Ben Bradlee’s Life in the Navy

October 22, 2014 9:08 AM - Updated: October 22, 2014 10:00 AM
Ben Bradlee. Photo via BBC
Ben Bradlee. Photo via BBC

Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, died on Tuesday. He was 93. Bradley was best known for leading the Post during the paper’s investigation into the break in at the Watergate Hotel by members of the Nixon administration and the subsequent political fallout. Bradlee also served as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II and detailed his experience in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life.
The following is an interview Bradlee conducted with Naval History magazine in the December 1995 issue originally titled, “That’s What Editors Do.”

Between television and radio appearances touting his best-selling book, A Good Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), the retired Executive Editor and Vice President at Large of The Washington Post talked recently to Naval History Editor Fred L. Schultz about his experiences in destroyers during World War II and the quality of military journalism.

Naval History: When I told some people what I was doing, they wondered why in the world I was interviewing Ben Bradlee for Naval History .

Bradlee: I’ll tell you a great story. A guy once wrote a letter to me that started off, “Dear Communist.” He impugned my patriotism and certainly impugned my war. I promptly wrote back, “Dear Asshole. This is what I did during the war, so don’t give me any shit.” It turned out that he had been in the Marine Corps during the war. We had taken his division to Bougainville and then to Saipan. We had been in some of the same battles. He wrote back, saying I wasn’t such a bad guy after all, and we started a great correspondence.

Naval History: In your new book, you mention prominently that your two years in the destroyer Philip (DD-498) were the two most important years of your life, then and maybe now.

Bradlee: The fact of the matter is that the war, and the Navy in particular, played such important roles in my life. I was on active duty for more than three years, not counting ROTC, which started for me in 1939.

It was a terrific experience. I was 20 years old, for God’s sake, and I made officer of the deck in about eight months. When I was 21, I was driving a ship around the Pacific Ocean. That was a wonderful chance for a kid to grow up fast. Where else do you get that kind of responsibility? The captain who ran ROTC at Harvard made a fantastic deal with BuPers [Bureau of Personnel]. He said, “If you can guarantee me that these reserve officers will be assigned to destroyers or cruisers, I’ll get you the best in the college.” And they made him that deal. We all went to destroyers or cruisers. And I think we all went to the Pacific, but I’m not sure of that.

Ben Bradlee as a naval officer
Ben Bradlee as a naval officer

Naval History: Why did you choose the Navy?

Bradlee : That was such a “good war,” and serving in the Navy was such a guarantee of action. You weren’t going out to the Pacific Ocean in a destroyer or cruiser without being in the middle of it all. I learned things in the Navy. Some people have read the book and told me that what I described as the job of a CIC [combat information center] officer is what an editor is, too. That’s what editors do. They find out information, they get the best people they can find to do the heavy lifting, and then—instead of passing information to the skipper—they present information to the people. There’s something to that.

Of course, in 1942 the CIC concept had not been developed very well. The Fletcher -class destroyers went to sea with the CICs in the bridge instead of the captain’s stateroom. And they took the captain’s stateroom, eventually. But that must have been why they asked me to write the CIC manual, because CIC operations all developed in Destroyer Squadrons 22 and 23.

Naval History: You wrote that you certainly did not want to be a GI in Europe.

Bradlee: No, I didn’t want to be a GI. In those days, every year or two they gave you a form to fill out, asking you where you would rather be. I wrote that I’d rather be a naval attaché in Paris, because I spoke French. What a dreamer!

Naval History: Of the various World War II incidents you cover in the book, you sarcastically point out that Lyndon Johnson got a bronze star for one flight. According to some of our staff, it was actually a Silver Star.

Bradlee: Well, I’ve already got a little book here called “Corrections.” He got a Silver Star for one flight over Rabaul? That’s even worse!

Naval History: Tell us what you think might have happened if the Philip had shot down the Betty that you later heard was transporting a Japanese admiral. Might that have got you a medal?

Bradlee: No, you didn’t get medals, usually, unless you did something flamboyant. This was a big, lumbering, plane that came down like an 18-wheel truck, flying at about 500 feet—if that—in the opposite direction. And it was flying at a slightly faster closing speed. IFF [identification, friend or foe] was not the most reliable system at that time, so you were always told to confirm a contact visually.

It was early in the morning—first light. The first two destroyers in the column did not fire. So, because we weren’t at General Quarters, and I was officer of the deck—which meant acting captain—I gave the order to commence firing. The flames from the 5-inch guns blew old Willie Groverman’s [captain of the ship] eyebrows right off. He was just coming up out of his stateroom at the beginning of the day. The number two gun was trained aft and, bang! But we missed the airplane.

Naval History: Why do you devote so much space to war stories in your book? Some would say that you were only one of thousands of reserve officers in World War II.

Bradlee: Yeah, 183735. I’m telling you, I did it because it was important to me. We went to college in September 1939, which was an important month in the history of the world. We were in ROTC in 20 minutes, and we stayed there. In August of ’42 I had a degree and a commission—in less than three years.

I’m proud of what we did, because we preppies took such a lot of shit from everybody. There were 12 preppies in my graduating class who were the first guys to go to war.

Lt. jg Bradlee. Photo via The Washington Post
Lt. jg Bradlee. Photo via The Washington Post

Naval History: Tell me more details about the Japanese air attack that turned back while you were fiddling around and calling in your own imaginary deceptive counterattack of squadrons of U.S. fighter planes.

Bradlee: It was someplace in the chain of islands going up either side of the Slot. We just heard that a mess of Japanese planes—bogeys—was heading our way. That’s all they told me. I think the reason we never got the Medal of Honor for that was that we didn’t know why they turned back. They could have turned back because they saw a U.S. submarine or a battleship. They just stopped heading for us and went away.

Naval History: You were recommended for a Bronze Star.

Bradlee: My skipper did that, yes.

Naval History: You never heard anything more about it?

Bradlee: No. I heard that I didn’t get it. But that’s all right. We didn’t want anything. The only medal I came close to getting was a Purple Heart—for being hit in the ass with a piece of Japanese shrapnel. It must have hit the deck first or maybe even the stack, then the deck, and then bounced up and hit me in the ass. It was hot when I picked it up. I had it here on my desk, but one of the kids took it to school for show-and-tell and never brought it back.

Naval History: You kept it?

Bradlee: Oh yeah, I did. The thing just nicked me. I was a squash player in college, and I felt like I’d been stung in the ass with a squash ball. It made me jump. I felt my ass to see if there was blood. There wasn’t. Bob Lee was the gunnery officer, and he had wheeled the 5-inch guns back and aimed at the battery that hit us, while they guys operating the phones were broadcasting that Mr. Bradlee got hit in the ass. Lee and I were sort of special buddies, and he had visions that I was really hurt, which I wasn’t.

I did ultimately have a purple heart sewn to the seat of my pants. When I was first examined, the doctor nicked me in the ass with a scalpel to draw blood right after it happened, and Wild Bill Groverman drew blood again when he pinned a big velvet purple heart to my rear end during a ship’s party after R&R.

Naval History: You compare the command styles of Admirals [William] Halsey and [Raymond] Spruance. Why did the men like Spruance so much more?

Bradlee: I left out one great Halsey story from the book, because I couldn’t prove it. North and east of the Philippines, a great typhoon caught up with the Navy and Halsey. I was about 40 miles away when this incident occurred, so I heard all about it. The destroyers in the screen under Halsey were ordered to pump ballast at night in order to fuel in the morning.

Of course, if you pump ballast in a destroyer and you’re in a typhoon, it’s a terrible experience. You’re bouncing around like a cork. One of the destroyer skippers requested permission to cease pumping ballast and was told by Halsey—whether in person or not, I don’t know—to obey the order, and he did. Then he came on again and told Halsey that he was stopping, that his ship was in danger. Eventually, the ship capsized. It went over 80 degrees, water came down the stack, and it blew up.

Halsey was supposedly looking for the Japanese fleet, but the impression we all got was that he was looking for the typhoon. He couldn’t get out of it. Every time he turned, the storm followed him.

Naval History: What about Admiral Spruance?

Bradlee: Any destroyer skipper or officer involved at that time will tell you that Spruance was the class of the outfit. He didn’t blow his own horn, and he didn’t have a PR guy blocking for him. My all-time favorite story about Spruance is in the book—the day he came up on deck while I was officer of the deck. I had been ordered to take the ship to Tinian, while the captain entertained a lot of other brass in the wardroom. I had decided to take her 30 knots that day. The Admiral paged through a file of fleetwide-distributed ALNav directives, stopped at one, and left. It was one he had issued months before, restricting the speed of all ships at 15 knots. He never said a word. We slowed her down, a knot at a time.

Naval History: That’s very much in character, from everything I’ve read about him.

Bradlee: It’s funny. I have a learning-disabled child who goes to a special school, and damned if his teacher wasn’t Ms. Spruance. Turns out it was the Admiral’s granddaughter-in-law. One of his grandsons married her.

That trip from Saipan to Taiwan was unforgettable. In the destroyer Navy you hardly ever saw a high-ranking officer—a four-striper maybe. But you saw admirals even less. We had more brass on board that day than I had ever seen. In the last analysis, we loved Spruance, and we didn’t like Halsey, which in my life is not all that important.

Naval History: You include a fair amount of detail in the chapter on your naval service. Did it all come off the top of your head?

Bradlee: No. I had my orders from day one. The time I was on the Philip came out of my head, because I didn’t have any orders. When I got transferred the last year of the war to be the forward area representative of Admiral [Arthur] Radford, I had orders with endorsements on them. So I could remember pretty much each one. I think I was on 19 destroyers in a year, and I remembered where I was. I haven’t tried to forget, but it’s not easy to forget.

Bradley served as an intelligence officer aboard
Bradley served as an intelligence officer aboard USS Philip in the Pacific. US Navy Photo

Naval History: Have you kept track of any of the men who served with you?

Bradlee: The destroyers have had reunions, but I got to miss them all for various newspaper reasons. I haven’t been to one.

Naval History: You didn’t catch any of the 50 th anniversary commemorations?

Bradlee: I was deeply involved in the 50 th anniversary in my own mind, but this is the first time I’ve talked about it for years. I just don’t talk about it, here or at home. My wife is 20 years younger than I am. She’s an Army brat, and her dad is a retired general. My kids used to tease me and say, “Look out, here comes WWII, The Big Two.”

Three of us officers on the Philip are still alive and working in Washington—a guy named Bill Flather, who runs an insurance agency here, and Bob Lee. He was a journalist for a long time, and he’s still around.

Naval History: When I inquired about this interview, your secretary said that you would probably find it refreshing. You were tired of talking about the Kennedys, she said. Well, I do have one Kennedy question for you: Did you and President Kennedy ever trade war stories?

Bradlee: Sure, a little bit. We were stationed for a long time on Tulagi, just north of Guadalcanal across the strait, and we operated out of there for months. Nights we’d go up with another bunch of destroyers, and we’d come back and refuel. But Tulagi was where Kennedy’s PT boat squadron was based. I never saw him there. I didn’t even know him. But God knows we saw PT boats a lot, and we must have seen each other. He and I often mused on the fact that we were on the same piece of real estate but didn’t know it. We’d see the PTs, and they’d see us, but we didn’t much understand what they were doing. I think they knew more about us, because every so often one of our cruisers or destroyers would limp home, having taken a terrible shellacking during the night—ships like the Honolulu , the St. Louis , the O’Bannon , the Nicholas , the Fletcher ; they all got hit.

Naval History: You and most of your peers served in the armed services.

Bradlee: Yeah. There aren’t any more World War II vets on the newspaper. Dick Howard and I were the last two. There are still some Korean War guys, but not many.

Naval History: You’re saying how important your war experience was to you. Is anything comparable to it?

Bradlee: Well, Vietnam must have been comparable in certain respects. It was not comparable, in the sense that Vietnam was a lousy war, and this was a great war.

There was something else, too. We had no great qualifications. I was a Greek major, for God’s sake. I wasn’t supposed to be able to navigate or know what an engine room was or how a gun worked. And yet we were just as good as anybody who went to Annapolis.

Naval History: What about Naval Academy graduates? You say in the book that some of the reserve officers were better than the Naval Academy guys, because they were nothing but electrical engineers.

Bradlee: That’s probably bragging. We weren’t encumbered with knowledge that we didn’t need to have. That passage in the book was just a compliment to a liberal arts education which, I think, is a very good education.

Everybody got along just fine. I don’t mean to suggest there was any tension. The people I know learned great respect for the military from their military service. That seems to me the funny thing about criticism of the press for being anti-Vietnam, which I think they were. But nobody was anti-Army officer, or anti-grunt, or anti-Navy officer. Those guys were fantastic.

Naval History: What do you think of the switch from the draft to the all-volunteer military? Do you think it would be a good thing if everybody served?

Bradlee: Oh, I’ve long thought that—to serve their country in some way. I’m not sure they’d have to be drafted into the armed services.

I had a kid in the Peace Corps, and he had a wonderful experience in Afghanistan. I think it would be great for everybody to serve the country—putting out forest fires, serving in a Civilian Conservation Corps—for no money, or virtually no money.

Naval History: Does the “growing up fast” element come into play here?

Bradlee: Well, it’s that, but it’s also filling a need for your country. Serving in the war was a great thing for us to do. And it was good to feel needed, too.

Naval History: Some of the Navy leadership today—after several controversies—say that today’s naval officer is so much different from what he or she used to be because of a different value system, character differences, based on upbringing, television, and other factors. What character differences do you see between today and 30 years ago when you were hiring people?

Bradlee: I think the quality of the younger journalists is a lot higher than it was when I was starting. I wouldn’t like to compete against some of these people. They’re awfully well-educated and they write very well, especially the women. The counterculture in this country, which came along in the early ‘60s as a result of Vietnam and was fueled by Watergate—where the government was forced to resign in disgrace—created a totally different person.

I mean, they’re much less respectful of authority. They are more cynical. It’s harder for them to believe in authority. Authority has proved to be wrong in quite a few major instances. So they started a reexamination of all institutions, including journalism, God knows. But it also included the military and the Church. There isn’t a church in the world whose foundations weren’t shaken. And it’s still going on.

I think it must have been terribly hard for the superintendents of the service academies to bring their perspective to bear on new people. My heart just grieves for the recent problems of the Naval Academy. It’s a sort of alma mater. I’m not an alumnus of the Naval Academy, but those are my people. I wouldn’t like to be superintendent of those places, to have to change the way instructors as well as students believe and think.

You know, the first people discussing racism and sexism in the service academies just didn’t get it, just as I didn’t get it when I confronted it here. You had to relearn it. You had to learn it and keep learning it.

Naval History: You did have to be converted?

Bradlee: Oh, sure. Just think of the blacks. I mean, the Navy’s record was just terrible. The only blacks you saw in the Navy were mess attendants, and they’d all been falsely lured into the services with promises that they’d be machine gunners—which they were for 20 minutes in the battle. That was my black experience. There just weren’t many around. I think there were three blacks in my class at Harvard College out of 1,200. There weren’t many blacks in New England, as far as that goes.

And when I was at Newsweek , the blacks that I saw were black leaders. I didn’t know anything about it. Although I would have taken an oath that I wasn’t racist, I’m sure I was unsensitized to the issue. If you don’t know about racism, you’re not going to be able to correct it.

And that’s true for the women’s movement, too. Incredible behavior by men toward women produced embarrassing incidents. Chaining women midshipmen to urinals?

Naval History: Were you a hard sell on the women’s movement?

Bradlee: No. I’ve been married more than once, and I’ve always married strong women who regularly beat me upside the head, telling me what a male chauvinist pig I was. And I worked hard to learn about it. My father was a parole commissioner in Massachusetts, and the chairman was a wonderful man named Matthew Bullock—a black man. So we had a perfectly modern education about tolerance and understanding, but we didn’t practice it, because we never had a chance to. I wasn’t a hard sell.

Naval History: The Washington Post and other newspapers have taken some heat in military circles for having sent reporters to cover the Pentagon with insufficient knowledge of the military. And then, some say, about the time they have learned enough to file intelligent reports, they’ve transferred to another assignment.

Bradlee: You know, that was not true for the longest time. When I got to The Washington Post , the Pentagon correspondent here was a reserve captain in the Navy, and being paid by the Navy. I mean, that’s unthinkable. He was a good guy, but the idea that you could have somebody covering the Navy who was so expert he was in the pay of the Navy was not acceptable. He sure as hell knew a lot about the armed services.

Later, a guy named Lloyd Norman became a legend in the Pentagon. Lloyd Norman knew so much they built the Pentagon around him. He had been the Chicago Tribune ’s correspondent, and then we hired Lloyd for Newsweek . We eventually turned that beat over to kids. There was a turnover.

Warriors became scarce. They began to grow old. I think the services have asked for a certain amount of trouble, with waste stories, for example—$600 toilet seats and stuff like that—which got a lot of public attention. I thought coverage of [Robert] McNamara’s Whiz Kids was better than it should have been. We were so bulldozed by that, we didn’t realize he was lying as bad as he was. I myself have never covered the Pentagon.

Naval History: One particular reporter—Fred Hiatt—has been scorned by military types.

Bradlee: Fred Hiatt is an awfully good reporter.

Naval History: But he had a predisposition against the military.

Bradlee: You can’t prove it by me.

Naval History: One of my colleagues remembers him actually admitting it.

Bradlee: I will make you a bet and warn you not to take it that you would have trouble proving that by reading his clips. He was there during Vietnam, and I think a lot of journalists were trying to make the case that we were not going to win that war. That must have rubbed the people in the Pentagon and in the Army and the Navy the wrong way. But the journalists weren’t wrong.

I just know Hiatt too well. He’s been our correspondent subsequently in Moscow and in Japan. Saying that he’s anti-Pentagon just is not true. It just isn’t true. For every story you can show me that you think is unfair, I’ll show you five or six that cast a good light on the military. This is a really good reporter and a wonderfully educated guy.

Naval History: Some people questioned the qualifications of Molly Moore during the Gulf War. Then, she went out with [Marine] General [Walter] Boomer.

Bradlee: Boomer! God knows what she did to Boomer.

Naval History: Was that a brilliant PR move, or what?

Bradlee: On Boomer’s part?

Naval History: On Boomer’s part.

Bradlee: Well, she assigned herself. She went with Boomer’s Marine group, and they were out of touch with the world for two or three days. So she around with Boomer who said, “I can’t get hurt by this because she can’t file anything.” And they became buddies.

Naval History: And so she got to know more of what she was talking about, wrote a book on the war, then changed jobs and moved to India.

Bradlee: Yeah, she’s still there.

Naval History: So there’s another instance. Is it the Peter Principle?

Bradlee: I don’t know. But you can’t keep people on the same assignment for a very long time anymore. People who cover the State Department used to be 60 years old. Same for people who covered the Congress and the Pentagon.

Naval History: Is that bad?

Bradlee: No! But today there’s tremendous pressure for the younger people to get a piece of the action. And there is less and less desire by reporters to be 60-year-old correspondents in the Pentagon or schlepping the halls of the Hill. They don’t want to do it, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to do it either. I think if you’re a reporter, you ought to do it for a while and then move on.

Fred Schultz

Fred Schultz is the Managing Editor for U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings.

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