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The U.S. Navy turns 245 years-old today. 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 296 deployable ships, 71 submarines, more than 3,700 operational aircraft, 336,706 active duty personnel, 101,243 reserve personnel, and more than 282,000 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, actors Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda, musicians John Coltrane and M.C. Hammer, and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
I asked Captain Robert Francis, 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 anyone wanting to learn more about the navy. Here are his suggestions:
James D. Hornfischer. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour (2004). “This is the story of the 1944 Battle of Samar, where out gunned and tiny 2,000-ton destroyers turned back a much superior Japanese battleship squadron with only torpedoes and small caliber weapons. It’s packed with tons of unbelievable feats of bravery as men like Commander Ernest Evans, whose calm courage in the face of overwhelming odds, turned certain defeat into overwhelming victory.”
Rear Admiral Dave Oliver, USN (ret.). Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy (2014). “Oliver was one of the early pioneers of the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine. It’s a leadership book that draws on the author’s own experience to illustrate how Admiral Rickover changed U.S. Navy culture. It’s relevant today because the U.S. Navy finds itself in a similar position, racing to field new and disruptive technology that could make the difference in the survival of our way of life.”
Admiral Sandy Woodward. One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (1997). “The author was the mastermind behind Britain’s response and ultimate victory over Argentina during the Falkland Islands invasion. It depicts the significant challenges faced with using long-range power projection during high tech modern warfare. It also gives us pause in overestimating the effects of non-battle tested systems, which unfortunately for some ships like HMS Coventry, failed at the worst possible time. The author also goes well beyond the tactical and gives his unvarnished opinion of some of the operational and strategic decisions made in planning the operation.”
Nicholas Monsarrat. The Cruel Sea (1951). “The Cruel Sea profiles life on a Royal Navy corvette serving in the North Atlantic, escorting and protecting Allied convoys from German U-boats. It’s told from the perspective of the crew living in the wet, cold, cramped, poorly lit, and hastily built warships. Beyond the description of the escort duties, the story also incorporates the relationships of the officers and sailors serving onboard. Even better, Monsarrat has the knack for providing vivid details that wraps the reader into the story. Want to know what it feels like to be stranded on a raft off the Icelandic coast? It’s all in this novel. If you don’t have time to read the book, then be sure to watch the film.”
Captain Francis also recommended four films to watch:
Mister Roberts (1955). “Mister Roberts symbolizes the predicament many of us sometimes find ourselves in at various points in our careers, where we need to pay our dues doing something we dislike in order to get to our dream job. Mr. Roberts finds himself on an old cargo ship that’s far from the frontlines where destroyers are doing the ‘real work.’ He’s doing everything possible to get a transfer off of the ship and into the fight, but his skipper refuses to approve his request. Instead, Mr. Roberts is made to sacrifice his dream in exchange for privileges for the crew.”
The Caine Mutiny (1954). “This film follows the fictitious story of the USS Caine, a World War II destroyer. The ship receives a new commanding officer with some peculiar tendencies. The communications officer starts spreading rumors about the captain around the ship, leading to the Executive Officer (XO) relieving the captain during a storm. The XO and one of the ensigns are tried for mutiny. I’ve watched this movie at several periods throughout my career, and each time, I come away with a different perspective on the events. That’s what makes this movie excellent material used in leadership courses throughout the Navy.”
The Enemy Below (1957). “This World War II drama captures the battle of two seasoned tacticians: the commanding officers of an American destroyer versus the commanding officers of a German U-boat. This gut-wrenching saga will take you into the minds of the hunter and hunted, where survival normally depends on one person’s decision.”
Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). “This action-packed drama is a good depiction of the ever-changing tactics in warfare, requiring that commanders adapt or die. After surviving a torpedo attack that sunk his last submarine, Rich Richardson (Clark Gable) is assigned a new boat. This time, he vows to get revenge for the loss of his last command whenever he finds the destroyer responsible for sinking it. However, he’s in for a big surprise.”
You can also learn more about the U.S. Navy at the U.S. Naval Institute website.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.