The U.S. Navy turns 248 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. In1789, the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the navy’s future by granting Congress the power “To provide and maintain a navy.”
George Washington once said it is “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 where U.S. interests span the globe. To serve and protect those interests, the U.S. Navy today has 325,187 active duty personnel, 54,888 reserve personnel, 191,597 civilian employees, 290 deployable ships, 71 submarines, and more than 4,000 operational aircraft.
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 T. Staubach; pro wrestling great and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura; actors Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, and Jack Lemmon; former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson; talk show host Montel Williams; musicians John Coltrane, and M.C. Hammer; and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
I asked Captain John P. Barrientos, a naval officer spending a year in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program as a visiting military fellow, what he would recommend for anyone wanting to learn more about the navy and naval warfare. He suggested three books to read and two visits to take for anyone who happens to be in New York City:
The three books he recommends are:
Bruce Jones. To Rule the Waves (2022). Nine-tenths of global commerce and the bulk of energy trade today flows through the sea. Jones explains how global commerce works, how the United States is in a global naval arms race, and why the oceans are so crucial to America’s position in the world. In doing so, he details how the three great geopolitical struggles of our time—for military power, for economic dominance, and over our changing climate—are occurring through the world’s oceans.
James Hornfischer. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour (2013). Hornfischer tells the fascinating story of the World War II battle in the Pacific at Leyte Gulf off the Philippine Island of Samar. With the northern route to Leyte open and unguarded, the Japanese Center Force—a fleet led by the largest and most powerful battleship ever constructed—had a clear path to U.S. General Douglas MacArthur's landing force off the beaches of Leyte. Only one thing stood between the Japanese forces and the vulnerable American landing force: Taffy 3, a small task unit of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort aircraft carriers with little firepower and even less armor. On the morning of October 25, 1944, Taffy 3 plunged into battle. The resulting Battle of Samar became one of the greatest last stands in naval history.
Walter R. Borneman. The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea (2013). Borneman recounts the careers of the four admirals who revolutionized naval warfare forever with submarines and aircraft carriers, worked together to lead the allied triumph in World War II, and made the United States the world's dominant sea power. Along the way Borneman not only recounts the influences of the men’s career choices, but also details the significance of major naval engagements like the Battle of Midway, the Battle of Coral Sea, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The two visits in New York City that Captain Barrientos recommends are:
Brooklyn Navy Yard Building 92 Exhibit: Brooklyn Navy Yard: Past, Present, and Future. This exhibit tells the story of the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard, the 300-acre site nestled on the Brooklyn waterfront. Established in 1801 as one of the nation’s first five naval shipyards, the Yard developed over one hundred and sixty-five years into the nation’s premiere naval industrial facility. Today, it is home to the greatest concentration of manufacturing and green businesses in New York City. The yard built one hundred and sixty ships, including the Civil War–era ironclad, USS Monitor, and the historic battleships USS Arizona (Battleship No. 39, later BB-30) and USS Missouri (BB-63). It also grew to be New York City’s largest single industrial employer until its closing in 1966.
The Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Monument. Located on 89th Street and Riverside Drive in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, this monument commemorates Union Army soldiers and sailors who served in the American Civil War. It is an enlarged version of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, Greece. It was dedicated on Memorial Day in 1902 with President Theodore Roosevelt officiating. During the dedication, the monument was unveiled after a parade of Civil War veterans up Riverside Drive. The memorial bears the simple inscription: "To the memory of the brave soldiers and sailors who saved the Union.”
Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.