Thomas B. Buell: Sailor and Scholar

By Chrisholm, Donald | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Thomas B. Buell: Sailor and Scholar


Chrisholm, Donald, Naval War College Review


"Command at sea is the ultimate goal of ambitious naval line officers, but only a chosen few obtain it. An officer proves worthy of command by performing well as a subordinate officer aboard a variety of ships in a variety of duties." These words, written by Tom Buell in his renowned biography of Admiral Raymond Spruance, apply to his own naval career as well.

A graduate of the Naval Academy class of 1958, Buell began his commissioned life as first lieutenant aboard USS Hamner (DD 718), a World War II Gearing-class destroyer. He then detached for duty with the commissioning crew of USS Ernest J. King (DLG 10) and afterward went on to attend the weapons curriculum at the Naval Postgraduate School, which he put to good use as weapons officer aboard USS Brooke (DEG 1/FFG 1). After a stint at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Buell served as executive officer in USS John King (DDG 3). He later wrote that a ship's first crew "became her brains, her blood, and her spirit, for through them the ship was transformed from an inert mass of dirty, rusty steel into a living personality."

Buell attended the Naval War College, where he was a 1971 honor graduate of the College of Naval Command and Staff, and then served as a member of the Naval War College's faculty before reporting as commanding officer to USS Joseph Hewes (DE/FF/FFT 1078). The Hewes initially proved to be an engineering challenge, with an attendant string of inspections and surveys, but it was made sufficiently reliable to undertake a six-month Indian Ocean deployment on independent steaming; showing the flag culminated with the first U.S. Navy operational transit of the Suez Canal after it reopened in 1975. From there Buell was assigned to his twilight tour, teaching military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Buell liked to go to sea. He was, in the great tradition of those in command, a fine ship handler, although like C. S. Forester's Hornblower, he fell prey to seasickness. He ran a friendly, though not informal, wardroom. Buell liked a quiet, businesslike bridge. Those occasions when his temper was on the rise were presaged by the pulsing of a vein in his forehead, providing ample warning to the offending officer or sailor. Officers who proved themselves professionally competent were rewarded with increasing levels of trust and responsibility. For example, his combat information center officer and operations officer had the conn through most of the Suez transit. Buell understood and venerated naval tradition. Independent steaming while in command of USS Hewes afforded him ample opportunities to engage in diplomacy after a fashion more akin to that of the nineteenth century than the twentieth-and he was good at it.

However, command of a warship at sea was not the peak of Buell's professional contributions to the Navy. Early in his career he had shown a flair for writing, publishing his first article, "To Build a Better Ship-on Time," about his experience aboard USS Brooke, in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, which also published his second article while he was serving in Norfolk. Both were good efforts, the sort one expects from a junior officer-well defined on technical or procedural problems but arousing no particular controversy-and were tolerated by Navy seniors.

While at Annapolis, Buell became aware of Admiral Raymond Spruance and his accomplishments. Researching a paper for the Naval Postgraduate School led him to an afternoon's conversation with the admiral at his Carmel, California, home, which was such a "profoundly moving experience" for young Buell that when at the Naval War College he produced a monograph on Admiral Spruance. It was the genesis for his subsequent biography, The Quiet Warrior (Naval Institute Press, 1974), researched and written in only fifteen months. Based on extensive primary sources, it is eminently readable and evocative of person and place, clearly informed by Buell's own professional experience with the admiral.

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