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Alien Waters

Two authors, Tamaichi Hara and Samuel Eliot Morison, describe the mauling of the American cruiser Atlanta in the November 13, 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Each author offers an account of the battle, in which a Japanese fleet ambushed and destroyed an American fleet, the first of many nocturnal naval battles during the Solomons campaign. I asked my faculty to read their accounts for a professional development day.

Why read these two texts with a group of teachers, few of whom teach history? Why read about a fragment of a battle that’s at most a footnote in a high school history curriculum?

Twin goals animated our professional development: to remind teachers of the feelings of coming face to face with an alien text and to remind teachers of the difficulty of rightly apprehending texts on a first read. Hara and Morison oblige.

Morison, a Harvard historian, writes for a professional audience penning paragraphs like,

“The report went out at 0124: ‘Contacts bearing 312 and 310, distant 27,000 and 32,000 yards.’ Obviously one was a group of ships screening another 5,000 yards behind it” (Morison, 239).


“A flash radio report was passed down the line as Cushing’s skipper, Lieutenant Command Parker, turned left from a northerly heading at 0141 in order to unmask his torpedo batteries. His quick turn avoided collision with the enemy, but resulted in a pile-up of the van…”(Morison, 242).

Indeed, fog permeates a first read of Morison’s description of the battle. Language like “screening” and “unmask” and “van” all have technical meanings. His “obviously” drives home the point that he’s writing for a professional audience. Morison expects his reader to be able to form a mental movie of the unfolding battle from his precise and technical narrative. The actors are often ships and weapons themselves. Officers do appear by name, for praise or censure.

So full is the text of military lingo that Morison devotes two pages in the preface to a list of acronyms, whose definitions often require as much knowledge to unpack as the acronyms themselves. He helpfully notes that TBS means “talk between ships,” voice radio. In a different section he notes that TBD means “Torpedo Bomber, Douglas,” a type of torpedo attack aircraft and that TBF is a totally different attack aircraft.

Long holding a profound interest in the history of the Pacific Theatre, the bewildering flurry of acronyms—APD, SBD, LCI, and the like—don’t phase me because I’ve repeatedly read them in context and looked them up on Wikipedia to see what they look like (two of those are ships that don’t appear in Morison’s preface; one is a plane). My students know none of that and have done none of that.

This dislocating experience mirrors the experience of our students with most texts that we teach. Whether it’s keeping track of the names in Dostoyevsky, the plot of the last days of the Roman Republic, the definitions in chemistry, or the flow of Euclid’s argument, our job as teachers is to guide our students into and through alien waters. Familiarity with the material becomes an occupational hazard for us as we forget the strangeness of what we teach. Do we do as much as Morison to support them as they voyage into the strange seas?

I know that a given diagram is going to lead to a visual proof of the angle addition identity for sine and cosine. The Greek alphabet angle labels don’t phase me because I’ve seen piles of trigonometric diagrams that include theta, phi, and rho (which looks deceptively like “p”). I know that the best way to move toward the proof we’re looking for involves constructing additional rectangles because I’ve taught this diagram half a dozen times. All of that context informs how I approach the text. My students come to the text with none of it. Do I, like Morison, offer an explanatory preface, however inadequate? How do I support them as they ply the dark waters of trigonometry for the first time?

To Morison we then added Hara’s more approachable account. At first glance, this pair of texts contrasts the fiery fighting man—Hara—and the stiff and distanced academic historian—Morison. Hara, commander of a Japanese destroyer that fought that night, narrates a florid battle:

“I gulped. My heart bubbled with excitement. This was the chance to prove my torpedo theory. Though adopted as doctrine by the Imperial Navy, it had remained unproved. This was my chance. Lieutenant Masatoshi Miyoshi, my torpedo office, yelled impatiently, ‘Commander, let’s fire the fish!'”(Hara, 259)

He concludes his attack on an American destroyer thus:

“These fireworks subsided so quickly that I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. The ship, broken in two, sank instantly. I heaved a deep sigh. It was a spectacular kill and there was a roaring ovation from my crew, but I didn’t hear it. It was all too easy. My own feeling was one of satisfaction rather than exultation.” (Hara, 260)

Here, Hara presents himself as a character in the story. Giving us access to his remembered emotion, Hara paints a personal picture of the feeling of combat. Morison describes the same moments in a starkly different style:

“Destroyer Barton, commissioned as recently as 29 May, had a total combat life of exactly seven minutes. She opened fire, launched four torpedoes to port, stopped to avoid collision and, when almost dead in the water, received a torpedo in the forward fireroom which was followed almost instantly by another in the forward engine room. She broke in two and sank in a matter of seconds, taking with her all but a handful of the crew.”(Morison, 251)

We wrestled with how to interpret these texts. We wondered whether the genre—Hara is writing a memoir, Morison an official history—made the crucial difference. We talked about the difference between an active participant in events and a detached observer. Everyone agreed that from this contrast we might infer something about the respective national characters of the Americans and Japanese at war. It felt good to draw those themes out of the texts together.

All of that satisfying interpretation went back to the drawing board, though, when we examined the text a bit more carefully. The whole text turns on this uncharacteristic passage in Morison’s account where his reserve appears to crack a bit:

Atlanta was dead in the water, and the battle scarce begun. The ship’s mascot terrier, misnamed ‘Lucky,’ whimpered pitifully in a corner of the damage control station, while the officer in charge telephoned vainly for reports from damaged areas.” (Morison, 243)

Morison is careful to name the participants in his history, either for censure or praise. Why does he omit the name of the damage control officer here? Why the unusual detail about the ship’s mascot? Well, Morison tucks the most vital bit of interpretive meat into a short footnote for that paragraph:

Atlanta Action report; personal recollections.”(Morison, 252)

What’s nestled into an easily missed corner of the text is that Morison was not only present for the battle he describes but was the damage control officer on the stricken Atlanta. That footnote recasts him from an impassive and distant observer into a man wrestling to impartially describe events that must have been deeply traumatic for him. How differently do we read a sentence like, “[t]he main deck was a charnel house. Burned and eviscerated corpses, severed limbs and chunks of flesh mixed with steel debris littered it from stem to stern” if we know the author witnessed and participated in the horrors he describes? Indeed, our first interpretations couldn’t stand up to Morison’s participation in the battle, so back to the drawing board we went.

If we as a faculty struggle to interpret well, how much more should we be charitable to our students, who are both learning to interpret and wading the murky waters of alien texts?

The goal here wasn’t for the faculty to appreciate the details of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, or even to grapple with historiography. The goal here was to remember how it feels to be a student again, face to face with the unknown. If we take John Milton Gregory’s injunction that teaching moves from the known to the unknown seriously, we need to remind ourselves how that movement feels. So, I’d encourage history teachers to gather and read some Euclid together, math teachers to wrestle with Chaucer, and science teachers to have a go at Latin. Feeling again the joys and terrors of being students makes us better teachers.



Tamaichi Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Gaudacanal, Midway – The Great Naval Battles As Seen Through Japanese Eyes, trans. Fred Saito. Naval Institute Press: 2011.

Samuel Eliot Morison, The Struggle for Guadalcanal: August 1942- February 1943. Book Sales: 2001.

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