On Returning to Morison

Santa in the form of the Brown Truck of Happiness* came early in 2016. A large, heavy box from the US Naval Institute thumped onto the front step in mid December and was promptly lugged into the house and ripped open. In addition to a set of Alfred Th. Mahan’s essays, a full set of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of U.S. Naval Operations in WWII appeared. There was great rejoicing. I’d read the short version (one fat volume) of this work, and the two-volume U.S. Submarine Operations book while in High School, thanks to an enormous and magnificent military history section that today would have trigger warnings galore on it. But never the entire run. The time had come to change that, and Santa obliged.

The series is fascinating, and probably could not happen today. The War Department, specifically the Department of the Navy, allowed Morison to travel on ships in the combat zones, to interview people, to observe all aspects of warfare and logistics, and opened up a great deal of material for him to use. He was already well-known as a historian of the sea, and as a sailor, and he put those to use. I cannot imagine a modern historian being granted the kind of access Morison was, and being trusted as much as he was. That he was a friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped, I’m sure, but even so Morison knew what he didn’t know and tried to get enough first-hand experience to fill in the gaps and make his history as complete as was possible during and just after the war. He later revised some of the volumes as more information became available, correcting here and expanding there.

What I’d forgotten, because it has been 20+ years since I read anything of his, is just how good a writer he was. Even his policy sections are interesting to read, and the descriptions of ships and the sea, and the men who fought both of them? Fantastic. This is from his description of how convoys in the North Atlantic worked in 1940-41:

“A convoy is a beautiful thing, whether seen from a ship or viewed from the sky… Around the columns is thrown the [destroyer] screen like a loose-jointed necklace, the beads lunging to port or starboard and then snapping back as though pulled by a mighty elastic under the sea; each destroyer nervous and questing, all eyes topside looking, ears below waterline listening, and radar antennae like cats’ whiskers feeling for the enemy.” [from Morison, The Battle of the Atlantic: September 1939-1943 (Annapolis: US Naval Institute Press, 2010 (1947)) p. 99)

You can see it, can’t you, even if you know little or nothing about the topic, about what a destroyer is or what the ships are looking for? Morison loved the sea, and sailors, and it shows. He’s one of those historians I envy keenly. He makes it look so easy, read so well, that I plowed through almost a hundred pages of pre-war policy and introduction without coming up for air. And he hasn’t really gotten to the US participation in the battle, yet! His war is not beautiful. War is never beautiful. But his writing can be breathtaking, yet clear and precise. I envy that.

It’s going to take me a while to read through all the volumes in the box. I look forward to the exercise. You sea, I grew up on naval history, including chewing on models of the Bismark, Hood, Graf Spee, and Yorktown. (Sorry Dad, you should have put them on a shelf when you turned your back.) I read Run Silent, Run Deep and The Good Shepherd, and H.M.S. Ulysses when I was in 6th and 7th grade, and kept going. So in a way I’m going back to my historical roots by dipping into my box of Morison.

Thank you, Santa!

*Coined by Marko Kloos, if memory serves.


5 thoughts on “On Returning to Morison

  1. The only problem with those words is that the DEs didn’t get radar until mid-1944… Another one, if you want submarine stuff is Flukey’s compilation of all the OPREPs from the submarine force for WWII. He did that for the Navy as an official publication. I had one copy, donated it to CTF-74 for Flukey Hall in Japan.

    • I suspect it was a deliberate mistake, either on Morison’s part, or whoever gave him the information. If we had it in ’40-’42, then we were that much farther ahead of the Soviets in 1947, right? (Yes, I’ve been reading about Stalin again. His paranoias were paranoid.)

      • I’m not so sure that Stalin really was that paranoid, looking at the way he came to power, and how he wielded that power; thinking that everyone is out to get you seems perfectly reasonable.

  2. Your mention of that not being allowed today brings to mind a book on the Green Berets that I read. I don’t remember title or author off-hand. But the author wanted to go along on missions with the Green Berets. He was told if he could go through their training and pass, he would be allowed to do so. Imagine the surprise we he actually managed to complete the special forces training! He then spent several years in Viet Nam and the surrounding areas, tagging along on various special forces missions. He was a good enough author, but it was his first hand ‘been there’ accounts that really made the book shine.
    Much of his time was spent before the majority of the regular forces arrived in the mid-sixties. Dealing with by-the-book regular forces commanders who were uninterested in his rather unique position put a damper on his final days over there. As a reporter he was considered a noncombatant, and therefore couldn’t participate in battle or carry weapons. On the other hand, the Viet Cong could care less about it his noncombatant status, and the squad sized groups of special forces soldiers he wished to travel with were not going to have someone along we couldn’t pull their own weight. I recall the story of them coming into an Army outpost and the officer on duty asking what that was across his back, he unthinkingly replied it was his Stoner (at that time not a regular issue weapon, still considered experimental, so not surprising for an officer not to recognize it). It took considerable discussion to convince said officer that he was carrying it strictly for self-defense, not to be used in combat. And if I recall correctly they had to have someone in the squad carry it when the left the base, and return it to him after they were out of sight.

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