Cruise Books Document Naval History
By DAVID F. WINKLER
At this time of the year, the Naval Historical Foundation’s Historical Services Division
receives numerous requests for copies of cruise books
and ship photos. With offices at the Washington Navy
Yard, the foundation’s researchers have ready access to
the Navy Department Library’s large collection of
cruise books and the million-plus images in the Naval
History and Heritage Command’s photographic
Cruise books date from the latter 19th century. Quasi-official government publications, they often were compiled and organized by members of a ship’s crew in conjunction with an event such as the voyage of the Great
White Fleet or the presence of a dignitary traveling on a
diplomatic mission. Some books were published following deployments during World War I. However, the tradition truly came into its own at the end of World War II.
The Navy Department Library holds more than 700
World War II-vintage books. Many cover the deployments of ships to the Atlantic and Pacific, others focus on
the activities of air squadrons, Seabee units, training stations and hospitals. Some were do-it-yourself publications, printed on mimeograph machines. Others were
printed with the help of commercial presses ashore.
Following World War II, the deployment patterns of
the U.S. Navy served to foster a growing cruise book
industry that saw printing companies vying for the
rights to publish books that would keep memories alive
for shipmates long after a ship was decommissioned.
Central to these books were group photos of Sailors posing with their divisions or squadrons.
The Navy Department Library has several thousand
books dating from the Cold War through the present.
The vast majority of the collection has come — and continues to come — thanks to the generosity of the families of deceased crew members and ship reunion groups.
The Naval History and Heritage Command’s photographic archives predate the cruise book collection by
several decades. When James R. Soley assumed duties
as the Navy Department librarian in 1882, he started
collecting prints and photographs of naval warships
and battles. As part of his initiative to publish a multivolume series that would become known as the
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies
in the War of the Rebellion, Soley collected naval
images from this important era of American history
Designated as the Office of Naval Records and
Library (NR&L) in 1915, the Navy’s history branch
focused on capturing past records. Adm. William F.
Sims soon thereafter formed a Historical Section within his U.S. Naval Forces in Europe Command to document U.S. Navy involvement in “The Great War.”
Eventually, this Historical Section and its staff came to
Washington at the end of the war. On Aug. 1, 1921,
retired Capt. Dudley Knox was appointed to serve as
head of both the Historical Section and Office of Naval
Records and Library. In 1927, the two organizations
Under Knox’s leadership, and with the cataloging
skills of photo staff, the collection was organized into an
old NR&L series (pre-1910) and modern NR&L series
(post-1910). NR&L photo numbers were assigned to
images received up until 1968, when a new consolidated
NH numbering system was instituted.
The Office of Naval Records and Library were merged
in August 1949 with the Office of Naval History, which
had been formed during World War II. The vast scope of
World War II led to the formation of what became the
Naval Photographic Center, responsible for receiving and
maintaining the Navy’s contemporary photographic
images. Beginning in the 1950s, much of this collection
was retired to the National Archives, while the remainder
is now held by the Defense Visual Information Center.
However, the photographic collection at the Naval
History and Heritage Command — the successor
organization to the Office of Naval History and then
the Naval Historical Center — has continued to grow
from internal Navy sources and external contributions.
Though contemporary photographs are now being digitally archived by the Department of Defense, more than 1
million print images from the 19th and 20th centuries
retained at the Naval History and Heritage Command will
serve as research treasure for generations to come. ■
Sources: William J. Morgan, Joye L. Leonhart, A History of
the Naval Historical Center and the Dudley Knox Center
for Naval History (Naval Historical Foundation, 1983).
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical
Foundation. Navy Department Librarian Glen Helm and
retired curator Chuck Haberlein assisted with this article.