The grandeur of the American naval tradition is best found in its people, fighting sailors, technical innovators and inspiring leaders. In turn, the physical embodiment of that spirit is to be found in great warships, and the people and ships together have shaped history in epic sea battles from the Revolution through the Cold War.
My exposure to naval persons aloft and alow, from history, to hearing the stories of my father's service in World War II, to my own many years as a naval reserve aviator, to my six years as Secretary of the Navy, has convinced me that those who have made their profession upon great waters in ships of war are deeply changed by the experience, and some in every era deeply change the experience for all those who follow. This has been true of those who have served only a few years as well as those who have devoted their lives to naval service.
The sea is utterly unforgiving of inattention, negligence or ineptitude. Add to this perpetual conflict with the elements the dimension of mortal combat, and we have a unique crucible. Through American history the Navy has drawn men of all types. Then it has put those men together in close quarters in wooden -- and now steel -- containers and sent them off for years at a time to deal with ferocious storms and deadly enemies. Those who return are still individuals, but common patterns of temperament are discernible. These patterns have shaped the service, and through it, America.
In my view, naval personalities fall into three general categories. There are the daring warriors who live for glory and for battle: John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, Jr., and William B. Cushing come immediately to mind. Such men, as once was said in a fitness report on General Patton, "are invaluable in war but a disruptive influence in peacetime." Then there are sailors who are equally courageous but more prudent -- less dramatic leaders in both war and peace. John Barry, David Farragut and James Forrestal would fall in this category. The last and largest category is made up of reluctant warriors who leave their civilian professions to go to sea in time of war. They bravely -- and often brilliantly -- do their duty, then like Cincinnatus return to civilian life. Because they do not stick around to achieve high rank, they are rarely celebrated in conventional accounts. But these officers and seamen are the largest source of naval greatness. Fourteen-year-old Samuel Leech, at the height of the battle in Macedonian, spoke for them all: "To give way to gloom, or to show fear would do no good, and might brand us with the name of cowards, and ensure certain defeat. Our only true philosophy, therefore, was to make the best of our situation, by fighting bravely and cheerfully."
As the subtitle of this book implies, the narrative is divided among stories about men, ships, and battles. There are in the traditions of the Army and the Air Force great and classic weapons that are a part of service history: the M-1 rifle, the Sherman tank, the P-51 Mustang, and the F-86 Saberjet, for example. But there is nothing quite the same as the relationship between seamen and their ships.
Sailors live for months and years inside their weapons. And their weapons last a very long time. Three of the original six great superfrigates built before 1800 were still in active service when the Civil War began. The battleship Wisconsin was nearly fifty years old when it went into combat in Desert Storm, and remains in the reserve fleet at this writing. Not unlike automobiles, buildings and airplanes, some rare warships achieve a perfect balance of efficiency and combat effectiveness -- and beauty. Included here are stories of some of the most significant and unusual American warships, like Joshua Humphreys' superfrigates and the Iowa-class battleships, both near-perfect instruments of naval warfare.
There is also in the sea service -- far and away the most superstitious of professions -- a deeply held belief that there are certain lucky ships just as there are unlucky ships. I have thus tried to tell stories of both types: the lucky, like Fair American and Constitution, and the distinctly unlucky, like Chesapeake and Porter.
Naval shipbuilding today continues to benefit from the tradition of the great ships that are described in this book. It is a design philosophy formed from the hard lessons of those ships and their battles. Quite the opposite of the criticism by some that the Navy has always been resistant to change, the tradition of American naval shipbuilding is one of innovation. From Fair American through the superfrigates, the Monitors, the Dreadnoughts and nuclear aircraft carriers, American naval ships have led the world in speed, survivability and firepower. In recent years smaller American combatants have been attacked with mines, cruise missiles and enormous suicide bombs and have survived every attack. The tradition continues.
The final strand of the book is made up of tales of the battles that defined the Navy. There are many books about the most important naval battles in our history, and my list of battles is not intended to be definitive. I chose battles that I find of particular interest because they illustrate the flexibility, adaptiveness and ferocity of the American naval culture. There are some that would be on all lists -- like the battles of Virginia Capes, New Orleans and Midway -- and others that are little known, like those of Valcour Island and Ironbottom Sound.
A word of warning to the reader. This book is not yet another survey history of the U.S. Navy. It is a selection of stories on people, ships and battles of the American Navy set in historical context. So while the reader can expect to find here a chronological history of American naval power from the Revolutionary War through the Cold War, the book is not a comprehensive canon. It is deliberately selective and subjective. The list of whom and what I find to be of significance leaves out much that would demand inclusion in an official history or biographical dictionary, and includes much that would never make it into the same.
My opinions also frequently differ from the opinions of many professional historians, and the historians of the Navy itself. Some of my judgments in the book, such as on the importance of privateers in winning American independence, or of gunboats to Union naval victory, or of lessons from the Vietnam War, are not shared by many authoritative texts.
It is hoped that these accounts of great people, in their ships, during their battles, set in the context of the flow of naval history, will give the reader an understanding of America's naval tradition. Thomas Jefferson disliked the Navy because he thought it was elitist. Through much of its history it was; punctilious courtesy, tailored uniforms and silver napkin rings have coexisted at times with bigotry like that suffered by the Jewish Commodore Uriah Philips Levy, and racial inequality that endured even into the 1970s. From its founding until 1900, only one percent of midshipmen at the Naval Academy were from working class families. But a tradition of elitism based on real merit is the true legacy of the story told here. The genuine color-blindness of the naval service today is more a part of naval tradition than the practice of discrimination that at one time the Navy shared with the rest of the nation.
There is another tradition: of aggressive forward strategy, and ferocious prosecution of war once started. It is what Alfred Thayer Mahan described in his writings as offensive defense. The greatest victories of this naval tradition have been not the wars recounted here but the wars that were never fought because American seapower was so strong that to challenge it would be foolhardy. If we let it, the strength of that tradition will continue to underwrite peace in our land.
Copyright © 2001 by John Lehman