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May 05 , 2009

The Old Navy


   Daniel Pratt Mannix 3rd was the quintessential man of his time and the manner in which he lived his life mirrored the strengths and weaknesses of his age.

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"I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the common folk are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed."            ―The Scarecrow of Oz, from The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank BaumDuring the lifetime of Daniel P. Mannix, freaks were…

       At four, he spoke Mandarin Chinese better than he did English. When he went out to play he wore a false pigtail pinned to the back of his cap. It was a practical necessity for a little American boy in the China of 1882 who wanted to be accepted by his Chinese playmates; it was also the beginning of a lifetime education in the ways of the world.

      His country was embarking on a similar education. Pratt's father was a Marine officer who had been "lent" to Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi's government for the purpose of opening a torpedo school to train Chinese technicians. The mission of the ship on which he served was to "open Korea" ― then a vassal state of China's ― as Commodore Perry had recently opened Japan. The United States was taking its first steps away from a hundred self-sufficient years of "splendid isolation".

      In 1885, when the Mannix family left China, the U.S. Army was smaller than Switzerland's, and the Navy could not boast even one battleship. By 1898, when Pratt was a second classman at Annapolis, the Navy had grown. In fact, one of its several battleships, the Maine, mysteriously blew up in Havana harbor.

     Pratt kept a diary of his service on the U.S.S. Indiana during the war with Spain that followed that incident, unwittingly chronicling the fading era of wooden ships and iron men. It was a short war and when it was over the spoils of victory brought the United States a new international respect. "In a few short months," President McKinley said, "we have become a world power."

      For the quarter century following his graduation, in June 1900, Pratt Mannix followed the sea ― with fierce devotion to his country, with endless enthusiasm for discovering the distant and unfamiliar. He was not disappointed. There was beauty ― the breathtaking first view of the towers of Constantinople at sunrise; satisfaction ― having a new oil-burning destroyer as his first command, and quelling a riot without a single shot fired. There were unique challenges ― in the Philippines, dodging the equally murderous charge of water buffalo as well as the surgically precise aim of a barong by a Moro guerrilla, or, in Germany, avoiding a Prussian duel by serving a brandy smash punch beforehand. But the most perilous challenge of all was participating in the highly secret mine barrage in the last months of World War I. A total of 70,113 steel globes packed with TNT were planted in 230 miles of the North Sea between Norway and Scotland as a final deterrent to the German U-boat "stilettos".

      The breadth and pace of this fascinating memoir are as much a reflection of the man who lived it as they are of the dramatic era it records. Fighter, peacekeeper; pragmatist, romantic; humorist, philosopher; lover, husband, father ― he was each of these. Of necessity, and later by preference, Pratt spent little time in his homeland. There are some men who truly are, like Pratt perhaps, Whitman's voyager on "trackless seas, fearless for unknown shores".

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