NEWPORT, R.I. -- Cmdr. Maxwell Oliver’s eye was drawn to a poster designed to look like an old-fashioned handbill.
“We will sail on the next tide for our journey of DISCOVERY and ARCHIVAL ADVENTURES,” read the sign at the spring 2019 U.S. Naval War College electives fair.
Professors Evan Wilson and J. Ross Dancy, who both hold history doctorates from Oxford, stood nearby to pitch their new project: the Graduate Certificate in Maritime History Program in the college’s John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research.
On March 2, Oliver and Capt. Michael Rak became the first two Naval War College students to earn the history certificate, which required taking an extra elective class and writing a 10,000-word paper based on original research. Candidates also orally defend their papers before the Hattendorf Center's faculty.
“I’m a much better writer than I was when I started,” said Oliver, whose paper on Vice Adm. Robert Ghormley led him to East Carolina University over the summer to research the World War II-era commander’s personal writings.
“I thought I wrote well enough. But I realized how weak I was,” said Oliver, chuckling, in an interview. “Being able to communicate in the written word is extremely important.”
The Naval War College launched the new Graduate Certificate in Maritime History Program in early 2019 in response to students who wanted a research concentration in history. It follows the model of the popular Ethics and Emerging Military Technology Certificate Program introduced in 2016. The Stockdale Leadership Development Concentration program was also launched in 2019 and is expected to award its first certificates in June.
These certificates are awarded in addition to the Master of Arts degree that most Naval War College students earn. Following Oliver and Rak, six more students are on track to receive the history certificate at the June graduation.
“It’s a focused outlet for students who can become imbued with the idea that history can inform us about our current and future problems. There is really not another forum here that does that,” said Craig L. Symonds, the college’s Ernest J. King Distinguished Professor of Maritime History.
“This allows them to do a deep dive into a particular area of historical research and then apply what they learn to their operational decision-making,” Symonds said.
Most students come to the War College with at least a passing interest in history, but the act of doing original research expands the mind and encourages critical thought, said Dancy, whose own research looks at naval administration, policy and manpower.
“The way you have to think about, ‘How do I come up with my own project? How do I ask my own questions, not questions that were given to me to answer?’ promotes a different level of critical thinking,” Dancy said.
Candidates work closely with a member of the six-scholar Hattendorf Center faculty over the course of the academic year. The research required allows students a chance to use the college’s rich archives, which include the personal papers of Vice Adm. James Stockdale, Vietnam prisoner of war and former college president, among other original documents.
“This gives the students an opportunity to take advantage of the resources of the Hattendorf Historical Center, which has this great collection of naval historians here,” said Wilson, who studies the relationship between navies and societies.
“That’s another reason to do this, to get the center engaged with the students and vice versa,” he said.
Dancy added, “As we pitch to the students, frankly anything that floats from the Medieval period to the present, we can deal with that with the expertise we have.”
The papers are expected to be written at a level where they can contend for the annual CNO Naval History Essay Contest, and perhaps be published in a journal such as the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History magazine.
The other March 2 certificate earner, Rak, was interested in the origins of the modern Navy because of a former USS Constitution captain who came from his hometown of Derby, Connecticut.
That research led him to focus on the little-known Quasi-War between the United States and France from 1798-1800. He concluded that there are naval lessons from that period that aren’t widely known.
“What I found was, there are some really important things that happened that deserve a higher place in the origin story, the lore of the Navy,” Rak said.
He got a special thrill from the research experience, which included taking his children to the USS Constitution Museum in Boston for a field study trip. Another time, he got a shock when he checked out a Naval War College library book written by Theodore Roosevelt on the War of 1812. It was a first-edition volume from 1883.
Rak, whose undergraduate degree is in marine transportation, called the history certificate program challenging but rewarding.
“For example, I had to defend my paper in front of a committee that included (Professor Emeritus) John Hattendorf. There’s a lot of reward in being able to defend my work in front of the man for whom the certificate and the center is named,” Rak said with a chuckle.
“I actually had fun doing it. I had put in that much work; I felt like I knew my topic. I enjoyed just being able to spend time with people of that stature and show them what I had accomplished,” he said.
Oliver was interested in Ghormley – known for being fired over poor leadership in the Guadalcanal campaign – with the idea that he would partially vindicate a naval officer who has become a Navy case study on what not to do.
After first learning about Ghormley during Officer Candidate School, Oliver became interested again after the deadly 2017 USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and John S. McCain (DDG 56) ship collisions, when debate was raging about officer culpability. Oliver had a personal connection to the cases because he served as casualty assistance officer for a Fitzgerald Sailor's family.
This research took him to the venerable stacks of the Naval War College archives, which hold the oral history of one of Ghormley’s flag aides. College connections also led him to an East Carolina University special collections curator, who helped him spend three days scanning documents there.
In the end, Oliver’s research changed his mind somewhat about Ghormley’s story, prompting him to argue that Ghormley’s accomplishments were merely overshadowed by Guadalcanal.
“I initially launched with the idea that I would somehow vindicate him, but as I did my research and after writing, I don’t think I accomplished that – nor did I need to. I don’t think he needs to be vindicated. Not everything that happened at Guadalcanal was his fault, but he has a share of the blame as well,” Oliver said. “Reading into the whole case history and really digging in the nitty-gritty details was really interesting.”
Both Rak and Oliver said they see how the research and writing experience will pay off when they return to the fleet. Rak is slated to command the cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63). Oliver will command the Navy Operational Support Center Columbia at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“The sense of the Navy’s esprit de corps and our heritage is important because it’s part of what inspires Sailors today,” Rak said, noting that Cowpens is named for a Revolutionary War battle. “I think having a deeper understanding of that, and the ability to share that early Navy history with Sailors, benefits a lot of people.”
Rak added that his writing, critical thinking, research and analytical skills have all benefited from the intense work.
“Those are the sort of skills that may be more difficult to define as a requirement, but they will certainly help you in your ability to lead in the fleet,” he said.