was shocked to find that someone had cut out an answer with scissors. The clerk of the Congressional Record said he had not seen this in his 22-years’ experience. If it was classified, the clerk said it would have been marked “classified” with a giant “C” in red, not doctored/altered/destroyed.  Historians do not make this stuff up!

Finally, we continue our longstanding practice of encouraging and recognizing scholarship by junior members of the profession.  To this edition we have a fascinating documentary on the career of legendary CAPT Rosemary Mariner, USN, a pioneer woman Naval Aviator.  The documentary was written and produced by Jessie Henderson, of Cleveland, Tennessee, much of it based on original work with primary sources, including interviews with family members.

Jessie received the Kenneth Coskey Prize in Naval History in the Senior Division of the 2020 National History Day competition at the University of Maryland in College Park for her work.  The Naval Historical Foundation awards the prize.  Her mentor, Dr. Julie Mitchell, was honored as a Naval Historical Foundation national “Teacher of Distinction” for 2020.  The documentary also includes an extensive annotated bibliography useful for anyone studying the role of women in the U.S. Navy.

And so, colleagues, as usual, we have much to share.  I welcome your comments, suggestions, ideas, and, most of all, potential articles for publication.  There is much to learn from one another with such dialog.

Dr. Charles C. Chadbourn, III
Editor, International Journal of Naval History
Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College

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The Pueblo Incident: Locating the “Hidden” Spy Ship

Pueblo is Shifted by North Koreans: The North Korean moved the captured United States intelligence ship Pueblo from the port of Wonsan to another place, State Department officials said today.” 1

New York Times (AP)
May 10, 1968

Bill Streifer
Freelance Journalist

January 23rd of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Pueblo Incident. On that day in 1968, the naval and air forces of the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) attacked a U.S. Navy intelligence ship with 83 men onboard. When the captain of the ship, Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, surrendered without firing a shot, he became the first U.S. sea commander to do so since 1807. 2  After eleven months of beatings, brutal interrogations, and forced confessions as prisoners of the North Koreans, the crew of the USS Pueblo crossed into freedom across the “Bridge of No Return” at Panmunjom (DMZ). The ship, however, remains on display in Pyongyang, North Korea in what CBS News recently described as a “North Korean propaganda prize.” 3

Giles Hewitt / AFP / Getty Images

In a 2013 photo, 4  North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is seen saluting outside of the USS Pueblo (the “Victorious Fatherland War Museum”) prior to a fireworks display marking the 60th anniversary of the July 27th Korean War armistice agreement.

The story of the Pueblo is well-known to everyone interested in Korean contemporary history and the international politics of the Cold War, says Dr. Andrei Lankov, a Professor of History at Kookmin University in Seoul. 5  Born in the Soviet Union and a graduate of Leningrad State University, Lankov is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on North Korea. 6  He also attended Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, 7  In his article on the Pueblo Incident, “The Pueblo as a North Korean Monument,” Lankov remarked how the Pueblo, the only U.S. Navy ship held captive by a foreign government, 8  was “now ranked among the greatest monuments found in Pyongyang.” 9  And in the article’s subsection titled, “A Ship Resurfaces,” Lankov mentioned how the North Koreans had “hidden” the Pueblo at some undisclosed location, before it surprisingly reappeared in Pyongyang decades later:

In 1995, the Pueblo, hitherto safely hidden (and perhaps disguised) at some naval base, reappeared in public. The ship was moved to the East Coast city of Wonsan, a place near to where it was captured. It was held there for a few years, but in 1999 it suddenly disappeared, only to reappear on the banks of the Taedong River, in downtown Pyongyang (in 2013 it was moved to its current location).” 10


Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, officers, and crew appear before the international press.

About two weeks after the crisis in North Korea began, the New York Times reported that the crew of the Pueblo were moved to a point near the South Korean border “apparently in preparation for their return to American hands,” 11  and how the men would “remain at Kaesong pending the outcome of negotiations.” 12  According to an informed official source, two Korean newspapers in Seoul 13  reported that the crew was presented to the North Korean public at a rally in Pyongyang on February 8th. 14  The date of this stunt—corresponding to the 20th Anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Army—was clearly chosen for propaganda purposes. 15  The next day, the captive crewmen were transported by train from Pyongyang to Kaesong, a North Korean village six miles northwest of Panmunjom where negotiations for the release of the ship and crew had already begun. 16

Quoting an (optimistic) unidentified informant, the South Korean press reported that North Korea would return the body of the dead seaman and the wounded men “within a few days,” 17  Through neutral negotiations, the Americans were informed that one member of the crew was killed and three others injured, one seriously, during the ship’s capture. 18  It was later learned that Marine Sergeant Robert Chicca had a hole the size of a silver dollar in his upper thigh 19  and that Fireman Steven Woelk was seriously wounded in the lower abdomen. 20  Worst of all was Fireman Duane D. Hodges, the crewman who died, when a 57-mm shell from North Korean cannon fire caught him almost squarely in the groin, ripping his intestines open and partially severing his right leg. 21

About three months into the crisis in North Korea, Nicholas Katzenbach, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Attorney General, testified in executive session on the Pueblo Incident before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—Senator J. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Committee, presiding. 22  Katzenbach began by saying he hadn’t prepared a statement. “That is fine. I prefer it that way,” Fulbright said. “Just give us a little rundown in the situation in Korea and then the situation with respect to the Pueblo…” 23  First, the Attorney General asked for a few minutes to discuss the general situation in Korea before the current crisis erupted. 24  “I do not mean to be alarming in any way,” Katzenbach said, “but I think it is a situation that does give concern.” 25

For the last year and a half, the North Korean line had been “very tough indeed in terms of their public statements.” 26  Beginning in October 1966, Kim Il-sung, the leader and founder of North Korea, talked about unification; he talked about revolution in South Korea; and he called for joint action against U.S. forces. 27  This was accompanied, Katzenbach said, by “similar statements on an increased level.” 28  As recently as April 24, 1968 (post-seizure of the USS Pueblo), Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father), the First Vice Premier of North Korea, talked about “the huge job of completing the revolution” and uniting North and South Korea. 29  He also said “war might break out at any moment in Korea,” 30  and they were taking “full measures to crush the U.S. imperialists, and so forth,” 31  Katzenbach said.

With respect to the Pueblo, the Attorney General told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Americans had engaged in private discussions with the North Koreans, without the presence of others, at fifteen meetings over a period of time. 32  “They have not been accompanied with a great deal of diatribe,” Katzenbach said. “I suppose that part. at least initially, we took as encouragement. On the other hand, they have gotten really virtually nowhere.” 33  During all meetings, the North Koreans were adamant: “You won’t get the Pueblo back.” 34  And before the North Koreans would consider releasing the crew, Katzenbach said, the Americans would first have to apologize publicly for their espionage activities and unlawful mission, as well as for their multiple intrusions into what the North Koreans claimed was North Korean territorial waters, 35  crimes for which the North Koreans said several members of the Pueblo crew, including the captain of the ship, had already “confessed.” 36  They had not even gone so far as to say, “If you do this, you will get the crew back.” 37  Instead, they said, “You do that, and that is an essential precondition to get back the crew. You won’t get the vessel back in any event.” 38  By then, the Pueblo was no longer in the Wonsan area, fearing the Americans might try to drag the American spy ship out. North Korea’s concern was justified.

When the Pueblo Incident began, President Johnson considered a dozen or more “possible actions” he could take in response to the North Korean seizure of the U.S. Navy vessel. One [Action No. 4] called for a show of force led by the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. 39  Another [Action No. 3] involved a diplomatic demand coupled with a tug that could drag the Pueblo out, if necessary. 40  To add meaning and force to the diplomatic demand, the plan called for a flag ship to arrive “peacefully and unarmed” at Wonsan, where the U.S. Navy ship was seized. 41  The intent of Action No. 4 was to demonstrate to the world “our determination and emphasize our insistence on prompt return.” 42  Also strongly implied was that force would be used unless the ship was returned safely. 43

With these goals in mind, the plan called for a U.S. Navy sea-going tug to steam to Wonsan to accept the return of the captured ship and crew. 44  Meanwhile, a carrier task force “over the horizon” would be available just in case. 45  Although it was believed the Pueblo could proceed on its own power, the tug would be available to accept custody and tow if need be. 46  The use of a tug, rather than a warship, would “display determination, confidence, and peaceful intent.” 47  If the tug met hostile action, however, “quick word to task forces would provide support.” 48

RD3 John L. Perry, a radarman aboard the USS Truxtun (DLG 35), recalls the plan to pull the Pueblo out differently—neither peacefully nor unarmed. 49  According to Perry, the Truxtun, along with the Halsey, were ordered to escort the Enterprise to Korea in retaliation for the seizure of the Pueblo. 50  However, when the Enterprise and Truxton received orders to proceed to North Korea, they were more than 500 miles from Wonsan. 51  To make things worse, only 35 of the 59 fighter jet aircraft on board the Enterprise were operational. 52

When the Truxtun pulled out of Sasebo, Japan at around 9 o’clock that morning, it was heading south toward the Philippines. 53  Then, during evening chow, Perry recalled that the ship heeled over in a sharp, table-clearing 180-degree turn, as the voice on the 1MC [the ship’s primary public address system] informed the crew of the Truxtun that an unnamed U.S. Navy vessel was captured by the North Koreans, and “we were going to assist, if possible.” 54  Meanwhile, the Enterprise and its screening ships were ordered to reverse course in the East China Sea and to run northward to the Sea of Japan as the Truxtun headed north at flank speed (about 33 knots) with the Enterprise and Halsey trailing behind. 55  Unlike the Halsey, the nuclear-powered Truxtun was fast and didn’t require refueling by the Enterprise, so it pulled steadily ahead of the other ships. 56

At around 4am the next morning, Perry said they received orders to rig up towing cables, and to be ready to go into Wonsan Harbor during the daylight hours. 57  They were going to “shoot the place up, recapture the Pueblo, and tow it out of there, 58  Perry said. However, with only one 5-inch/54 caliber and two 3-inch/50-caliber anti-aircraft guns, and an aluminum superstructure and thin skin, Perry figured they had their work cut out for themselves if the Truxton was to get into a gunfight with North Korean shore batteries. 59

By 5am, the Truxtun had pulled up just south of Wonsan, and an hour later, two older WWII-vintage destroyers arrived on station and were given the towing assignment, which was set to begin at 8am. 60  But the plan was postponed until 9, and then 10. 61  Perry said the recovery effort was eventually called off, either because they felt the Pueblo was a lost cause; or because the crew of the Pueblo had already been taken off the ship; or because the secret material on board had already been compromised. 62


On March 18, 1965, John McCone, the new Director of Central Intelligence, discussed with Secretaries Robert McNamara and Cyrus Vance the increasing hazards to U-2’s and the drone reconnaissance of Communist China. 63  Four days later, Brigadier General Jack C. Ledford, Director of the Office of Special Activities, briefed Vance on the scheme which had been drawn up for operations in the Far East. 64  The project was called BLACK SHIELD. 65

Between January 1, 1968 and the end of March, fifteen CIA “BLACK SHIELD” reconnaissance missions were alerted (scheduled) for flights over Communist targets. 66  The mission vehicle was the Lockheed A-12 “Archangel,” capable of photographing targets on the ground from an elevation of 10,000 feet and Mach 3.5 (three and a half times the speed of sound). Of the six missions actually flown, four were over North Vietnam and two were over North Korea. 67  Eight of the others were cancelled due to the weather, and the approval of one, for a flight over Korea, wasn’t obtained. 68

To determine the Pueblo’s current location, BLACK SHIELD Mission BX-6847 was flown over Wonsan on January 26; that was three days after the seizure of the Pueblo and one day after approval was granted for this reconnaissance flight. 69  The pilot’s name was Jack W. Weeks. His A-12 mission over North Korea was tracked by radars of the Chinese Air Defense System 70  and by Soviet air defense radars for about five minutes. 71  [The mission’s 3-pass flight path is seen in Appendix I] A photograph taken during this mission (See below) shows the Pueblo at anchor in Wonsan Bay. 72  The CIA said this mission demonstrated the BLACK SHIELD program’s ability to react rapidly.

In addition to the immediate task of locating the Pueblo, these A-12 flights also photographed North Korean industrial and transportation systems. 73  The mission also provided an updated order of battle for North Korea 74  (military units, formations, and equipment). During BLACK SHIELD Mission BX-6847, for example, the A-12 photographed dozens of North Korean COMIREX [Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation] targets and 837 bonus targets. 75  In addition to the Pueblo, three new guided missile patrol boats were observed. 76

A second BLACK SHIELD mission was flown on February 19, 1968. The CIA spy pilot’s name was Frank Murray. 77  During Murray’s Mission BX-6853, 84 North Korean COMIREX targets and 89 bonus targets were photographed, 78  and in the vicinity of Wonsan, one new occupied Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile site was identified. 79  [The mission’s 2-pass flight path is seen in Appendix II]

Frank Murray “Dutch 20” sitting in the cockpit of his A-12

In terms of this mission’s ability to photograph the Pueblo, however, it was hardly as successful as the first. Scattered clouds covered 20 percent of the area photographed, concealing the area where the Pueblo had been photographed previously. 80  Was the Pueblo “hidden,” just as Dr. Lankov said, or was it merely hidden from view due to excessive cloud cover? 81  All the CIA knew at the time—nearly a month after the Pueblo Incident began—was that the Pueblo had “reportedly” been relocated. 82

Two days later, in a top secret memorandum addressed to Richard Helms, the Director of Central Intelligence, with the subject line: “Location of the Pueblo,” Dr. William A. Tidwell, 83  the Chairman of COMIREX, 84  floated the idea of adding A-12 flights over North Korea. 85  “As a result of the last BLACK SHIELD mission,” Tidwell wrote, “it seems clear that we do not know the location of the Pueblo.” 86  Since COMIREX wasn’t scheduled to obtain assistance from satellite reconnaissance for the purpose of finding the Pueblo, 87  if the location of the Pueblo was “of critical importance in U.S. policy decisions during the next month,” Tidwell suggested that “the only feasible way of searching for its present location would appear to be to employ the OXCART” (code name for the A-12). 88  Tidwell’s memo concluded as follows: “We will be prepared to provide coordinated requirements as rapidly as possible if you decide at any point that the location of the Pueblo is of such importance as to justify another OXCART mission.” 89

Between April 1 and June 9, 1968, only two BLACK SHIELD missions were alerted, both for flights over North Korea. The first, BX-6857, scheduled for April 27, was cancelled. 90  The other, BX-6858 (scheduled for May 5th), was flown on May 8th. 91  The pilot’s name was Jack Layton. [The mission’s 2-pass flight path is seen in Appendix III] Hampered by clouds and heavy haze, this third and final OXCART mission over North Korea revealed no significant changes in North Korean military posture or disposition, 92  and coverage of the DMZ, transportation, and infiltration routes disclosed no significant troop build-up of logistic movements. 93     During the mission, 68 COMIREX targets plus 30 bonus targets were photographed, 94  fifteen of which were SA2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. 95  Also identified was a possible Soviet-made SAMLET coastal defense cruise missile site, located between Wonsan and Hamhung. 96

Unfortunately, overcast conditions severely hampered the interpretability of mission photography. 97  A report on BLACK SHIELD reconnaissance missions by the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, stated: “Existing weather conditions in the target area did not permit the photographing of the USS Pueblo,” 98  nor was there any indication of a hostile weapons reaction. 99  Air surveillance tracking was accomplished by elements of the Chinese Air Defense System (ADS), but there was no indication of tracking by either North Korean or Soviet ADS. 100  Apparently, neither the North Koreans nor the Soviets paid much attention to this May 8, 1968 mission over Wonsan. Two questions remain: Had the North Koreans already moved the Pueblo out of harm’s way and where was the Pueblo now?



Winthrop G. Brown

A few days after the conclusion of the third and final BLACK SHIELD mission, the press reported for the first time that the Pueblo was no longer in Wonsan Harbor. In “Koreans Move Pueblo,” the Washington Post said that the State Department confirmed that the North Koreans had moved the USS Pueblo from where it was seized back in January. 101  The officials who provided this information declined to provide further details except to say that the vessel was moved without its American crew. 102  At the time. the U.S. had repeatedly called on North Korea to return the Pueblo and its men without result. 103  According to the New York Times, the surviving crewmen were still being held, possibly in several places. 104

The Washington Post further reported that it was Winthrop G. Brown, a former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and currently a special assistant to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who had disclosed—during a closed session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—that the Pueblo had been moved. 105  State Department Officials would only confirm Brown’s testimony, declining to provide any further details publically 106  Some members of the Committee, however, thought the Pueblo might have been taken to the North Korean city of Chongjin which the Washington Post said was “nearer the Soviet border.” 107  Joseph C. Goulden of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Washington Bureau provided another clue. In “Spy Satellite Spots Removal of USS Pueblo,” Goulden said that photos showing the Pueblo was no longer at the berth she occupied ever since her capture were taken by “one of the satellites that make regular sweeps over the Asian mainland.” 108

What the Government knew all along, but failed to disclose to the public, was that a GAMBIT 3 high-resolution photoreconnaissance satellite 109  had spotted the Pueblo in the waters off Vladivostok (USSR) at least a month earlier. On April 24, Dr. John S. Foster, Jr., an American physicist who had served as the Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, testified in closed session before the Senate Subcommittee on Military Preparedness. 110  As Director of Defense Research and Engineering who managed the Defense Department’s $8 billion research and development budget, U.S. Senator John C. Stennis said Dr. Foster played a “key role in the policy decisions which determine the quality of our nuclear strategic arsenal.” 111

In his opening statement (prepared by Dr. John Kirk, Assistant Director for Space Technology, on the April 12th), Dr. Foster said he welcomed the opportunity to discuss U.S. strategic nuclear policy and capabilities, and that his lengthy written statement, which he presented to the Senate Subcommittee, would cover three areas. 112  First, the general strategic situation for the next few years and U.S. national security objectives. 113  Second, our nation’s research and development philosophy and the guidelines for managing R&D on strategic programs. 114  And lastly, Foster said he would review for the Senate several major weapons systems issues, including a new missile, an advanced bomber, an air defense interceptor, and missile defense. 115

Dr. Foster also explained how, by means of the higher resolution of 12-18 inches, 116  the KH-8, or Keyhole, satellite was “used to provide engineering details which allow us to ‘Baseline’ equipment and probable usage of thousands of specific national targets within the Soviet Union and China.” 117  First launched in 1966, the GAMBIT 3 118  (KH-8) satellite camera system 119  provided the U.S. with an “exquisite surveillance capabilities from space.” 120  The GAMBIT, along with the U-2, A-12, and other air and space platforms, propelled the United States into an unparalleled position of dominance in photoreconnaissance capabilities, which the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) said helped the U.S. win the Cold War. 121

Among the targets Dr. Foster mentioned during his testimony included missile silos (starts and types), nuclear storage sites and facility changes, Chinese nuclear test build-up, and underground nuclear test craters in the USSR. 122  He also revealed that a KH-8 camera had “located USS Pueblo in North Korea about 19 miles south of Vladivostok…” 123  After learning of this information, Frank Murphy, the CIA spy pilot who flew his A-12 over Wonsan, North Korea in February 1968, wrote, “I did not know that Pueblo was moved to a place near Vladivostok.” 124

Following the North Korean seizure of the Pueblo, Soviet experts grabbed encryption machines and the top secret documents on board. So by the time the North Koreans moved this U.S. Navy spy ship up the coast, it was of no further value to the Soviet Union. Why, then, did the North Koreans elect to send the ship into the waters off Vladivostok, the main naval base of the Soviet Far East? This remains one of the unanswered questions surrounding the Pueblo Incident.

Appendix I
(Mission BX-6847 Flight Path — January 26, 1968)

Appendix II
(Mission BX-6853 Flight Path— February 19, 1968)

Appendix III
(Mission BX-6858 Flight Path — May 5, 1968)


  1. Pueblo is Shifted by North Koreans,” New York Times, May 10, 1968, p. 5.
  2. Cheevers, Jack, “The Pueblo Scapegoat,” Navy History Magazine, Vol. 28, No, 5, Oct. 2014.
  3. “USS Pueblo Displayed as North Korean Propaganda Prize,” CBS News, Pyongyang, North Korea: Jan. 25, 2018;
  4. In 2016, the photographer, Giles Hewitt (a British national born in India), was named Asia-Pacific editor of L’Agence France-Presse (AFP). Four years earlier, Hewitt became AFP’s Seoul bureau chief whose responsibilities included covering news out of North Korea where AFP recently became one of the few foreign media outlets to open a news bureau; afp-1
  5. Lankov, Andrei. “The Pueblo as a North Korean Monument,”, Nov. 3, 2014.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “USS Pueblo Displayed as North Korean Propaganda Prize,” CBS/AP, Jan. 25, 2018.
  9. Lankov, Andrei. “The Pueblo as a North Korean Monument,”, Nov. 3, 2014.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Trumbull, Robert, “Crew Moved, Papers Say,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 1968, p.12.
  12. Ibid.
  13. The Dalhan Ilbo and the Shin-a Ilbo.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. “On Watch: Profiles from the National Security Agency’s Past 40 Years,” Top Secret (classified by multiple sources), 1984 (approved for release by NSA on Sept. 10, 2007), p. 72.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. “Briefing on Site Negotiations and the Pueblo Incident,” U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, May 1, 1968 (The briefing began at 4:05pm), p. 473.
  23. “Briefing…,” p. 473.
  24. “Briefing…,” p. 487.
  25. “Briefing…,” p. 487.
  26. “Briefing…,” p. 487.
  27. “Briefing…,” p. 487.
  28. “Briefing…,” p. 487.
  29. “Briefing…,” p. 487.
  30. “Briefing…,” p. 487.
  31. “Briefing…,” p. 487.
  32. “Briefing…,” p. 489.
  33. “Briefing…,” p. 489.
  34. “Briefing…,” p. 489.
  35. “Briefing…,” p. 489.
  36. “Briefing…,” p. 489.
  37. “Briefing…,” p. 489.
  38. “Briefing…,” p. 489.
  39. “Index of Possible Actions.” Undated. Top Secret. 35 pp. Source: National Archives, RG 218, Records of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Records of Chairman (Gen.) Earle G. Wheeler, 1964-1970, box 29, tab 449. 
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid.
  49. RD3 John L. Perry; (blog), Feb. 5 2000.
  50. Also sent were battleships and two additional aircraft carriers, as part of a task group code-named “FORMATION STAR.” The Joint Chiefs also recommended that nine submarines be sent to support reconnaissance and potential attack missions. [Mobley, Richard, Flash Point North Korea: The Pueblo and EC-121 Crisis, Naval Institute Press, 2003
  51. Michishita, Narushige. Calculated Adventurism: North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2000, Johns Hopkins University, 2003, p. 307.
  52. Ibid.
  53. John L. Perry, blog, Feb. 5, 2000.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid.
  58. Ibid.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Ibid.
  61. Ibid.
  62. Ibid.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid.
  66. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 January – 31 March 1968,” DST-BS/BYE/68-2, CIA, Directorate of Science and Technology, Top Secret, Apr. 20, 1968; approved for release, Aug. 2007, p. 1; after an MDR appeal, redactions were removed by ISCAP on Sept, 19, 2016.
  67. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 January – 31 March 1968,” p. 1.
  68. Ibid.
  69. Ibid.
  70. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 2.
  71. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 2.
  72. This image is a collage of photos taken from declassified CIA documents; Streifer, Bill. “Anything Could Happen: Newly Declassified CIA Documents Tell an Entirely Different North Korea ‘Pueblo Incident’,” North Korean Review 12(2), Oct. 2016.
  73. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 1.
  74. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 1.
  75. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 8.
  76. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 8.
  77. The author interviewed Frank Murray in February 2018.
  78. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 11.
  79. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 11.
  80. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 11.
  81. “BLACK SHIELD…March 1968,” p. 11.
  82. “Implications of Reported Relocation of USS Pueblo,” CIA Intelligence Information Cable, February 12, 1968, Declassified Documents Reference System, doc. no. CK3100137943.
  83. Typically, the Chairman’s name is redacted from top secret CIA documents, but not from the following top secret NRO document: “Program for Planning the Exploitation of Reconnaissance Imagery,” memorandum for COMIREX, Sept.25,1968 (Approved for release by the NRO on July 1, 2015). Dr. Tidwell. Years earlier, Dr. Tidwell also played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  84. “Location of the Pueblo,” memorandum the Chairman, Committee on Imagery requirements and Exploitation, to the Director of Central Intelligence, Feb. 21, 1968.
  85. Ibid.
  86. Ibid
  87. Ibid
  88. Ibid
  89. Ibid
  90. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June” (Appendix I), p. 5.
  91. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 1.
  92. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 1.
  93. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 1.
  94. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 2.
  95. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 2.
  96. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 2.
  97. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 2.
  98. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 2.
  99. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 2.
  100. “BLACK SHIELD Reconnaissance Missions, 1 April – 9 June ,” p. 2.
  101. “Koreans Move Pueblo,” Washington Post, May 10, 1968, p. A-23.
  102. “Pueblo is Shifted by North Koreans” (AP), New York Times, May 10, 1968, p. 5.
  103. Ibid.
  104. Ibid.
  105. “Koreans Move Pueblo,” Washington Post, May 10, 1968, p. A-23.
  106. Goulden, Joseph C. “Spy Satellite Spots Removal of USS Pueblo,” Philadelphia Enquirer, Inquirer Washington Branch, May 10, 1968, pp. 2-3.
  107. “Koreans Move Pueblo,” Washington Post, May 10, 1968, p. A-23.
  108. Goulden, Joseph C. “Spy Satellite Spots Removal of USS Pueblo,” Philadelphia Enquirer, Inquirer Washington Branch, May 10, 1968, pp. 2-3.
  109. This high-resolution illustration of a GAMBIT 3 satellite was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the NRO [F-2018-00050
  110. “Intelligence Information for Dr. Foster’s Appearance Before the Senate Subcommittee on Military Preparedness” (opening statement by Dr. John Kirk), Apr. 11, 1968 (Approved for release by the NRO on July 1, 2015), 5 pgs.
  111. “Status of U.S. Strategic Power,” U.S. Senate, Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, Wednesday, Apr. 24, 1968, p. 45-46.
  112. “Status of U.S. Strategic Power,” U.S. Senate, Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, Wednesday, Apr. 24, 1968, p. 45-46.
  113. Ibid.
  114. Ibid.
  115. Ibid.
  116. “Intelligence Information for Dr. Foster’s Appearance Before the Senate Subcommittee on Military Preparedness,” Approved for release on Feb. 21, 2018.
  117. “Intelligence Information for Dr. Foster’s Appearance Before the Senate Subcommittee on Military Preparedness” (opening statement by Dr. John Kirk), Apr. 11, 1968 (Approved for release by the NRO on July 1, 2015), 5 pgs.
  118. The photo of the GAMBIT 3 satellite was obtained from the NRO through a FOIA request on February 13, 2018.
  119. SPECS: 28.6 feet long, 5-feet in diameter with a focal length of 175 inches
  121. Clausen, Ingard & Miller, Edward A Miller, “Intelligence Revolution 1960: Retrieving the Corona Imagery that Helped Win the Cold War,” Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance, April 2012.
  122. “Intelligence Information for Dr. Foster’s Appearance Before the Senate Subcommittee on Military Preparedness” (opening statement by Dr. John Kirk), Apr. 11, 1968 (Approved for release by the NRO on July 1, 2015), 5 pgs.
  123. Though declassified in 2015, portions of Dr. Foster’s testimony remains heavily redacted; “Intelligence Information for Dr. Foster’s Appearance Before the Senate Subcommittee on Military Preparedness” (opening statement by Dr. John Kirk), Apr. 11, 1968 (Approved for release by the NRO on July 1, 2015), 5 pgs.
  124. Frank Murray, Feb.18, 2018.

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The Scissored Pueblo Record

“Two weeks ago, I visited personally with Commander Bucher and many members of the crew of the Pueblo. I was asked repeatedly by them: ‘Why wasn’t our call for help answered? We held out as long as we could, but help never came.’ That question has haunted me…” 1  

Rep. William Scherle (R – Iowa)
Congressional Record – House
January 28, 1969

Bill Streifer
Freelance Journalist

Not since the British boarded the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia in 1807 had an American Naval commander surrendered his ship in peacetime. The ship was the USS Pueblo, a 177-foot AGER-class Technical Research Ship (TRS) with a crew of 83 officers and men. The ship’s captain was Commander Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher, and his superior officer, with headquarters in Japan, was Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson. After eleven months of frequently brutal internment, the men were released on Christmas Eve 1968. As a condition for their release, however, the North Koreans required the U.S. to sign a formal statement “acknowledging the guilt of the United States.” 2

Following the crew’s return to the States, two investigations were conducted; one by the U.S. Navy and the other by Congress. The first, a Naval Court of Inquiry, amassed 3,392 pages of testimony. 3  At the conclusion of the Navy’s investigation, another was conducted by a “Special Subcommittee on the USS Pueblo,” House Committee on Armed Services, which produced volumes of additional testimony. 4  Both inquiries addressed two key questions: “Who is to blame?”—a question blazoned on the cover of the February 3, 1969 issue of Newsweek—and “Why weren’t fighter/bombers immediately sent into the area once Admiral Johnson received Commander Bucher’s initial distress call?” According to an in-depth report by three veteran Associated Press reporters—journalists who had interviewed Pueblo crewmen, historians, retired admirals, psychologists, Congressmen, and military experts—neither investigation told the whole story.5

The Court of Inquiry was called to order on January 20, 1969 by Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Jr. at the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado, California. 6  And for two months, a panel of five Admirals, assisted by prosecutors, military and civilian attorneys, heard testimony from 104 witnesses. 7  Except where otherwise noted, the testimony of Commander Bucher and that of Admiral Johnson below comes from Bernard Weinraub, the New York Times reporter who attended the Naval Court of Inquiry. 8  Other print journalists in attendance included correspondents from the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Newsweek, Time, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union, Scripps-Howard News Alliance, and the Washington Post. 9

Bucher, who presented the most detailed testimony of anyone over many days, 10 covered the time from when he assumed command of the Pueblo in Bremerton, Washington (State) until repatriation. 11  Bucher, who testified he didn’t have the power to resist, maintained he had surrendered the ship to save the lives of his crew. 12  Some in the press, however, believed Bucher’s testimony could be “a peril for the probers no less than the probed.” 13  A cartoon by Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, emphasized this last point.

During his first day of testimony, Bucher told the Court how the Navy had turned down his request for a “destruct system” (to destroy the top secret electronic and cryptographic equipment on board). and how he had made that request “at least two, perhaps three times.” Under questioning, Bucher also explained how he was told in Hawaii, on the way to Japan, how “the Navy had plans to react in the event of a general war. [So] it would not be likely that the Navy or Air Force would come to our assistance to save this ship…I did not tell this information to my officers or men, I did not want to cause any undue worry.”

Also interviewed was Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson, who had operational control of the Pueblo during its mission off the North Korean coast. As the highly-decorated Commander of Task Force 96, Johnson was responsible for two permanently assigned ships: the USS Pueblo and the USS Banner, the Pueblo’s sister ship. 14  At the time of the “Pueblo Incident,” Johnson was Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Japan, a post Bucher later described as “primarily a housekeeping command involving responsibility for U. S. Naval Shore Activities and small craft on the numerous islands of Japan and Okinawa.” 15  

With Bucher sitting a yard-and-a-half away, Admiral Johnson, white-haired and 61 years old, was grilled closely for two hours, “at times acidly.” Flanked by his civilian and military attorneys, Bucher, who appeared “wan and quite haggard,” listened as his former commander spoke. Breathing heavily, Bucher, who was seen biting his lip and blinked his eyes, sat with his hands tightly folded on the table in front of him as Admiral Johnson testified under oath how the U.S. lacked the forces—“no forces” under his command—needed to come to the aid of the Pueblo. But was that true?

As Admiral Johnson explained slowly, the “on call” forces available to aid the Pueblo were aircraft of the Fifth Air Force in Japan and vessels of the Seventh Fleet. “The Fifth Air Force reported a delay of two to three hours before they could have aircraft in the area,” he said, and “The [aircraft carrier] Enterprise was 600 miles from Wonsan [North Korea]. Its extreme range made it practically impossible to come to the assistance [of the Pueblo].”

In response, Rear Admiral Marshall W. White, a member of the Court, learned forward and asked: “Then, when we add it up, we had [on call] forces that did not exist?” To which Johnson replied, “That’s correct…There were no forces made available to me under my operational control.” Moments later, Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Jr., who presided over the U.S. Navy’s investigation, challenged Johnson: “You have referred repeatedly to ‘on call.’ It is somewhat misleading since nothing was on call…It certainly didn’t take care of the situation we had, and therefore, I think it is suspect in its validity.”

During the Court of Inquiry’s second week, Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it would be impractical for a Congressional Committee to begin their investigation until the Navy had completed theirs, and that Senator John C. Stennis, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, shared his view. 16  Senator Byrd also thought it of utmost importance that all facts surrounding the capture and loss of the USS Pueblo be known; “But I am not convinced the American people have been given all the facts,” he said. “And, in one case at least, pertinent information has been removed from the permanent files of the Senate Armed Services Committee.” 17

Acknowledging there were many unanswered questions that went far beyond the scope of the Navy’s inquiry—involving both the U.S. Defense Department and foreign policy—Senator Byrd wanted to know why no effort was made to come to the aid of the Pueblo. He concluded his remarks with a request for unanimous consent that a recent editorial in the Staunton (Virginia) Leader, captioned, “Where Lies the Blame?” be entered into the Congressional Record. The editorial, Byrd said, addressed a question on everyone’s mind: “Why air support was not given the Pueblo immediately after Bucher radioed that he was being attacked.” 18  Despite the “availability” of dozens of aircraft in the area at their disposal, none arrived over North Korea in defense of the Pueblo—none from U.S. airbases in South Korea, Okinawa, or Japan. Zero.

Later, during hearings before the Special Subcommittee on the Pueblo Incident, General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had expended “thousands of man-hours” reconstructing the Pueblo mission, and the command and control aspects of the incident. 19  Wheeler, who said their investigations revealed that an immediate response by aircraft was simply not possible, based his conclusion on a combination of factors: the relative short time between the challenge to and the boarding of the Pueblo, the availability of friendly forces, the presence of hostile forces, the weather, and the onset of darkness:

When these factors were assessed against actual times of events associated with the incident—time of receipt of the information that the ship was under attack and force response time—it was apparent to all levels of command that the Pueblo could not be retrieved by any action prior to the time that the ship entered Wonsan Harbor— Gen. Wheeler, JCS

Despite the persuasiveness of General Wheeler’s statement, it now appears that U.S. forces were slightly less than ready. The seven U.S. aircraft located in South Korea, for example, were configured for classified missions. These F-4 Phantoms, supersonic jet interceptor and fighter-bombers, were directed to be downloaded and reconfigured for support of the Pueblo. 20  The Commander of the Fifth Air Force had advised the Commander in Chief of Pacific Air Forces that his aircraft had “no guns pods, mers [multiple ejection racks], pylons, or rails, only Sidewinder missiles” with which to arm the F-4s (in South Korea). In addition, other support aircraft could not reach the scene before dark. So while it is true these F-4s could have been sent aloft, Wheeler considered such action to be “very dangerous,” with MiGs airborne in the vicinity, since the U.S. aircraft lacked complete air-to-air weaponry.

Early reports from the Navy’s Court of Inquiry produced a surprising revelation. Apparently no one in the Naval chain of command had any idea that the Pueblo might possibly be attacked or seized. 21  Capt. Thomas Dwyer, who was in charge of Naval intelligence in Japan at the time of the Pueblo’s capture, testified in closed session that he did not know the North Koreans had publically warned the United States against such missions. 22  On January 6, 1968, five days before the Pueblo departed for North Korea, and again on January 11, the day the ship sailed, North Korean broadcasts warned against spy ships off their coast and said they were determined to take countermeasures. 23  The North Koreans were also well aware that the USS Banner (AGER-1), the Pueblo’s sister ship, had already spied along the coasts of North Korea and Soviet Union, near Vladivostok, sometimes dangerously close.

General Charles H. Bonesteel III, Commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, often referred to Kim Il-sung, the founder and leader of North Korea, as a “megalomaniac.” A perceptive student of his North Korean adversaries, Bonesteel said he would never try to guess what Kim would do next. Admiral Johnson agreed. At the Court of Inquiry, Johnson had testified that the seizure was “highly improbable,” which he defined as: “in effect, there is almost no chance of this happening.” 24

Admiral Johnson, a “key witness,” said the feasibility of such an attack was “dependent to a large degree on the safety provided by the time-honored recognition of the freedom of the seas. This had gone on for over 150 years. No public vessel had been seized in all that time. This was a very excellent precedent on which to base the safety of any one individual ship.” In other words, one could never have predicted that such an attack would occur. “I was not too concerned with the security and safety of these AGER [Auxiliary, General Environmental Research] ships,” Johnson said. Speaking with a tremor, he assured the Court, and Commander Bucher and his crew, that had he been convinced the Pueblo was in jeopardy, he would have never sent the ship on that mission without protection. 25

As the former Commander of Naval Forces in Japan, Johnson was responsible for the mission and operations of the Pueblo as well as for Commander Bucher’s final briefing before he and his crew set off on their ill-fated mission. Recounting the moments after the Pueblo was seized, Johnson said he was called to the telephone of the Sanno Hotel in Tokyo. He said he was attending a “tropical cyclone conference” for the Pacific Command at the time. “It was an unclassified phone and the details were sketchy,” he said. Admiral Johnson’s Chief of Staff told him the Pueblo was in trouble, adding, “They may be gone.” Immediately, Johnson took an Army helicopter to his headquarters in Yokosuka. “I was advised that the 5th Air Force had been requested to provide air support” and that “no request had been made to the Commander of the 7th Fleet because no forces were so positioned,” the Admiral recalled. “I told the staff they had taken [the] proper action.” 26  

At one point, Johnson told the Court that the only planes available within a “reasonable distance” from the North Korean coast were Air Force units on Okinawa and possibly in South Korea. When Rear Admiral Edward E. Grimm asked Johnson about the availability of planes in Japan. Johnson replied: “Under the status of forces [agreement], we’re not permitted to use military forces based in Japan to go out on combat missions against unfriendly forces…to do so requires prior consultation with the Government of Japan.” When Grimm asked if there were any communications with the Commander in Chief, Pacific [CINCPAC] in Hawaii during the incident, Johnson said, “I believe the first call was about 2:20 to CINCPAC, and I was advised that the Fifth Air Force reported delay of possibly about three hours before they could have aircraft in the area.”

While the Naval Court of Inquiry was underway, Senator Byrd said he had the opportunity to review the testimony of then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and General Earl G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, given on February 1, 1968; that’s one week after the North Korean seizure of the Pueblo. During the Committee’s questioning of McNamara and Wheeler, Byrd said the following question was raised: “Why were no aircraft sent in support of the Pueblo?” 27  General Wheeler said the Navy had requested assistance, but the final decision not to intervene was made by the Commander of the Fifth Air Force in Japan, since the aircraft in the area were under his control. Though no aircraft were ever sent, Wheeler said there were “combat-ready” U.S. aircraft in “substantial numbers” at bases in Japan, only 40 minutes flying time from the Pueblo. 28

Indicative of the public’s difficulty in obtaining an answer to this and other questions, Byrd cited a personal experience from those same hearings. Byrd had brought to the attention of Secretary of Defense McNamara the widely-publicized statement by a high Japanese official that U.S. aircraft in Japan could not be sent to the aid of the Pueblo without the consent of the Japanese Government. And when Byrd asked McNamara to comment on the accuracy of that statement, the Secretary responded. 29

Later, however, when the official transcript was sent to the Defense Department, Byrd noticed that his question to McNamara and McNamara’s response were part of the testimony that “could not be made public because of its diplomatic sensitivity.” When Byrd learned of this a few weeks later, he protested the censorship. The reason I raise the question now,” Byrd said, “is that in studying…the complete testimony in the Committee files—the Committee’s permanent copy—I find that I put ten questions to Secretary McNamara, and that one of the ten including his reply has been entirely scissored out of the report by the Department of Defense.” 30

When Byrd asked the Committee clerk to comment, he said it was the only time during his more than two decades [22 years] with the Committee that he knew of material having been deleted by scissors from the “permanent” Committee report. The normal procedure, the Committee clerk said, was to mark in red those portions of the testimony that could not be published. But the report itself remained as a permanent file in the Committee vault. “As it is,” Byrd said, “the Secretary’s reply to an apparently significant and vital question is written on air, unavailable for Committee study as it attempts to piece together the tangled facts of the Pueblo Incident.” Well aware that security deletions were necessary at times and justified, and it was important that all military information, all information that could be of value and of importance to the enemy, be deleted from any testimony before it was released to the public, 31  Byrd added this:

But nothing can justify keeping this information from the review of the Congressional Committee charged with that responsibility. I feel it is important also that the public be given all information that it can appropriately be given without giving aid and comfort to the enemy. I feel the Congress and the American people are entitled to more facts than have been made available up to now. Therefore, I urge a full hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee at the conclusion of the Navy’s own inquiry. This hearing should not be limited to the facts of the Pueblo case, but it should be also consider the broader questions which that incident has raised. 32  

 Senator Byrd then asked unanimous consent to have printed in the Extension of Remarks an editorial titled, “The Scissored Pueblo Record.” There being no objection, the editorial was ordered to be printed in the Congressional Record. “In an expression of his concern over the Pueblo affair,” the editorial said Byrd had “cited an incidental example of bureaucratic arrogance…which disturbed him greatly.” While questioning certain of the Pentagon’s specific censorship judgments, Byrd freely acknowledged the need to prevent some items of testimony from getting into press accounts, and that these were usually accomplished by red marks which the Defense censors put beside those portions of a report which were not to be made public after a closed-door hearing. But cutting the matter from the report entirely and leaving such a Pentagon-doctored file as the Committee’s permanent record of crucial testimony? 33

Calling the Senator’s angry comment “fully justified,” the editorial said the cutting of the report “a dangerous assumption of authority.” Senator Byrd is “entirely right in calling the Pentagon’s hand on it, and the censors ought to be put on full notice that any such tampering with the records will not be tolerated.” 34


  1. Rep. William Scherle (R-IA). “Scherle Calls for Bipartisan Probe of ‘Pueblo’ Incident,” Cong. Rec. (Jan. 28, 1969), H1995.
  2. “Inquiry Into The USS Pueblo and EC-121 Plane Incidents,” Report of the Special Subcommittee on The U.S.S. Pueblo of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 91st Congress, 1st Session, July 28, 1969, p. 1629. [Approved for Release by the NSA on Sept. 14, 2012
  3. Sid Moody, Jules Loh, Richard E. Meyer. “USS Pueblo: The Ship That Went Out in the Cold” (AP), Evening Capital (Special Supplement), Nov. 3, 1969.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  7. Goldstein, Richard. “Vice Adm. Harold G. Bowen Jr. Dies at 87,” New York Times, Sept. 3, 2000, p. 40.
  8. Weinraub, Bernard. “Admiral Says He Lacked Forces to Rescue Pueblo,” New York Times, Jan. 30, 1969, p. 1.
  9. Becker, Alfred Albert. “Reporting the USS Pueblo Court of Inquiry: U.S. Press Performance of the Requirements,” Master of Arts (Journalism), University of Wisconsin, 1971.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Goldstein, Richard. “Vice Adm. Harold G. Bowen Jr. Dies at 87,” New York Times, Sept. 3, 2000, p. 40.
  13. “Explosive Issue: A Peril for the Probers No Less than the Probed,” Denver Post, Jan. 22, 1969 (editorial page), p. 20; accompanying the article in the Denver Post was a cartoon by Patrick Oliphant.
  14. Bucher, Lloyd M. with Mark Rascovich, “Bucher: My Story,” Doubleday, 1970, p. 126.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr. (D-VA). “The Facts of the ‘Pueblo’ Case,” Cong. Rec. (Jan. 29, 1969), S2165-6.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. General Wheeler’s testimony and refutation are from “Inquiry Into The USS Pueblo and EC-121 Plane Incidents,” pp. 1668-9.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-IL). “Why the Surprise at ‘Pueblo’ Seizure?”, Cong. Rec. (Feb. 5, 1969), E2879.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Halloran, Richard. “Why the Surprise at ‘Pueblo’ Seizure,” Washington Post, Feb. 2, 1969, p. 34 in Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-IL). “Why the Surprise at ‘Pueblo’ Seizure?”, Cong. Rec. (Feb. 5, 1969), E2879.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr. (D-VA). “The Facts of the ‘Pueblo’ Case,” Cong. Rec. (Jan. 29, 1969), S2165-6.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.

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“Unwelcomed Soldiers Invading a Fraternity”: Breaking Gender Barriers in the United States Military

National History Day Video
Annotated Bibliography

Jessie Henderson
National History Day

National History Day Video


Before researching this topic, I brainstormed about topics which matched the theme. After a family friend suggested naval pilot Captain Rosemary Mariner, I did some preliminary reading. With an interest in military history and an unfamiliarity of this topic, I became interested in her life and legacy. After much consideration, I decided that Captain Rosemary Mariner’s path-forging career and diligent work to break the gender barriers in the United States military was the best fit for the theme and had the most significant influences, especially for today.

I focused my research on online articles and websites. At the Cleveland Public Library I discovered several informative books. One of the most useful, Tailspin: Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook by Jean Zimmerman, gave detailed information about Mariner’s beginnings, such as her early inspirations and people that supported her. The author discussed her efforts to get the ban on women in combat lifted. My school provided subscriptions to and the New York Times with access to its archives. The subscriptions provided access to multiple primary source newspaper articles showing how widespread Mariner’s barrier-breaking achievements were. I interviewed several people living from coast to coast, including Commander Tommy Mariner who also provided many helpful resources. Due to Mariner’s recent death, there was a significant amount of sources online so much of my research was conducted using the Internet. I focused on the view that Captain Rosemary Mariner broke many barriers in female aviation, paving the way for others to follow in the military.

Since this was my third experience making a documentary, I chose this category in order to utilize my skills, and I felt it would best portray the events. I researched, scripted, and compiled the documentary using Adobe Premiere Pro CC and recorded narration using Voice Recorder. I combined the audio and video files that fit my commentary. Finally, I made edits. After the preceding competitions, I revised multiple aspects of my project.

Captain Mariner broke gender barriers in the United States military by surpassing expectations as a naval aviator and achieving many firsts for service women. She became a powerful advocate for military women’s rights, opening the doors for equality in combat and other areas. After becoming one of the first female naval aviators, Captain Mariner also became the first woman to fly a military jet, be assigned to an aircraft carrier, and command a squadron. She advocated for women’s rights to fight in combat by writing newspaper articles, creating a network of civilian and military supporters, and taking part in speaking engagements and presidential commission hearings. This resulted in several policy changes, such as a 1978 mandate that allowed women to serve on non-combatant ships and the resolution in 1993 that lifted the ban on women in combat.  Her efforts, along with others, eventually led to the combat ban being fully lifted in 2013.  At her funeral she was honored with the first all-female flyover, the Missing Man Formation, breaking one more military gender barrier.

Annotated Bibliography

Click HERE to download the Annotated Bibliography

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What Are They Reading: Vol. 4

what are they reading

Charles C. Chadbourn, III
Editor, International Journal of Naval History

This article is another of our continuing series where readers of this journal interested in international naval history and related topics may share with colleagues ideas on good books to read which may be of general interest.   Contributions are not full book reviews, rather suggestions for worthwhile reading.  Of course, most selections will probably come from historical monographs and will be naval, but other genres are welcome as well.   Nor do these suggestions necessarily have to be recently published items, although, of course, those are especially helpful.  As the writings of Sir Julian Corbett, Carl von Clausewitz, and even Thucydides demonstrate, older works often retain their usefulness for contemporary readers for generations.  If you would like to contribute to this on-going series, please send your submission directly to the Editor of IJNH. Some of the more exciting books I read every year come from the recommendations of my colleagues.

Click the down arrow next to each name to read their response.

What Are They Reading? Vol. 4

Charles C. Chadbourn, III; Editor, International Journal of Naval History


Anyone who has read Erik Larson’s previous books such as Dead Wake and In the Garden of the Beasts knows that Larson is an author who never disappoints.  He makes history come alive in a very personal way.  The Splendid and the Vile is no exception.  Larson always manages to offer fresh insight, even on well know topics.  This riveting account examines Winston Churchill’s leadership as Prime Minister of Great Britain during London’s darkest year of the Second World War through the lens of those closest to him, his family.  Coming to power only two weeks before Dunkirk, Churchill’s eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country and a family together.  Churchill is a welcome antidote to today’s political dysfunction.

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BOOK REVIEW – Admiral Gorshkov – The Man Who Challenged the U.S. Navy

Norman Polmar and Thomas A. Brooks, Admiral Gorshkov, The Man Who Challenged U.S.Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019. 264 pp.

Reviewed by Hans Christian Bjerg
Denmark Naval Historian

Today, probably very few are familiar with the armament and the dominant role of the Navy of the Soviet Union during the Cold War over three decades away. In the period of 1970-90, the Soviet Navy was able to challenge the U.S. Navy on the World’s Oceans. In the beginning of the Cold War there was a common sentiment that the Soviet Union was a great land power with a huge army, but that the sea was almost exclusively ruled by the United States and its maritime allies. Yet, from the end of the 1960’s the Western naval analysts observed that the Soviet Navy was beginning to build ever-larger ships. The Western analysts also took note of the fact that Soviet warships began to operate in the Indian Ocean and, from 1986 on, entered formal collaboration with the Indian Navy. From 1968 to 1974 the number of so-called ship-days of Soviet warships increased yearly in the Indian Ocean from 1,200 to 10,500.

Nevertheless, it came as a shock for the Western powers when the Soviet Navy in 1970 produced a global naval exercise called OKEAN-70. The exercise took place on the most of the world’s oceans and consisted of 84 surface warships, more than 80 submarines (including 15 with nuclear propulsion), and 45 auxiliary ships. Several hundred land-based air craft participated as well. It is still the largest accumulation of warships in peace-time ever!

The man who stood behind the increased armament of the Soviet Navy and the exercise OKEAN-70 was Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov (1910-1988). He was Commander in Chief of the Soviet Navy for nearly three decades, 1956-1985, and is an example of how a single character through will and ideas can turn the wheel of the history.

Whole libraries of books and articles have been published about the armament of the Soviet Navy during the Cold War and the influence of Goshkov upon it. Now, here in this publication about the Admiral is a book that both tells the story of Gorshkov but also gives an excellent survey over the history and development of the Russian and the Soviet Navy from the beginning of the 20th Century until now. The team of authors are probably the most capable in the West to produce such a book. The naval analyst and prolific author Norman Polmar has, together with Rear Admiral Thomas A. Brooks, earlier published books about this subject. An expert in Russian conditions, George B. Fedoroff has contributed heavily to the team.  This is certainly a strong team to write a book like this.

The reasons to publish a new book about Gorshkov lies in the fact that several new books with new details and information  about Gorshkov and the Soviet Navy under his command have been published in Russia. Therefore, an updated book about this subject was absolutely necessary.

Admiral of the Fleet Sergei G. Gorshkov was born in 1910 and became a naval officer in 1931. He became known early for his remarkable duty as Captain, and was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1941 at the age of 30. Of course the many purges in the Soviet Union and among its naval leaders  gave Gorshkov, who escaped these purges, numerous opportunities for further promotions. 

After the death of Stalin in 1953 Gorshkov was promoted to admiral, and later in 1956 he became the commander-in-chief of the Soviet Navy, nominated by Nikita Krushchev, the new leader in the Kremlin.

A fascinating point in the book is that in addition to a presentation of Gorshkov as a human, is the presentation of the history and development of the naval strategy of the Soviet Union since the Revolution and up to today. The book also explain the transition from the Soviet Navy to the contemporary Russian Navy and its position in the Putin System.

According to the description of the book, the Soviet sea strategy over time changed  from a ‘Blue Water School’ to la jeune école, here labelled as the ‘Young School.’ Just after the Revolution the new regime  outdistanced the concept of a Great Power Fleet. The new Red Navy was a defensive one, whose only purpose was to support the Red Army in its ’maritime flanks’. As a consequence of the dislike of the Czar-Navy, the internationally-based naval ranks were abandoned. The rank of Admiral was, together with the other normal naval ranks, reintroduced in the Red Navy in 1940.

After Stalin took chair in 1924 he created new naval plans in order to establish a Great Power Fleet following the concept of the Blue Water School consisting of battle Ships and cruisers. The war stopped these plans, but they were reconstituted after 1945.

However, the building of a Blue Water School Navy came to an abrupt end when Nikita Krushchev took over in 1953. In his point of view the navies of the future consisted only of submarines supported by missiles.  The building of large ships was cancelled, and he ordered Gorshkov to realize his type of a navy. But Krushchev made a mistake here. In the long run it was not Gorshkov’s intention to follow the ideas of Krushchev. In the beginning Gorshkov merely pretended to obey orders and follow Kruschev’s dictates.

The first opportunity to try to change course came out of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. For Krushchev the course of the crisis was a fiasco, especially concerning his concepts of military strategy. It was obvious that the Soviet Navy in no way was able to support and secure an initiative like the Cuban adventure. The way ahead was to build a ocean-going fleet which at least could result in a kind of respect from the US. Gorshkov used the fiasco to ”sell” the Navy to the politicians and the Soviet people. After the fall of Krushchev in 1964, Gorshkov could take the next step to an oceangoing fleet. Several big surface warships were put in order, and at the same time he improved the organisation of the Navy overall. His intention seemed very clear. In 1968 Gorshkov was quoted in Time Magazine for the statement, that ”sooner or later, the U.S. will have to understand that it no longer has mastery of the seas”.

OKEAN-70 was the first proof on this endeavor. In the West, leaders and admirals were convinced  that the navy of the Soviet Union was a substantial power in the Cold War. This acknowledgement produced comprehensive  considerations of an alarmist nature in form of studies, books, and articles. The mentions in the Western media undoubtedly helped Gorshkov  to create a better platform in the Soviet Union for the navy. Apparently the Western powers were very serious and worried about the Soviet naval power.

Of note, Gorshkov, besides his remarkable efforts to create a big navy, was also a voluminous  writer about naval history and the concept of sea power. In 1972 he published a series of articles in which he described in a very original way naval history through ages. The articles were published in the U.S.N.I. Proceedings with comments given by several American admirals. His main contribution was ”The Seapower of the State” from 1976.

It is fair to mention Gorshkov together with Mahan and Corbett – yet the present book says he was neither a historian or a theorist. It is more correct to compare Goshkov with von Tirpitz and  John Fisher who both established big navies and at the same time formulated  the conditions and purposes of these navies. According to the present book, Gorshkov created a independent frame of purpose for the navy, here called ’the Soviet Model of Sea Power,’ which was based both on Mahan, Corbett and la jeune école. Some have considered this model as a way to integrate the Western concept of sea power with the ideology of communism. Gorshkov’s navy was to a great extent a ’balanced fleet’, an expression he often used by himself.

Gorshkov’s comprehensive work of writings was produced together with his full time job as C-in-C of the Soviet Navy. Therefore, his authorship regarding publications in his name has been discussed. Of course he had assistants, but he was more than merely an editor.

The length of his duty as C-in-C (1956-85) is impressive and is without any other examples in naval history as such. He was allowed to continue in his position after he had passed the normal age for retirement, but was sacked in December 1985, a short time before he reached a tenure of three decades. We do not known the explanation for this,  but at that time Gorshkov was yet again asking for more money to the fleet. Perhaps the political leaders were tired of his remaining claims. He died in 1988.

The climax of his work was reached when the Soviet Union, in the beginning of the 1980’s, began to build aircraft carriers. This was truly an indication of an oceangoing fleet.

The present book about Gorshkov is highly recommended to all who want to know more or to study the development of the Soviet and the Russian Navy. The book is also an invitation to become acquainted with the writings of this legendary admiral.   

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BOOK REVIEW – War in the American Pacific and East Asia, 1941-1972

Hal M. Friedman, ed. War in the American Pacific and East Asia, 1941-1972. Lexington KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. 264 pp. 

Review by John M. Jennings, PhD
United States Air Force Academy

War in the American Pacific and East Asia, 1941-1972 is a collection of seven articles edited by Hal M. Friedman, professor of history at Henry Ford College. The articles deal with multifarious aspects of the US military involvement in Asia and the Pacific from the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 to the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. In addition to editing the volume, Friedman contributed an article of his own. 

The first article in the volume, by Rebecca Robbins Raines, describes the rapid expansion of U.S. Army Signal Corps during the war. Virtually ignored in the interwar period, the Signal Corps was confronted with the enormous task of essentially building from scratch in 1941. Raines addresses that process in considerable detail, effectively conveying a sense of the impressive achievement of developing a worldwide and rapid (for the time) communication network in such a short time. Steve Call’s article, the next in the volume, employs popular media sources such as films and magazines to illustrate how the media (with the support and encouragement of the military) shaped public opinion about the air war in Asia and the Pacific. As Call’s article makes clear, although media accounts tended to overstate the impact of land-based air operations on the war overall, the propaganda value of publicizing the heroic efforts of the Flying Tigers, Doolittle Raiders, and other aviators was considerable. The next article, by Stephen Houseknect, recounts the controversy over the creation of elite Raider units in the Marine Corps. Houseknect explains that this experiment aroused considerable opposition from Marine leadership, due, among other reasons, to the negative morale impact of creating elite units in a branch of the armed forces that already considered itself elite. Ultimately, the light-armed and nimble Raider units were absorbed back into the regular Corps in 1944 as it became clear that their services were no longer required in a war that had devolved into an attritional slugging match. 

Josh Levy’s article, the fourth in the volume, is a case study of the U.S. Navy’s administration of the Pacific island Pohnpei in the immediate postwar period through the lens of food policy. When the Navy took control of Pohnpei, which had been a Japanese colony since World War I, a clash of cultures immediately occurred over the issue of food. Food had played a major role in Pohnpeian politics and culture since pre-colonial times and had continued to do so during the Japanese colonial period, when the traditional food culture gained an overlay of Japanese tastes. Postwar US administrators, however, disregarded the local food culture altogether as part of an overall dismissal of the Pohnpeians as backward and instead forced the US version of modernity on the island in the form of canned and processed foods. As Levy notes, the people of Ponhpei are still struggling with that legacy in the form of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The fifth article, by Friedman, described interservice rivalry between the Army and Navy over the organization and conduct of the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Friedman shows that the struggle for control over the tests was part of a larger contest between the two services for funding and resources in a postwar world of budget cuts and uncertainty about the impact of atomic weaponry on the conduct of future conflicts. 

The last two articles are focused on East Asia. Katherine K. Reist explores the history of the U.S. Military Advisory Missions in China from the end of World War II to the end of the Marshall Mission in 1947. While the Guomindang (Nationalist) government of Chiang Kai-shek had received the lion’s share of US aid during the war, the immediate postwar period witnessed a shift in US policy to attempt to affect a reconciliation between the warring Guomindang and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong. Mirroring the political efforts of US Secretary of State George Marshall to persuade the Guomindang and CCP to form a coalition government, the Military Advisory Mission attempted to forge a new Chinese military out of elements from both factions. These efforts collapsed in 1947 as the Chinese Civil War began in earnest, culminating in the CCP victory in 1949. The final article, by Nicholas Sarantakes, describes how the media impacted the US occupation and administration of Okinawa from the end of World War II to the return of the island to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. As Sarantakes shows, the media played no small role in the events of 1972. While the US military was able to keep press coverage of Okinawa muted and friendly through the end of the 1950s, by the 1960s and early 1970s, greater press scrutiny of abuses committed by US military personnel and US military interference in local political affairs increasingly soured public opinion. Reporting of anti-US riots that broke out in 1970, in a broader context of disillusionment with the Vietnam War, finally pushed public opinion to support the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. 

While the seven articles are each illuminating in their own way, this volume illustrates the challenges of assembling a collection of articles into a book with a unified theme. While the volume purports to shed light on the impact of the US military on East Asia and the Pacific during the war and immediate postwar period, only the articles by Levy, Reist, and Sarantakes address this explicitly. Raines, Houseknect, and Friedman, instead, focus on inter- and intra-service and bureaucratic issues that just happened to touch upon East Asia and the Pacific. Similarly, Call’s article focuses on US public opinion, with little consideration of the East Asia-Pacific dimension. Nor does this volume offer an explanation of the 1941-1972 periodization. Is there something more significant to this period beyond the fact that the last article just happens to end in 1972? And finally, the lack of attention to US involvement in the Korean War, the most significant post-World War II conflict in East Asia, is baffling. Perhaps if Friedman, the editor of this volume, had written the introduction, he would have been able to address these issues and provide a more persuasive raison d’etre for this volume as a whole.  

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BOOK REVIEW – Incidents at Sea: American Confrontations and Cooperation with Russia and China, 1945-2016

Winkler, David F., Incidents at Sea: American Confrontations and Cooperation with Russia and China, 1945-2016. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2017. 320 pp. 

Review by LT Anthony Rush, USN 

Senior Instructor, Department of History, USAF Academy 

In Incidents at Sea: American Confrontations and Cooperation with Russia and China, 1945-2016, David Winkler gives an overview of the political and maritime histories of the U.S. in relation to those of the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War and beyond. In particular, noting the title of his work, Winkler examines a multitude of incidents at sea – above in the air, below underwater and on the surface – that have critically impacted U.S. interaction with these two powers in recent history. Excepting the first chapter, in which Winkler uses an aggressive encounter between the Soviet and U.S. navies in 1972 to introduce the first diplomatic steps to establishing naval rules of interaction between the two fleets, Winkler takes a chronological approach to his work. Through the course of the book, each chapter delves into a certain period, starting with intensifying Soviet Union-U.S. relations coming out of WWII continuing into President’s Nixon policy of détente in the 1970’s, and eventually ending with modern incidents that occurred as recently as 2014. 

In his work, Winkler argues there is a common innate tie between mariners that transcends nationalities that would ultimately reduce the number of incidents that would occur between navies of different countries. But he does not neglect the formal diplomatic agreements that have been made between the nations. In particular, he focuses on the “Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents on and over the High Seas” (INCSEA), examining its effect on the development of the naval relations between the U.S.S.R./Russia and the U.S. He does not diminish the role of INCSEA but does largely note the limitations of it when the respective U.S.S.R.-U.S. delegations became mired in disagreements over certain definitions and standardizations within the accord – all while mishaps were continuing to occur between the two powers. This is where Winkler nods his hat to the professional mariners and airmen at sea who transcended the political disputes of their respective nations and allowed for the safe navigation of the high seas permitted under international maritime law. 

Although the subtitle of the book does include “China,” there is little mention of China until the last chapter of the work titled “A Global Legacy.” But this may be intentional by the author in an attempt to follow Sir Michael Howard’s advice: to study military history in width, depth and context. Winkler goes into outstanding detail regarding the history of the U.S.S.R./Russia and the U.S. He certainly covers the depth of the strained relations between the U.S.S.R./Russia and the U.S., giving thorough accounts of several incidents at sea as well as comprehensive examinations of the political discussions between the two nations. However, by lacking substantial discussion of the relations between China and the U.S., Winkler is introducing the width of the subject matter. These precarious incidents at sea are not isolated events between the Soviet/Russian and American navies, but are seen between other navies as well, such as situations between the Chinese and the U.S. navies. Given the author’s timeline of examination – covering the Cold War and beyond – and since the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) did not see expansion from coastal defense operations to high sea operations until the 1990’s, it is appropriate that more of the book material was dedicated to the discussion of the Soviet/Russian-American relations, especially since the INCSEA can be seen as the foundation of modern naval interactions and protocols. In having a limited discussion of the China-U.S. story within this context of incidents on the high seas, the author is perhaps setting the stage for a future work or prompting other historians to dive further into this content as well. 

Winkler uses a wide range of sources in his work. For primary sources, he uses declassified naval documents, official government records, and interviews/mail correspondence with both delegation officials and military officers involved in many of the referenced incidents at sea. Books, dissertations, and newspaper articles are among the secondary sources he uses. Put all together, Winkler expertly uses the variety of sources to give his book authenticity and substantiality, including the use of a few periodicals from the Morskoy Sbornik, a Russian magazine on naval topics.

To help convey his argument, Winkler uses different approaches to express content in order to engage the reader in varied capacities. Pictures of ships in close quarter situations portray the danger sailors found themselves in; the exalting foreword by Senator John W. Warner (Ret.) gives the work a validated prelude as Senator Warner was the chief U.S. negotiator at the INCSEA summit talks. Winkler also uses examples from other nations, such as the “Cod War” between Iceland and the United Kingdom, to augment his discussion on how third party actors influenced these seemingly bilateral issues. The forty-five page chronology, listing events related to high sea incidents from 1945 to 2017, allows readers to see how frequent these incidents occurred, how expansive this topic is within the context of international diplomacy and how critical this topic is to the modern-day sailor. 

Incidents at Sea is intended for a wide audience from the scholar to the casual reader, but it is particularly for those who possess an interest in naval history. Its meticulous recounting of the political and military developments and consequences of INCSEA offers tremendous utility to those studying in the fields of diplomacy or national security.  As a naval officer who served for over four years in the western Pacific, I appreciate the history that Winkler details between the U.S. and the other maritime powers in the region; this book would serve as a useful resource for naval officers operating within this area of responsibility to understand the history of the conflicts with which they are currently dealing. Ultimately, this book is an excellent read for any individual with an interest in understanding the naval component of the intense tensions between the U.S. and other big world players, Russia and China. 

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Vol. 14, Issue 2: About the Authors

Kenneth C. Wenzer
The U.S. Navy and the Conquest of the Pacific by Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton

Kenneth C. Wenzer is an independent historian who lives in Takoma Park, MD.

Douglas Peifer
Presidential Crisis Decision Making following the Sinking of the Panay

Dr. Douglas C. Peifer is a professor in the US Air War College’s Department of Strategy. His primary field of concentration is modern diplomatic, military, and naval history, with a special interest in the nexus between strategy, history, and contemporary international politics.  This article draws on his 2016 book Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents (Oxford U Press), with other publications on naval history appearing in The Naval War College ReviewOrbis, European Security, Contemporary European History, War and Society, The Journal of Military History, and a book examining the dissolution of the Kriegsmarine and the origins of the East and West German navies (The Three German Navies, U Florida Press).    

Vy Nguyen
Sailing Away From the Turbulent Waters of Vietnam: The Overflowing Waves of Boat People

Vy Nguyen is entering ninth grade at Derby High School in Derby, Kansas. Vy has participated in National History Day for the last two years. For both years, she qualified for Nationals with a junior individual documentary. In the 2018 competition, her documentary “Sailing Away From the Turbulent Waters of Vietnam: The Overflowing Waves of Boat People” placed second in the nation. She chose to research Vietnamese Boat People because she wanted to learn more about her Vietnamese heritage. In her free time she loves to run, spend time with family, and travel the world!

Roy T. Greim
Old Salts in the New Steel Navy

Roy Greim is the Assistant Director of Communications at his alma mater of Swarthmore College. In 2014, he graduated with High Honors after completing his studies in history and German. As an intern with the Naval History and Heritage Command in 2012, Greim conducted research on the U.S. Navy in the postbellum period, which later informed his thesis on the historical impact of the ABCD ships, the first steel vessels of the “New Navy.” Some of his other research interests include the rise of European nationalism and the intersection of sports and politics in America.

Zoe Friedman
The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay: How Regulatory Compromise Created Conflict

Zoe Friedman has recently entered the ninth grade at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, DC. Zoe entered in National History Day for the theme “Conflict and Compromise” in the junior essay division. She won second place nationally with her paper, “The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay: How Regulatory Compromise Created Conflict.” Zoe is now in a variety in clubs at Wilson such as the school newspaper and robotics. She is looking forward to participating in National History Day this year with another paper.

Lesley Parilla
U.S. Naval History at the Smithsonian Institution

Lesley Parilla is Cataloging and Bibliographic Access Librarian with Smithsonian Libraries.  From 2011-2016, she began worked as a cataloger and later cataloging coordinator for the Smithsonian Field Book Project.  Lesley holds an Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, with a certificate in Special Collections and Archives and a B.A. from Oberlin College.

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The U.S. Navy and the Conquest of the Pacific by Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton


The Historical Context
Stockton and Mahan

Kenneth C. Wenzer
Independent Historian


(NHHC Photo #NH 65840)

In 1513 Vasco Núñez de Balboa claimed the entire Pacific and all the shores washed by its waters for the Spanish Empire. Three hundred and seventy-four years later, in 1887, Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton of the United States Naval War College showed his students how to conquer this domain. The core of his plan envisioned Columbia, with drawn sword and shield, steaming up the Pacific Coast to attack Britannia in western Canada. The ultimate goal, of course, was to dominate trade in the entire Pacific Basin. There was one little detail that could have impeded this coup de grace since “until the end of the decade there was for all practical purposes no American navy.” 1  The Royal Navy was, after all, a bit more robust.

The image of Stockton is different than that of Alfred T. Mahan, although he too was engaged in equally serious studies. Stockton’s strategic contributions, moreover, are undeservedly regarded as simulacra of Mahan’s. The Lt. Commander’s plan is noteworthy of discussion, for it is American chutzpa at its finest.

The Historical Context

(Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress)

In nineteenth-century America travel by land was difficult and partially solved by the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Commercial and political interests, nevertheless, covetously looked towards the Central American Isthmus for the most cost and time-effective solution even before this event. The digging of a canal, tied in with manifest destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, and the dollar, in due course, became a major issue in the United States after the War of Secession. It attracted politicians of opposing camps and nudged by the U.S. Navy’s growing pains, fostered a collective impatience. In short, financial and naval policies coalesced, so then commercial and war strategies flowed together. The promise of an interoceanic canal beckoned with endless opportunities. In his pioneering work The Naval Aristocracy Peter Karsten wrote that the U.S. Navy arrogated “unique” duties in Central America since American business and political interests desired a canal. To that end many survey expeditions under the auspices of naval officers trekked through this area. 2

Both Panama (New Granada) and Nicaragua were the foci of these surveys, yet the latter, deemed more favorable, since it was more cost-effective, easier to tackle, and held forth a projected quicker schedule. The first American explorations in these areas, most of them government sponsored, began in 1852 and carried on into the 1890s. 3  Besides surveying expeditions the Navy landed armed forces to pacify the isthmus. In 1856 Commodore William Mervine led the first sortie; it was followed by five other incursions up to 1884. 4  Lt. Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla’s takeover of a Panamanian town in 1885, however, was the most conspicuous for its flagrant audacity. 5

Ferdinand de Lesseps, the conqueror of the Suez, meanwhile, felt impelled to dig a canal without locks, this time in Panama. Agitated by this impending foreign intrusion, President Rutherford B. Hayes in a speech of 1880 firmly called for American predominance on the isthmus. 6  After the French started digging in Panama in 1884, the U.S. Navy maintained a vigilant eye on their progress. 7  They failed to overcome the terrain and involvement in multiple scandals resulted in bankruptcy by the end of the decade. Their impudence fostered an additional impetus for favoring the Nicaraguan route in Washington. Since commercial interests stormed Capitol Hill, Congress finally blessed the Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua. 8

This upsurge of exuberance impelled men to realize that a viable navy was necessary to protect the anticipated commercial and even territorial conquests. 9  RAdm. Stephen B. Luce, the founder of the Naval War College, gave credence to all these efforts. He extolled the virtues, both martial and transcendent, of an American future in an article “The Benefits of War” that appeared in the North American Review in 1891. 10

The First American Global Geopolitical Strategic Plan

(NHHC Photo # NH 48053)

Capt. Alfred T. Mahan, the president of the Naval War College, wrote in his annual report to the secretary of the navy in 1887 that “much new matter has been introduced, all bearing upon the practical question of carrying on naval war to the best advantage.” 11  That, of course, is an understatement, since it referred not only to his contributions but also to those of Lt. Cmdr. Stockton.

Charles Herbert Stockton, born on October 13, 1845 in Philadelphia, died in the nation’s capital on May 31, 1924. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1865 he climbed through the ranks to retire as Rear Admiral. He served twice as president of the Naval War College and subsequently as president of George Washington University. Not only did he earn his sea legs on numerous occasions, but he also became the Navy’s leading expert in international law and contributed to an array of specialized fields with a voluminous output of writings. 12

Stockton’s series of lectures entitled “The Present Condition of Commerce and Commercial Routes Between Europe and the Pacific, with an Estimate of the Effect Produced on Them by a Trans-Isthmian Canal Including a View of the Military and Political Conditions of the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea: Military and Commercial Examination of the Port and Countries of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea” ranks as his magnum opus. 13  The first three lectures, including the introductory contains the first war plan against Spain composed at the Naval War College. 14

Stockton’s grand strategy focused on the completion of an interoceanic isthmian canal, whether in Panama or Nicaragua. His concerns centered on the undoubted commercial largess, with the shift and growth in trade that it would generate, and the myriad of benefits that would accrue to the American people. “Among the trade points upon the world’s surface,” he stressed, “the Isthmus and Gulf of Panama may be classed as among the very first in importance.” 15

Stockton anticipated that a canal, especially across Panama held superior military advantages over Nicaragua given its topographical and locational factors for more facile defensive and offensive operations. Such prospects should alert Americans to the poor state of naval and military preparedness that was necessary for the increase of global power with the entailed responsibilities. Lectures two and three pointed out that all of the canal’s eastern approaches and strategic points in the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies should be not only readily defended, but also dominated by the United States. The Caribbean, in short, should be transformed into an American pond.

In lectures seven and eight Stockton also foresaw major alterations in trade routes west of the canal—in the Pacific. They were, of course, in his mind indistinguishable from military routes, so they came under his scrutiny.

Before proceeding with the gist of the lecture, Stockton exhorted his students about the globally inexperienced military, especially the Navy beset by its’ precarious and miniscule state. The U.S. faced an unexpected new problem while looking inward with its expansive industrialization and growing internal unity. Washington had neglected to prepare for challenges posed by foreign powers. A mental and physical laxness had been generated. “The great nations,” he wrote

in the art of war have announced as an axiom that of all things which contribute most directly and effectually to the success of a military undertaking, preparation holds first place . . . . It has been said that great states which have risen out of chaos require time to consolidate and organize themselves; their whole power and energy being chiefly directed toward that point. Driving this period of consolidation and organization their foreign wars are few, and the wars that do take place bear the stamp of a state unity not well connected. 16

Given the chronic clash of global interests one must regard the oceans as the future battlegrounds. The arsenals and dockyards will be the armed camps and bases of operations, and the coaling stations will be the “outposts in these areas of future campaigns and fields of coming strategy.” 17  It was therefore important to be vigilant, for

With the new period about beginning will come a conflict of interests—first with other powers in respect to the new interests upon the American Continent, and secondly with other great powers in regard to our growing and antagonistic interests in the great field of the world . . . . the work of preparation should now go on. 18

And Stockton emphasized, that the “duty of performing this [work], which included a knowledge of the art and practice of war, especially naval war, for which this College was instituted, belongs to us.” 19

The astute officer, according to Stockton, should not only concentrate on the immediate firepower of the Navy’s ships but the myriad of other important issues that make for effective nautical maneuvering. “So much is involved in this question of docking,” for instance, “that I cannot resist calling attention for a moment to its connection with Naval strategical [sic] questions.” 20  The “creation of speed” for a fighting fleet, Stockton continued, had been given ample attention, but he forewarned, that the maintenance of this speed will be quickly hampered by the fouling of bottoms with increased coal consumption. These issues, however, have been ignored. Basic concerns, such as naval bases, arsenals, and coaling stations have likewise met the same fate. Greater funding was therefore a prime requisite for a fit navy.

If the vanguard of America’s military and commercial future belonged to an energetic officer corps, so as a matter of course, the future canal would be the key to open this vision. Since the strategic and logistic focus would be Central America it was to be the prime target of any enemy.

The French could be overcome with exertions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, but the Spanish, Stockton thought, could be easily eliminated as evinced by his war plan against Cuba. 21  When Stockton first began writing his lectures as early as 1886 he also displayed a fear of German commercial growth in Central America and the Pacific. He believed this activity would attract settlers, foster territorial aggrandizement, and undoubtedly be followed by a military presence. Since this German incursion was repugnant to his growing country, they had to be addressed.

German trade and German merchants have increased greatly of late years. . . . we will meet the German in his merchant capacity, backed by the forces of his country, at various times and places . . .  His success has been remarkable of late years in almost every civilized and semi-civilized country of the world and he is becoming a great and successful rival in many places to the English merchant who has been for years, par excellence, the trader of the world. 22

The foreign bases eastward, especially at Port Royal in Jamaica, Havana in Cuba, and Fort de France in Martinique were major threats. The potential westward points, such as the Galapagos, could in all likelihood serve as a rallying point to marshal forces against the canal. On the other hand, the canal could be the prime U.S. base against Europeans. Their future military activity in Latin America, on both its Pacific and Caribbean shorelines would be forestalled. The subjugation of Mexico could also be orchestrated.

So the isthmus at either the Nicaraguan or Panamanian locations on both oceans, with their different logistic and strategic defensive and offensive locations, necessitated protection by both the Navy and the Army.

The Canal once in possession of the [American] Naval forces should be held by both a force afloat and ashore and all exposed points [and] locks [should] be securely watched. The canal could then if necessary be used as a base of operations against any hostile forces on the Isthmus on either side of the Canal. 23

Whereas Havana presented the most important strategic position in the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies, San Francisco held the same significance for the entire Pacific Ocean. To that end, he expatiated on the strategic features, both defensive and offensive capabilities of various points on the U.S. Pacific Coast. He delineated the present and potential trade routes that would alter and bloom with the completion of the canal. He also discussed the abundance of natural products, the richness of minerals, and even the importance of a potential source of motive power in his coal-fired steam age.

If petroleum which seems to be the possible fuel of the future, should become a practical success in this respect in our day, Southern California would present in [the] future greater naval advantages and independence of resources, than now, there being a pipeline to the seaboard existing for the purpose of carrying the oil, which apparently abounds in this section. This would compensate for the absence of coal. 20

With the opening of the canal, San Francisco, with its capacious harbor, was to coalesce all these natural and man-made elements. Its fate was to become an awe-inspiring world metropolis. Stockton’s enthusiasm was exuberant: “with free and direct trade to and from the Atlantic will [also] come great distributing trade to this city not only for the Pacific slope, but for the island world of the Pacific Ocean. The closer proximity to European and to our own Eastern markets will give it a position of advantage beyond any attainable by other ports in the Southern Hemisphere.” 25  It’s harbor and dry-dock facilities, communications facilities, and transportation access to the interior with its rich natural resources were unequalled on the entire Pacific coasts of both hemispheres. Blessed by geography, San Francisco

is now the only naval station of the United States upon the Pacific . . . . The United States have the best position upon the Pacific as a whole in regard to the [the] future and material resources, and preeminently the best upon the Northern Pacific. 26

Since the paramount commercial and strategic importance of San Francisco was undisputed, it would be the natural target of foreign nations that are vying for power in the Pacific. 27

The English in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific, with their greater presence, were the most formidable commercial rival of the United States. Stockton’s fears, therefore, focused on Esquimalt, a British naval base located on Vancouver Island. It was poised like “a spearhead thrust at our Northwestern frontier” and all points southward, especially San Francisco. It was also within reasonable steaming distance of the projected canal. 28  Esquimalt presented the greatest threat, for this base could easily draw on Canada’s many natural bounties to attack San Francisco. America’s military presence on the western shores was dolefully inefficient, so

with a loss of . . .  [an] engagement would cease our trade along the coast would follow a general commercial paralysis on our Pacific Coast, the smaller towns and harbors would be subject to capture or tribute and the Enemy at leisure could blockade San Francisco or begin elaborate preparation for its attack by land or sea. 29

Stockton’s solution was to establish a naval base in the Northwest to initiate an aggressive offensive and establish defensive countermoves. A naval presence in Puget Sound would therefore be America’s first line of protection with the marshaling of every available resource, where “the fate of San Francisco” would be decided, especially with this city’s lack of coal. 30  The Northwest, however, was a region blessed not only with coal and timber, but also of outstanding rail transportation that crossed the continent. In all likelihood British incursions would primarily be naval without major troop support.  “Its resources making it to an enemy like Great Britain, a rich and tempting prize, subject in war to attack.” 31

Stockton described in painstaking topographical and hydrographical detail the respective British and American positions on Vancouver Island and Puget Sound. The lieutenant commander also pointed out the lines of defense, fortifications, and locations of naval bases that would have to be established under different circumstances of enemy action, given the tides, time of day, and weather.

With a naval base in Puget Sound to “counteract” the British presence, communications would also be maintained with Alaska and the entire Pacific coastline protected.

We are now separated from this portion of our domain by 500 miles of water navigation and by territory belonging to the strongest naval power of the world. If we should be at war with another country besides Great Britain, we could not expect in the light of our past experience much benevolent neutrality in the ports of our neighbors in British Columbia . . . . Esquimalt[‘s] . . . existence and resources are menaces to our interests in this part of the coast and Pacific Ocean. 32

Stockton showed his concerns, especially with the growing city of Vancouver as a supply center and its proximity to Esquimalt. Its political isolation was about to end with closer ties to Halifax and Great Britain thanks to the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Stockton deemed it “the great military highway of British America.” Most assuredly the area’s strategic importance would grow. And in passing he bemoaned that the absorption of British Columbia by the U.S. would be postponed. 33  He then prophesied momentous consequences: 34

It is my belief . . .that in case of war with Great Britain the theatre of naval war in the Pacific will be here . . . .

We should have our strongest naval forces concentrated at these points for purposes of the defensive and for the purposes of that offensive, which the genius and spirit of our people naturally desire.” 35

The base at Esquimalt intimidated Stockton. He described in detail its harbor soundings, port facilities, dry-dock capacity, number of vessels, fortifications, lines of defense, strategic points, rail connections and access to bituminous coal and other natural resources. In short, this base commanded, with its great resources and associated rail transportation, the Canadian and American waters in the region, so it was a menace to the Pacific Coast and trade. 36

Stockton believed that there was only one way to permanently eliminate the British—to launch an aggressive and incisive campaign against western Canada. An initial raid with troops conveyed by light-draft steamers against the rail lines would be advisable. A blockade would also be initiated at Esquimalt and other strategic points and harbors; and then the enemy’s ships could be forced by the fleet, or enticed into an open engagement depending on the land defenses. If certain places were too strong then there would be alternative operations. Vancouver and other towns should then be subdued. Major efforts at all costs should be made to keep the Royal Navy from attacking the American coastline. The vast human resources of the United States, at any rate, could be mustered against the British forces hampered by a sparser population in western Canada. 37

Stockton’s vision also reached across the expanses of the Pacific Ocean, most especially New Zealand and Australia. In his estimation, the Pacific belonged to “the domain of the American canal,” as did most of its islands, since they would be focal points for trade from it.  The Suez Canal with closer ties to European and U.S. eastern markets would also be enhanced. 38  They were, along with Hong Kong, however, controlled by Great Britain. They were deleterious to the United States, for they were home to numerous war vessels. 39

So Stockton stressed the importance of New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand presented a potential threat to U.S. interests for its logistical position as a coaling base and many fine harbors, some of which were strongly fortified. 40  Blessed with bountiful natural resources, the latter boasted the capacious harbor of Sydney. London had poured money into the populated areas for defense. In addition to the Royal Navy, the Australians maintained local squadrons, so as to contribute to a maritime and naval superiority in the southern Pacific area.

To counter these threats, as with Esquimalt, Stockton proposed two major aggressive operations.

Any naval operations against New Zealand would naturally be directed first against Auckland and on account of its fine harbor and strategical [sic] position. . . .

with a moderately strong force it could be taken and held until the combined Australian squadron should appear. Single vessels, unarmored, could be denied anchorage but could find in the Bay of Islands a temporary rendezvous for operations against the shipping [in the area]. . . . 41

While operations in New Zealand were carried out, American forces should also launch

An attack upon Sydney in Australia [and it] must be a formidable one as the harbor is strongly fortified and in addition . . . a strong naval force is sure to [be] met with here. Some point held in New Zealand like Auckland or the Bay of Islands would be the best base of operations against Sydney . . . . [There are also ample landing places for troops and harbors of refuge.] The naval forces of Great Britain, which would assemble in Australian waters must be met and defeated . . . . 42

Stockton was fearful lest the Royal Navy could dispatch its Pacific squadrons to the Hawaiian Islands. As a base of operations these vessels could meet with their sister ships from Esquimalt in the northern Pacific waters. They would form a formidable fleet against the coastline of the United States and commercial routes. These islands could also be used as a coal base since they were situated at the “crossroads” of the seas with close ties to San Francisco. Hawaii should be, therefore, owned by the U.S., otherwise control of the northern and mid-Pacific would be forfeited, for

it is not likely that this group will used as a primary base by the naval forces of a nation not holding sovereignty over this group. The group would prove an important port of call for vessels or squadrons from Australian and Chinese waters who could here unite and reach by economical steaming Esquimalt on Vancouver Island especially if they did not fear an enemy of equal or nearly equal force when they approached that vicinity. 43

France, however, could potentially be a secondary threat with its possessions in the mid-Pacific, so he proposed operations against Tahiti. 44  Stockton also thought that assaults against Chile and Peru should be launched. A number of points on the west coast of South America could be taken for their strategic value on the southern approaches to the proposed canal. 45  Stockton cursorily discussed the Russian presence at Vladivostok, but he dismissed this empire. 46

He pointed out, nevertheless, that there could be the possibility of campaigns against the Japanese, Chinese, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. 47  He, however, thought it more prudent to concentrate on the northern and mid-Pacific regions. The entire Pacific including Central and South America, should be dotted with coaling and naval bases, that could be used as launching points of operations against enemies. They would, of course, serve as protection for the U.S. controlled canal. Stockton also suggested that there should be no territorial aggrandizement. 48

We should construe these intended pan-Pacific operations and plans as the first Naval War College attempt at global strategic thought—Stockton, did after all, insist on the “domination of the whole of the Pacific Ocean.” 49  His broad-sweeping vision of an expansive America did seem to reflect the growing aspirations of the naval officer corps. 50

Stockton composed his “labor of love,” in part, as an entreaty to his fellow officers and ultimately countrymen, so they would become aware of their vulnerability in a world beset with change. He naturally referred on different occasions to the parlous state of the U.S. Navy while inculcating his students at the Naval War College that

To accomplish the destruction of . . . [the enemy’s] naval force we need not only a force large enough in numbers to meet any fleet Great Britain would be likely to assemble here, but also one including battleships, carrying ordnance of large size and modern construction and protected with heavy armor . . . .

No matter how brave and efficient our officers and men will be, a loss of moral force is inevitably connected with the consciousness of inferiority in force, in protection in the number of vessels. The spirit of courage is transferred to be simply an endurance of a cruel punishment. 51

Lt. Cmdr. Stockton looked at tackling the isthmian canal much as a boy with open eyes watched a space capsule sail to the moon. Both were the exertions of Americans sharing pride in the quickened activity of a proud country that offered promise, a nation straining, both brain and muscles, to achieve the dreams of decades. He concluded his first lecture in the following fashion:

the successful completion of the ship canal between the two great oceans of the world, it is not too difficult to see that, with its opening, a great epoch in the commercial history of the world will be begun. The importance of the work to the United States can hardly [be] estimated. 52

Stockton was the first naval officer, with pencil and paper, to chart the bounteous future that the canal promised, and he did so on a global basis. 53 Strategic Study of Lake Frontier of the United States” during the same session as Stockton’s lectures. See: Mahan, “Report of President of Naval War College,” Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1888 (WDC: GPO, 188), 101. Given the small staff at the Naval War College Stockton and Rogers undoubtedly knew each other. It is also possible that they envisioned orchestrated assaults on east and west Canada, but additional research is necessary. Mahan was also familiar with Rogers’ war plans.

C.C. Rogers tells me that the “Intelligence Report on War Resources of Canada” has not yet been forwarded by the Admiral [David D. Porter], and that if he can be allowed to retain it, he can, without further writing, read from it such parts as may be necessary for our lectures on the “Strategic features of the Canada frontier”. . . . [Mahan to Raymond P. Rogers, 13 August 1888, as presented in: Robert Seager, II and Doris D. Maguire, Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Vol. I: 1847-1889 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 656.]]  That should make us aware of three more lost traits—an untrammelled innocence yet one that faces reality, a thirst for learning yet an awareness of a changing world, and a unique yet shared vision—hallmarks that suggest an original thinker.

Stockton and Mahan

Since we are exploring nineteenth-century American naval history, it now seems appropriate to invoke Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan. At the age of forty-five and while wearing an officers’ uniform, he was apparently an avowed anti-imperialist who “looked upon Mr. Blaine (the secretary of state in the Harrison administration) as a dangerous man” for his acquisitiveness. 54  We should then excuse Mahan for his untutored lapse while “drifting on the lines of simple respectability as aimlessly as one very well could.” 55

Later on, in 1887, after apparently “seeing the light,” Mahan made his new revelations known in a series of three lectures at the Naval War College collectively entitled “Naval Strategy and the Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.” 56  The next year he again gave “The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea” series. 57  The exact original contents of these lectures are not known since they are not available. These titles do suggest that the Pacific was in all likelihood not mentioned, although he was aware of the potential of an isthmian canal and its relationship to the Caribbean. 58

Mahan’s initial lectures, meanwhile, were received quickly and enthusiastically by his fellow naval officers in the late 1880s, so his reputation began to soar, even before his public presentations on the Caribbean and isthmian issues. McCalla, who displayed exuberance on land and on deck, was also apparently given to a scholarly bent. In a letter to Luce, he wrote that

It is very pleasant to hear you speak in such enthusiastic terms as to the ultimate success of the War College. I am happy that Mahan’s lectures have been such a success. I know that he is a man that reads a great deal and would be very likely to give papers indicative of great research. 59

But it was not these lectures that made Mahan famous. It was the eternal principles set forth in his blockbuster The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in 1890. Robert Seager points out, however, that they were “borrowed.” 60  Ens. William G. David published an article “Our Merchant Marine: The Causes of Its Decline, and the Means to be Taken for Its Revival” eight years earlier in the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute. 61  In 1882 David detailed in embryonic form a “few general conclusions [that] may be drawn from. . . [a] review of the six great sea-powers of the past.” 62  They bear a striking resemblance to Mahan’s paradigmatic cornerstones that influence sea power in his famous work. 63

David was not the only man from whom the busy Mahan eventually “drew inspiration.” Stockton’s lectures on the Pacific were also cornucopian sources, for Mahan neglected to take into account the entire Pacific Ocean in his strategic thinking until the same year as The Influence of Sea Power upon History. If we look at Mahan’s articles before the Spanish-American War, there are four that draw our attention.

“The United States Looking Outward” first published by the Atlantic Monthly in 1890 depended on Stockton’s Pacific lectures. In this article Mahan regarded the Hawaiian Islands as necessary to American strategic interests and was fearful of aggressive German commercial growth. He pointed out the strength of Great Britain and the importance of western Canada and its vulnerability. The isthmian canal, moreover, will alter trade routes. The U.S. Pacific Coast will be exposed to attack, so San Francisco and the Puget Sound took on greater importance, and they will need protection. All these thoughts sound familiar and now Mahan lauds Blaine as a harbinger of imperialism. 64

Three years later the article “Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power” was published in the March issue of the Forum. It too seems to be an echo of Stockton’s concern for these important islands, especially with their strategic position for control of the North Pacific. Mahan was concerned, however, about forestalling the spread of Oriental barbarism. The newly found American “maturity” regarding Pacific conquest was also a factor. Concern was shown for the presence of the British on both sides of this ocean with well-positioned strategic points at the opposite shores in British Columbia, and Australia and New Zealand; and of course their covetous desire for Hawaii, well within steaming distance of the U.S. The proposed isthmian canal would naturally open the Pacific to American commerce, and Hawaii would be a crucial key to its security. 65

Six months transpired, then “The Isthmus and Sea Power” appeared in the September 1893 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. 66  The only mention of the Pacific is a passing remark about how the isthmian canal would bring the two coasts of America closer together and enhance trade for the western states. 67

“The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” published in 1897 by Harper’s Monthly, is strikingly silent about the Pacific in its contents, but highlights the Caribbean as the center of American sea power. 68   Although the proposed canal would be an important link, “the maritime routes in the Pacific converging upon the Isthmus—do not concern us.” 69

(Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress)

Then after the Spanish-American War additional articles and books related to the Pacific most assuredly came to light. 70

One noteworthy work in this latter period, Naval Strategy, is worth examining. 71  If we read Mahan’s 1911 lecture series that appeared we find that his earlier Naval War College talks, as mentioned above, were reedited. His major thrust can be found in the following lines:

While the Monroe Doctrine was the sole positive external policy of the United States, as contrasted with the negative policy of keeping clear of entanglements with foreign states, national interest gradually but rapidly concentrated about the Caribbean sea; because through it lie the approaches to the Isthmus of Panama, the place where the Monroe Doctrine focuses. 72

Mahan’s wisdom of hindsight was marvelous. With some early nurturing by Stockton’s focus on the Pacific, the ongoing interest in the canal, the stark implications of growing American, Japanese, and German power, and the Open Door Policy Mahan’s thinking undoubtedly matured. Then of course there was always the enlightenment for his reading public.

The Pacific possesses an actual immediate importance . . . . the Caribbean remains important; perhaps it has not even quite lost the lead, but it is balanced by the Pacific. The approaching completion of the Panama Canal will bring the two into such close connection that the selected ports of both obviously can and should form a well-considered system, in which the facilities and endurance of each part shall be proportional to its relations to the whole. 73

The two chapters, eleven and twelve in his Naval Strategy devoted to the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies, respectively entitled “Application to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea” and “The Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea,” ignore the Pacific, except in rare instances, and then only in passing. 74  They contained newer material with his twenty-four years of reflection. Mahan ends chapter twelve with the pronouncement that the Caribbean is “the strategic key to the two great oceans,” without mentioning the Pacific waters that embrace four continents with its countless islands. 75

Mahan, however, did justify his lack of focus since the possibility of American influence across the Pacific in the 1880s was not visible on his remote horizon. He pointed out that: “This was the condition when these lectures were first written. The question of the Pacific and its particular international bearings was then barely foreshadowed and drew little attention.” 76  This statement is quite striking given Stockton’s labors. One astute historian wrote, that

the Panamanian isthmus was vital because many American citizens and large quantities of American merchandise annually traversed the narrow passage. The southern regions of Central America . . . held the key to a flourishing intercoastal and international American trade. It was therefore considered essential that the United States have a dominant voice in isthmian affairs. 77

Mahan, nevertheless, stressed the importance of the canal in a concise synopsis in his report to the secretary of the navy for 1887. 78

The consideration of the results of an isthmian canal is designed to familiarize the minds of officers with the great issues that are maturing in the waters of Central America; the importance of those regions with the point of view of military control, if not of war; and also incidental to awaken attention to the close attention between the commerce and naval interests of a country. 79

So Mahan was keenly aware of the strategic and commercial implications of an isthmian canal, but apparently not for the consequences of a bounteous role for Pacific trade and the potential tasks for the U.S. Navy. He was too Euro-centered and parochial in his thinking, so he clung to the Mediterranean as a reflection of history. In short, he looked to the past instead of to the future.

What Mahan claimed to be of no importance in the 1880s over two decades before this updated lecture of 1911 and his earlier articles, Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton addressed with vigor, while berthing with his soon-to-be famous colleague at the Naval War College in 1887. 80  As the evidence suggests Mahan‘s strategic concerns for the Pacific did not become apparent until after Stockton’s presentation. Should we then accept Mahan’s boast that “the light dawned first on my inner consciousness; [and] I owed it to no other man.” 81


Research in public and private collections has thus far indicated that Stockton’s name

is conspicuously absent in documents for this period. He, for the present, remains an enigma. His voluminous works, however, bespeak of an industrious man. It is “The Present Condition of Commerce and Commercial Routes Between Europe and the Pacific, with an Estimate of the Effect Produced on Them by a Trans-Isthmian Canal . . . ” that will remain his monument.

Some inconsistencies in the Stockton manuscript, nevertheless, should be addressed. The introduction is located in a separate folder from the truncated major work that is missing some lectures, so it was possible that there were also a number of redactions. Mahan’s “Report of President of Naval War College” in the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1887 mentioned six lectures, but they were not itemized. 82  Stockton’s introduction, which served as lecture one and as an overview for the entire series, indicated only five. They were described in the following manner:

The first lecture besides being introductory in its nature will treat especially of trade and trade routes now existing between the Atlantic and Pacific, showing how both will be effected by the Canal.

The second and third lectures will embrace a naval and commercial examination of those ports and harbors of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, that are important in a military or commercial sense, with respect to the trade routes to the Canal and the Canal itself.

The fourth lecture embraces an inquiry into the political state of the Central American countries likely to be most affected by the canal, and a narration of the international questions bearing upon the Canal.

The fifth and final lecture will give the general conclusions derived from the preceding lectures accompanied with a general discussion of the Canal question as it affects the Pacific and how it bears in its different aspects towards the United States. 83

In an earlier article this author touched on lecture one and discussed lectures two and three, with an emphasis on his war plan with Spain found in the latter two. 21  Lectures four and five are missing from the Naval War College Archives and so was a surmised lecture six. Lectures seven and eight were undoubtedly a later product, most likely from the next year, and as cited in Stockton’s notations, were respectively: “A Strategic Study of the Pacific Coast from the Gulf of Panama to British Columbia with Special Reference to the Interests of Military Policy of the United States” and “[A] Strategic Study of the Waters of Puget Sound and those Adjacent to British Columbia with a General Examination of the Strategic Conditions and Possibilities of the Pacific Ocean.” The struck-out words in the above block quote indicated that these subjects treated in lectures seven and eight were originally slated for lecture five.

In the Report of the Secretary of the Navy for 1888 Mahan informed Washington that Stockton prepared a course on the “commercial sea-routes and the strategic features of the Pacific coast of the United States.” 85  The Report for 1892 noted that courses on “The Strategic Features of the Pacific” and the “Nicaragua Canal” were given, but without authorship. 86

Two years later Capt. Henry C. Taylor, the president of the Naval War College, thanked Stockton for assisting in the general preparations of the school. He noted that the “lectures of Commander Stockton were instructive in many ways, and especially impressive in a series on the Nicaragua Canal, indicating the effect of such a canal upon the naval policy of this country and upon various questions of strategy and tactics involved.” 87

If we leap to 1900 Stockton presented two lectures, one of which was the “Strategic Features of Our Northwest Coast, within the Range of the Problem.” 88  Also in this same Report Assistant Secretary of the Navy Frank W. Hackett extolled the labors of the outgoing president: “The college has been fortunate, indeed, under the administration of Captain Stockton. This officer has not only inspired others with zeal for the work, but has himself contributed several papers of high professional value to the records of the college.” 89

Stockton’s lectures, both on the Caribbean and the Pacific, were written at the same time as Mahan’s inquiry into the strategic features of the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean Sea, and as adumbrated above, most assuredly antedated Mahan’s inquiries into the Pacific. 90  Notations on the Naval War College folder that contained Stockton’s introduction suggested that his strategic lectures, or at least some of them, were read in 1887, 1888, and 1892. A revision was also indicated on June 9,1894 and another reading on July 23, 1894. 91  The notations, however, did not suggest whether the Pacific or Caribbean lectures were read.

Apparently, Stockton kept the proposed canal close to his heart. A year after the Spanish-American War and just before his retirement as president of the Naval War College in 1900, the Proceedings published another article, “The American Interoceanic Canal: A Study of the Commercial, Naval and Political Conditions.” Although this re-casted and updated version conflated his original lectures and excised the war plans against Great Britain and Spain, his vision, nonetheless, remained unchanged.

The completion of a Ship Canal across the Central American isthmus, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, will undoubtedly mark an epoch in the history of the civilized world. . . . the trade of the American Canal should increase with great strides, accompanied as it will be with the increased population and development of the west coast of America, with the growth of United Australasia, and with the establishment of stability and trade relations in our new insular possessions in the Pacific and the East, as well as in China and Japan. . . . The command of the sea on our north Pacific coast and the waters of the western basin of the north Pacific should be in our hands in peace and war-time. 92

Stockton correctly surmised that the canal would engender new commercial and strategic rearrangements throughout the world.

The close relationship between Stockton and Stephen B. Luce endured for many years. In a letter dated February 6, 1888 the younger man wrote to his mentor.

It is pleasant to find the labor expended upon the lectures duly appreciated. So much of the matter existed in a widely scattered form that hard work was necessary to gather it, digest it and reason from it; so much chaff to go through with to get the grains of wheat.

The work, however, was a labor of love, and I feel indebted to the College for giving me a direct tangible reason undertaking the subject. . . .

I went to the College as its friend, but must admit returning from it as a partisan, and I hope never to miss an opportunity of saying a good word in its favor, in the proper season. 93

The U.S. Navy, with a little help on the Hill, carried out Stockton’s suggestion in his strategic plan to establish a presence in the Northwest. His letter continued, and with self-effacing modesty, reported that:

The Congressional Record of today shows an endeavor on my part to improve an opportunity in connection with Senator [John H.] Mitchell’s speech on a Puget Sound naval station. I wrote quite a letter in advocacy of the College; he has not incorporated it in his remarks, but it ought to have its effect upon the senator himself. He however though giving me the benefit of complimentary remarks, which I wanted for the War College shows the subject originated from the War College and its president and not from myself. Every little helps.94.]

During the same year as this Stockton missive, Mahan received orders from Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney—his presidency of the Naval War College was terminated so he could reconnoiter for a new naval base in the state of Washington, while Stockton was faithfully by his side. 95

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)


Kenneth C. Wenzer is an independent historian. Gratitude is extended to Charles C. Chadbourn, III, editor, International Journal of Naval History, Scott Mobley, United States Naval Academy, Michael Crawford, Historian of the Navy, Paul S. Hoff (a great grandson of Stockton), Barbara Bull, Karin Anderson, and Norman G. Schneider. I am also indebted for the archival support and librarianship of Dara Baker and Scott Reilly, Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College (hereafter, NHC); Glenn Helm and his staff at the Navy Library; Jeffrey Flannery and his staff, Manuscript Reading Room of the Library of Congress (hereafter, LC); and Eric S. Van Slander, Christopher Killillay, and their colleagues, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. and College Park, MD. Spelling and grammatical discrepancies have, at times, been silently corrected and regularized in the primary, but not secondary source quotations. Washington, DC is abbreviated as “WDC,” New York City as “NYC,” Government Printing Office as “GPO,” Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute as “USNIP,” and International Journal of Naval History as “IJNH.”

  1. Robert Seager, II, “Ten Years Before Mahan: The Unofficial Case for the New Navy, 1880-1890,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 40, 3 (December 1953): 492.
  2. Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (NY: The Free Press, 1972), 150-51.
  3. The Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua, The Inter-Oceanic Canal of Nicaragua: Its History, Physical Condition, Plans and Projects (NY: The Nicaragua Canal Construction Co., 1891), 8. See pages 3 to 18 for a detailed history.
  4. Daniel H. Wicks, “New Navy and New Empire: The Life and Times of John Grimes Walker” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1979), 376.
  5. Ibid., 376-407.
  6. Rutherford B. Hayes, “Message to the House of Representatives, March 8, 1880,” Letters and Messages of Rutherford B. Hays, President of the United States (WDC: no pub., 1881), 291-92. That year Secretary of the Navy Richard W. Thompson, a bit overeager, generously consented to work for de Lesseps, but resigned with some prodding See: Walter R. Herrick, Jr., The American Naval Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966), 21.
  7. Literature extolling or condemning one or the other of the two isthmian canal locations evolved into a cottage industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. See, for instance: Willis F. Johnson, Four Centuries of the Panama Canal (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1906) and Lindley M. Keasbey, The Nicaragua Canal and the Monroe Doctrine: A Political History of Isthmus Transit, with Special Reference to the Nicaragua Canal Project and the Attitude of the United States Government Thereto (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896). Also see: Kenneth J. Hagan, American Gunboat Diplomacy and the Old Navy, 1877-1889, Contributions in Military History, No. 4 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973), 156-57. Herrick, Naval Revolution, 21.
  8. Hagan, Gunboat Diplomacy, 158-59.
  9. Herrick, Naval Revolution, 13-38.
  10. Stephen B. Luce, “The Benefits of War,” North American Review, 153 (December 1891): 674-75.
  11. Alfred T. Mahan, “Report of President of Naval War College,” Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1887 (WDC: GPO, 1887), 163.
  12. Stockton was a prolific strategic and logistical writer at the Naval War College. Some of his contributions include: “Sea Blockades and Naval Investments,” 1894, NHC, RG 14, box 1; “Combined Maritime Operations,” 1894, NHC, RG 14, box 1; and “Commerce Destroying,” 1894, NHC, RG 14, box 1. He also published articles on a variety of topics, such as: “The Naval Asylum and Service Pensions for Enlisted Men,” USNIP XII, 2 (1886): 53-67; “Submarine Telegraph Cables in Time of War, USNIP XXIV, 3 (September 1898): 451-56; and “An Account of Some Past Military and Naval Operations Directed Against Porto Rico and Cuba,” USNIP XXVI, 3 (September 1900): 456-75.
  13. Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton, The Present Condition of Commerce and Commercial Routes Between Europe and the Pacific, with an Estimate of the Effect Produced on Them by a Trans-Isthmian Canal Including a View of the Military and Political Conditions of the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea: Military and Commercial Examination of the Port and Countries of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea (first lecture/introduction) and RG 8, Series 1, box 27, NHC (second, third, seventh, and eighth lectures). Lecture seven is handwritten and is titled: “A Strategic Study of the Pacific Coast: Panama to British Columbia.” Lecture eight is also handwritten and is titled: “A Strategic Study of the Waters of Puget Sound and those Adjacent to British Columbia with a General Examination of the Strategic Conditions of the Pacific Ocean.” Lectures two and three are respectively titled: “The Interoceanic Canal, I. Introductory–Its Commercial Geography.” On the lecture coversheet: Lt. Commander C.H. Stockton, U.S.N./The Inter-Oceanic Canal 1.” In the top-left corner: “38;” bottom-left side: “Panama Canal;” top-right corner: “51;” and top center: “(1894).” On the bound-volume cover: “Locker U-2-d/Office of NAVAL INTELLIGENCE/Register No. 8310/Defenses/U.S./National/General Studies/Subject or Title. Strategic Studies in the Gulf of Mexico./Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean,/Lectures by Lt. Comdr. Stockton;/ U.S. Navy./1888.” On the left side: “8310 OLD SERIES.” Handwritten in the center: “I agree with Lt. Com. Stockton that these should not be made public in any manner without his consent. R.P.R.” (Lt. Raymond Perry Rodgers, chief of the Office of Naval Intelligence). On a center label below writing: “SECRET./To be kept out of view./Not to be removed from the Secret/Locker or Safe except by authority of the/Chief Intelligence Officer.” On the second page there are declassification stamps and the following: “MILITARY AND COMMERCIAL EXAMINATION/of the/PORTS AND COUNTRIES/of the/ GULF OF MEXICO AND CARRIBBEAN SEA/Part First: Florida Straits to Chiriqui Lagoon/Charts:/Key West, Havana, Pensacola,/Passes of the Mississippi, Chiriqui Lagoon;” NHC, RG 14, box 1.
  14. The Caribbean aspects of Stockton’s geopolitical study is discussed in Kenneth C. Wenzer, “The First Naval War College Plan Against Spain by Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton,” IJNH 13, 1 (April 2016).
  15. Stockton, Lecture, 7; 5.
  16. Ibid., 7; 1 and 2-3.
  17. Ibid., 7; 4. See also Lecture, 8; 28-30 for a discussion on naval stations and coaling bases and the challenges that they pose to maintain the readiness of vessels and contribute to the logistics for a fighting fleet.
  18. Ibid., 7; 3 and 4.
  19. Ibid., 7; 4.
  20. Ibid., 7; 18.
  21. See endnote no. 14.
  22. Ibid., 1, 14-15.
  23. Ibid., 7; 7.
  24. Ibid., 7; 18.
  25. Ibid., 1; 17.
  26. Ibid., 8; 27-28.
  27. Stockton was not impressed or did not think that the influence of Japan, Spain, and Russia would be of much consequence in the Pacific. See: Ibid., 8; 25-27.
  28. Ibid., 7; 32 and 33.
  29. Ibid., 7; 26 and 31. San Francisco should therefore be fortified with a strong naval presence. There should also be joint service cooperation with a mustered militia (Ibid., 7; 22-23 and 28).
  30. Ibid., 7; 27.
  31. Ibid., 7; 38.
  32. Ibid., 8; 2 and 3.
  33. Ibid., 8; 13.
  34. Ibid., 8; 9-14.
  35. Ibid., 8; 7.
  36. Ibid., 8; 13-19.
  37. Ibid., 8; 18-21. See footnote no. 53.
  38. Ibid., 1; 20-26.
  39. Ibid., 8; 23-25.
  40. Ibid., 8; 35-40. As with Esquimalt, Stockton described various geographical and strategic features of Australia and New Zealand.
  41. Ibid., 8; 38-39.
  42. Ibid., 8; 39-40.
  43. Ibid., 7; 22 and 8; 32-34.
  44. Ibid., 8; 34-35.
  45. Ibid., 8; 40-41.
  46. Ibid., 8; 26.
  47. Ibid., 8; 31.
  48. Ibid., 8; 41-43.
  49. Ibid., 7; 5.
  50. For a glimpse into the mindset of the officer corps, see: Karsten’s Naval Aristocracy.
  51. Stockton, Lecture, 8; 8-9.
  52. Ibid., 1; 11 and 26.
  53. Stockton’s plan was an academic exercise, so there were a number of obvious shortcomings. He did not take into account the U.S. Navy’s miniscule fleet with aged ships (but was evincing signs of modernization) and a scaled-down U.S. Army. For the Navy, see:  Herrick, Naval Revolution, 13-38. For the Army, see: William A. Ganoe, The History of the United States Army (NY: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1942), 298-396. During this time concerns over coastal and harbor defense gave rise to the Endicott Board (headed by Secretary of War William C. Endicott), which set in motion a period of fortification construction. See: Army and Coast Defence Edition of the Scientific Supplement; Guns, Armor and Fortifications XLVI, 1173, July 9, 1898. The reader is encouraged to consult a proposed attack against eastern Canada in Scott Mobley’s article “The Essence of Intelligence Work is Preparation for War: How ‘Strategy’ Infiltrated the Office of Naval Intelligence, 1882-1889,” IJNH 12, 3 (December 2015). The author discusses, in part, the close relationship between the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Naval War College. Lt. Charles C. Rogers, who was detailed to the ONI and worked at the NWC, planned an attack on eastern Canada. Rogers presented  “[A
  54. James G. Blaine, twice secretary of state, attempted to foster unity with Latin America and advocated U.S. commercial expansion and a more aggressive foreign policy.
  55. Alfred T. Mahan, From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life, The American Scene: Comments and Commentators (1906; NY: Da Capo Press, 1968), 274.
  56. Ibid.,, “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1887, 164. One author suggests that Mahan’s pro-imperialism began while stationed off the Pacific coast of Central and South America (1884 to 1885). See: Jon T. Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (WDC: The Woodrow Wilson Press, 1997), 23.
  57. Ibid., “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1888, 101.
  58. Robert Seager, II, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1977), 121-22. During the 1880s the proposed isthmian canal provoked interest in the U.S. Navy. See: Ens. Washington I. Chambers, “Notes on the Nicaragua Ship Canal, As Relocated and Revised by the U.S. Surveying Expedition of 1885,” USNIP XI, 4 (1885): 807-14 and Lt. William W. Kimball and Naval Cadet W. L. Capps, “Special Intelligence Report on the Progress of the Work on the Panama Canal During the Year 1885,” USNIP XIII 4 (1887), 679-84
  59. Lt. Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla to Luce, 23 October 1886, Stephen B. Luce Papers, reel 6, LC.
  60. Seager, Mahan, 200-01 and 206-07.
  61. Ens. William G. David, “Our Merchant Marine: The Causes of Its Decline, and the Means to be Taken for Its Revival, USNIP VIII, 1 (1882): 151-186.
  62. Ibid., 151-52 and 155-57. The six powers are: Phoenicia (and Carthage), Rome, Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Great Britain.
  63.   Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1890), 23-89.
  64. Ibid., “The United States Looking Outward,” The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1898), 3-27.
  65. Ibid., “Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power,” Interest of America, 31-55.
  66. Ibid., “The Isthmus and Sea Power,” Interest of America, 59-104.
  67. Ibid., 85-86 and 99-100.
  68. Ibid., “The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” Interest of America, 271-314.
  69. Ibid., 282. This article appears to be the first edited version of his Naval War College lectures in the late 1880s and saw final form in Naval Strategy in 1911. See endnote nos. 71 and 74.
  70. “The Relations of the United States to Their Dependencies” came to light in 1899. In the first year of the new century Mahan published additional articles entitled “The Problems of Asia” and also the “Effect of Asiatic Conditions upon World Policies.” These pieces appeared in: Alfred T. Mahan, The Problem of Asia and Its Effect upon International Policies (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1900). “Off to Japan in ‘67” and “When U.S. Warships held Japan’s Harbors” appeared in 1907. One year later two articles with the same name “The Value of the Pacific Cruise of the United States Fleet, 1908” were printed. One online journal article offers a two-part periodization of American interest in Hawaii. The first period, from 1892 to 1895, the author avers, is devoted to the first Mahanian insights. See: Ambjörn L. Adomeit, “Alfred and Theodore Go to Hawai’i: The Value of Hawai’i in the Strategic Thought of Alfred Thayer Mahan,” IJNH, 13, 1 (April 2016).
  71. Alfred T. Mahan, Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land, Lectures Delivered at U.S. Naval War College, Newport, R.I., Between the Years 1887 and 1911 (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1911).
  72. Ibid., 198.
  73. Ibid.
  74. Chapter XI of Naval Strategy is the “Application to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” 302-39 and chapter XII is “The Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea,” 340-82.
  75. Ibid., 382.
  76. Ibid., 198.
  77. Hagan, Gunboat Diplomacy, 188 and 189.
  78. Mahan, Naval Strategy, 375.
  79. Ibid., “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1887, 63-64.
  80. Ibid., Sail to Steam, 229-65.
  81. Ibid., 276.
  82. Ibid., “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1887, 164.
  83. Stockton, Lecture 1; 1-2.
  84. See endnote no. 14.
  85. Alfred T. Mahan, “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1888, 101. See also page 84.
  86. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1892 (WDC: GPO, 1892), 56-57.
  87. Capt. Henry C. Taylor, “Report of President of Naval War College,” Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1894 (WDC: GPO, 1894), 208-09 and 212.
  88. Capt. Charles H. Stockton, “Naval War College,” Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1900 (WDC: GPO, 1900), 97.
  89. Frank W. Hackett, “Naval War College,” Ibid., 71-72.
  90. Mahan, “Report of President,” Annual Report, 1887, 164.
  91. These notations are on the back cover sheet of the first lecture.
  92. Charles H. Stockton, “The American Interoceanic Canal: A Study of the Commercial, Naval and Political Conditions,” USNIP XXV, 4 (December 1899), 751, 752, and 771. Twelve years later Stockton wrote the article “Panama Canal Tolls,“ USNIP 38, 2 (June 1912), 493-98.
  93. Ibid. to Luce, 6 February 1888, Luce Papers, reel 7, LC.
  94. Ibid. Mitchell was a Republican from Oregon. The congressional act that contained the provisions for the future naval base (Bremerton) in Puget Sound was passed on September 7, 1888. It stated that
    “the Secretary of the Navy. . . is hereby required to appoint a commission composed of three competent naval officers, whose duty it shall be to examine the coast north of the forty-second parallel of north latitude, in the State of Oregon and Territories of Washington and Alaska, and select a suitable site, having due regard to the commercial and naval necessities of that coast, for a navy-yard and docks . . . . “ [An Act Making Appropriations for the Naval Service for the Fiscal Year Ending June Thirtieth, Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-Nine, and for Other Purposes,” Statutes at Large, Vol. 25, Chap. 991, 463 (51st Congress, 2nd Session)
  95. Mahan, Sail to Steam, 299-300 and Mahan to Colby M. Chester, 4 June 1889 in Seager and Maguire, Letters and Papers of Mahan, 686-87.

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Presidential Crisis Decision Making Following the Sinking of the Panay


The Setting
The Domestic Context
Presidential Crisis Decision Making

Douglas Peifer
US Air War College


Last December marked the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the US gunboat Panay by Japanese aircraft, an incident that predated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by four years. The sinking of the Panay was frontline news, but unlike the reaction to the sinking of the Maine in 1898, the crisis elicited more apprehension than outrage. Public opinion and Congress feared an overreaction on the part of the executive branch, with isolationist papers and politicians asking why US naval vessels had been stationed in China in the first place. A broad spectrum of the public feared that FDR’s response would somehow entangle the United States in the ongoing Sino-Japanese war, and Congress sent a clear signal that it had no intentions of authorizing any sort of military response.

The USS Panay underway on Yangtze, date unknown (Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives, Photograph # NH 11353)

Much of the literature on the Panay focuses on the incident itself, rather than on political response to the crisis. The tale of the attack on the Panay is a riveting drama, encompassing eyewitness accounts of dive bombing aircraft coming so close that American sailors could see the faces of Japanese pilots, of the “pantless gunner” of the Panay who had rushed up to the ship’s deck half-dressed in order to man one of the 30 caliber machine guns, and of a heroic executive officer who suffered a neck wound and was unable to speak but calmly wrote out orders on the back of a nautical chart as blood dripped onto the chart. 1  The drama of the incident too often pushes its real significance into the background.  Focusing on the dynamics of presidential decision making, this article explores several key areas where foreign policy, naval diplomacy, and crisis decision making overlap. 2  Was the incident entirely unanticipated, or had China experts feared that something of the sort might happen? Once news of the Panay’s destruction reached Washington, what courses of action were presented to the president and what avenues did FDR push his subordinates to examine? Why did FDR decide to select the option he did? And how does this inform our understanding of developments in 1941?

The Setting

On August the 22nd, 1937, Admiral Harry Yarnell, Commander in Chief of the US Asiatic Fleet, dispatched a stern protest to the Commander of the Japanese Third Battle Fleet whose ships were firing on Chinese positions near Shanghai’s International Settlement. Yarnell, joined by his British and French counterparts, complained that Japanese destroyers were shooting directly over his flagship and other non-belligerent naval ships. He objected that the Japanese were endangering neutral shipping caught in the crossfire between Chinese and Japanese forces, noting that two days earlier a shell had landed directly on the deck of his flagship, killing one American sailor and wounding eighteen. Admiral Yarnell urged the Japanese admiral to shift his warships to a different anchorage so that the USS Augusta and other neutral vessels moored off Shanghai’s bustling waterfront, the Bund, would not be further endangered. 3  Yarnell’s request was duly conveyed to Tokyo, and while the Japanese government responded reassuringly that it had directed its forces to exercise utmost caution so as to avoid incidentally damaging Western embassies or ships, the reality was that the escalating conflict between Imperial Japan and Nationalist China threatened long-established Western interests.

These interests took many forms, from large international settlements with extraterritorial jurisdiction at dozens of treaty ports along China’s coast to factories, railroads, and warehouses throughout the country to missionary schools and churches tucked deep in the country’s hinterland. By the mid-1930s, the US had around 2,400 ground troops in China, with 528 Marines on station in Beijing, 785 Army troopers posted to Tientsin, and 1,100 Marines stationed at Shanghai. 4  In addition, units of the US Asiatic Fleet regularly visited Chinese ports, with Admiral Yarnell’s flagship the Augusta (a heavy cruiser) anchored conspicuously at Shanghai’s Battleship Row throughout the summer and fall of 1937. Lastly, the riverine gunboats of the US Yangtze Patrol provided a reassuring presence deep into the interior of China for the scattered American missionary outposts, schools, trading enclaves and businesses strung out along South China’s major trade corridor, the Yangtze River.

As clashes between Kuomintang and Japanese soldiers escalated into full-fledged (though undeclared) war in July 1937, the environment in which US troop detachments and gunboats operated became increasingly dangerous. The isolated gunboats of the Yangtze Patrol were particularly vulnerable, usually operating as detached units and lacking the firepower to defend themselves from anything more serious than light arms fire. On August 10, Secretary of State Cordell Hull clarified the mission of the Yangtze Patrol, specifying that both offensive and coercive operations against foreign governments fell outside its mission set. He emphasized that the Yangtze Patrol’s primary function was to protect American nationals, with a secondary function to protect American property. American forces in China were “in no sense expeditionary forces. They are not in occupation of an enemy territory nor are they defending territory of the United States. They are expected to protect lives but they are not expected to hold positions regardless of hazards. They would be expected to repel threatened incursions of mobs or of disorganized or unauthorized soldiery, but they would not be expected to hold a position against … armed forces of another country acting on express high authority.” 5

By this time, Sino-Japanese fighting had spread from Northern China and the Beijing area to Shanghai and the Yangtze River valley. Americans, other Westerners, and Chinese civilians became caught in the crossfire, with both sides showing a general disregard for non-combatant lives and neutral property.

It soon became apparent that Japanese aircraft and artillery were becoming the main threat to American lives and property in China. Relaying a report from the US embassy in Nanking (Nanjing) to the American ambassador in Japan, Secretary of State Hull remarked that “Sooner or later some incident is going to happen resulting in the death or injury of American citizens going about their legitimate occupations within the interior of China where such dangers should not exist.” Hull directed Ambassador Grew to deliver an aide-mémoire to the Japanese Ministry for Foreign Affairs urging Japan to “refrain from attacks upon defenseless cities, hospitals, trains, and motor cars etc.” The American aide-mémoire noted that while Japan claimed it was not at war with China, Japanese aircraft were conducting raids deep into the interior of China with “consequent serious damage to the rights of other nations.” 6

Hull’s misgivings were justified. As Japan proceeded with military operations around Shanghai and then pushed up the Yangtze River toward the Republic of China’s capital at Nanking, a growing number of complaints reached the US Embassy about incidents in which Americans had been hurt, attacked, or witnessed brutal attacks on Chinese employees and civilian facilities. On the 17th of September, Ambassador Joseph Grew lodged an official complaint with the Japanese government, noting that Japanese military forces were showing a reckless disregard for US lives and property. Japanese aircraft, Grew admonished, had even subjected American humanitarian and philanthropic establishments in China to savage attacks. Three days later, Ambassador Grew again called upon the Japanese Foreign Minister Kōki Hirota, warning him of “the very serious effect which would be produced in the United States … if some accident should occur in connection” with the Japanese navy’s announced intention to bomb Nanking. Grew recalled that he employed the most emphatic language, reminding Hirota that “we must not forget history…neither the American Government nor the American people had wanted war with Spain in 1898, but when the Maine was blown up nothing could prevent war.” 7  Ambassador Grew feared that overeager Japanese aviators might attack a US ship or contingent of marines irrespective of restraining directives to exercise utmost caution. He blamed young, hotheaded Japanese aviators for causing trouble, commenting in his diary that “having once smelled blood they simply fly amok and ‘don’t give a damn whom or what they hit.’” 8

Less than three months after warning Hirota that overeager Japanese aviators might plunge relations between the US and Japan into a crisis, Grew found himself issuing orders to the American embassy staff in Tokyo to begin planning for a hurried departure. The ambassador had received word that Japanese aircraft had sunk the USS Panay on 12 December as it lay at anchor upstream of Nanking.

The Domestic Context

Secretary of State Cordell Hull arriving at White House to discuss Far East situation, Aug 1937 (LOC Image #LC-DIG-hec-23201)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his advisors were keenly aware of the strengths of isolationism as they attempted to forge a coherent strategy for dealing with Japanese aggression in East Asia during the 1930s. Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State, claimed that in the spring and early summer of 1937, the United States had contemplated relinquishing its extraterritorial rights in China and had contacted the British to begin exchanging views on the topic of restoring full sovereignty to China. 9  The outbreak of fighting put the matter of the American military presence in China on the front burner, where it would remain until the Panay was sunk in December. Harold Ickes, FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, recorded cabinet deliberations that reveal that both the President and Vice President were deeply ambivalent about the presence of American troops in China.  10  Vice President John Nance Garner, when told that one couldn’t remove American troops without inadvertently encouraging further Japanese aggression, exploded, angrily asking “Are we going to keep our troops in China for twenty or fifty or a hundred years?” For Garner, the issue was clear. The United States “oughtn’t to have soldiers and Marines in foreign countries,” with the Texan elaborating that “we wouldn’t take it in good part if Japan insisted on having marines in San Francisco.” FDR was more circumspect, asking Admiral Leahy how many Marines were in Shanghai, and then sighing that “he wished they were not there.” When Leahy pointed out that the Marines were protecting four thousand Americans in the city, the President countered that “there were about twenty-five thousand Americans in Paris and not a single Marine.” Ickes recorded that the President reluctantly agreed with Hull and Leahy that the marine contingent could not be removed given the present situation.  Ickes concluded that “It is the old case of not doing something when it can be done and then when a crisis arises, deciding that it can’t be done then.” 11

Roosevelt predicted that some Americans were going to get hurt, and instructed Leahy to work out plans to evacuate those American who wished to leave. The president, according to Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau, told Garner that the administration would base its policies in the Far East “on the hope of Japanese disaster, which could be produced by a rise in the strength of Russia and China and a revolt on the part of the Japanese population against militarism.” 12  Yet hope is not a strategy, and FDR would find that creating policies that supported his aspirations was difficult given the domestic political climate which prevailed within the United States.

If the president, vice-president, and Secretary of the Interior were frustrated that outdated treaty rights dating back to the Boxer Rebellion had put American forces in a vulnerable position from which it was difficult to withdraw without appearing weak, isolationist Congressmen and Senators were appalled. Immediately after the outbreak of fighting in China in July, Representative Hamilton Fish of New York announced to the press that he would introduce legislation forcing the administration to relinquish extraterritorial rights in China.  Fish challenged his fellow House members to come up with a single good reason for maintaining American troops and gunboats in China. 13  Senator Lewis of Illinois raised the same point in the Senate the next day, with Representative George Holden Tinkham of Massachusetts submitting a resolution for the withdrawal of all American forces from Northern China on 9 August.  As the situation in China deteriorated, more isolationist Congressmen and Senators took to the floor, with Representative Voorhis of California exclaiming on the 17th of August that America had everything to lose and nothing to gain by keeping marines and gunboats in China. 14

Public opinion was divided on the matter. On August 5th, Gallup conducted a poll asking whether the United States should withdraw all troops in China in order to keep from getting involved in the fighting, or keep them there to protect American rights. Fifty-four percent of those polled answered “withdraw,” forty-six responded “Remain.” Yet when the president remarked to some journalists that same day that Americans in China had been urged to leave and those who decided to remain did so “at their own risk,” hundreds of messages poured into the White House from missionary leaders and businessmen stunned at the statement. 15  English language newspapers in China, such as the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury, the China Weekly Review, and the North China Daily News, reflecting the sensibilities of the American expatriate community in China, ascribed the president’s remark to an oversensitivity to Congressional isolationists and peace activists.

The president had to reconcile the wishes and recommendations of his foreign and security policy advisers with the realities of the political situation at home. When Admiral Yarnell requested additional marines to reinforce the marine detachment in Shanghai in mid-August, the president had endorsed the request in the face of considerable pressure. But when Yarnell and Hornbeck, the former the on-scene military commander in Shanghai and the latter the State Department’s East Asia expert, asked for an additional two cruisers (watered down from an initial request of four cruisers) at the end of the month, FDR turned down the request emphatically. 16  And when Yarnell issued a statement to the press explaining that American forces had the duty and obligation to protect American citizens in China even at the risk of being exposed to danger, the president curtly instructed Leahy that “hereafter any statement regarding ‘policy’ contemplated by the Commander –in-Chief Asiatic Fleet must be referred to the Secretary of the Navy for approval.” 17  Harold Ickes, more attuned to domestic considerations than his State Department and Navy colleagues, recorded his assessment candidly in mid-September. A political animal and one of the key implementers of the New Deal, Ickes confided to his private diary that

There isn’t any doubt that we are in a bad spot so far as the Sino-Japanese situation is concerned. When the President some time ago warned all Americans to leave China or to stay there at their own risk, a great protest went up, especially from the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. As usual, Americans who went abroad to engage in business because of the big profit that they thought they might make expect us to sacrifice thousands of lives if necessary and millions of treasure in an attempt to protect their investments when we can’t do it anyhow. It all seems so stupid to me…. After all, there is no compulsion to invest money in foreign enterprises and it ought to be at the risk of the investor. Certainly we oughtn’t to be expected to go to war, with all the dreadful consequences involved, to protect people who are doing something they want to do and are doing [so] voluntarily. 18

Roosevelt presided over a back and forth struggle between isolationists in Congress and internationalists in the State and Navy, calling upon administration allies in Congress to provide him with room for maneuver. He attempted to steer a course that would enjoy public support, opposing recommendations he feared would result in a backlash but resisting calls to invoke the full panoply of restrictions embedded in the Neutrality Act. The advice and counsel he received from members of the cabinet was divided, as were the inputs they received from their subordinates. 19

The administration had to tread very carefully when dealing with the Sino-Japanese conflict in the summer and fall of 1937. Isolationist sentiment expressed itself not only in calls for the rapid withdrawal of US military units in China and in demands that FDR implement the Neutrality Act, but in a deep-seated skepticism toward any joint, multinational, or international response to the crisis.

With the passage of time, it has becoming tempting to characterize the isolationists as know-nothing provincials, Republican holdouts embittered by the New Deal, or the offspring of the mid-western “hyphenated Americans” who had opposed Wilson’s tilt to the Entente in World War I. Yet isolationist sentiment was wide-spread even in the circles most enthused about the New Deal, with college professors, ministers, and many intellectuals warning against any administration schemes that envisioned the United States organizing collective responses to overseas aggression. Charles Beard serves as an example of a progressive, highly educated isolationist. Writing in the Political Quarterly that fall, Beard commented that “With much twisting and turning, the American people are renewing the Washington tradition and repudiating both the Kiplingesque imperialism of Theodore Roosevelt and the universal philanthropy of Woodrow Wilson.” They are showing a “firm resolve not to be duped by another deluge of propaganda – right, left, or centre.” 20  While Beard supported the administration’s New Deal and was sympathetic to its domestic activism, he opposed FDR’s internationalist tendencies. Responding to the internationalist argument, Beard wrote in the New Republic that

It is easy to get into a great moral passion over the distant Chinese. It costs nothing now, though it may cost the blood of countless American boys. It involves no conflict with greedy interests in our own midst. It sounds well on Sunday… [But] Anybody who feels hot with morals and is affected with delicate sensibilities can find enough to do at home, considering the misery of the 10,000,000 unemployed, the tramps, the beggars, the sharecroppers, tenants and field hands right here at our door. 21

A few voices pushed back against the strong current of isolationism in the fall of 1937. Senator M.M. Logan of Kentucky advised the administration to act more forcefully, elaborating to journalists that “I am opposed to war, but I am also opposed to running for a hole every time anyone says ‘boo.’ I think the fleets of a group of nations blockading Japan would stop the present hostilities. But it would have to be collective action by several nations.” 22  FDR’s Secretary of the Navy, Claude Swanson, made in similar point in Cabinet discussions, telling the president that the Navy staff was of the opinion that “if it was considered necessary to put Japan in its place, this was the right time to do it, with Japan so fully occupied in China.” The president ignored Logan’s public call, and smilingly chided Swanson that he [FDR] was a pacifist and had no intention of making any warlike moves. 23

Presidential Crisis Decision Making

Japanese naval aircraft attacked the USS Panay in the early afternoon of Sunday, 12 December 1937.  The ship sank beneath the muddy surface of the Yangtze shortly before four in the afternoon.  The initial attack destroyed the ship’s transmitter, with the Panay’s survivors hiding in the riverbank reeds until nightfall as they feared that the Japanese intended to kill them. As word reached the Commander of the United States Yangtze Patrol and the American ambassador to China that British gunboats had been subjected to Japanese artillery and air attacks that Sunday afternoon, a sense of alarm began to grip State and Navy Department personnel in Hankow. Ambassador Johnson sent an urgent telegram to Washington shortly before midnight China time letting the Secretary of State know that nothing had been heard from the Panay since 1335. At 930 on Monday morning (Sunday evening in Washington), the American ambassador received a telephone call from an American missionary doctor in Anking relaying the information that the Panay had been sunk, with fifty-four survivors gathered in the town of Hohsien. The Ambassador and the Commander of the United States Yangtze Patrol rushed to inform their respective superiors of the news.  By late Sunday evening Eastern Standard Time, State and Navy leadership in Washington had been informed that the Panay was destroyed.

As Washington began to grapple with the news, the Japanese government sought to defuse the situation by immediately apologizing for the incident at multiple levels and across time zones. 24 1937, vol.4, 497-98.]  In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Hirota broke with diplomatic protocol by personally visiting the American embassy to express his regret for the incident. 25  The Japanese Navy Minister meanwhile sent his senior aide to the US naval attaché in Tokyo to convey the Navy Minister’s “sincerest regret to this unhappy accident,” with the Chief of Staff of the Japanese China Sea Fleet paying a formal call to Admiral Yarnell on the flagship Augusta in Shanghai to apologize and offer medical assistance. 26  In Washington, the Japanese ambassador requested an urgent meeting with the US Secretary of State, intent on conveying his government’s full and sincere apologies for the “very grave blunder” which had occurred.

The barrage of apologies from Japanese officials gave the administration little time to digest what had happened to the Panay, let alone conduct protracted internal debates before responding. Secretary of State Hull put off meeting the Japanese ambassador until 1 pm on Monday so that he could first consult with the White House. Hull had conferred with the officers of the Far Eastern Division the previous evening, and met with them again early Monday morning to deliberate what sort of recommendations the State Department should make. The initial consensus of opinion was that Japan’s behavior had been outrageous, but given isolationist sentiment, the United States was in “no position to send sufficient naval forces… to require the Japanese to make the fullest amends and resume something of a law-abiding course.” 27  Admiral Leahy, the Chief of Naval Operations, participated in the discussion Sunday evening, and had been dismayed by the weak response contemplated. He advised the president that it was “time to get the fleet ready for sea, to make an arrangement with the British Navy for joint action, and to inform the Japanese that we expect to protect our nationals.” 28

The president received conflicting counsel from his inner circle as the crisis broke. The president’s instinct was to express shock, demand an apology, but wait until all facts were assembled before offering more precise terms of settlement. The Naval Court of Inquiry convened to investigate what had happened took a week to file its official account; the journalists who had been onboard the Panay, in particular Colin MacDonald for The Times of London and Norman Soong for the New York Times, worked on faster deadlines. Before even arriving in Shanghai with the other dazed and wounded Panay survivors, MacDonald and Soong somehow managed to send the first eyewitness accounts of the bombing. Over the coming days, more eyewitness accounts would make their way into the papers, with the incident dominating the news cycle.

While the president and his advisers waited for the findings of the Naval Court of Inquiry, they discussed several different options that might underline the gravity and urgency of the situation. These ranged from imposing a naval blockade on Japan to organizing a joint demonstration of force with the British to using economic tools to punish the Japanese. Each option, after careful consideration, was shelved or watered down.

Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson, though old and in poor health, was enraged by the attack and “shouted for war in his feeble voice” during the cabinet meeting held on 17 December 1937. 29  Swanson made his case forcefully despite difficulty speaking, arguing that war with Japan was inevitable. Given this unfortunate reality, it was better to fight Japan now while its military was bogged down in China rather than wait until Japan had consolidated its hold over the mainland. Returning to a point he had made months earlier, Swanson pointed out that Japan was highly dependent on imports and therefore vulnerable to naval pressure. Admiral Leahy, the Chief of Naval Operations, advised the president to send the ships of the fleet to navy yards “without delay to obtain fuel, clean bottoms, and take on sea stores preparatory for a cruise at sea.” 30  He outlined the idea of imposing distant blockade on Japan in cooperation with the British, a concept that caught FDR’s fancy. After listening to Swanson vent his anger and call for war, FDR painted the broad contours of the concept to his cabinet. The president viewed a distant blockade as less drastic than fleet action, and remarked that the US Navy could blockade Japan from the Aleutian Islands to Hawaii to Guam, with the British taking over the blockade from there to Singapore. FDR asserted that a blockade was “comparatively simple task which the Navy could take care of without having to send a great fleet.” He believed that a joint Anglo-American blockade would bring Japan to its knees within a year. 31  The concept, however, required collaboration with the British Navy, and would put thousands of American civilians still in China – as well as the US troop detachments at Beijing, Shanghai, and Tientsin – at risk. FDR realized that while many Americans were appalled by Japanese behavior in the Far East, few wanted to go to war with Japan over American gunboats on the Yangtze or Japanese atrocities in Shanghai, Nanking, or elsewhere.

If imposing a naval blockade went too far and constituted an act of war, sending a powerful naval force to the area to show the flag offered an alternative that would send a strong signal. The British had suggested a joint display of force back in November, only to be rebuffed by the Americans. As news of the Japanese attacks on the HMS Ladybird, HMS Bee, and the USS Panay reached London, the British government reached out to Washington once again. Noting that they were “fully aware” that the American government was unable to participate in “joint actions,” the British suggested that their two governments might synchronize their responses since the Japanese attacks on vessels of both nations “could not possibly have been the result of accident” according to their sources. 32  The British government attached great importance to creating a united Anglo-American front, urging the Americans to move their fleet and assuring them that “in such circumstances Great Britain would undoubtedly increase her own Far Eastern naval contingent.” 33  The message delivered by the British Ambassador to Cordell Hull the next day was somewhat more circumspect; while reiterating that the British believed the Japanese were following a policy of firing upon the nationals and warships of other nations in a most “reckless, criminal, and deliberate manner,” the British government conceded that it was doubtful whether either Britain or the United States could assemble a naval force sufficiently impressive to deter the Japanese from further outrageous behavior. 34

The British government, when push came to shove, encouraged the United States to take a strong stance toward Japan, desired joint action, but was unable to contribute to the strong display of force it advocated. On the evening of the 16th December, Roosevelt met with British ambassador Lindsay and Secretary of State Hull to explore the matter of naval cooperation more fully off the record. Returning to the concept of a naval blockade or “quarantine” of Japan, FDR grew increasingly enthusiastic as he outlined the concept to the British ambassador. If Japan committed another outrage, the British and American navies should implement a cruiser blockade of Japan, keeping their battleships to the rear. The French and Dutch would have to be brought onboard, with the blockade supplemented by a general embargo of Japanese goods. Roosevelt elaborated that there was no need for the British to send a fleet, and that the dispatch of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines would suffice, perhaps backed by one or two battleships. Reporting on the conversation to Foreign Minister Eden, Lindsay concluded

From the foregoing you may think that these are the utterances of a hair-brained statesman or of an amateur strategist, but I assure you that the chief impression left on my own mind was that I had been talking to a man who had done his best in the Great War to bring America speedily on the side of the Allies and who now was equally anxious to bring America in on the same side before it might be too late… 35

Roosevelt became intrigued with the concept of blockading Japan after the Panay’s sinking. In his mind, a blockade did not equate to a declaration of war, hence his use of the more innocuous term he had tested the previous October, that of a “quarantine.” British officials from the Prime Minister down, no doubt drawing upon their experience in the First World War, were skeptical of this distinction. The Foreign Office favored a joint demonstration of force, a concept it had advocated months before. Both options required a modicum of staff discussions between the US Navy and the Royal Navy, though the administration knew that even a whiff of such discussions would cause an uproar in Congress and the public. On December 23rd, FRD asked Admiral Leahy and Captain Royal E. Ingersoll, director of the US Navy’s War Plans Division, to attend a secret meeting at the White House along with the Secretaries of State and Treasury. Ignoring Hull’s misgivings, FDR instructed Ingersoll to go to London for the purpose of making “preliminary arrangements, if we could, with the British for joint action in case of war with Japan.” 36

Domestic realities made it difficult for the president to openly engage in coercive diplomacy. In groping for a way to respond to aggression without resorting to war, FDR toyed with the idea of using the United States’ economic power to exert pressure without force. This would be particularly useful if the Japanese either refused to pay indemnities for their attack on the Panay, or if they dragged their feet and quibbled about the damages demanded.  During the first cabinet session after the Panay’s destruction, FDR declared that there were lots of ways of fighting without declaring war, indicating that economic sanctions might constitute a smart and modern response to Italian and Japanese aggression. He instructed Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau to ascertain what authority the president had to seize Japanese assets and hold them against payment of damages. 37  Morgenthau consulted his senior legal advisor, General Counsel Herman Oliphant, and reported the next day that a 1933 amendment to the Trading with the Enemy Act empowered the president to issue regulations that prohibited or restricted exchange transactions if the president declared a national emergency. FDR was delighted and instructed Morgenthau to develop the concept further.

General Counsel Oliphant put the Treasury Department’s top lawyers through their paces, directing them to complete a draft legal justification of the concept as quickly as possible. 38 ]  Assistant Secretary of Treasury Wayne Taylor pushed for more deliberation during a departmental review, asking under what circumstances the United States could impose the rules and for how long. Morgenthau remarked that those decisions would be up to the president, with restrictions removed when the Japanese agreed to “be good boys.” When Taylor argued that the proposed regulations might lead to war, Morgenthau shot back that “they’ve sunk a United States battleship [sic] and killed three people….You going to sit here and wait until you wake up here in the morning and find them in the Philippines, then Hawaii, and then in Panama? Where would you call halt?” Taylor, reflecting the opinion of most Americans, said he would wait quite a while. 39  When Morgenthau snapped that he could see no reason to wait for the Japanese to strike again, Taylor blurted out “Well, of all the cockeyed things in the world that we can do that would be more cockeyed than the last World War we got into, this would be it.”  The exchange reveals how extensive isolationism was even within a department headed by one of Roosevelt’s most dynamic, interventionist confidantes. Morgenthau’s reply to Taylor’s outburst sheds insight into the president’s thinking and illustrates how pervasive was the tendency to equate the Panay with the Maine among policy elites, though the latter was far larger and its loss had cost the lives of hundreds. Morgenthau told Taylor:

Well, I’m very sorry but this is what the President wants. Personally, I think it’s a marvelous idea….For us to let them put their swords into our insides and sit there and take it and like it, and not do anything about it, I think is un-American and I think we’ve got to begin to inch in on those boys, and that’s what the President is doing….How long are you going to sit there and let these fellows kill Americans soldiers and sailors and sink our battleships [sic]? 40

One of the major stumbling blocks to the Treasury plan was that Japan might sell or convert its assets before they could be frozen. To render the plan workable, the British would have to be brought onboard. The President directed Morgenthau to contact Sir John Simon, Chancellor of the Exchequer, directly, bypassing the usual diplomatic channels and keeping the matter as secret as possible. 41  The British response was cautious, and by the time Treasury had completed drafting the regulations on 21 December, Roosevelt had cooled toward the proposal. Without British cooperation, the economic instrument of power was blunt and difficult to deploy.

Roosevelt was left to rely on diplomatic negotiations to resolve the crisis. Secretary of State Hull had always believed that dealing with the crisis diplomatically was the only option given the strength of isolationist sentiment in Congress, and FDR had resorted to backchannels to explore possible naval and economic responses to the Panay’s sinking. But resolving the crisis through non-coercive diplomacy required Japanese cooperation. There was considerable anxiety in the White House, at the State Department, and at the American embassy in Tokyo that the Japanese might fail to respond appropriately. This sense of anxiety mounted as the administration received information that undermined the initial Japanese narrative of an accidental attack under conditions of restricted visibility. On the 16th, Secretary of State Hull directed Ambassador Grew in Tokyo to call upon the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs as soon as possible. Grew was to tell the Hirota that the American government had received disturbing new details concerning the attack. Particularly troubling were reports that while survivors were escaping the sinking Panay, Japanese airplanes had dived and strafed its lifeboats at extremely low altitudes. Hull concluded that these new reports raised two questions. How did Tokyo intend to deal with those responsible for the incident? And what specific steps would the Japanese take to ensure that American nationals, interests, and property in China would not be subjected to further attacks or unlawful interference from Japanese forces and authorities? 42

Japanese Ambassador Hirosi Saito waiting to see Secretary of State Hull to express regrets, December 13th, 1937 (LOC Image #LC-DIG-hec-23766)

The following day, matters threatened to boil over when the Japanese ambassador called upon the Secretary of State to deny that the Panay or any of its survivors had been fired upon by Japanese military boats with machine guns. Hull interrupted him, insisting that the American government had incontrovertible proof to that effect. Turning to the matter of punishment, Hull lectured the Japanese ambassador that “if Army or Navy officials in this country were to act as the Japanese had over there, our Government would quickly court martial and shoot them.” 43  In Tokyo, Ambassador Grew wrote in his diary on the 20th December that as evidence began to mount that the attack may have been deliberate, “My first thought was that this might result in a breach of diplomatic relations and that Saito [Japan’s ambassador to the United States] would be given his passports and that I would be recalled home, for I ‘remembered the Maine.’” 44

Had the Japanese government dug in its heels and argued that the American government had only itself to blame for putting the Panay into a dangerous situation – as a number of isolationists in the United States were doing – Grew’s fears of a diplomatic rupture might have materialized. Instead, on December 15, Vice Minister of the Navy Isoroku Yamamoto informed the American ambassador that he had relieved Rear Admiral Teizo Mitsunami, commanding officer of naval air forces in the Shanghai region, of command. The next day, Japan’s Navy Minister announced that the Imperial Navy would render a salute of honor to the victims of Panay at the site of the attack. In addition, he extended the apologies of every member of the Japanese Navy to the US Navy. The Japanese government moved quickly to share the information it had received from the investigations it had initiated. Indicative of the serious inter-service rivalries that plagued Japan during this period and throughout the Second World War, the Japanese government was never able to fully reconcile the conflicting reports it received from the Army and Navy. 45  Nonetheless, a high level Japanese delegation, led by Vice Minister of the Navy Yamamoto [who in 1941 as Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet would plan the Pearl Harbor attack] spent three hours on the evening of December 23rd briefing Ambassador Grew and his team on the Japanese investigations. Grew reported to Washington that the effort had been thorough, with maps strewn all over his office. All the American attendees, Grew noted, had been impressed “with the apparently genuine desire and effort of both [the Japanese] Army and Navy to get at the undistorted facts.” 46

Grew had not yet received a copy of US Naval Court of Inquiry findings when the Japanese presented their briefings, and he told them that based on the information he possessed, the Japanese account did not tally completely with the evidence. Grew reminded his high-level visitors that the American government was still waiting for a full reply to two American notes (December 14th and 17th) demanding that Japan express regret, offer full compensation, and provide assurances, and to Hull’s follow-on note reiterating these points and inquiring how Tokyo would deal with those responsible. 47

The next day, the Japanese Foreign Minister handed Grew his government’s official response. The Japanese note maintained that the incident had been “entirely due to a mistake,” and explained that thorough investigations had fully established that the attack had been “entirely unintentional.” The Japanese note reaffirmed Japan’s deep regret and willingness to pay indemnities, adding that the Japanese Navy had been issued strict orders to “exercise the greatest caution in every area where warships and other vessels of America or any other third power are present, in order to avoid a recurrence of a similar mistake, even at the sacrifice of a strategic advantage in attacking Chinese troops.” Furthermore, Hirota continued, the commander of the flying force concerned had been removed from his post for failing to take the fullest precautions. Staff officers, the commander of the flying squadron, and all others responsible for the attack would be duly dealt with according to law. 48

By the time Washington received the note at noon on Christmas evening, the administration was digesting the State Department’s preliminary report on the bombing of the Panay and US Naval Court of Inquiry findings.  49  Both were damning, leaving little doubt that the Panay’s survivors felt the attack had been deliberate. A senior US diplomat embarked on the Panay, commented that he and the other survivors had “every reason to believe that the Japanese were searching for us to destroy the witnesses to the bombing.” The Navy report did not speculate on Japanese intentions, confining itself to listing 36 findings of fact. These spoke for themselves, in particular the finding that a Japanese powerboat filled with armed Japanese soldiers had approached close to the Panay, opened fire with a machine gun, and boarded the vessel after the air attacks had subsided. Contradicting the Japanese investigations, the US navy court of inquiry concluded, “it was utterly inconceivable that the six light bombing planes coming within about six hundred feet of the ships and attacking for over a period of twenty minutes could not be aware of the identity of the ships they were attacking.”

The State Department report and the findings of the Naval Court of Inquiry made it difficult for the administration to accept the Japanese position that the entire incident had been accidental. They were uncertain, however, whether the Japanese government was itself directly responsible, or whether “wild, runaway, half-insane Army and Navy officials” in China had initiated the attack. 50  The American ambassador in Tokyo believed that the Japanese Army and Navy were “running amok, and perpetrating atrocities which the Emperor himself cannot possibly desire or sanction.” 51  As for the Japanese government, it had substantially met the four demands FDR and Hull had communicated. The Japanese government had expressed its regret. It had indicated that it stood ready to pay damages. It was providing assurances that it was putting restrictions on its forces so as to prevent any repetition of similar incidents in the future. Lastly, the Japanese took the unusual step of removing a commander and reprimanding his subordinates. Given that he had no proof that the Japanese government had instigated the attack, the president decided to settle the matter. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, Hull sent a note to Tokyo indicating that the United States regarded the Japanese note as “responsive” to American requests.

When Grew, the American ambassador in Japan, communicated the American acceptance of the Japanese note to Foreign Minister Hirota, he recorded that Hirota’s eyes filled with tears. The Foreign Minister remarked to Grew that “I heartily thank your Government and you yourself for this decision. I am very, very happy. You have brought me a splendid Christmas present.” 52  The Panay crisis was over.

Norman Alley describing his experiences to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison following the screening of footage of the Panay attack, 31 December 1937 (LOC Image #LC-DIG-hec-23823)

On Friday, December 31st, a small group assembled in a darkened room in Washington to view the film clip that cameraman Norman Alley had taken of the attack. Alley’s negatives had been rushed under strict security across the Pacific, and had been developed at Fort Lee the previous day. Alley was on hand as Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson, Secretary of War Harry Woodring, and Senator Key Pittman, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, watched the reel in silence. The film showed Japanese aircraft high above the Panay, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Mahlmann manning the guns in his skivvies, and the destruction onboard. 53.]  The mood was grim. FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, writing after the president decided to accept the Japanese Christmas note, captured the sentiments of several members of the cabinet who wished president had been more forceful. Ickes’ diary entry recorded that in his view,

We didn’t get the satisfactory apology from Japan that we asked for… In its note Japan distinctly negatived [sic] any charge of responsibility for other than an unpremeditated incident. This we have accepted, despite the fact that we know, and are apparently in a position to prove, that the attack was deliberate and wanton. It may be that the President thinks public opinion would not support him if he should go any further just now, but he proposes to be ready if another incident occurs….Much as I deprecate war, I still think that if we are ever going to fight Japan, and it looks to me as if we would have to do so sooner or later, the best time is now.  54

A number of accounts have suggested that the Panay crisis brought the United States to the brink of war with Japan four years before Pearl Harbor. 55  Despite the rumblings of Ickes, Swanson, Leahy, and others, this is an overstatement. 56  The president pushed his advisors to give him a range of options, asking Morgenthau to look into the legality of seizing Japanese assets and directing Leahy to initiate conversations with the British Admiralty. Yet Roosevelt was keenly aware of public and Congressional opinion, telling a friend after the hostile reaction to his “Quarantine Speech” the previous October that “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there.” 57

Secretary of State Hull captured the administration’s assessment of the situation in the memoir he published ten years after the event. Drawing upon memoranda, conversations, and his recollections, Hull characterized Japanese claims that the incident was entirely accidental as “the lamest of lame excuses.” Elaborating, he explained

That some members of the Foreign Office had no hand in it may be true. Hirota himself professed to be genuinely disturbed and sincerely regretful. That the Japanese people did not like it also seemed to be true, to judge from the thousands who expressed their sympathy to the Embassy and offered contributions for the families of the victims and for the survivors. But that the Japanese military leaders, at least in China, were connected with it, there can be little or no doubt. In any case, it was their business to keep their subordinates under control. 58

Continuing, Hull explained, “On this side our people generally took the incident calmly. There were a few demands that the Fleet should be sent at once to the Orient. There were many more demands that we should withdraw completely from China… It was a serious incident; but, unless we could have proven the complicity of the Japanese Government itself, it was not an occasion for war.” 59

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)


  1. The original chart, with Arthur “Tex” Anders’ penciled orders and blood drops, is exhibited at the US Naval Academy Museum.
  2. For a full account, see Douglas Peifer, Choosing War. Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents (New York; Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  3. The Commander in Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet (Yarnell), et al., to the Commander of the Japanese Third Battle Fleet at Shanghai, 22 August 1937, Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, Japan: 1931-1941, vol. 1, 487-88. Henceforth FRUS Japan 1931-41. A naval inquiry later concluded that the shell which landed in the well-deck where the crew had assembled to watch a movie was a Chinese anti-aircraft shell, but at the time Yarnell believed it was Japanese, with FDR informed that the AA shell was probably fired by the Japanese. Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: The inside Struggle 1936-1939 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 199.
  4. In a response to a Senate request for information, Secretary of State Wells provided a detailed listing of US troops, naval vessels, and military supplies in the Far East at the close of 1937. The US sent an additional 1500 Marines to Shanghai in the summer of 1937.  See Secretary of State to Senator Ernest Lundeen, 27 December 1937, FRUS 1937, vol.4, 420-22.
  5. Secretary of State to the Ambassador in China, August 10, 1937, FRUS 1937, vol.4, 252-3.
  6. The Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Japan (Grew), 30 August 1937; Aide-mémoire from the American Embassy in Japan to the Japanese ministry for Foreign Affairs, 1 September 1937. FRUS Japan 1931-41, 491, 494-5.
  7. The American Ambassador in Japan to the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs, September 17, 1937 and Memorandum by the Ambassador in Japan (Grew), 20 September 1937 in FRUS Japan 1931-41, 498-501; Joseph C. Grew, Ten Years in Japan: A Contemporary Record Drawn from the Diaries and Private and Official Papers of Joseph G. Grew, United States Ambassador to Japan, 1932-1942 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), (entry 20 September 1937), 217.
  8. Ibid., 217-18.
  9. Cordell Hull and Andrew Henry Thomas Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull (New York: Macmillan Co., 1948), 566.
  10. Secretary of State Hull’s first reaction to the widening conflict touched off by a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge on 7 July was to issue a formal statement – the “Eight Pillars of Peace Program” – advocating national and international self-restraint; the abstinence by all nations from the use of force; the adjustment of problems through peaceful negotiations; the faithful observance of international agreements; respect by all nations for the rights of others; and the revitalizing and strengthening international law.  Hull claimed that these doctrines were “as vital in international relations as the Ten Commandments in personal relations,” but they were idealistic statements of aspiration rather than realistic policy responses to the challenges posed by the Japanese, Italians, and Germans.  “Statement of the Secretary of State,” 16 July 1937 in FRUS, 1937, vol.1, 699-700; ibid., 535-36.
  11. Description of cabinet sessions of 7 and 13 August, 1937, from Harold Ickes, The Inside Struggle 1936-1939 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 186, 92-3.
  12. John Morton Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries. Years of Crisis, 1928-1938 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), 481.
  13. Congressional Record, 75th Congress, 1st session, 24 July & 3 Aug 1937, p.8156, 10442.
  14. Dorothy Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938; from the Manchurian Incident through the Initial Stage of the Undeclared Sino-Japanese War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), 320-21.
  15. Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938; 325.
  16. Henry Hitch Adams, Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 98.
  17. Policy statement of the Commander in Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet, 22 September, Memorandum by the Secretary of State to President Roosevelt, 4 October FRUS 1937, vol.4, 352-3, 363-64.
  18. Diary entry September 19th, 1937, Ickes, The Inside Struggle 1936-1939, 209.
  19. Hull and Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, 557. For examples of impeachment threats, see the cable that Representative George Holden Tinkham, R- Massachusetts, sent Cordell Hull on 13 Oct and the statement by Hamilton Fish, R- New York, New York Times, 14 October, 1937: 16 and 17 October, 1937: 40.
  20. Political Quarterly, October – December, 1937, from H. W. Brands, What America Owes the World : The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 125.
  21. Ibid., 126.
  22. New York Times, Oct 14, 1937, p. 16.
  23. Ickes, The Inside Struggle 1936-1939, 211.
  24. Ambassador in Japan to Secretary of State, 945 pm 13 December 1937, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States [henceforth FRUS
  25. Ambassador in Japan to Secretary of State, 3 pm 13 December 1937, FRUS Japan 1931-41, 521-22.
  26. Yarnell to Leahy, and Bemis (Naval Attaché in Japan) to Leahy, 13 December, FRUS, 1937, vol. 4, 492-3.
  27. Hull and Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, 560.
  28. Leahy and his wife were dining with the Woodrings (Harry H. Woodring was Secretary of War) when he received word of the incident. Leahy excused himself in order to join the small group that Secretary of State Hull had convened for discussions late Sunday evening at his Carlton Hotel apartment.  Adams, Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, 101.
  29. Ibid., 274.
  30. Henry Hitch Adams, Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 101.
  31. The concept, as FDR explained to the cabinet, entailed the US Navy blockading Japan from the Aleutian Islands to Hawaii, to Howland, to Wake, to Guam while the Royal Navy would take over from Guam to Singapore. Ickes, The Inside Struggle 1936-1939, 274-75; William D. Leahy, I Was There; the Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time (New York: Whittlesey House, 1950), 64, 128-29; Adams, Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, 101-2.
  32. The Chargé in the United Kingdom (Johnson) to the Secretary of State, December 13, 1937. FRUS 1937, vol.4, 490-91.
  33. Ibid., 494-95.
  34. Memorandum by the Secretary of State on conversation with the Ambassador of Great Britain, 14 December 1937, in FRUS 1937, vol.4, 499-500.
  35. Lawrence Pratt, “Anglo-American Naval Conversations on the Far East of January 1938,” International Affairs 47, no. October (1972), 752.
  36. For details of the secretive talks between Captain Royal E. Ingersoll, USN, Chief of War Plans Division, and Captain Tom Phillips, his Royal Navy counterpart, see Royal E. Ingersoll, interview by John T Mason Jr.1964, Wasington D.C; Alan Harris Bath, Tracking the Axis Enemy: The Triumph of Anglo-American Naval Intelligence, Modern War Studies (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 14-16; Gregory J. Florence, Courting a Reluctant Ally: An Evaluation of U.S./Uk Naval Intelligence Cooperation, 1935-1941 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Stategic Intelligence Research, Joint Military Intelligence College, 2004), 30-34; Pratt, “Anglo-American Naval Conversations,” 745-63.
  37. Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945: With a New Afterword (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 154; John Morton Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries.  Years of Crisis, 1928-1938 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), 486.
  38. For an account of the development of the concept which would lead to the establishment of the Foreign Funds Control office of the Treasury Department on April 10, 1940, see by Richard D. McKinzie’s interview of Bernard Bernstein on July 23, 1975, available online as Oral History project at the Truman Library, at [accessed 16 August 2017
  39. Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries. Years of Crisis, 1928-1938, 487.
  40. Morgenthau recalled that the president had pulled out Oliphant’s memorandum and told the cabinet that “We want these powers to be used to prevent war… After all, if Italy and Japan have evolved a technique of fighting without declaring war, why can’t we develop a similar one.” Ibid., 488-89.
  41. Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938; from the Manchurian Incident through the Initial Stage of the Undeclared Sino-Japanese War, 495.
  42. Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Japan, 16 December 1937, FRUS 1931-41, vol.1, 527.
  43. Memorandum by the Secretary of State re discussion with Japanese Ambassador, 17 December 1937, FRUS 1931-41, vol.1, 529.
  44. Diary entry 20 December 1937, Joseph C. Grew, Ten Years in Japan: A Contemporary Record Drawn from the Diaries and Private and Official Papers of Joseph G. Grew, United States Ambassador to Japan, 1932-1942 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 235.

    One might note that the Japanese Foreign Ministry was cognizant and alarmed by initial press references in the United States referencing the Maine. See cable from Tokyo to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, 17 December, in National Archives, RG 457, Entry 9032 (HCC), Box 751, Folder 1916, Translations of Japanese Messages Re: Panay Incident.

  45. For specifics on the Japanese Kondo (Navy), Takada (Navy), Harada (Army), and Nishi (Army) investigations, see Manny T. Koginos, The Panay Incident; Prelude to War (Lafayette: Purdue University Studies, 1967), 66-71; Harlan Swanson, “The Panay Incident: Prelude to Pearl Harbor,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 93, no. 12 (1967).
  46. The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Secretary of State, 23 December 1937, FRUS 1931-41, vol.1, 547-48. Grew provides an account of the briefing in his diary as well, but places the meeting on the 22nd December. Grew, Ten Years in Japan, 237-39.
  47. One has to take note of the time difference between Tokyo and Washington. Instructions dispatched from Washington on the afternoon of the 13th and 16th December would be received and acted upon in Tokyo on the 14th and 17th December.
  48. Copy of Japanese note sent from Grew to the Secretary of State, 24 December 1937, FRUS 1931-41, vol.1, 549-550.
  49. The findings of fact of the US Naval Court of Inquiry, along with George Atcheson Jr.’s detailed report to the Secretary of State, are available at FRUS, 1931-1952, vol.1, 532-547.
  50. Memorandum of the Secretary of State, 17 December 1937, FRUS 1931-1941, vol.1, 529.
  51. Diary entry, 20 December 1937. Grew, Ten Years in Japan, 236.
  52. Ibid., 240.
  53. Hamilton Darby Perry claims that Alley was asked to cut out about 30 feet of film that showed low level attacks on the Panay, presumably because the footage might undercut the diplomatic settlement just reached.  Perry indicates that Alley showed him the missing footage, with the story picked up by Kenneth Davis among others. Alley’s 1941 memoir makes no mention of any missing footage, and Universal Studies claimed that the film it ran was “Uncensored!!! Unedited!!!” Hamilton Darby Perry, The Panay Incident; Prelude to Pearl Harbor (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 231-232; Kenneth Sydney Davis, FDR.  Into the Storm, 1937-1940 (New York: Random House, 1993), 158; Norman Alley, I Witness (New York: W. Funk, 1941), 284-86.The full clip which ran in theaters is available at the Universal Studies archive at the Internet Archive, Universal Newsreels, at [accessed 16 August 2017
  54. Ickes, The inside Struggle 1936-1939, 279.
  55. William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason, The Challenge to Isolation, the World Crisis, and American Foreign Policy 1937-1940 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1970); Harlan Swanson, “The Panay Incident: Prelude to Pearl Harbor,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 93, no. 12 (1967): 27-37.
  56. Borg, who has written the most detailed examination into FDR’s Far Eastern policy during this period concludes that the president never seriously considered going to war of the matter. Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938, 501-3.
  57. Davis, FDR. Into the Storm, 1937-1940, 135.
  58. Hull and Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, 563.
  59. Ibid.

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Sailing Away From the Turbulent Waters of Vietnam: The Overflowing Waves of Boat People

Vy Nguyen
National History Day

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)

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Old Salts in the New Steel Navy

“The Old Navy” “Old Salts of the Square Rigger Navy” (NHHC Photo #NH 2889)

Roy T. Greim
Swarthmore College

The photograph “The Old Navy,” also known as “The Old Salts of the Square Rigger Navy,” taken on board the USS Mohican in 1888, is one of the most iconic images of America’s “Old Navy” and its enlisted men. Taken by Assistant Surgeon Hervey W. Whitaker, the picture features, from left to right, David Ireland, Gilbert H. Purdy, John T. Griffith, and John King. The careers of the four old salts in the photograph reveal certain noteworthy characteristics of the transition from the old to the new navy.

David Ireland, age 55, enlisted in 1850 and was in his 38th year of service when the picture was taken. As a member of the Mohican’s crew from May 25, 1885, to November 20, 1890, Ireland served as captain of the forecastle, captain of the hold, seaman, and quartermaster.

In correspondence with Captains John R. Y. Blakely and Joseph K. Taussig, who attempted in 1913 to identify the men pictured, Ireland’s commanding officers, Rear Admirals Reginald F. Nicholson and Edward W. Eberle, and Captain Robert L. Russell describe “Old Ireland” as a thrifty teetotaler, possessing two qualities rather uncommon for enlisted sailors of that era.

To that effect, Nicholson relates a story in which the conservative Ireland uncharacteristically broke his liberty in Auckland, New Zealand, and was fined three pounds after being brought aboard by the local police. The other men would get a rise out of Ireland by getting his attention and holding up three fingers to remind of him of the money he had lost. Their taunting was often successful and once prompted Ireland to throw the quartermaster’s spyglass at them. Both Nicholson and Eberle recall hearing that Ireland had nine to ten thousand dollars saved when he died, the date of which is unknown. 1

Captain of the hold Gilbert H. Purdy, age 60, was born in Union Vale, New York, on 29 January 1828. 2  Seeking adventure, Purdy left home at the age of seventeen and joined the crew of the Marengo, a whaler under the command of Captain Theodore Cole. He served in the Pacific and on the Bering Sea for at least two years, into 1847. During the Civil War, he served as a sergeant in Battery K, 4th U.S. Artillery, and fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville under Joseph Hooker. 3

Lieu Tisdale, a later shipmate of Purdy’s in USS Olympia, also reports that Purdy served with the USS Kearsarge during its triumph over the CSS Alabama, one of the Confederate Navy’s most successful commerce raiding ships, at the Battle of Cherbourg, which occurred on 19 June 1864. In his account, Tisdale reports that Purdy was a member of the “star gang”, twenty men from the Kearsarge who commemorated the victory and made an oath of fidelity to the Navy by tattooing blue stars on their foreheads, making them unfit for any other profession. 4  Purdy, however, does not appear on the roster of enlisted men for the Kearsarge when the battle took place 5  and it is possible that Purdy, a noted yarn-spinner, was simply trying to put one over on Tisdale. As for the tattoo itself, he describes it as “startling…in the middle of a high forehead, [a] visible and outward sign of the star gang,” 6  but it is not visible in the “Old Navy” photograph. Tisdale does not indicate when the men of the Kearsarge crew first received their tattoos, so it is possible that Purdy got his blue star after the 1888 photograph.

On board the Mohican, Purdy, “who was a great big six-foot-two man from New York State,” 7  would often entertain his shipmates, as in the picture, by spinning yarns or espousing the ideas of Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, and orator Robert G. Ingersoll, who championed free thought and agnosticism. 8

John Griffith, the senior member of the group at 62 years old, served as carpenter’s mate aboard the Mohican. He was born in Albany, New York, on 25 December 1826, but the date of his first enlistment remains unknown. Before joining the Mohican on 3 June 1888, Griffith served with the wooden screw gunboat USS Adams, an Adams class gunboat that displaced 1400 tons and had a sailing speed of 9.8 knots. 9  Nicholson reports that Griffith, or “Griffin” as he incorrectly remembers him, was a quiet sailor.

John King, age 54 and seated with a pipe in his mouth in the photograph, was born in England in 1834 and served as chief gunner’s mate with the Mohican from May 1885 to January 1889. Before enlisting in the navy in 1872, King gained experience in sailing and seamanship through his service aboard merchant marine vessels.

King was the antithesis to the thrifty and alcohol-abstaining Ireland and his behavior was more in line with the stereotypes of the Old Navy’s sailors.  As his officers remember, every time King had liberty, he would squander his monthly pay on rum and run off only to be dragged back each time by the master-at-arms.

In his correspondence, Eberle recounts two of King’s adventures ashore that demonstrate his free-spirited attitude toward liberty. In the first incident, King broke liberty in Nicaragua and a bounty was placed for his return. During the subsequent police chase, King ran to the beach and swam to the gangway of the Mohican, eluding capture from a nearby patrol boat. In the second adventure, King went ashore in Peru with his shipmates’ money to buy stores for his mess, having been elected its caterer. After purchasing and sending back a bag of salt and some cheese, King stayed ashore for ten days until police returned him to the ship.

Despite these escapades and others, Eberle concludes, “[King] was a good and faithful old soul, and was busy from reveille to taps,” 10  and that he and his shipmates, King, Ireland, and Purdy, were the most able and reliable seamen with any ship in the U.S. Navy. Had he known Griffith—he left the Mohican before Griffith came aboard—he would have likely concluded the same about his abilities and work ethic.

The photograph in question is interesting because it captures four distinct personalities of the Old Navy in a candid moment: Ireland, the thrifty teetotaler; Purdy, the outgoing yarn-spinner; Griffith, the quiet veteran on his way home from the service; and King, the boisterous, free-spending rogue. More interesting, however, is the juxtaposition of these men, “grizzled old salts” in navy vernacular, with America’s newly evolving steel navy. While not quite “living relics,” men like these four “sea dogs,” sailors who gained their skills in wooden ships during the Age of Sail, seemed increasingly out of place and even anachronistic in their presence as the use of sail power decreased in the United States Navy.

America’s transition to a modern steel navy required sailors to possess a new and different type of knowledge and expertise from what they had in the past. As reliance on sail power decreased, the navy relied less on seamanship and the petty officers that had acquired such skills in the era of wooden ships. How did the Old Salts fare as a new age, one with new technology and the associated challenges, decreased their role in America’s evolving navy? It is difficult to answer categorically, but first-hand accounts, observations, and even yarns seem to indicate that these petty officers were still a welcome and reliable presence aboard because of their experience and contributions to the morale of these ships.

The transition to the new steel navy had a dramatic impact on the demographics and character of its enlisted men as recruiting became increasingly focused on the creation of an “All-American” navy.

The sailors of the Old Navy, men such as Purdy, Ireland, King, and Griffith, were recruited because their experience with seamanship and the seafaring life meant that they would require little training to perform their duties afloat. 11  For the years 1870, 1880, and 1890, about two-thirds of the enlisted men reported a seafaring profession as their previous occupation in the muster rolls. To attract career seamen, the navy recruited mainly in coastal cities and in areas known to have a large population of sailors, neglecting any serious attempts to attract boys and men from inland areas. To this effect, it only maintained recruiting stations in cities with naval yards, such as New York, Boston, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C. 12

The navy’s recruiting policies allowed it to fill its muster rolls, but they often led to officers’ dissatisfaction with the character of the enlisted men. Career sailors were often perceived as career alcoholics and the stereotypical image of them was not far from that of John King, the heavy-drinking, liberty-breaking seaman pictured in the “Old Salts” photograph. Public perception of the old navy was similarly negative and many regarded the navy as “the last refuge of the drunken or incompetent.” 13

As ships became increasingly reliant on new technology, one that gave precedence to steam over sail, the navy expected its bluejackets to be skilled mechanics as well as sailors. The extensive change and disestablishments of various ratings for petty officers during this transitional period demonstrate the shift in emphasis.

Changing technology onboard ships necessitated a change in the ratings system for enlisted men in the navy to reflect the new duties sailors performed. Although the navy had established steam-related ratings, such as coal heaver (1842), fireman, machinist (1866), and blacksmith (1879), to name a few, it was slow to create these ratings because of its overall resistance to embrace such technology. In 1885, the navy legitimized these ratings by developing a formal classification system, one that included seaman, special, and artificer branches, all divided into six tiers, from seaman, third class, to petty officer, first class. 14  By this time, petty officers in the artificer’s branch earned more than their counterparts in the other two branches.

At the same time this reorganization was occurring, the navy was also disestablishing pay ratings to reflect the change in its personnel; between 1883 and 1893, more than 30 ratings were disestablished. In 1893 alone, the navy got rid of the ratings captain of the forecastle, captain of the hold, captain of the maintop, captain of the mizzentop, and carpenter in recognition that the skills associated with these professions were increasingly obsolete in the New Steel Navy. As Frederick Harrod writes in Manning the New Navy, “Although some ships still carried canvas, sails were no longer important to the navy; thus it was no longer necessary to give special recognition to the men skilled in handling them.” 15  After 1893, old salts like David Ireland, who had served as captain of the forecastle aboard the Mohican, and captain of the hold Gilbert Purdy, had fewer opportunities to remain petty officers and earn the associated pay.

Primary accounts also indicate that demands of new technology required a different breed of enlisted man, one who was as much a mechanic as a sailor. Lieutenant R. C. Smith, USN, in a discussion of the U.S. Naval Institute’s 1891 prize essay, “The Enlistment, Training, and Organization of Crews for our New Ships,” by Ensign A.P. Niblack, USN, reflects on the navy’s transition:

the change from the wooden to the steel ship, from the smooth-bore to the high-power rifle, from the howitzer to the Hotchkiss, from the musket to the magazine rifle, from the spar-torpedo and the Harvey to the Whitehead and the Howell. Will the same intelligence suffice for the attendant duties, and are the necessary men to be picked up in every seaport, as easily as the stage-driver becomes the engine-driver? No; the requirements and intelligence of the seaman class aboard ship are higher now than ever before. 16

In Smith’s opinion, the seamanship skills of the Old Navy were not sufficient to handle this new technology and the navy required a new breed of enlisted man, one who was as modern as the weapons and machinery he was handling. Frederick Wilson, a water-tender who served with the New Orleans during the turn of the century, put it more bluntly in his personal log, writing, “there is required to man these steel walls 99% more brain than the old wooden ships required.” 17  Of course, Wilson is subject to bias due to his position as an engine room water-tender in the artificer’s branch, but his point remains that the ships of the new steel navy, which were becoming less and less reliant on sail-power toward the dawn of the twentieth century, required a different sort of intelligence from its enlisted men.

In some ways, the career paths of the sailors pictured in the “Old Salts” photograph reflect continuity rather than the changes in the navy at the end of the nineteenth century. With the exception of Gilbert Purdy, who served with the USS Olympia under the command of Admiral Dewey during the Battle of Manila, none of the men served with a ship that had been laid down after 1883, the beginning of the steel navy. The incorporation of steam-powered steel ships into the active fleet and the retirement of warships vessels propelled by a combination of sail and steam was a matter of time, meaning that the usefulness of men skilled in the handling of square-rigged ships only gradually disappeared.

After his service with the Mohican, Griffith joined the crew of the Vermont, a 74-gun warship that was laid down in 1818 and finished in 1825, but remained uncommissioned until 1862. Owing to severe damage to its hull caused by a storm in 1862, it returned to New York City in 1864 and served as a receiving ship for 37 years. 18  Griffith served with the Vermont until his discharge on 10 December, 1889, and his shipmate John King also served with it until he was discharged on 2 April 1896. It is unknown whether David Ireland served with another ship after leaving the Mohican in November 1890 during his fortieth year of service.

Because these three sailors did not serve with truly modern ships, their experiences do not mirror those of enlisted men like Frederick T. Wilson; their duties did not demand them to be familiar with the most up-to-date technology. By the time Griffith and King were with the Vermont, it was already around seventy years old and a living reminder of the bygone Age of Sail.

The fact that these three men did not serve with modern steel ships, however, can also be interpreted as representative of the changes of this period. The navy did not expect these old salts to be able to properly handle new technologies and preferred to man newer ships with younger, perhaps American, enlisted men who had received specialized training rather than to teach old dogs new tricks. Old salts did not, however, disappear completely from the ships of the new navy, a fact that the career of Gilbert Purdy illustrates.

After leaving the Mohican, Purdy served with the protected cruiser USS Olympia as its captain of the hold, 19  even though the navy had disestablished that rate in 1893. This rate, with its “light duties” 20  was likely a ceremonial role for Purdy, who was of little other use on such a ship due to his age and skill set. Despite Purdy’s lack of utility, other members of the crew held him in high regard, including Lieu Tisdale who described Purdy and another veteran as “living relics of a great battle [The Battle Of Cherbourg] …animated encyclopedia of the navy, looking with small favor on modern warfare….” Tisdale even tattooed himself with the Kearsarge and Alabama out of respect for the Old Navy. 21  Another shipmate who thought highly of Purdy was L. S. Young, the editor of Olympia’s paper The Bounding Billow, which ran a serialized account of Purdy’s life, beginning on 31 January, 1898. The sinking of USS Maine shortly after did not leave enough time for the paper to publish Purdy’s full autobiography since war with Spain was imminent. 22

In the Spanish-American War, Purdy took on a new role as gunner, which he served during the decisive battle at Manila Bay on 1 May 1898. Days before the engagement with the Spanish fleet, Purdy, described as a “privileged character, because he had served in the navy forty or fifty years,” was reportedly out of place on the upper deck, looking for work to occupy his mind. When asked by Commodore Dewey about the nature of the disturbance, Purdy replied, “I hope sir, that ye don’t intend to fight on the 3d of May.” Questioned again by Dewey, the superstitious Purdy then said, “Ye see sir, I got licked the last time I fought on the 3d of May,” referring to his defeat at Chancellorsville thirty-five years before. 23  Dewey, who was certain that that battle would take place on 1 May, assured Purdy that he would avoid the 3rd and promised to give Purdy “another kind of May anniversary to think about.” During the battle itself, Purdy manned the guns and supposedly uttered the famous line: “To hell with breakfast; let’s finish ’em now.” 24

Gilbert Purdy, who was 72 years old when he was discharged in 1900, had fought in both the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and was the oldest man on the navy register when he died in 1912, is an exceptional example of how petty officers who had gained their skills during the Age of Sail remained a visible part of the navy as it transitioned to steel ships which demanded a different sort of technical knowledge. First-hand accounts, observations, and even yarns indicate that these petty officers were still a welcome and reliable presence aboard owing to their experience and contributions to the morale of these ships.

In his memoir, Rope Yarns from the Old Navy, Rear Admiral Caspar F. Goodrich, who served in the Spanish-American war, gives the highest praise to these old salts and laments their gradual disappearance. He writes:

There is nothing, or very little now, to stimulate that alertness and readiness for any emergency, that all around handiness which characterized the old-fashioned seaman who could read the signs of the weather by the appearance of the heavens, who needed no orders when there was a sudden call for a real man, who was ever at your side when danger threatened, who respected his officers and would follow them wherever they led, indifferent to the risk of his own life or limb. God bless him! 25

In his opinion, the new navy, with its advanced machinery, lessened the need for the “human element” and “personal touch” of the old salts and their seamanship. Goodrich also held a romantic view of these career sailors and the ships with which they served. On a cruise to the Caribbean in 1892, he writes “It should be said that no better school in human nature has ever been known than the old time sailing vessel, so intimate was the contact of every officer with every man.” 26  The implication here is that the organization of the new steel ships did not promote the same camaraderie between officers and enlisted men, the sense of unity that made service in the Old Navy so personal.

The collection Yarnlets: The Human Side of the Navy by Rear Admiral Edward Simpson also provides accounts, likely fictional, of the ways in which the old salts of the navy affected morale afloat. The story “Sponge Cake” concerns an old quartermaster, “a crotchety sailor of the old school” who had served during the time of the Old Navy. This old salt had much disdain for the new navy with its “electrical gadgets and gewgaws that he couldn’t understand, and that were only fit for the youngsters to handle” and would spend his time pacing and growling about the way things used to be. One day, the officer of the deck ordered the quartermaster to look after ship’s goat, Bill, who was eating a pan of slush, which was salt pork grease used to break down hardtack and make “duff,” a type of raisin cake popular with the men. The quartermaster decided to have his fun at the expense of the newer sailors by calling the slush “rice pudden” and railing “we don’t have ‘duff’ any more…Now they puts milk in it, and sugar in it, and eggs in it–regular Sponge Cake!” 27  The yarn suggests that such old salts were often objects of amusement rather than scorn or derision, somewhat comical reminders of the past.

Modern ships’ crews also valued these older sailors because of the knowledge and pearls of wisdom they offered. One collection, entitled “An Old Salt’s Salty Saltings,” provides such advice as “Don’t tell ther fellers how yer did it; let others do it fer yer”; “If yer have dirty clothes, wash ‘em ter-day; ter-morrow may be cloudy”; and “Never think ther ship can’t get along widout yer. If yer does, don’t think loud.” 28  The compilation indicates that sailors thought highly enough of the old salts and their experience-based wisdom to collect their advice and if they did not find the offerings particularly useful, they were at least amusing enough to retell to others.

The “Old Salts” photograph has endured because it captures four career sailors in a moment of relaxation. The historical context of the photo, which was taken in 1888, makes the photo even more poignant because it depicts a class of enlisted men that was slowly but surely on its way out of the navy as new technology required a different breed of sailor, one whom the navy expected to be skilled in engineering as well as seamanship. Many of these old salts, including three in the photograph, never even served with truly modern vessels and those that did likely had light duties and were “quietly filling the niches that Time has carved for them.” 29  These men, however, did not disappear without leaving an impact; members of the crew admired them and saw such old salts as a reliable source of yarns, wisdom, and morale.

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)


  1. Captain J. K. Taussig, “The Old Navy,” USNI Proceedings XLVII (1921), 4.
  2. Louis Stanley Young. “The Life of Gilbert H. Purdy” The Bounding Billow. 1. no. 3 (1898): 57-58.
  3. Joseph Stickney, Admiral Dewey at Manila and the Complete Story of the Philippines: Life and Glorious Deeds of Admiral George Dewey, Including a Thrilling Account of Our Conflicts With The Spaniards and Filipinos in the Orient (Philadelphia: J. H. Moore Co., 1899.), 48.
  4. Lieu Tisdale, Three Years Behind the Guns (New York: The Century Co., 1908.), 155-156
  5. William Marvel, The Alabama & the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1996), chap. Appendix 2. Ships’ Rosters.
  6. Tisdale, Three Years Behind the Guns, 155.
  7. Taussig, quoting Nicholson, “Old Navy,” 3.
  8. Ibid.
  9. James L. Mooney, ed., Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Washington: Naval History Division, 1959. s.v. “Adams.”
  10. Taussig, “Old Navy,” 5.
  11. Frederick Harrod, Manning The New Navy: The Development of a Modern Naval Enlisted Force, 1899-1940 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978), 9.
  12. Ibid., 8-10.
  13. Ibid., 11.
  14. Ibid., 98.
  15. Ibid., 98-99.
  16. Niblack, A. P. Naval Historical Foundation, “The Enlistment, Training, and Organization of Crews for Our New Ships,” Accessed May 24, 2012. 
  17. Frederick T. Wilson, A Sailor’s Log: Water-Tender Frederick T. Wilson, USN, on Asiatic Station, 1899-1901 (London: The Kent State University Press, 2004), 46.
  18. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, s.v. “Vermont,”
  19. Young, “The Life of Gilbert H. Purdy,” 4.
  20. Tisdale, Three Years Behind the Guns, 152.
  21. Ibid., 156.
  22. Young, “The Life of Gilbert H. Purdy,” 67.
  23. Stickney, Admiral Dewey at Manila and the Complete Story of the Philippines, 48.
  24. “Poughkeepsie to Invite Gunner Purdy.” The New York Times, October 4, 1899. (accessed June 21, 2012).
  25. Caspar F. Goodrich, Rope Yarns From The Old Navy (New York: The Naval History Society, 1931), 156.
  26. Ibid., 143.
  27. Edward R. Simpson, Yarnlets; The Human Side of the Navy (New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1934), 43-46.
  28. Thomas Beyer, The American Battleship in Commission As Seen By An Enlisted Man, Also Many Man-o’-War Yarns (Washington, D.C.: Army and Navy Register, 1906), 208-10.
  29. Tisdale, Three Years Behind the Guns, 156.

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The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay: How Regulatory Compromise Created Conflict


The Booming Oyster Industry
Problems in the Emerging Oyster Industry
Regulation  of the Oyster Industry and the Violence that Ensued
The Unsuccessful Oyster Police
The End of the Oyster Wars
The Tragedy  of the Commons

Zoe Friedman
National History Day

“And where there is boom, there is greed.” –John R. Wennersten 1


The 1840s were a time of industrialization in the United States that transformed the scale and structure of American business, not just in manufacturing, but also in retail, transportation, service, banking, and financial industries. 2   Following economic panics in 1837 and 1839 that led to a national depression, there was an economic revival that started in the mid-1840s and continued well into the 1850s. 3   It was during this period, in the 1840s, that oysters became a well-known, popularized product in the emerging canned foods industry. Baltimore, Maryland was the center of this industry, having hundreds of canning houses operating by the mid-nineteenth century. Baltimore was the best place to have canning houses, the Chesapeake Bay was nearby and easy to access by water.  Railroads were close and allowed for distribution to the rest of the country. 4  Two other east coast oyster beds in Long Island and Massachusetts could have been other centers for the oyster industry if they had not been previously dredged to depletion. 5

Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay was ideal for growing oysters because of its vast expanses,temperature and salinity. The Bay’s waters also had few predators for oysters, and were free of parasites that caused common oyster diseases. 6  Since there was no official regulation of the oyster industry , oystermen could harvest as many oysters as they wanted, making it a goldmine for industrious watermen. As with many successful businesses, competition arose. Maryland tried to bring an end to excessive competition in the Bay, as well as over-depletion of oysters,  by passing laws that required a license to harvest oysters and prohibited certain harvesting practices. These actions unintentionally led to what is now known as the Oyster Wars. 7

The Oyster Wars were battles over oyster harvesting territory in the Chesapeake Bay that often became violent. 8  The peak of the Oyster War’s violence started in the mid nineteenth century and lasted until the late 1950s. 9 The start of the Oyster Wars was caused by illegal oyster poachers and legal oystermen that gathered in the Chesapeake. A lethal combination of greed and guns led to the Eastern Shore becoming a dangerous place to make a living. 10   Some oyster harvesters ended up dying in their endeavor to make money in the oyster trade. As a result, Maryland passed new laws to protect both oysters and harvesters. Despite many attempts at enforcement, these laws never fully worked. 11

The Oyster Wars provide a demonstration of why regulations sometimes fail to carry out the purpose for which they are intended, why they must be implemented carefully, and how regulatory compromises may cause conflict, even when they involve something as seemingly non-controversial as oysters.

The Booming Oyster Industry

Oysters were plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay in the early days of American colonization and there was no concern of shortages. As a Swiss visitor, Francis Louis Michel, wrote about the Chesapeake Bay in 1701, “The abundance of oysters is incredible. There are whole banks of them so that the ships must avoid them.” 12  Since oysters could not be stored for long periods of time, oystermen tended to harvest them in small batches in a shortened season, holding themselves accountable by following the “R” rule, which allowed for the harvest of oysters only in months that contained the letter “R.” 13

With the introduction of canning in the early 1800s, Maryland’s oyster businesses went through a rapid period of industrialization. 14    Canning, invented by the French in 1800, revolutionized the oyster industry. 15   Canning allowed oysters to last up to six months and be shipped worldwide, and when combined with clever marketing the oyster industry boomed. 16  Large, over-exaggerated advertisements pushing canned oysters were posted all over the country, increasing oyster demand. 16 Even the government hyped the oyster trade, with the Department of Commerce bragging in an advertisement in the 1800s that, “The Oyster Production of the United States is the Greatest in the World.” 18   The advertising worked. As one modern oysterman noted: “You could leave a coin on the street, and no one would pick it up. Leave an oyster, and it would be gone in a second!” 19

With oyster beds nearby in the Chesapeake, rapid population growth, and a well-developed rail system, Baltimore became the center of oyster canning in the country.  By the mid-1800s, oysters were Baltimore’s second largest industry. 20   By 1894, Chesapeake Bay landings comprised around thirty-nine percent of the total U.S. oyster catch.

Problems in the Emerging Oyster Industry

Since there were initially no regulations limiting oyster harvesting, oystermen could take as many oysters as they wanted, and many made fortunes. In fact, in the 1800s oysters were known as “white gold.” 20 However, as more people flocked to the Chesapeake oyster industry, oyster stocks became depleted, creating competition over a limited resource.

Improved harvesting technologies made the oyster depletion problems worse. In the 1700s oysters were harvested using shaft tongs, a pair of iron rakes with handles joined together like forceps.  During the 1800s a similar tool, called nippers, were commonly used. Oystermen who used tongs or nippers were referred to as “tongers,” and as more harvesters began utilizing these tools oyster harvests increased. These tools could only reach down to 32 feet at most in the water, and many harvested oysters would fall out of them. This made the tools environmentally sustainable, unlike what was later to come. 5  Dredges, 23  which oystermen also began using in the 1800s 24 had a metal frame, strong teeth, and a bag of heavy cord that allowed harvesters to scoop oysters in large quantities from the ocean floor.  Oystermen used dredges to scoop up oysters by the bushel-full, often wiping out and destroying entire oyster beds.

The depletion of oysters caused bitter feuds over harvesting techniques and territory, and the Chesapeake Bay became a dangerous place as oystermen competed to harvest as many oysters as they could. Oyster hunters were willing to kill each other over limited territory, and tongers became angry as dredging for oysters increased, particularly in shallow waters where tongers worked. Dredges were first only used in deep waters that were previously inaccessible, but without regulations oystermen began using them in shallow waters, causing significant damage to oyster beds and ruining the livelihood of tongers. 25

Regulation  of the Oyster Industry and the Violence that Ensued

In response to the damage caused by dredgers, in 1811 Virginia created a law to ban oyster dredging. Maryland followed suit, and in 1820 the first law was passed in Maryland pertaining to oyster harvesting, which outlawed all dredges in Maryland waters. 26   Maryland lawmakers said that they passed this law because dredges were digging too deeply into the ocean bed and scraping oyster beds down to the mud, permanently damaging oyster beds. 5 However, the more likely reason for the law was that the oyster tongers did not like the competition from the dredgers. 28

There had always been violent disputes among oystermen, but Maryland’s attempt to regulate the oyster industry added fuel to the fire.  Historically, oyster battles were caused by disputes over the boundary line between Maryland and Virginia, and the new regulations did nothing to stop these tensions. 8   For example, in the winter of 1879-1880, around forty Maryland dredging boats entered the Rappahannock river in Virginia and began illegally dredging for oysters. The tongers in the area grew upset and tried to drive the dredgers away.  In response, dredgers began shooting at tongers. The tongers complained to state officials, who agreed to provide the tongers with artillery, rifles, and ammunition to defend themselves.  However, by the time these arrived, the dredgers had fled the area, already completing their work. 30

Maryland’s attempt to regulate oyster dredging exacerbated these territorial disputes and provided new reasons for conflict. Soon after anti-dredging laws were passed dredgers began to ignore them, making tongers angry and inciting additional violence. 31   In response, in 1854 Maryland began allowing dredging again for a fee, but only in Somerset County, Maryland, so that dredging would be focused in a single area. This unintentionally led to anger among harvesters outside of Somerset County, who were jealous of the legal use of more efficient dredgers by residents of Somerset.

In an attempt to level the playing field and stop ongoing disputes among harvesters, in 1865 Maryland passed the General License Act, which required all oystermen in the Maryland Chesapeake Bay area to have a paid license.  These licenses were statewide, and applied to all oystermen no matter what tools they used to collect oysters.  The General License Act also permitted dredging in certain waters of the Chesapeake, mainly those that were unreachable by tongs.  The law was good for Maryland because it provided the government with much needed money. However, the General License Act was unpopular and ineffective, 32  as oystermen began ignoring it as soon as it was implemented. 33

Over the next several years, oystermen depleted deeper waters of oysters, and even worse began to dredge again in shallow waters. Maryland’s oyster laws had too many exceptions, and were not properly enforced.  Violence continued, leading Maryland to take drastic action and create the Maryland State Fishery Force.

The Unsuccessful Oyster Police

The General License Law of 1865 was ignored because it lacked a method of enforcement.  In 1868, Maryland established a State Fishery Force, known as the Oyster Police or Oyster Navy, to enforce the oyster laws.  By 1894, the Oyster Navy comprised two steamboats, eleven sailing vessels, eight smaller “County” boats, and 120 men. This force was entrusted with enforcing the General License Law against illegal dredgers and those without licenses, and stopping general violence. 32   The Oyster Navy’s armed boats patrolled the Bay, enforcing the oyster laws with varying degrees of success. 35   The Navy fought a number of pitched battles with defiant dredgers, 36 and the sinking of dredger boats by cannon fire and the deaths of some scofflaws led to fewer violations of the law. 37

However, the Oyster Police forces were greatly outnumbered and had little power compared to the well-armed illegal oyster pirates. Their effort was dismal. They only managed to stop a small number of outlaws, and more violence came of it. 38   The Captain of the Oyster Navy, Hunter Davidson, described oyster harvesters as “so stimulated by the trade in the Chesapeake that Oystermen will risk any weather and are willing to kill to enable them to reach the handsome profits that are now being handed to them in the market.” 1   Even the tongers, who they were mandated to protect thought they were corrupt and ineffective. 5 In the end, the Oyster Navy could not compete with motivated oystermen, and was unsuccessful in preventing violence and the overharvesting of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.

The End of the Oyster Wars

The end of the oyster wars is mainly attributed to a single act of violence, an incident involving an officer from the Oyster Police killing an illegal dredger from Virginia in 1959. 41   In response to the public outcry from this killing, in 1959 the Commissioner of the Potomac River Fisheries, H.C. Byrd, disbanded the Oyster Navy, as it was too controversial and clearly ineffective.

After that, Maryland used other methods to control the oyster industry, including various means of taxation, encouraging the private cultivation of oysters, and improving research into ways to protect oysters and oyster habitat.  In 1975, Virginia and Maryland formed the Chesapeake Bay Legislative Advisory Commission to better manage the Bay. Presently, this Commission still takes actions to control the oyster industry in Maryland. Unfortunately, the overharvesting of oysters in the 1800s caused permanent damage to the Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery, which has never fully recovered. In 1880, the Maryland oyster industry was producing 71.9 million pounds of oysters per year; in comparison, by 1962, that number had dropped to 8.1 million pounds.

The Tragedy  of the Commons

The over-industrialization of Maryland’s oyster industry provides an example of the “tragedy of the commons,” where individual users act in their own self-interest and hurt the common good by depleting a natural resource. 6   The failure of the Oyster Navy and regulatory efforts to address this problem serve as a cautionary tale for on-going conflicts over limited natural resources that exist today.

One example of this conflict is in the modern fishing industry in the United States and around the world.  Much of the world relies on fishing for food and livelihoods, but without appropriate regulation, overfishing occurs, fisheries collapse and violence often ensues. 43 Currently, the United States is the “gold standard” around the world for effectively using fishing regulations to preserve natural resources.  The agency that regulates fishing is NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 44

NOAA uses a creative fishing regulator scheme that allows regional councils made up of local fisherman and government regulators to determine how best to allocate resources. 45   Through these councils, fishermen feel like they  have a voice in the process, preventing violent competition and ensuring that the industry (and fish) will exist for future generations. NOAA’s work shows how government agencies can work with industry to help resolve fights over natural resources.

Another present day example involves strip mining. In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed, which is the primary law regulating coal mining.  This law minimizes adverse impacts on fish, wildlife and related environmental resources, and has stopped strip mining practices, preserving natural resources while still allowing mining activities. 46  Again, government has stepped in to regulate the mining industry’s impact on the environment, compromising with industry to allowed continued mining without a negative effect on the environment.


The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay were caused by competition for a limited resource, unsuccessful laws, and a lack of meaningful enforcement. During the wars, regulatory efforts were made to address the competition among oyster harvesters, along with their unpredictable actions and violence. These efforts had only limited success, and often caused the very violence they were meant to prevent. 47   The Oyster Wars show that just passing laws sometimes provokes conflict, and more creative solutions are often needed.

There are still large political debates over oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and the oyster industry remains important to the Maryland economy. The Trump administration has proposed cuts in federal funding for Bay cleanup, which could negatively affect the oyster industry — however, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation hopes to add ten billion oysters to the Bay over the next seven years. 48   Fights over oysters in Chesapeake Bay and other natural resources are sure to continue as populations increase and resources dwindle.

We can learn the lessons for how to resolve these problems through the Oyster Wars, along with  modern efforts to regulate natural resources that were created in response to them. Weak laws and poor enforcement will only increase violenc­­e and hurt the resource. Instead, government and industry must come together and make compromises or risk the destruction of a natural resource we hold dear.


Appendix A

This newspaper image illustrates the violence between the oyster police and illegal oyster dredgers. It also shows the sinking of ships, and how exactly illegal dredgers were captured.

Image taken from: Maryland–The oyster war–A state police steamer overhauling a pirate boat on Chesapeake Bay, off Swan’s Point / from a sketch by Frank Adams. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library  of Congress,

Appendix B

This photograph shows oyster shuckers, as well as an inspector watching over them as they work. It shows how the oyster industry provided jobs, and was a part of Maryland history.

Photograph taken from: United States Department of Agriculture, ca. 1914-1915, Arthur J. Olmstead Collection, PP133, MdHS. < >.

Appendix C

The dark areas of this map represent shallow waters in the Chesapeake, whereas the lighter areas represent deeper waters of the Chesapeake. It helps to illustrate where these waters were located, and where dredgers and tongers worked.

Map taken from: “Oyster Wars!!” Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum,  Oystering%20Curriculum6-10.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.

Appendix D

This image shows one of the many advertisements for Baltimore oysters.

Image taken from: Seaver, Barton. American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea to  Shining Sea. Rev. and expanded 2nd ed., NY, Sterling Epicure, 2017.

Appendix E

This graph displays the turning points in oyster harvesting as the years go on. When relating this graph to regulations on oystering at specific times, it can show its effect on the number of oysters harvested.

Graph taken from: — . Oyster Harvest by Year . Phototgraphy by Rob Cannon , Accessed 17 Aug. 2018.

Appendix F

This image shows one of the cannons used by officers a part of the Oyster Navy.

Photograph taken from: —. Oyster Navy Cannon . Photography by Rob Cannon , Accessed 17 Aug. 2018.

Appendix G

This photograph shows a display of oysters from an oystering company. It shows the amount of oysters harvested, and how they were advertised.

Photograph taken from: —. Oyster House 01. Photography by Rob Cannon Photo , photos/Cannon/Dorchester/images/page143.html. Accessed 18 Aug. 2018.

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)


  1. Wennersten, John R. The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay. 2nd ed., Washington, DC, Eastern Branch Press, 2007.
  2. Keleher, Tom. “The Debit Economy of 1830s New England.” Teach U.S., Old Sturbridge Inc., Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
  3. Hausman, William J. “Introduction, The Emergence of an Industrial Nation, 1840-1893. Immigrant Entrepreneurship German- American Business Biographies 1720 to the Present, German Historical Institute, Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
  4. Seaver, Barton. American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea to Shining Sea. Rev. and expanded 2nd ed., NY, Sterling Epicure, 2017.
  5. Cannon, Rob. E-mail interview with notes. 5 Aug. 2018.
  6. Power, Garrett. “More About Oysters Than You Wanted to Know.” Maryland Law Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 1970.
  7. Schulte, David M. “History of the Virginia Oyster Fishery, Chesapeake Bay, USA.”  Marine Fisheries, Aquaculture and Living Resources, 9 May 2017, fmars.2017.00127/full.
  8. The Maryland and Virginia Boundary. (1874, Feb 26). The Sun (1837-1992).
  9. “Commercial Fishers: Chesapeake Oysters.” On the Water, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.
  10. Artillery against oystermen. (1883, Nov 26). The Sun (1837-1992)
  11. Reported for the Baltimore, SunGeo Yellott. (1881, Dec 13). The Law of Habeas Corpus. The Sun (1837-1992).
  12. Kennedy, Victor S., and Linda L. Breisch. “Sixteen Decades of Political Management of the Oyster Fishery in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.” Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 164, 1938.
  13. Chowning, Larry S. Harvesting the Chesapeake Tools & Traditions. Rev. and Expanded 2nd ed., Atglen, PA, Schiffer Publishing, 2014.
  14. Walsh, Richard, and William Lloyd Fox, editors. Maryland: A History, 1632 -1974. Baltimore, MD, Press of Scheidereith & Sons.
  15. “Commercial Fishers: Chesapeake Oysters.” On the Water, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 3_5.html. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.
  16. “Oyster Wars!!” Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Oystering%20Curriculum6-10.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
  17. “Oyster Wars!!” Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Oystering%20Curriculum6-10.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
  18. Seaver, Barton. American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea to Shining Sea. Rev. and expanded 2nd ed., NY, Sterling Epicure, 2017.
  19. Oyster harvester from Farmer’s Market. Interview by Zoe Friedman. 9 Dec. 2017.
  20. Livie, Kate. Chesapeake Oysters The Bay’s Foundation and Future. Charleston, SC, American Palate, 2015.
  21. Livie, Kate. Chesapeake Oysters The Bay’s Foundation and Future. Charleston, SC, American Palate, 2015.
  22. Cannon, Rob. E-mail interview with notes. 5 Aug. 2018.
  23. History on the Chesapeake.” Waterblog, National Aquarium, 27 July 2016,
  24. “Oyster Wars Oystering Methods.” The Mariner’s Museum, The Mariner’s Museum, 2002,
  25. Correspondence of the, B. S. (1880, Jan 26). Maryland State Affairs. The Sun (1837-1992).
  26. Miller, Henry M., Dr. “The Oyster in Chesapeake History.” St. Mary’s Museum of History and Archaeology,
  27. Cannon, Rob. E-mail interview with notes. 5 Aug. 2018.
  28. Kennedy, Victor S., and Linda L. Breisch. “Sixteen Decades of Political Management of the Oyster Fishery in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.” Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 164, 1983; Correspondence of the, B. S. (1880, Jan 26).  Maryland State Affairs. The Sun (1837-1992).
  29. The Maryland and Virginia Boundary. (1874, Feb 26). The Sun (1837-1992).
  30. “Oyster Wars Oystering Methods.” The Mariner’s Museum, The Mariner’s  Museum, 2002,
  31. The Oyster War. (1851, May 20), The Sun (1837-1992).
  32. The Oyster Trade—The Outlook—The Supply, &c., &c.” The Evening Capital, 24 July 1884.
  33. “The Maryland Oyster Law.” The Evening Capital, 16 August 1884.
  34. The Oyster Trade—The Outlook—The Supply, &c., &c.” The Evening Capital, 24 July 1884.
  35. Capture of Oyster Boats. (1852, Mar 23). The Sun (1837-1992); Special Dispatch to the, Baltimore Sun. (1882, Feb 20). The Virginia Oyster War. The Sun (1837-1992); Correspondence of the, B. S. (1850, Sep 14). By Last Night’s Philadelphia Boat. The Sun (1837-1992).
  36. Artillery against oystermen. (1883, Nov 26). The Sun (1837-1992).
  37. More Oystermen Captured. (1850, Mar 15). The Sun (1837-1992).
  38. Meyer, Eugene L. Chesapeake Country. 2nd, rev. ed., NY, Abbeville Press Publishers, 2015.
  39. Wennersten, John R. The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay. 2nd ed., Washington, DC, Eastern Branch Press, 2007.
  40. Cannon, Rob. E-mail interview with notes. 5 Aug. 2018.
  41. “Oyster Wars 1632- 1962.” Dymer Creek Environmental Preservation Association, 31 July 2014.
  42. Power, Garrett. “More About Oysters Than You Wanted to Know.” Maryland Law Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 1970.
  43. Glaser, Sara. “Fish Wars: How Fishing Can Start and Stop Conflict.” Secure Fisheries, 14 Mar. 2017,
  44. “Laws.” NOAA Fisheries, 19 June 2017,
  45. Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, 16 U.S.C. Chapter 38, Section 1801.
  46. “Digest of Federal Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” FWS CLA, Accessed 9 May 2018.
  47. Special Dispatch to the Baltimore Sun. (1882, Feb 20). The Virginia Oyster War. The Sun (1837-1992).
  48. The Associated Press. “Saving the Chesapeake.” The Washington Post, Express ed., 28 Feb. 2018, Local sec.

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Inside the Archives: U.S. Naval History at the Smithsonian Institution


Sailing and Science
A Cruise with a President
The Atomic Era
U.S. Navy Navigation
To learn more

Lesley Parilla
Cataloging and Bibliographic Access Librarian, Smithsonian Libraries

A researcher might not think to look for materials relating to the U.S. Navy at the Smithsonian Institution, however, the Institution holds numerous collections documenting the U.S. Navy and U.S. naval history, due to its long history of collaboration. Since the Smithsonian’s founding in 1846, it has served as a repository for natural history specimens resulting from the maritime surveys and expeditions frequently run by the U.S. Navy. Into the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy’s ability to travel to far flung locations meant that naturalists often ended up aboard, sometimes by government request, sometimes through personal connections. In many cases, the papers related to those expeditions ended up in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and document not only the research of the Smithsonian Institution but also the history and operations of the U.S. Navy.

These collection materials are now easier to locate through the Field Book Project, a grant-funded project organized by Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Libraries, and National Museum of Natural History, which ran from 2010 to 2018. The project focused on locating, identifying, and describing, and increasing access to the field notes of naturalists. As a result archival collections from across the Smithsonian describing major nineteenth century Navy expeditions and twentieth century Navy cruises are easier to discover and explore.

Sailing and Science

As the U.S. expanded its territorial and commercial interests during the nineteenth century, military personnel worked with Smithsonian staff during expeditions like the United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856). Led by Captains Cadwalader Ringgold (1853-1854) and John Rogers (1854-1856), the expedition surveyed the Bering Straits, coasts of China, Japan, and California, Madeira Island and Tahiti. Collection materials in SIA RU7222 also document fieldwork completed by U.S. Navy personnel. For example an officer, Lieutenant H.R. Stevens, struggled to find language to describe what appears to be an example of bioluminescence:

[August 28th, 1853] Caught in net. A great many globular substances. Somewhat resembling spawn. These on being put into a glass jar and stirred up at night showed like sparks of fire.

Similar expeditions continued until near the end of the century, when the U.S. government established agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife that assumed responsibility for documenting the nation’s natural resources.

Page from H.R. Stevens Notes, United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856), United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, (1853-1856) Records, 1852-1861 and undated, Biodiversity Heritage Library Field Notes Project, Smithsonian Institution, SIA RU007253.

A Cruise with a President

The Smithsonian’s relationship with the U.S. Navy continued and evolved into the twentieth century; more work with the U.S. Navy originated through personal contacts and relationships. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, invited Invertebrate Zoologist Waldo Schmitt to join the Presidential Cruise of 1938 aboard the USS HOUSTON. The ship traveled from California, in route to the Galapagos Islands, via the Panama Canal. Waldo’s invitation may have been related to his reputation as a friendly and outgoing individual, as well as his academic background. Schmitt’s personal papers (SIA RU7231) demonstrate someone who loved observing his surroundings and telling a good story.  The collection includes a variety of field documentation and materials Schmitt saved from this experience, including correspondence, memorabilia like Plans of the Day from the U.S.S. HOUSTON, with a call to “Take heed all Spliney Shellbacks!” and images from ship events including the Shellback ceremony, as well as a detailed diary noting daily personal and professional activities.

Plan of the Day and photograph of Crossing the Line Ceremony, USS HOUSTON, 1938. SIA RU007231, Presidential Cruise of 1938: miscellaneous memorabilia collected by Waldo LaSalle Schmitt, Waldo L. Schmitt Papers, 1907-1978, Smithsonian Field Book Project.

The Atomic Era

The Smithsonian’s connection to the U.S. Navy also played out during less convivial times, when scientists accompanied U.S. Naval vessels as part of Operations Crossroads in 1946, and the resurvey in 1947.  This U.S. Navy project sent scientists to the Marshall Islands to record observations before and after the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests of 1946. Naturalists included Leonard Peter Schultz an ichthyologist who collected fish and became one of the first scientists to observe the effects of the blast on the local fauna. Schultz’s personal papers (SIA RU700222), include personal observations on of his time at sea including during the first atomic blast.  Materials include a logbook, field notes, annotated maps, photographs, negatives, and 16mm films.  Below is an image of his entry, written on “Able Day” (the day of the first atomic blast test at Bikini Atoll) describing his experience of watching the mushroom cloud.

Log of Crossroads Project by Dr. Leonard P. Schultz, Curator of Fishes, U.S. National Museum, 1946. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7222, Box 23, Folder: 1

National Museum of Natural History, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program Field Research Records, 1963-1967. Record Unit 245, National Museum of Natural History, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program Records, ca. 1961-1973.

During the 1960’s, the Smithsonian Institution took part in a decade long research program call the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program (SIA RU00245) that relied heavily on U.S. Navy resources and Department of Defense funding.  Numerous staff were sent out on Navy vessels to do research at sea to document pelagic bird migration, and the result was more than a 1,000 items documenting time at sea and interactions with Navy personnel.

Some of this documentation even touches upon the modern history of navigation and specifically on the Long Range Navigation system known as LORAN. LORAN, originally developed by the US during World War II, and the later LORAN-C (now known as Loran-A or Standard Loran), served as the ground-based navigation system operated by the U.S. Coast Guard for the use of maritime and aviation traffic, and was indispensable to the U.S. Navy for decades until modern GPS navigation systems rendered the LORAN system obsolete.

As part of the program, staff spent time on Pacific Islands often only inhabited by U.S. Navy troops, including Sand Island. The island had a pretty uneventful history until the mid-twentieth century. Previously unoccupied, the location proved useful to the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard for several decades. During this time there were as many of 300 personnel on Sand Island, and its size was increased from 10 to 22 acres. As part of the project, staff used the LORAN tower to gain a different vantage point while photographing bird breeding areas, as seen in the photograph above, taken from the top of the tower.  The result is a collection of photographs and other material formats documenting this little known island, heavily used by the U.S. Navy for decades.

To learn more

These examples represent just a portion of the holdings from archival collections documenting the Smithsonian-US Navy relationship. The collections, acquired from both formal and informal connections describe the professional and personal nature of the interactions between naturalists and U.S. Navy personnel through logbooks, diaries, photographs, charts and many other types of materials. These can be found across the Smithsonian Institution, at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Libraries, and the National Museum of Natural History. To learn more about these and other collections, we encourage you to visit the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center that enables researcher to search over 9.6 million records of the Smithsonian’s objects, archives, and library materials. A preliminary search for “U.S. Navy” returned over 1,000 results: and a search for “naval” over 34,000 results across the Smithsonian’s libraries, archives and collections.

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Field Book Project:

To read more about Lesley’s work and the project:

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)

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