Poe, Pearl Harbor, and Collaborative Research: Dr. Warren Ober


Warren Ober

I am grateful to Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Dr. Warren Ober, for agreeing to contribute this guest post. During his career at Waterloo Dr. Ober was a recipient of the Distinguished Teacher Award, and we are indebted to him for the library’s Warren and Mary Ober Group Study Rooms. A more detailed profile of Dr. Ober can be read here. I’m especially happy to hear about his experience of joint authorship, something we don’t adequately consider in the humanities. –JLH

During recent years, after the appearance of articles I’ve written in collaboration with Paul Burtness on the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and at Clark Field in the Philippines that plunged the United States into World War 2, I’ve occasionally been asked a delicately phrased version of this question:  “Why are you, a superannuated English literature prof, straying so far out of your field?  Aren’t there enough books and articles on Pearl Harbor out there already by genuine historians?”  Fair question.  Here’s the way it happened.  It’s a long story.

Paul Burtness and I met as departmental colleagues at Northern Illinois University in 1955.  With Bill Seat, another close friend in the English Department, we edited a number of textbooks, including volumes of “Selected Source Materials for College Research Papers” on Coleridge and on Poe.  While Paul, Bill, and I were writing our Close Reading of Factual Prose, the editor with whom we were working suggested that we also edit a source book on Japan’s Sunday, 7 December 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.  At this point Bill opted out, but Paul and I, who had served as junior officers in the U.S. Naval Reserve in World War 2, were intrigued by the idea of researching the Pearl Harbor debacle, whose shadow had hovered over the Navy throughout the war, and we agreed to do the book.  Paul had been a deck officer aboard the USS Kyne, Destroyer Escort 744, and I had been a communication watch officer in the radio shack and registered publication custodian on the staff of Admiral Howard Kingman, Commander Battleship Division Nine, and later—succeeding Admiral Halsey—Commander Third Fleet.

As we should have expected, our research on Pearl Harbor, starting from scratch, absorbed more of our time and energy than we could really afford.  However, the result, The Puzzle of Pearl Harbor (1962), though initially not as successful as our books on Poe and Coleridge, has over the years continued to appear in many bibliographies of Pearl Harbor studies right up to the present.  We also wrote and published articles and notes on the disaster.  During the course of our research we interviewed in their homes, and corresponded with, Admiral Husband Kimmel, the Pacific Fleet Commander at the time of the attack, who has been widely blamed for the Navy’s failure, and Admiral Harold Stark, then U.S. Chief of Naval Operations and trusted adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt.  We also engaged in an extended correspondence with General Douglas MacArthur, Head of the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East at the time of the Clark Field attack on 8 December (Philippine time).

In 1965 I accepted an offer to come to the University of Waterloo as Chair of English—a move I have never regretted—and we reluctantly put aside our Pearl Harbor and Clark Field projects.  Paul served for ten years as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Northern Illinois University, while at Waterloo I was spending a total of ten years as Chair of English, interrupted by terms as Acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Director of the Interfaculty Program Board.  In Illinois, working with Paul and Bill, I discovered the joys and rewards of collaboration and did the first of a number of articles on Russian poets’ translations of English poetry with my late brother, Kenneth, a comparatist.  At Waterloo I thoroughly enjoyed my terms as Chair, but I found my greatest satisfaction, first, in teaching—I never quite got over my anxiety that someone in authority might twig that I was being paid good money to have fun—and then in my collaboration with my departmental colleagues Keith Thomas (on Keats and on Wordsworth), Walter Martin (on Henry James and on Alice Munro), Neil Hultin (on Thomas Crofton Croker, an Irish folklorist before the word folklore was coined), and Helen Ellis (on John Gardner’s Grendel and William Blake).  Working with these accomplished scholars was for me an invaluable post-doc learning experience.  But that’s another story for another time.

My latest literary publication, “Browning’s ‘Home-Thoughts, from the Sea’: A Warning against Hubris,” ANQ (2008), is also a collaborative effort.  Co-written with my good friend, John Panabaker, former Chancellor of McMaster University and former chief executive officer of Mutual Life of Canada, this explication of Browning’s poem results directly from an offhand remark by John that instantly enabled me to see the poem in an entirely new light.

After the Browning paper my research has all been done in collaboration with Paul Burtness.  It took us both a while to fully appreciate, understand, and manipulate the wonders of the Internet.  It still seems a miracle that Paul in Illinois and I in Ontario, who were either office mates or in offices across the hall from each other for ten years, after a four-decade hiatus now found ourselves even closer in the virtual world of the Web—at the same desk, in effect!

We had long felt that we owed it to ourselves and to history to capitalize on contacts we made with figures such as MacArthur, Kimmel, and Stark.  On discovering how easy it was to collaborate on the Internet, we used MacArthur’s unpublished 1962 letters to us as the basis of an article exploring the fact that “the General never recognized . . . that his own performance during and before the attack on the Philippines may have been less than exemplary,” despite the destruction of his planes on the ground several hours after the Pearl Harbor disaster and after special warnings from Washington to look after his planes.  Although his Army and Navy counterparts in Hawaii were cashiered shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, MacArthur was never reprimanded, became a five-star general, and was in effect the U.S. viceroy in postwar Japan.  Our piece was published in the December 2009 issue of the Australian Journal of Politics and History, which later published, in December 2011, our “President Roosevelt, Admiral Stark, and the Unsent Warning to Pearl Harbor: A Research Note.”  In it we developed our thesis, based on a cryptic statement Stark made to us, that he withheld a last-minute Saturday night warning to Pearl Harbor on orders from Roosevelt, and we published a holograph letter from Admiral Stark to us written on the front and back of our previous letter to him.

Barring the slip ‘twixt cup and lip, two more of our Pearl Harbor-related articles will appear this December or early in the new year, one a study of communication lapses leading to Pearl Harbor and another on Navy officials’ shabby treatment of Admiral Stark over his alleged Pearl Harbor lapses even after his brilliant and universally praised service as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe (1942-45). We’re keeping our fingers crossed for a third piece, now under consideration for publication, on Japanese pre-Pearl Harbor espionage activities.

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5 responses to “Poe, Pearl Harbor, and Collaborative Research: Dr. Warren Ober

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