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Pen and sword make mighty partners at U.S. Naval Academy Museum exhibit

For The Baltimore Sun
Pen and sword make mighty partners at U.S. Naval Academy Museum exhibit

For students of history, the writings of military leaders offer a perspective on events that defined generations.

For the young men and women at the Naval Academy, the field notes, letters and articles written over decades of military history provide not just a window into the past, but a guide to navigating great questions of the future.

"The issues that we're reviewing today are the same issues they were dealing with in 1880, 1920, 1970. You see these themes happening about strategy, about operations, about personnel issues, tactics, platforms — it's the same basic issues, but simply changing with the evolution of technology and ideas," said Claude Berube, director of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

Over the next five months, the museum will partner with the U.S. Naval Institute to host an exhibit that explores the link between the pen and the sword through the past 150 years of naval history.

The "Warrior Writers" exhibit, which opened Thursday and runs through January, presents a vast collection of writings and relics that shaped the philosophical and tactical decisions of Marines and sailors since the late 19th century.

The U.S. Naval Institute was founded in 1873 as a forum for some of the military's brightest minds to exchange ideas and shape the future of national defense. Its monthly magazine, Proceedings, launched the following year, and quickly became a marketplace of ideas that remains in print to this day.

Many of those Proceedings articles and the men who authored them form the backbone of "Warrior Writers."

"This exhibit is really a history of naval thought since the 1870s," Berube said. "I felt that the Naval Institute best represents that continuum of ideas."

The more than 100 items on display include an letter that President John F. Kennedy wrote a few days before his assassination, original sketches by famed Navy artist Henry Reuterdahl dating to the 19th century and one of the two pens used to sign the surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri in 1945.

While many of the items are on loan from families and private collectors, most of them come from the institute's collection of more than 58,000 artifacts.

"This is a great way for us to show some of our artifacts that have never been displayed before, or are very rarely displayed," Berube said.

One of those items is the writing kit of Ernie Pyle, which had long been tucked away in storage. Pyle, a naval reservist in World War I, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his dispatches from the front lines of the Pacific. He was killed during the Battle of Okinawa.

Upon Pyle's death, President Harry S. Truman wrote, "No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told."

Pyle's writing kit, Berube said, offers the kind of "interesting item that we wouldn't normally show [in the museum], but it was a natural for this exhibit."

The "Warrior Writer" exhibit had its genesis in the unexpected success of an event Berube organized at the Naval Academy in 2007, featuring three veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who had written books about their experiences — Craig Mullaney, author of "The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education;" David Danelo, author of "Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq;" and Nathaniel "Nate" Fick, author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer." When more than 600 midshipmen turned out for the lecture, Berube realized he was on to something.

"Something resonated with the midshipmen that night," he said. "Our primary purpose in regard to this exhibit is to inspire midshipmen to write about their careers, about what they're learning."

The exhibit drives home an idea that Berube often repeats to his students as a professor at the academy: that the legendary figures of naval history were great writers and thinkers long before they led men into battle.

"Midshipmen will read about Adm. [Chester W.] Nimitz, Adm. [Ernest] King, and their immediate thought is, 'Well, they're Admiral King, or they're Admiral Nimitz.' My argument is they were writing for Proceedings as Lieutenant Junior Grade Nimitz and Ensign King. You are Lieutenant Junior Grade Nimitz. Nobody had heard of these guys before they started writing."

The past serves as prologue for the next generation of leaders, Berube said. Revisiting the writings of the great minds in naval history unlocks a wealth of insight into the questions of tomorrow.

"This is about naval thought, and it's about the next generation as a whole — midshipmen and officers and sailors and Marines — thinking about today's issues and tomorrow's challenges.

"Whatever the issues, these folks are doing the same thing that people have been doing for 140 years," he said.

If you go

"Warrior Writers" runs through January at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, which is open to the public seven days a week, free of charge. Information can be found at usna.edu/Museum.

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