The U.S. Navy turns 244 years-old this weekend. On October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress commissioned two ships, each with eighty sailors, “for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies.” The foe at the time was Great Britain, whose navy ruled the seas. By the end of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Navy had grown to about fifty ships. In 1789, the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the navy’s future by granting Congress the power “To provide and maintain a navy.”
George Washington once said that “as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive—and with it, everything honorable and glorious.” Those words are even more appropriate in the twenty-first century when U.S. interests span the globe. To serve and protect those interests the U.S. Navy today has 290 deployable ships, more than 3,700 operational aircraft, 337,121 active duty personnel, 101,583 reserve personnel, and more than 270,000 civilian employees.
John F. Kennedy was the first navy veteran elected president. But five of the next six presidents also served in the navy: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Well-known navy veterans include baseball Hall-of-Famers Yogi Berra and Stan Musial, basketball Hall-of-Famers David Robinson and John Wooden, football Hall-of-Famer Roger Staubach, former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, actor Humphrey Bogart, and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
I asked Captain Brian L. Sittlow, a naval officer spending a year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, what books and movies he would recommend for those wanting to learn more about the navy and its history. Brian has spent his twenty-six-year naval career in the submarine service, so his suggestions have an undersea slant:
Captain Edward L. Beach (ret.), United States Navy: 200 Years (1986). “A comprehensive, but easy, read of the history of the U.S. Navy during its first two centuries. The author was a distinguished World War II submarine combat veteran, who also commanded the USS Triton, the first submarine to circumnavigate the world submerged, demonstrating the limitless capabilities of naval nuclear propulsion in 1960.”
Admiral Eugene B. Fluckey (ret.), Thunder Below!: The USS Barb Revolutionizes Submarine Warfare in WWII (1992). “Fluckey, who won a Medal of Honor for his actions as commanding officer of the USS Barb in World War II, describes his combat war patrols, which earned the Barb the title of ‘The Galloping Ghost of the China Coast.’ Fluckey is credited with the most tonnage sunk by any U.S. submarine skipper in World War II, the first to employ emerging rocket-like technology from a submarine, and for making a submarine inserted landing on mainland Japan (the only known occasion by a U.S. service unit), resulting in a train dismantlement.”
Michael Gannon, Operation Drumbeat: The Dramatic True Story of Germany’s First U-Boat Attacks Along the American Coast in World War II (1990). “Gannon’s book unravels German U-boat attacks in the early days of the Battle of the Atlantic, revealing a poor U.S. and Allied response. This activity in the early years of World War II resulted in near continuous sinking of Allied merchant vessels within visual sight of U.S. beach-goers waking up to a world war, and German U-boat sailors making a landing on the south shore of Long Island, NY.”
Admiral Richard “Dick” O’Kane (ret.), Wahoo: The Patrols of America’s Most Famous World War II Submarine (1987). “The author tells the story of the USS Wahoo and her skipper, Dudley W. ‘Mush’ Morton, while he served as an executive officer. O’Kane, a Medal of Honor winner himself, would later command a submarine of his own, documented in Clear the Bridge!: The War Patrols of the USS Tang (1977).”
Theodore Rockwell, The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference (1992). “This is a biography of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, commonly known as the father of the nuclear navy. He used innovation, extremely high technical standards, unswerving life-long commitment, and a well-documented brash personality to harness atomic energy for naval propulsion systems, which revolutionized submarine warfare.”
Commander Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (2009). “The author, Commander Holwitt, is an active duty submarine officer and naval historian. He documents the legal analysis and decisions that allowed the U.S. submarine force to seize the initiative in the Pacific as the greater U.S. Navy reconstituted after the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
Sherry Santag, Christopher Dew, and Annette Lawrence Drew, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (1998). “This is a book about undersea activity throughout the Cold War. It includes underwater technology development, deep-sea search and rescue operations, piecing together the puzzle of Soviet naval operations, and harnessing the value of acoustic intelligence. It makes space exploration seem bland.”
Captain Sittlow also recommended three films to watch:
Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). The film follows “Rich” Richardson, the captain of the submarine USS Nerka. He becomes determined to seek revenge against the destroyer that sunk his previous submarine. His determination, however, puts his crew in harm’s way.
Hunt for Red October (1990). Captain Sittlow called this film a “Cold War drama under the sea.” A Russian submarine captain defects in order to warn the United States of the Soviet Union’s new silent-running, nuclear submarine. The Soviets intends to use it to initiate nuclear war against the United States.
Hunter Killer (2018). This present day scenario centers on a U.S. submarine that disappears in the Arctic while following a Russian submarine. A Virginia class submarine is sent to investigate, while a team of Navy SEALs observes a Russian naval base where they witness an event that could lead to war.
Captain Sittlow also said to be on the watch for two upcoming movies:
Midway (2019). This film tells the story of the 1942 Battle of Midway, between the U.S. and Japanese navies. It was a landmark moment in the Pacific theatre during World War II. Hollywood has told this story once before, with a 1976 film also called Midway. The new version will be released on November 8.
Top Gun 2: Maverick (2020). While we don’t yet know the plot, Captain Sittlow said of the film: “Who doesn’t like Tom Cruise and U.S. Navy jets?” The expected release date is June 2020.
If that’s not enough naval information for you, you can learn more about the U.S. Navy online through the U.S. Naval Institute website.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.