How did the Navy’s Greats become Great? The Power of Career Intermissions

May 14, 2015

On May 13th at the U.S. Naval Academy, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus rolled out a slate of new initiatives to reform the naval personnel system and make it more responsive in the 21st century. Many of the ideas he discussed have been foreshadowed in the writing of junior officers, as well as seniors like Vice Admiral Bill Moran. If the Department of the Navy is able to follow through on these reforms, historians may look back on them as having importance like the Naval Personnel Act of 1916, which introduced promotion by selection, and the reforms of the All-Volunteer Force.

While there are a number of policies that can be changed internally, there are other programs that will require congressional action and reform of laws and statute. Specifically, the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), which has governed the military’s officer personnel system for three decades without change, will need to be updated and improved. The first place Congress should start is with the expansion and permanence of the Career Intermission Program.

Aside from the obvious benefit to service members looking to expand their horizons, career intermissions have the potential to improve the ability of our armed forces to effectively complete their missions. Though commonly cast as a modern creation, the Career Intermission Program actually has a historical foundation going all the way back to the earliest decades of the U.S. Navy. The use of career intermissions in the past has played a vital role in the professional development of many accomplished leaders including renowned naval figures like David Farragut, William Sims, and Chester Nimitz.

Study and Experience on the Barbary Coast

In the fall of 1817, Midshipman David Farragut was serving aboard the Ship-of-the-Line Washington, which was the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. At 16 years old, he had already seen combat in the War of 1812 and his service to that point had been exemplary. When his friend and mentor Charles Folsom was appointed American consul in Tunis he applied to Commodore Isaac Chauncey to take Farragut with him for the winter, writing that he wanted to do “all in my power to promote his education.” The winter months in the Mediterranean normally found American warships sequestered in port to avoid turbulent weather. Chauncey consented and gave permission for Farragut to leave the ship and join Folsom to “advance his knowledge” and “improve his character.”

David Farragut traveled through southern Europe with his mentor, picking up language and cultural lessons in Marseilles and Malaga, before taking to the consul’s house in Tunis. The young officer set to work at his studies, which were made up of mathematics, English literature, and French and Italian language courses. He mingled with the diplomatic corps in Tunis and made visits to the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage, experiencing the presence of history first-hand. He joined a number of expeditions into the interior of North Africa, learning about Muslim traditions, culture, and faith.

Ten months later, Farragut returned to the Mediterranean Squadron and resumed his duties. His broad experience and education immediately came to the attention of the captain of the new flagship Franklin, who made him his aide. Within a year he was promoted to acting-lieutenant and he leapt ahead of many of his peers in a career that would see him become the U.S. Navy’s first admiral and the most accomplished naval combat leader of the Civil War.

Professionalism and a Parisian Cafe

In January of 1889, Lieutenant William Sims set sail for Paris, France. After nine years at sea as a junior officer, his progress toward promotion had been slower than he expected and he wanted to experience something new. After trying to learn some French from a shipmate during a deployment, he decided instead to apply to the Navy Department for a furlough, or a leave of absence, to go to France and study. As was relatively common in the 19th century, his request was granted, and he took off his uniform and headed across the Atlantic.

Sims spent a year in Paris, where he studied French as well as European history and society. He learned from a pair of expatriate American artists about their bohemian lifestyle, and a French tutor helped him establish an academic routine for his studies. Sims became a regular attendee of the Paris theatre. He traveled throughout Europe with his new friends and instructors, picking up on culture and languages.

In 1890, he returned to the Navy and was ordered to the training ship Saratoga. Sims was a new man. He took all he had learned and experienced in Paris and put it into instructor duty. His outlook on the Navy and on his profession had been reinforced by his time away. When the opportunity to return to Paris as an attaché presented itself a few years later, Sims applied and was selected because of his new language skills. It was in this position that Lieutenant Sims began his career-long study of battleship design and gunnery, which would lead him to drive the Navy toward the techniques of continuous-aim fire and the all-big-gun battleship. Without his year in Paris, the admiral who led U.S. naval forces in World War I may never have achieved the prominence we know today.

Technology and Naval Learning

In May of 1913, Lieutenant Chester Nimitz and his recent bride Catherine headed for Hamburg, Germany. Chester had just completed orders in the nascent American submarine force, where the Navy was experimenting with the new technology of diesel engines. Because of his service as one of the older officers in submarines, the 28-year-old Nimitz was seen as a leading uniformed expert in the new propulsion field. For this reason, he was selected to take off his uniform and accompany two civilians to Germany to study the design and industrial production of large diesels used to drive entire ships.

The three Americans reported to the Blohm and Voss works, where they worked with the company’s executives and observed operations. Nimitz organized trips throughout Germany to visit and study design and production facilities in Augsburg (where Rudolf Diesel completed his first commercially successful engine), Nuremberg, and Kiel. While his time in Europe was clearly dedicated to work, with many long days at the plants and learning from German executives, the Nimitzes also found time for short trips together to see Germany, Demark, and Sweden.

Nimitz returned to the United States and was ordered to the New York Navy Yard. He was given the task of leading the manufacture and installation of engines aboard the U.S. Navy’s first diesel-powered ship. It was a ship, the oiler Maumee, which he would later command and use for the early development of underway replenishment for the Navy. As he supervised the construction, Nimitz was approached by American firms who had learned he was the Navy’s leading diesel engine expert. The young officer was offered incredible sums to leave the service and assume an executive role in industry. At one point a company from St. Louis told him he could write his own ticket, offering him nearly a blank check. But Nimitz turned them all down. He knew the education and training he gained through his experience in Germany was important to the future of the Navy, and he believed the Navy would recognize it eventually. It was one of the many experiences that prepared him to command the Pacific Theater in World War II.

Career Intermission: Retrospect and Prospect

Today, the idea of taking a break from service has been cast as a modern and creative solution to the talent management issues of the 20th century. However, the furlough or leave of absence actually has a long and important history in the Navy. Historian Christopher McKee has shown that it extends all the way back to the formative years of the service. His research demonstrated that in the first fifteen years of the Navy’s existence “between one-fifth and one-quarter of the navy’s officers were furloughed to gain career-related experience.” And it wasn’t just the Navy. In the 19th century, the Army also offered furloughs to officers who were in search of new experiences or knowledge.

Our modern discussion of career intermissions tends to focus on the talent management concepts of work-life-balance, personal agendas, or family considerations. This is unfortunate because throughout American military history career intermissions have been used to educate and develop officers in order to make them better at their profession. The examples provided by Farragut, Sims, and Nimitz show how some of our most accomplished combat leaders and strategic admirals benefited from their own career intermissions. But these examples also show how the Navy benefited by sending the young officers into the world to develop themselves, which resulted in more professional leadership, tactical innovation, and technological development for the service.

Career intermission programs are inexpensive for the military to run, but the benefits accrued from returning service members with greater experience, leadership ability, and knowledge should be seen as a great opportunity and potential force multiplier. There is always a chance that someone on an intermission might be tempted not to return. However, with the right administrative management and incentives in place the small amount of attrition that programs like these might generate is tolerable. And the future greats, like Nimitz, will stick around.

There are a growing number of voices calling for reform to the military personnel system, and these voices come from across the spectrum of experience and seniority. As political leaders consider changes to the laws that govern this system, it is important to remember our history. If they were made permanent and expanded, the talent management options created by career intermissions could help provide the educated, professional, and adaptive military that successfully faced the challenges of our past.


BJ Armstrong is a naval officer and PhD Candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. His second book, 21stCentury Sims: Innovation, Education and Leadership for the Modern Era, was released in February by the Naval Institute Press. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery