Monday, August 15, 2016

An Olympian Takes the Helm at the Naval War College

Rear Admiral Harris Laning

If you’ve been watching the Olympics this week, you may have seen Ginny Thrasher of the United States win the first gold medal of the 2016 games while competing in the ten-meter air rifle event. Did you know that the Naval War College has a special connection with the Olympic rifle competition? Admiral Harris Laning graduated from the NWC in 1922 and served on the staff from 1923-24 before ascending to the Presidency in 1930. Laning was a proponent of wargaming and emphasized the study of tactics during his term. Ten years before he first arrived in Newport, Lieutenant Commander Laning achieved a different honor when he was named captain of the U.S. rifle team for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.

Lieutenant Harris Laning (center in white uniform) with the 1907 Navy rifle team

At that time, responsibility for organizing the U.S. team lay with the National Rifle Association. In March, the NRA requested that the Navy assign Laning to be the team captain, probably due to the fact that he had been captain of the Navy rifle team in 1907. Tryouts for the team took place at the USMC Rifle Range in Winthrop, Maryland in May. The organizers planned to send an all-military team to Stockholm, so they invited the Army, Navy, Marines, and National Guard to send their best shooters. From that pool, the top eight made the team:

Captain Allan Briggs, Army
Captain Cornelius Burdette, West Virginia NG
Captain Fred Hird, Iowa NG
Lieutenant Carl Osburn, Navy
Ensign Harold Bartlett, Navy
Sergeant Harry Adams, Army
Sergeant John Jackson, Iowa NG
Hospital Steward Warren Sprout, Navy

1912 U.S. Olympic rifle team

Once the team had been selected and turned over to Laning, his job was to form the eight individual shooters into a team. For that, he took them to Annapolis for two weeks of practice at the Naval Academy’s rifle range. While each man was an expert shot, doing well in the team competition would require them to work together by sharing information about wind and light conditions on the range before shooting. Laning drilled them in the correct procedures until they performed to his satisfaction. The team then traveled to New York and boarded SS Finland which had been chartered to transport the entire U.S. Olympic team to Sweden. Some of them may have met a fellow Olympian, Second Lieutenant George S. Patton, who was competing in the modern pentathlon.

Most of the athletes found time to train during the six-day crossing, and the rifle team was no exception. While they could not conduct live fire on the passenger ship, Laning set up a practice range for the team so they could perfect their shooting positions and practice focusing on the target. The extra training served them well. Despite being the last team to arrive at the rifle range just two days before the competition, the United States won the gold medal in the team match, beating out Great Britain and Sweden for the top spot.

Following his term as President of the Naval War College, Laning went on to serve many more tours of duty at sea and ashore before retiring from the Navy in 1937. He died in 1941 and is buried at the Naval Academy.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

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