|Lt. j.g. Bradlee, courtesy USNI|
Bradlee, who died last week at 93, said in his 1995 autobiography, "A Good Life," that his experience in "the Tin Can Navy" aboard USS Philip were "certainly the most important two years of my life, then and maybe now."
He admits to enjoying his experience in the war in a chapter titled "Navy":
"My regular non-battle job involved communications, the care and feeding of the machines which provided raw information to the ship, and of the men who operated and maintained those machines. This responsibility was more educating than Harvard, more exciting, more meaningful than anything I'd ever done. This is why I had such a wonderful time in the war. I just plain loved it. Loved the excitement, even if it was only getting from Point A to Point B; loved the camaraderie, even if the odd asshole reared his ugly head every so often. For years I was embarrassed to admit all this, given the horrors and sadness visited upon so many during the years I was thriving. But news of those horrors was so removed in time and distance. No newspapers, no radio even, except Tokyo Rose, and of course there were none of television's stimulating jolts. I found that I liked making decisions. I liked sizing up men and picking the ones who could best do the job. Most of all I liked the responsibility, the knowledge that people were counting on me, that I wouldn't let them down."He describes life on a destroyer as "intimate, noisy, informal, boring, exciting, dangerous, arduous, crowded, scary, and boring again."
"Three hundred and thirty men jammed into a 2,100-ton ship shaped like a steel greyhound. Long (380 feet), or longer than a football field. Narrow (32 feet, about as wide as an 18-wheel truck is long). And fast (36 knots, or 40 miles an hour). In a heavy sea, a destroyer can easily role as much as 90 degrees – 45 degrees to either side. Handles were welded to bulkheads everywhere, to be grabbed during heavy rolls. And the decks bristled with a variety of offensive weapons. Five 5-inch guns, roughly equivalent to 105mm howitzers. Eight torpedoes, in two four-torpedo mounds amidships. A pair of four twin 40mm anti-aircraft guns, plus another eight 20mm AA guns. And a dozen depth charges in racks along either side of the stern."In "A Good Life" Bradlee considers himself lucky for surviving polio after being temporarily paralyzed after an epidemic hit his high school. He writes about his good fortune to serve and survive in the Pacific during the war and of his later success in business and life.
The Navy empowered and educated him as a leader at a very young age: "Each day of my naval life I had been learning perhaps the most important lesson of my life: You can't do any better than surround yourself with the best people you can find, and then listen to them. And I had done that."
He describes working "under the overall command of the flashy, charismatic Admiral William Halsey, or the brilliant, self-effacing Admiral Raymond Spruance, the admirals who taught our generation the art of 'calculated risk.' (We all preferred Spruance)," Bradlee writes.
He recalls action in The Slot from Rabaul.
"We worried more about the Japanese torpedoes, fired from ships or submarines. Our torpedoes were nowhere near as good. Rabaul is the island that a young congressman, somehow a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, flew over one night as an observer, and flew back to Washington immediately. Got himself a [Silver] Star for that single flight, as the world would learn later. His name was Lyndon Baines Johnson."He interacted with heroic Australian and U.S. Marine forward area observers and spotters in CIC, often helping direct barrages of the ship's 5-inch guns. A constant threat were Japanese submarines and ships and, later in the war, Kamikaze attacks.
Bradlee remembers reading books during the war like James Boswell's, "Life of (Samuel) Johnson," Philip Wylie's "A Generation of Vipers," David L. Cohn's "Love in America," and Gladys Schmitt's "The Gates of Aulis." He also read Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker magazines and other Reader's Digest-sized publications.
And he referred to the Encyclopedia Britannica in the ship's library when he had to help the Captain explain to the crew what had happened after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
"Without knowing a thing, we sensed that this event was going to rival December 7, 1941, in importance to all our immediate futures. Was this the first time I wrote in ignorance? Knowing way too little about my subject? Or the last? I wish.""A Good LIfe" reads like an honest, fearless, open, self-effacing account of the amazing history Bradlee saw and communicated: Vietnam, Watergate, Cold War, violence, CIA and D.C. politics, and of course JFK, a fellow Navy veteran.
The Bradlees were neighbors, "only a few doors away," of Senator and Mrs. John F. Kennedy in Georgetown.
|In 1963 Kennedy, Niven and Bradlee shoot skeet as a petty officer assists.|
Bradlee shares his deep appreciation of JFK and reflects on the "awful grief" that gripped the nation and that Bradlee tried to express in his elegy/eulogy at the time.
This autobiography, subtitled "Newspapering and Other Adventures," takes us into the newsroom with Woodward and Bernstein, among others. We get Bradlee's perspective on journalism, family and friendship as well as leadership formed in naval service.
(Recommended read: an interview by Fred Schultz with Bradlee from 1995 recently reposted by U.S. Naval Institute from Naval History magazine. Bradlee goes into more detail about his perspective on Halsey and Spruance, Vietnam and the post-Watergate era, with new insights about JFK and PT-109, race relations, the women's equality movement and all-volunteer service, among other topics.)