John T. Mason, Jr., The Atlantic War Remembered: An Oral History Collection. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020. 512 pp.
Review by Dr. Corbin Williamson, PhD
Deputy Chair, Department of Strategy, Air War College
The Atlantic War Remembered is a collection of 37 excerpts from oral histories that illuminate various aspects of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Atlantic and European theaters in World War II. Columbia University’s oral history program began conducting interviews with U.S. Navy veterans of World War II in 1960 and in 1969 the U.S. Naval Institute took over management of this oral history program. The resulting collection of oral histories is one of the largest collections focused on the U.S. Navy and this volume is drawn from this collection. Researchers can find physical copies at the Naval Institute library in Annapolis while the library at Columbia University holds the original transcripts for those interviews conducted under its auspices. Mr. John T. Mason, Jr., the editor of this volume, participated in this oral history program at both Columbia and the Institute. Originally published in 1990, the Naval Institute reissued this book in 2020.
The 37 excerpts in this edited volume are each short selections from much longer oral histories which can run to hundreds of pages each. Each excerpt begins with a photograph of the individual in question as well as a summary of the individual’s life and career. After the excerpt, Mason provides a brief editor’s note providing additional personal details or other summary information. Mason organized the 37 excerpts around themes including the role of women in the service, amphibious operations, and relations with the Soviets. Mason introduces each of these thematic sections which helps provide context and highlight how the excerpts fit into the larger story of World War II.
The first three excerpts are from the first directors of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard women’s programs during the war. A common theme in all three of these excerpts is the adjustments required of the women who managed these programs. Typically, executives or senior officials at universities before the war who were used to giving directions, these directors found that they had to employ persuasion and an indirect approach to accomplish their objectives inside the service. The next two excerpts focus on mine warfare and in particular how the U.S. Navy benefited from British expertise and reports when establishing its own mine and bomb disposal organizations.
The following section covers antisubmarine warfare and includes the famous story of the capture of the German submarine U-505 by a task group built around the escort carrier USS Guadalcanal in June 1944. Daniel Gallery, the Guadalcanal’s captain, recalled that he later became friends with the captain of U-505:
That’s a funny way to make friends with a guy – you shoot his leg off and take his ship away from him, but we got to be good friends. (136)
Relations with allies are a common theme in a number of the oral histories. The excerpts on the November 1942 Operation Torch landings in northwest Africa emphasize the diversity of relations with French officers. Some French officials cooperated closely with the U.S. Navy while others were angry about the invasion and the arrival of Free French officials in North Africa. Other excerpts illuminate relations with the Russians, including an excerpt from an oral history with Averell Harriman, one of the U.S. ambassadors to the Soviet Union during the war. While individual Soviet officials at times worked closely with their American counterparts, the theme of the Soviet relations excerpts is frustration with the Soviet state’s bureaucracy.
Roughly half of the excerpts in the volume relate to amphibious warfare. The landings in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and southern France all involved large numbers of U.S. Navy personnel. Some officers such as Jerauld Wright and Alan Kirk were involved in multiple landings and have multiple excerpts in the volume. Relations with the Royal Navy are a common theme in these amphibious excerpts as the two services worked through differences in planning styles to project military power ashore in the face of Axis opposition.
Oral histories give personality and character to historical actors and highlight the human dimension of history. This dimension can sometimes be submerged in official, written records which makes oral history collections such as these a valuable asset to scholars and interested readers. The Atlantic War Remembered nicely complements its companion volume, The Pacific War Remembered which is also available from the Naval Institute. Both works highlight the valuable oral histories available through the Institute.