Much of the time spent honoring past members of the military is focused on heroes, or those who died in battle. It’s certainly appropriate, but often lost in the shuffle are individuals who survived unscathed after serving with great distinction. An excellent North Country example is Robert Haggart, who made a career out of military service, was known nationally, commanded tens of thousands of men, and was responsible for training vast numbers of naval recruits.
Robert Stevenson Haggart was born in April 1891 to Benjamin and Annie (Russell) Haggart of Salem, New York, in Washington County. After finishing school at the age of 17, he received an appointment to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Four years later, in 1912, Haggart’s young life (he was just 21) underwent several pivotal moments within a few short months. He graduated from the academy; was commissioned an ensign; received his first naval assignment; married Adele Crane; and buried his grandfather.
As a leader, Robert showed great potential that was realized in the next few years. Following a stint on the Michigan (1914, for which he was awarded the Mexican Service Medal), he served as executive officer on the McCall (1915), and commanded the Hull in 1917 (earning the Navy Cross for distinguished service). In 1918, at age 27, he was promoted to lieutenant commander and assigned to prepare destroyers for battle (including the ships Maddox and the Bernadou).
Robert’s talents were obvious, and he found himself back at the academy in Annapolis for three years, working as an instructor in marine engineering and naval construction.
In 1922, he was assigned to the Bushnell, a 350-foot-long submarine tender (yes, they tended to the needs and supplies of submarines), and in 1924, he served on the battleship Texas.
Following two years in the Navy Department’s Bureau of Engineering, his newfound education was put into practice for more than two years on the USS Oklahoma. After spending 1930–33 in the Navy Yard Division, Haggart took command of the destroyer William B. Preston in San Diego.
Relocation to the West Coast would ultimately guide the rest of his life and military career. Outside of a few years teaching at the Georgia School of Technology’s ROTC unit, most of his time was spent on tours aboard the Preston and the Chicago.
Robert’s rising stature in the navy coincided with the growing fears of war in Europe. In 1939, he was promoted to captain and given charge of the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship of the Pacific Fleet, based in Bremerton (west of Seattle, on the Puget Sound).
But with war imminent, Haggart was once again assigned inland to the University of Oklahoma as professor of Naval Science and Tactics at the new Naval ROTC unit. After a similar term at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Robert resumed his own education, completing the command course at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
The training of others and Haggart’s own schooling proved critical in America’s preparation in case we were drawn into the war, which happened just as his classes were completed.
Among the ships damaged at Pearl Harbor was the Tennessee. About two weeks after the attack, the Tennessee was finally freed from the remaining debris field. Still capable of travel, the ship was taken back to the West Coast for repairs and extensive upgrades. Though it was among a group of older, slow-moving ships, the Tennessee was badly needed in the effort to prevent a Japanese invasion.
In spring 1943, Robert Haggart was assigned command of the 624-foot battleship, which traveled north and engaged the enemy in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. With that area secured, the Tennessee journeyed to Pearl Harbor, and then to San Francisco for a camouflage repaint and to prepare for operations in the Marshall Islands during a critical stage of the war.
In early 1944, underscoring the importance of the mission, the undersecretary of the navy himself was on board as Haggart set out across the Pacific. In the coming months, the Tennessee took part in successful missions at the islands of Tarawa and Kavieng, and the atolls of Eniwetok (there are various spellings) and Kwajalein.
Haggart, long recognized for his strong teaching capabilities, was assigned later that year to command of the newly reorganized Naval Training Center at San Diego, where he served under the title of commodore. During his three years in charge, he commanded a group of officers and men that at one point numbered over 35,000.
In 1945, newspapers from coast to coast featured photographs of Commodore Haggart accepting the Navy Commendation Ribbon for his service during the capture of the Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands a year earlier. A letter of commendation from Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz praised him, “… for meritorious achievement as commanding officer of a fire support battleship during the assault and capture of the Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands, February 1944.
“He boldly led the heavy column through the narrow passage into the atoll lagoon in which mines already had been encountered, and which contained many coral heads. Commodore Haggart on Feb. 18, 1944, skillfully maneuvered the battleship USS Tennessee in extremely narrow waters, into a flanking position close to shore, from which most effective gunfire against enemy positions was delivered in support of the landing. Throughout the assault on the major islands of the atoll, he caused his ship to deliver accurate call fire, and he effectively aided the advance of our assault troops by close supporting fire.”
In 1948, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal awarded Haggart with an official Letter of Commendation for four years of training America’s recruits. The letter authorized adding a bronze star to Haggart’s Commendation Ribbon.
At that point, he took over as President of the General Courts of the Eleventh Naval District, handling court-martial duties, where he remained until retirement on July 1, 1949. Articles describing the celebration of his career cited Haggart as a navy war hero. He had received at least a half dozen other awards besides those already mentioned.
During the pre-WWII years, Robert had returned regularly to Salem, staying in close contact with family and friends in his hometown. In the later stages of his career, most of his time was spent on the West Coast. The same held true for his retirement, during which he participated in several organizations, both military and civilian.
In July 1966, Robert Haggart passed away at the age of 75. While his wasn’t a glitzy career, it was one featuring hard work, exemplary service, great achievement, and integrity―in other words, well worth remembering.
Photos: Robert S. Haggart; the USS Tennessee, 1943