|by DAVID F. WINKLER
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian for the Naval Historical Foundation.
Every Sailor has a story or two to tell, and there is growing recognition of the value of this oral history to the naval historian. Although historians have been drawing
on the recollections of individuals to write history since the Peloponnesian War, the introduction of the portable wire recorder after World War II created new
possibilities for the collection of firsthand accounts and eyewitness observations of historic events. Historians now had access to new sources that could provide
additional insights, context, and analysis. While material derived from oral history may have flaws due to the frailties of the human mind and the occasional deception,
a historian who carefully weighs the material derived from oral-history interviews can add much to a historical narrative. Rare today is the contemporary military or
naval history that does not include a selection of interviews within its bibliography.
The irony of today's information age is that it may be even more difficult for future historians to reconstruct the events of the late 20th century than it was to document
those of the 19th. In today's workplace, individuals tend not to keep diaries, and the information-technology revolution is reducing the amount of written
correspondence and printed memoranda. Major decisions often are made through the more perishable media of e-mail, videoconferencing, telephones, and
facsimiles. Although military and naval commanders are required to maintain files electronically, today's floppy disks may well follow the path of vinyl record albums
in 50 years. A substantial amount of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) data from the 1970s, for example, has been lost to posterity as
the result of the deterioration in magnetic-tape files and the lack of compatible information-retrieval systems. For this reason, oral recollections recorded and
transcribed for the future historian may, in some cases, offer the only insights into the rationale for command decisions during a crisis, contingency, or combat
"The Silent Artillery of Time"
It also is unavoidable that the ranks of those individuals who fought during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are thinning rapidly. Thousands of U.S. World War II
veterans are dying each month--victims of "the silent artillery of time." Fortunately, over the past three decades, many communities and organizations have taken
steps to preserve the verbal recollections of the men and women of the armed forces. More than 60 oral history programs nationwide document interviews with
individuals who were affiliated with the Navy.
Many of these oral history programs focus on biographic interviews. A biographic interview with a career officer, Sailor, or civilian Navy employee may result in a
transcript of several hundred of pages covering numerous topics and spanning several decades. Many other oral history programs conduct topical interviews. Topical
interviews can focus on a major historical event, such as World War II; look at an evolving technology, such as computers; or explore change within a geographic
region, such as Alaska's North Slope.
The Naval Historical Foundation used the topical approach in one of the first significant efforts to record the recollections of Navy personnel for historical purposes.
During 1951 and 1952, interviews were conducted with individuals who participated in the development and early use of Navy radio communications from 1898 to
1925. The Rear Adm. S.C. Hopper Collection at the Library of Congress contains 120 reels of tape, of which 95 have been transcribed.
At the time the Hopper Collection was created, Columbia University already had established one of the nation's premier oral history collections. Later, during the
1960s, Dr. John Mason Jr., of the Columbia Oral Research Office, interviewed key Navy leaders from World War II and the immediate postwar era. In 1969, Dr.
Mason joined the U.S. Naval Institute and established a program dedicated to collecting naval oral history. He captured the reflections of many of the Navy's top
leaders from World War II and the early years of the Cold War. Mason also produced specialized volumes on women in the Navy, the Polaris missile program, and
prisoners of war during the Vietnam conflict. In recent years, the Institute's historian Paul Stillwell has built on Mason's work.
Stillwell has broadened the scope of the collection to include former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.'s staff officers, the first African-American
naval officers, and several notable enlisted personnel. The user-friendly collection, with its extensive cross-indexed card-catalog system, has been entered into an
electronic database that identifies which pages in an interview transcript cover specific issues.
A Growing Database
While the Naval Institute's collection is the best organized, the most extensive collection is maintained by the Naval Historical Center; more than 1,500 interviews are
recorded in its electronic database. The growing database has been acquired through a variety of programs. The largest portion of the collection has been produced
by the center's Naval Reserve Combat Documentation Detachment 206. During the 1990s, members of this reserve unit deployed around the globe to record the
experiences of individuals involved in ongoing operations--including the Persian Gulf War, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Somalia and the Balkans, the
TWA Flight 800 search-and-recovery operation, and Operation Desert Fox. An earlier generation of Naval Reserve officers performed a similar function during the
Vietnam War. Historians from the center's various branches conducted hundreds of interviews to support ongoing manuscript projects. The center also has received
interview transcripts donated by the authors of various naval historical works published in the private sector.
The Naval Historical Center is not the only Navy command that conducts oral histories. William Taylor, employed by the Chaplain Resource Board at Naval Station
Norfolk, Va., conducts an active program to interview Navy Chaplains. Jan Herman, the historian for the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED), has
interviewed physicians, nurses, and corpsmen. The BUMED collection's holdings for World War II are noteworthy, especially those related to Navy nurses who
were prisoners of war and those of medical personnel who served during major Pacific-theater campaigns. BUMED's large inventory of interviews with World War
II hospital corpsmen is complemented nicely by the Marine Corps Historical Center's collection of interviews with Vietnam-era corpsmen.
Interviews with senior Navy officials also can be found in oral history collections associated with the Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy,
and Johnson Presidential Libraries. In some cases, it may prove valuable to identify a person's primary professional specialty and search related oral-history
collections. For example, the Historical Reference Collection at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., contains interviews with several naval officers who were
among the first U.S. astronauts. The National Air and Space Museum Collection has a similar focus; it contains 38 interviews with naval aviators and civilian
scientists who played important roles in the early years of the U.S. space program.
In addition to Columbia University, several university oral-history collections have focused on selected aspects of naval history. The University of North Texas is
unique as a repository for several hundred interviews with veterans of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. East Carolina University has a most impressive collection
of more than 100 interviews with former officers and Sailors detailing their experiences over the past half century. The University of Kentucky interviewed 50 Navy
veterans as part of its "Veterans of World War II" project. The Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota holds fifty-four interviews that cover the
Navy's involvement with the development of computers.
Navy oral history also can be found in the collections of several historical societies and other history-related organizations. In Washington, D.C., the Naval Heritage
Center Education Institute of the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation maintains more than 1,000 written and oral accounts of Navy veterans detailing their wartime and
peacetime experiences. In Fredericksburg, Texas, the Center for Pacific War Studies at the Admiral Nimitz Museum holds a very large selection of oral recollections
of Sailors who served during World War II. Further west, the Montana Historical Society retains a unique collection documenting the military experiences of Crow
Indians. The San Diego Historical Society continues to host interviews focused on local Navy activities during World War II. A number of the ex-Navy historic ships
now on display at 45 locations in the United States also maintain records of interviews with former crewmen.
A Story to Tell
The number of interviews associated with these varied collections totals well over 3,000. The Naval Historical Foundation has indexed many collections and can
make the database available upon request. Despite the large number of interviews on file across the United States, however, much remains to be accomplished.
During the past half-century, the Navy has seen dramatic events and experienced spectacular societal and technological changes that will be examined by historians
for centuries to come. Millions of Sailors participated in these events. Each has a story to tell. Each can provide some insight that could provide a more informed
understanding of past events to future historians.
Consequently, the Naval Historical Foundation initiated a grass-roots oral-history collection effort. In December 1997, retired Adm. James L. Holloway III, the
Foundation's president, wrote the Foundation's members to identify interview candidates, request the service of volunteer interviewers and transcribers, and obtain
donations to cover the program's administrative costs. The response to this solicitation enabled the Foundation to establish a nationwide program with approximately
100 volunteers. Each volunteer receives a copy of The Guide for the Conduct of Naval Oral History and the quarterly newsletter All Ears. Interviewees have ranged
from former secretaries of the Navy to World War II torpedomen. Once transcribed, the interviews are deposited with the Naval Historical Center. Copies also are
sent to various Navy libraries.
While it is impossible to interview every Navy veteran, the Naval Historical Center, the Naval Historical Foundation, the U.S. Naval Institute, and the dedicated
number of educational institutions need continued support. In a lecture to British Army officers at Aldershot, England, in 1930, Sir A.D. Wavell said, "The real way
to get value out of the study of military history is to take particular situations and, as far as possible, get inside the skin of the man who made a decision ... ." This
opportunity to obtain firsthand recollections of "what happened and why" during key events in naval history is the domain of oral history. It offers future generations
of novice and professional historians alike the opportunity to capture the rich historical legacy of those men and women of the sea who have an interesting story to
Ens. John W. Grattan, who served on the flagships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the final two years of the Civil War, had an opportunity to
observe the command decisions that led to the slow strangulation of the Southern economy from the sea. Aware of his unique observer post, Grattan drafted Under
the Blue Pennant after the end of the war, a monograph describing the activities of Union naval commanders and staffs, as well as many of the engagements with
Confederate forces. For most of the 20th century, this monograph lay undiscovered within the Naval Historical Foundation's personal paper collections maintained at
the Library of Congress.
By the end of 1864, Wilmington, N.C., remained the last major Southern port open to blockade runners. Situated at the southern tip of a long peninsula that flanked
the eastern bank of the Cape Fear River, Fort Fisher kept Union forces at bay and allowed Confederate shipping passage into port. Early failed Union attempts to
capture the complex series of log and sand breastworks only served to reinforce the Southern claim that Fort Fisher was impregnable. Following the relief of Gen.
Benjamin Butler, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant placed Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry in command of the Army forces to coordinate attack plans with the Navy commander,
Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter.
The two commanders developed a well-conceived joint operation that called for the landing of Terry's troops on the peninsula north of the fort under the cover of
naval gunfire. With the landing successfully executed on 13 January 1865, the Union soldiers cut off the Confederate fortifications from overland reinforcement and
were in position to storm the northwestern approaches to the fort.
Grattan wrote, "Sunday January 15, 1865, will be a day ever memorable by those who participated in and survived the army and navy expeditions against Fort
Fisher." By 9:00 a.m., 28 Union warships had taken the Confederate works under fire, and after 10:00 a.m. hundreds of small boats carrying a brigade of 2,261
Sailors and Marines approached the shore to assault the eastern redoubts. As the bluejackets and Marines hit the beach, ironclad ships opened fire to cover the
landings, forcing the Confederate defenders to flee for their bombproof shelters. Once ashore, the naval brigade dug in to await orders to advance as Terry's soldiers
formed up to attack the opposite side and Union frigates and sloops joined the ironclads in a massive artillery assault. "The tremendous bombardment was continued
with vigor until 2:40 p.m. when Porter received Terry's signal that he was about commence his assault."
Responding to the steam-whistle signal of the flagship USS Malvern, the Union ships shifted targets, and the Sailors ashore commenced their assault. "The noise of
the guns, whistles, cheers, and yells of the sailors and marines was terrific and made the most exciting and indescribable event during the whole engagement."
Assuming this was the main assault, the defenders concentrated their musketry against the storming Union Navy men. Grattan detailed the heroism of the officers and
enlisted personnel as they made repeated futile attempts to take the enemy ramparts.
However, the bluejackets had drawn many of the Confederate defenders away from the northwestern side of the fort. Overcoming weakened defenses, Terry's
soldiers methodically worked their way across numerous traverses as the Confederates contested every inch of ground.
At about 7:00 p.m. Terry signaled Porter to bombard the east bank of the Cape Fear River to thwart any Confederate cross-river reinforcements. Sometime after
10:00 p.m. an Army signal officer, embarked on the Malvern, received the long-awaited news from ashore--Fort Fisher had fallen. Upon hearing the news, Porter
called all hands up to the aft quarter deck and ordered them to give three cheers. "The admiral never before gave an order which was so heartily obeyed." Soon
thousands of voices erupted in thunderous cheering as the news spread from ship to ship. Rockets shot into the sky, signal lights beamed, bells rang, and whistles
blasted. Marking one more major setback for the Confederacy, the fall of Fort Fisher also demonstrated the validity of joint warfare in the 19th century and serves
as an excellent case study for the 21st.
Discovered by Naval Historical Center historian Robert Schneller, Grattan's monograph "Under the Blue Pennant" was published in 1999 by John Wiley & Sons