In the early morning hours of August 2, 1943, a Japanese destroyer dissected US Navy Patrol Torpedo Boat 109 somewhere near the Solomon Islands in the South Seas. This tragic event might have been lost in the annals of history, one of the numberless casualties during World War II.
Except that PT 109 was captained by a young John F. Kennedy, future president of the United States. After leading his surviving crew in a 3.5-mile swim to safety, the young Kennedy swam additional miles to find food, water, and help, despite injuring his back in the explosion. Eventually, he successfully dispatched a message carved on coconut to an American military outpost via native coastwatchers. After nearly a week, the Kennedy and his crew were rescued.
The story became the stuff of legends. It was reported in detail in the New York Times, inspired a movie and books, and earned Kennedy a Medal of Honor. Kennedy’s status as a war hero fueled his political career and his bid for the White House.
JFK wasn’t the only President who served in the Navy. Five others — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George G. W. Bush — were also Navy veterans. However, the two presidents who had the most significant impact on the Navy never served in the military. They never sailed on a ship except as passengers. Yet they have been nicknamed the Father of the Navy and the Architect of the Navy. They are John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt.
Have you ever wondered why October has two days dedicated to the Navy? If you check your calendar, you will see the Navy’s Birthday on October 13, followed by National Navy Day two weeks later.
While you might assume National Navy Day was an afterthought, it started earlier. The first celebration of Navy Day was in 1922 and was a rousing success! In fact, the Secretary of the Navy at the time received a congratulatory note from President Warren G. Harding.
The day aimed to honor navy personnel and recognize the Armed Forces’ sea-going branch. After World War I, Americans were grateful for the Navy’s vital contributions to the war effort. The Navy League of the United States, a civilian organization, spearheaded plans to celebrate on October 27.
The League chose the date for two reasons. First, many believed it was the Navy’s birthday. However, this was a matter of debate. Details of naval history had been obscured over the previous 150 years, making it difficult to pin down a specific date. Historians who argued for October 27 cited a report to the Second Continental Congress recommending the purchase of several ships to found a national navy.
In addition, the Navy League favored October 27 because it was President Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday. During his lifetime, Roosevelt made significant contributions to the development of the US Navy, earning him the moniker “Architect of the Navy.” In addition, he was the first to suggest the idea for Navy Day, so it seemed a fitting way to honor him.
President Theodore Roosevelt had a lifelong interest in the Navy. It began while he attended Harvard University and Columbia Law School. In addition to his studies, he scoured naval documents and other source material to write a book entitled The Naval War of 1812. This detailed, scholarly work examined the technology and strategies used by the British and American Navies during the 1812 conflict.
The book was published in 1882. Although not a best seller, it was considered a seminal work in naval history. Four years later, the US Navy purchased copies to place on every ship in the fleet. The work of a 23-year-old law student had become a standard resource for American naval officers.
In 1897, Roosevelt was appointed the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. While his supervisor concerned himself with navy formalities and protocols, Roosevelt focused on function. He consulted top strategic experts to develop a response plan in the event of war. He also worked to modernize the fleet, commissioning the construction of new battleships.
His efforts paid off in 1898 when an American armored cruiser exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. Later, Naval officers credited the United States’ victory in the Spanish-American War to Roosevelt’s actions.
During his presidency, Roosevelt continued his efforts to modernize the Navy. In addition to embracing the latest naval technology, he improved officer training. He also enacted personnel reforms that emphasized ability and leadership over seniority. In short, Roosevelt laid the foundations of the modern US Navy that would go on to victory in World War II.
His most notable achievement was the “Great White Fleet,” a group of 16 new battleships that circumnavigated the globe, making 20 ports of call on six continents along the way. The ships’ vessels were painted bright white as a sign their mission was for diplomatic and training purposes rather than a sign of aggression.
The campaign provided vital training for sea and battle readiness. It established the United States as a world-class maritime power, discouraging any would-be aggressors. Roosevelt argued that building and maintaining a modern naval force was “the very lightest premium for insuring peace which this nation could possibly pay.”
In 1949, President Truman proclaimed the formation of Armed Forces Day, an annual celebration on the third Sunday in May. The day was a time for Americans to thank all who served in the armed forces, replacing the separate observances honoring the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.
While all the military branches participated in Armed Forces Day celebrations, some continued their traditional observances. Indeed, the Navy League, a civilian organization, had no intention of ending its almost 30-year tradition and continues to host Navy Day celebrations on October 27.
In addition, the idea that October 27 was the Navy’s birthday was increasingly challenging to defend. Ongoing research into the archives of the Second Continental Congress unearthed new information about the US Navy’s origins, confirming that October 13 was the correct date.
Over the years, four men have been credited as the Father of the US Navy. Among them are Captain John Paul Jones, who also advised the Naval Committee in the fall of 1775; Captain John Manley; and Captain John Barry. All three had stellar records leading the early navy during the Revolutionary War.
The fourth man given the moniker “Father of the Navy” never captained a ship or served in the American Armed Forces. He was John Adams, lawyer, statesman, and founding father.
In the fall of 1775, a strong contingency within the Continental Congress opposed having a Federal Navy. This was a prevalent feeling among the citizenry, too. However, John Adams and his supporters believed that a unified American navy was essential to any hope of successfully gaining independence from Great Britain.
As a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Adams passionately argued for a federal navy. It would serve the twin purposes of defending American coastal communities from British deprivation and harassing British ships at sea. Adams prevailed.
On October 13, 1775, Congress authorized the purchase of two armed ships to keep the British from resupplying their troops in the colonies. At the same time, they appointed John Adams as head of a Naval Committee tasked with purchasing the ships and writing regulations for the infant Continental Navy.
Like Roosevelt, Adams remained a Navy advocate into his presidency. After the Revolutionary War, Congress voted to disband the navy and sell the remaining ships (1783). However, the following decade made it clear that the United States needed a navy to protect its merchant ships. In 1793, Congress agreed to reestablish the navy temporarily. Five years later, the newly elected President John Adams signed a bill establishing the first Department of the Navy.
Despite the new historical evidence, the Navy’s birthday celebrations continued on October 27. All that changed in 1972 when Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations, declared that the Navy’s official birthday should be commemorated on October 13.
Since then, October has had twin celebrations honoring America’s defensive forces at sea: the Navy Birthday and Navy Day. Whether you celebrate one or both, it is a perfect time of year to display a Navy flag.