This week, a commission to rename military assets that commemorate members of the Confederacy released recommendations to rename, relocate or remove a handful of buildings, monuments and roads at the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy. This is the second report of the commission, following the first report that recommended renaming nine Army bases with Confederate namesakes and preceding a third report that will provide recommendations for two Navy ships, the cruiser USS Chancellorsville ― named for a Confederate battle victory ― and the oceanographic survey ship USNS Maury.
USNS Maury is named after oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the American Civil War. The USNS Maury is an asset of the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, which I led from 2014 to 2017. I attended the ship’s commissioning in 2017, where I praised Maury’s recognition as the father of modern oceanography. I did the same on other occasions when I served as the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, which Maury founded in 1842. Notwithstanding this association, I agree with others who condemn the naming of any military unit after someone who fought against our government to maintain a system that enslaved other human beings.
The most appropriate individual after which to rename USNS Maury would be an American who made significant contributions to Naval oceanography — and reflected the diversity of our population. There is no better candidate with these qualifications than the American immigrant oceanographer Walter Munk. I first met Munk when I was a young Ensign in the Navy while earning a master’s degree at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he was a professor and research scientist. This was over 30 years ago, long into his career that spanned nearly eight decades. Since then, I continued my path in ocean science and technology that carried me to many sea-going expeditions, brought me back to Scripps to earn a Ph.D., and led me to serve as the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At every step, Munk inspired me, along with many others. Here, I offer three points why a U.S. Navy ship should bear his name:
1) Munk’s initial contribution in ocean science supported our national security when he worked with Harald Sverdrup at Scripps during World War II to predict surf conditions for Allied landings in the Pacific theater. This began an enduring and impactful partnership with the Navy that saw him make critical advances in physical oceanography and underwater acoustics. These directly underpinned the U.S. Navy’s competitive advantage in antisubmarine warfare against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. His accomplishments not only inspired me as a junior officer at Scripps, they were foundational for the resurgence of ocean science within the Navy that I led with the establishment of Task Force Ocean. This included advancements in ocean technology and unmanned systems and built upon similar work by the Navy to address climate change impacts on national security.
2) More remarkable were Munk’s accomplishments in science writ large. From unlocking the nature of ocean currents that is the basis of modern numerical models, pioneering research in ocean acoustic tomography and internal waves, developing modern methods of tidal time series analysis, to exploring unexplainable characteristics of sea-level rise, the expanse of his impact on the field of geophysics is without equal.
When I was given the opportunity to steer national policy in ocean science and technology, I followed the example of this iconic ocean champion, initiating and overseeing the development of a National Strategy and Plan to map and explore our oceans, as well as similar efforts to add new and expand existing marine protected areas (MPAs), address marine plastic pollution, combat coral disease, as well as advance ocean science and technology. Munk’s legacy with Scripps also made notable contributions to the 2019 White House Summit on Ocean Science and Technology Partnerships, which spurred the signing of a trove of agreements between NOAA and partner organizations to advance ocean mapping, exploration, science, public understanding, countering illegal fishing, conserving coral reefs, as well as expanding the research and operational application of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence.
3) A third aspect of Munk’s mark on America is the strength in diversity that he represented. Munk came to the United States from Austria-Hungary in 1937. In response to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, he applied for and obtained U.S. citizenship in 1939.
While discussions on diversity today tend to focus on race, it is equally important to include our immigrant population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, foreign-born citizens are the second largest minority group in America, tied with African Americans.
As a non-native English speaker who rose to the highest levels in U.S. science, Munk embodied the American dream. I never lost sight of this while I served in the Navy and at NOAA, deliberately including our immigrant teammates in my outreach and recognition during diversity events with employees, partners and lawmakers.
Several months after Munk passed away in February of 2019, his family asked me to be the
master of ceremonies at a recognition event for him in October of that year. This widely-attended event was preceded by the Walter Munk Legacy Celebration hosted by Scripps the day before, and it was followed by a ceremony and paddle-out near the Scripps research pier the day after. Across the three days, the total measure of the man was acknowledged by all those who paid tribute to him. As the naming commission prepares to issue its final report, they can do no better than to rename the Navy’s newest oceanographic ship after the loyal veteran, esteemed scientist, and naturalized citizen — Walter Munk.
Rear Admiral (ret) Gallaudet is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC and host of “American Blue Economy Podcast.” He is the former acting and deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of Commerce. Prior to NOAA, he served for 32 years as an oceanographer in the U.S. Navy.
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