By Lisle Rose
Lisle A. Rose holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of thirteen books, including six published by the University of Missouri Press. He has worked as a sailor, a professor, a diplomat, and a court-appointed special advocate for at-risk children. He lives in Edmonds, Washington.
In this blog, Rose compares his experiences in the Navy in the 1950s to those of the Navy of 1917-1918, the subject of his newest book, AMERICAN SAILORS IN THE GREAT WAR, which received the 2016 Lyman Awards Honorable Mention.
When one reaches the age of eighty, a century doesn’t seem too long ago. But what impressed me most as I researched and wrote America’s Sailors in the Great War was how close the Navy of 1917-18 was to the Navy I served in 1954-57. In all respects, my Navy was on the cusp of revolutionary changes from a service that had experienced an earlier revolution in the years leading to World War I. For an enlisted man, the most immediate continuity between 1917 and 1955 was habitability. In 1917, four-tier sleeping “racks” began replacing the hammocks that went back centuries into the Age of Fighting Sail. Compared to today’s enlisted sleeping arrangements with their privacy curtains, individual reading lights and separation between each tier of bunks, the racks, while an improvement, were still primitive, indeed. I leave it to the reader’s imagination to consider what placing eight men in immediate proximity in often over- or under-heated compartments of 50 or more (no sheets, by the way, just a single wool blanket) would do to a sense of privacy and, indeed, simple hygiene. This is why the Navy in both 1917 and 1956 was absolutely fanatical about cleanliness, with showering every single day being mandatory. Adjacent lockers barely large enough for 2 or 3 days worth of work clothing (formal uniforms and heavier clothing was stored in corners of each compartment) and no personal items completed a very austere environment.
The 1917 Navy retained its emphasis on gunnery, but the first glimmerings of aviation, submarines, etc. showed the way to future developments breathtaking in scope. Those developments really began to be felt in my service in the mid-50s. Supersonic aircraft, guided missile, nuclear propulsion all came with a rush, often overwhelming the senior enlisted people who had entered the service on the eve of World War II as Depression-era kids. Suddenly, the Navy had to have much brighter people, and to attract them had to make life, especially at sea, more bearable. Guided missile specialists and nuclear submariners were not going to be attracted to primitive living conditions – nor, indeed, to a service in which unquestioned obedience to orders, no matter how fanciful, was the rule.
Today’s sailors are much smarter and more sophisticated than those of my time 60-odd years ago when the service that had its origins in 1917 was beginning to pass from the scene.
AMERICA’S SAILORS IN THE GREAT WAR
Seas, Skies, and Submarines
Lisle A. Rose
Hardcover: 978-0-8262-2105-6 • $36.95 • 300 pp. • 22 illus. • 3 maps • 6 x 9
“In recounting the U.S. Navy’s roles in World War I, Rose makes clear that the Americans were an important component to the ultimate victory, and that the experience laid the keel for the great Navy that would fight and win the next war where the stakes were even higher. Truly a vicariously edifying experience!”—Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Naval Institute, U.S. Naval War College, author of A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy
“A thoroughly researched, must read for those who thrive on real-world details of WW I. America’s Sailors in the Great War is a fascinating revelation of life on and under the seas, in the torrid North Atlantic and waters surrounding the UK. Lisle Rose makes clear that the success in moving massive quantities of war material, sustaining supplies, and millions of American troops to the fray resides in large measure on the extraordinary performance of seamen and ships, which did the grudging and hazardous convoy duty.”—Admiral Tom Hayward, USN (Ret.), Former Chief of Naval Operations