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Samuel Eliot Morison

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Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976) was a professor of history, principally at Harvard University, but was also the official U.S. Navy operational historian of the Second World War. [1]

Early career

He became Instructor, first at the University of California in Berkeley, and in 1915 at Harvard. Except for three years (1922-1925) when he was Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford, England, and his periods of active duty during both World Wars, he remained continuously at Harvard University as lecturer and professor until his retirement in 1955. He became a full Professor at Harvard in 1925, and was appointed to the Jonathan Trumbull Chair in 1940. He also taught American History at Johns Hopkins University in 1941-1942.

World War I

He had World War I service as a private in the US Army, but not overseas. As he had done some preliminary studies on Finland for Colonel House’s Inquiry, he was detailed from the Army in January 1919 and attached to the Russian Division of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, at Paris, his specialty being Finland and the Baltic States. He served as the American Delegate on the Baltic Commission of the Peace Conference until 17 June 1919, and shortly after returned to the United States.

Maritime history

Living up to his sea-going background – he has sailed in small boats and coastal craft all his life. In 1939-1940, he organized and commanded the Harvard Columbus Expedition which retraced the voyages of Columbus in sailing ships, barkentine Capitana and ketch Mary Otis. After crossing the Atlantic under sail to Spain and back, and examining all the shores visited by Columbus in the Caribbean, he wrote Admiral of the Ocean Sea, an outstanding biography of Columbus, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943. He also wrote a shorter biography, Christopher Columbus, Mariner. With Maurico Obregon of Bogota, he surveyed and photographed the shores of the Caribbean by air and published an illustrated book The Caribbean as Columbus Saw It (1964).

World War II

Shortly after the United States entered World War II, Dr. Morison proposed to his friend President Roosevelt, to write the operational history of the US Navy from the inside, by taking part in operations and writing them up afterwards. The idea appealed to the President and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and on 5 May 1942, Dr. Morison was commissioned Lieutenant Commander, US Naval Reserve, and was called at once to active duty. He subsequently advanced to the rank of Captain on 15 December 1945. His transfer to the Honorary Retired List of the Naval Reserve became effective on 1 August 1951, when he was promoted to Rear Admiral on the basis of combat awards.

In July-August 1942 he sailed with Commander Destroyer Squadron Thirteen (Captain John B. Heffernan, USN), on USS Buck, flagship, on convoy duty in the Atlantic. In October of that year, on USS Brooklyn with Captain Francis D. Denebrink, he participated in Operation TORCH. In March 1943, while attached to Pacific Fleet Forces, he visited Noumea, Guadalcanal, Australia, and on Washington made a cruise with Vice Admiral Willis Lee.

He also patrolled around Papua New Guinea in motor torpedo (PT) boats. In the Guadalcanal Campaigh, made three trips up “the Slot” on ''USS Honolulu'', flagship of Commander Cruisers, Pacific Fleet (Rear Admiral W.W. Ainsworth, USN), and took part in the Battle of Kolombangara before returning to the mainland. Again in the Pacific War Area in September 1943, he participated in the Gilbert Islands operation on board USS Baltimore, under command of Captain Walter C. Calhoun, USN. For the remainder of the Winter he worked at Pearl Harbor, and in the Spring of 1944, again on board Honolulu, he participated in the Marianas operation before returning to the United States to write.

In November 1944 he sailed for Europe in the cutter Campbell with Captain W.A.P. Martin, USN, Commander of a convoy escort group. He left Campbell at Gibraltar to visit scenes of recent action in Italy and France, and flew back to the United States in January 1945. In February he joined USS Tennessee, commanded by Captain Heffernan, and flagship of Commander, Gunfire and Covering Force (Rear Admiral Morton L. Deyo, USN). During the amphibious assault upon and subsequent conquest of Okinawa he witnessed many actions under enemy air attack. He later visited Iwo Jima and the Philippines and spent some time working on files in Guam.

In July 1945 he returned again to the United States to work. Released to inactive duty in September 1946, he returned to duty at Harvard, maintaining an office in the Navy Department under the Director of Naval Records and History, to continue his work on the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.


  • Bachelor's degree, Harvard University, 1908
  • Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, Paris, France 1908-1909
  • PhD, Harvard University, 1912


  1. Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, U.S. Naval Historical Center