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Joseph H. Wellings papers

Identifier: MSC-003

Scope and Contents

The collection is divided into four series: correspondence, speeches and writings, subject files, and miscellany. A majority of materials are unclassified; however, several boxes relating to negotiations over U.S. Base Lease Agreements with the West Indies Federation, 1957–1960, are classified. Researchers must have a bona fide security clearance to examine the latter. Unclassified portions of this material are in the main collection.

Series I, correspondence, consists of both official and personal letters sent and received. The official sector contains U.S. Navy orders, accounts, travel vouchers, promotions, and commendations along with intelligence reports submitted as an observer of the Royal Navy, 1940–1941. In addition, there are several cartons of correspondence and messages relating to negotiations with the West Indies Federation over U.S. Lease Agreements at the naval base at Chaguaramas, Trinidad. The bulk of the correspondence, however, contains Wellings’ personal letters to his wife during his active naval service. They focus on major commands and aspects of his career, including his witnessing of the sinking of the Bismarck aboard the Rodney, 1940–1941; his command of USS Strong during WWII operations in the Solomon Islands, 1943; and destroyer operations in the Pacific, 1944–1945. In addition, a small segment focuses on his personal business affairs. The collection contains some, but not all, of the letters received from Mrs. Wellings, as well as staff correspondence when he served as Commandant of the First Naval District.

Series II, writings and speeches, comprises three boxes of materials. The writings segment treats Wellings’ observations on the sinking of the Bismark and the Strong, as well as his service as an attaché in Great Britain, 1940–1941. Included are memories of Pearl Harbor, Admiral William T. Halsey, and the Vietnam War. Speeches form the second segment and cover a forty-year period. Many of them were of an official nature and were given while Wellings was Commander of the Newport Naval Base and Commandant of the First Naval District, 1953–1955, 1962–1963; on the Joint Chiefs staff, 1952; and involved in negotiations over U.S. bases in the Caribbean, 1957–1958.

Subject files, series III, contain correspondence, naval messages, memoranda, reports, writings, Navy publications, and journals and lists dealing with significant aspects of his naval career. Especially important for the researcher are materials relating to battleships, 1925–1929; the Battle Force, 1935–1938, when Wellings served as aide to Admiral William D. Leahy; his service in England as naval observer and assistant naval attaché, 1940–1941; Pacific operations in World War II; the postwar Naval Reserve; the naval base at Newport, and the First Naval District, 1953–1955, 1962–1963; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1952; and negotiations over U.S. bases in the Caribbean, 1957–1958.

The last segment of the Wellings collection contains miscellaneous materials relating to his career. Included are pamphlets and books, certificates, news releases and newspaper clippings, official biographical materials, family and career photographs, and sound recordings and tapes, several of which treat with the sinking of the Bismarck. Two scrapbooks documenting his Naval Academy years and his time as a naval attaché in Great Britain, 1940–1941, are part of this series.


  • Creation: 1921-1983


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Access is open to all researchers, unless otherwise specified.

Conditions Governing Use

Material in this collection is in the public domain, unless otherwise noted. Some material in this collection is Classified and requires a security clearance to access.

Biographical note

Joseph H. Wellings was born on April 23, 1903, in Boston, Massachusetts, to John A. and Bridget G. Sullivan Wellings. One of four brothers, all of whom became rear admirals in the U.S. Navy, he attended the Samuel Adams School, Boston Latin School, and the English High School, all in Boston, before his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1921. There he participated in many sports and won the Daughters of the American Revolution sword for excellence in practical seamanship.

After graduating from the Academy in 1925, he first served in the battleship USS Utah(BB 31)and then in USS Florida (BB 30) until 1929. After a tour of duty aboard the destroyers USS King (DD 242) and USS Tillman (DD 135), he was assigned to the Harvard University Reserve Officers Training Corps Unit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At that time he enrolled as a special student at the Harvard Law School.

In 1935, Admiral William D. Leahy, Commanding Officer, Battleships, Battle Force, selected Wellings as his aide and flag lieutenant. He continued in this capacity when Leahy assumed command of the Battle Force in 1936. Before transferring to USS California (BB 44) as senior watch officer, he returned to Boston, where on January 23, 1937, he married Dorothea K. Bertelsen. Their only child, a daughter, Anne, was born in Washington, D.C., in 1938, when he served on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations.

By 1940, the war in Europe was already a year old, and Britain stood alone and besieged by Hitler’s war machine. During that summer, Wellings was sent to England as an observer of the British Home Fleet, with additional duty as assistant naval attaché in London. Interested in the operational aspects of the Royal Navy’s forces, he served as operations officer in HMS Rodney during the search for and sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. Later he wrote an unpublished manuscript describing those events.

Returning to the United States in June 1941, he served briefly on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations before a three-month assignment with the Fleet Training Division. Appointed commanding officer of USS Strong (DD 467), he prepared the ship for commissioning at the Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, in August 1942. The Strong was involved in convoy operations in the Caribbean and Atlantic before participating in the Casablanca invasion. Assigned to the Pacific, the ship saw action in the Solomon Islands, where she was hit by a Japanese torpedo and sank on the night of July 4–5, 1943, off New Georgia. Wellings courageously stayed with his ship as she went down and was seriously injured when her depth charges exploded. As a result, he spent the next six months in the hospital.

Wellings returned to destroyer commands in March 1944, when he assumed command of Destroyer Division One Hundred and Twenty. Transferred to Destroyer Squadron Two, he again saw action in the Pacific at Lingayen Gulf, the Philippine Islands, in January 1945. Five months before the war’s end, he returned to the United States to an assignment with the Bureau of Personnel. For the next year and one half he was involved in establishing policy for the postwar Naval Reserve and in transferring naval reservists to the regular navy.

From 1946 to 1948 he was a student and a staff member in international relations at the National War College in Washington, D.C. After a year as Assistant Chief of Staff for Plans on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, he returned to sea as commanding officer of USS Columbus (CA 74), flagship of Commander, Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, with duty in the Mediterranean with the Sixth Fleet.

While serving in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Personnel, he was promoted to rear admiral on May 1, 1953. He assumed command of the naval base in Newport, RI, in that rank, with additional duty as Commander, First Naval District.

In the autumn of 1955, he was appointed Navy representative to Joint Task Force Seven and Commander, Task Group Seven Point Three. The task forces conducted atomic tests under the code name “Operation Redwing” on Eniwetok and Bikini Atolls in the Marshall Islands. Wellings was commended for his participation by the Secretary of the Navy. A year as Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Plans and Policy was followed by four years as Vice Director, Joint Staff, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both of these posts involved him in delicate negotiations with representatives of the West Indies Federation over United States Base Lease Agreements at the naval base in Chaguaramas, Trinidad.

RADM Wellings’ last assignment was Commandant of the First Naval District and commanding officer of the naval bases at Boston, Massachusetts, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He suffered a stroke in March 1963, while vacationing in Trinidad, and retired on August 1, 1963. He and Mrs. Wellings resided on Victoria Avenue in Newport, RI. Their daughter, Mrs. F. P. Heffelfinger, Jr., lives in the Dominican Republic. Admiral Wellings died on March 31, 1988.

The admiral’s medals include the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Gold Star, the Purple Heart, the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the European– African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, and the Expert Pistol Shot Medal. He was a member of the USNA Athletic Association, the USNA Alumni Association, the Navy League, Seaport ’76, the Newport Historical Society, the Preservation Society of Newport County, and Redwood Library, and was an honorary member of Quindecim.

Chronology of Naval Service note

Graduated, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD; Commissioned Ensign; USS Utah (BB 31).
USS Florida (BB 30).
USS King (DD 242).
USS Tillman (DD 135).
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Reserve Officers Training Corps Unit, Attached; Promoted to Lieutenant.
Commander, Battleships, Battle Force, Aide and Flag Lieutenant to CO, ADM William D. Leahy.
Commander, Battle Force, Aide and Flag Lieutenant to CO; USS California (BB 44).
Navy Department, Office of Chief of Naval Operations, Staff.
Promoted to Lieutenant Commander.
Assistant Naval Attaché, American Embassy, London, England, and Observer with the Royal Navy; Navy Department, Office of Chief of Naval Operations.
Headquarters, CIC, U.S. Fleet, Staff.
USS Strong (DD 467), CO.
July 20, Promoted to Captain.
Anti-Submarine Warfare Unit, Fleet Operational Training Command, Atlantic Fleet, Staff, Destroyer Division 120, CO.
Destroyer Squadron Two, CO.
Navy Department, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Staff.
National War College, Student; Staff Member.
Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, Assistant Chief of Staff for Plans.
USS Columbus (CA 74), CO.
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower and Personnel), Staff; Promoted to Rear Admiral.
Naval Base, Newport, RI, CO.
First Naval District, Commandant.
Task Group 7.3, Joint Task Force 7, Naval Representative.
Navy Department, Naval Operations (Plans and Policy), Assistant Chief of Naval Operations.
Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Staff, Vice Director.
First Naval District, Commandant.
1963 Aug 1
Retired from the Navy.


13.35 Linear Feet (32 boxes)


This collection consists of materials regarding Wellings’ assignment as U.S. observer of the British Home Fleet, including his reminiscences of the sinking of the Bismarck in May 1941, as well as correspondence, writings, speeches, subject files, and other documentation relating to his naval career.


The collection is divided into four series:

  • Series 1. Correspondence
  • Series 2. Speeches and Writings
  • Series 3. Subject Files
  • Series 4. Miscellany

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers of RADM Joseph H. Wellings were presented to the Naval War College Foundation for deposit in the Naval Historical Collection in two separate accessions: the first, in 1977, consisted of materials regarding Wellings’ assignment as U.S. observer of the British Home Fleet, including his reminiscences of the sinking of the Bismarck in May 1941; and the second, in 1980, was composed of correspondence, writings, speeches, subject files, and miscellany relating to his naval career. Both RADM and Mrs. Wellings, the donors, felt that these materials would be of interest to naval history scholars and would be particularly well placed in the archives of the Navy’s senior educational institution. Additional manuscripts were presented in 1987, 1989, and 2005.

Related Materials

  • RG 15, NWC Lectures, Naval War College
  • Wellings, J.H. Briefing on the Naval Base, August 11, 1955, 21pp.
  • Hattendorf, John B. (ed.) On His Majesty’s Service: Observations of the British Home Fleet from the Diary, Reports, and Letters of Joseph H. Wellings, Assistant U.S. Naval Attaché, London, 1940–41. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1983.

Joseph H. Wellings papers1921-1983
Dacs Finding Aid
Register prepared by Evelyn Cherpak, 2012.
2018 Feb 27
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Naval War College Archives Repository

US Naval War College
686 Cushing Rd
Newport RI 02841 US