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Curtis D. Wilbur


When the USS CURTIS WILBUR was commissioned fourteen years ago, the Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer was among the most powerful class of destroyers ever put to sea. The ship was named in honor of Curtis Dwight Wilbur, the forty-third Secretary of the Navy.

Born in Boonesboro, Iowa in 1867, as a teenager, the Wilbur family moved to Jamestown, Dakota Territory. Standing over 6 feet tall, Curtis Wilber not only excelled in athletics at Jamestown High, but also academics. Edward P. Wells, a family friend and the namesake of Wells County, suggested that Curtis pursue an appointment to the US Naval Academy.

When he entered Annapolis in 1884, Curtis Wilbur became the first person from Dakota Territory to receive a military academy appointment. However after graduating third in his class, with few commissions to go around, Wilbur resigned and followed his family to California where he studied law.

Admitted to the bar in 1890, over the next two decades Wilbur rose from Los Angeles Deputy Assistant District Attorney to Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. Here he gained a reputation of unquestionable integrity. Wilbur was just the kind of man President Calvin Coolidge needed to fill the Naval Secretary position following the Teapot Dome Scandal. Curtis D. Wilbur was sworn in as Secretary of the Navy on this day, March 19, 1924.

Wilbur inherited a Navy at a low point in everything from money to morale. Cuts in Naval Academy appointments and funding left most fleets operating at vastly reduced manning levels. Lack of training resulted in several accidents at sea, some with fatal results.

For the next five years, Wilbur pushed Congress to better fund and maintain an operational naval fleet, argued for increased cruiser strength, promoted the importance of naval education and instituted aviation courses at Annapolis.

While Curtis Wilbur lost many of his battles with Congress, under his watch, Navy morale heightened. Desertions dropped from over 3,000 to less than 1,000 and reenlistments increased by 22%. He encouraged public interest in naval affairs through projects like having school children contribute to saving “Old Ironsides”, the USS Constitution. His actions and proposals laid the foundation for a large, modernized fleet and a powerful naval air force. In the words of recent Navy Secretary John Dalton, “Secretary Wilbur persisted and got naval aviation off the ground… [W]e won World War Two, particularly the war in the Pacific, in large measure due to our naval aviation capability. Without Wilbur’s vision and his dogged persistence in the early 1920’s to fund an emerging technology, the result might have been catastrophic.”

Written by Christina Sunwall


Eriksmoen, Curt. Did You Know That…? 47 Fascinating Stories About People Who Have Lived in NORTH DAKOTA: Volume 1 (McCleery & Sons Publishing; 2006)

Hammond Jr., James W. The Treaty Navy: The Story of the US Naval Service Between the World War. (Trafford Publishing; 2006)

US Navy: USS Curtis Wilbur-