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Men, Ships, and the Sea by Alan John…

Men, Ships, and the Sea (1962)

by Alan John Villiers

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Story of Man Library

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This is a really cool older book about the history of man's relationship with the sea. I think it is a book any young boy would love to read.
  kerryp | Nov 30, 2017 |
Development of ships from earliest times, Part of National Geographic's "The story of Man library"
  Mapguy314 | Mar 10, 2016 |
Men, Ships, and the Sea

by Capt. Allan Villiers
and other adventurers on the sea

National Geographic Society, Hardback, 1973.

4to. 436 pp. New Edition. 423 illustrations, 294 in colour, including 18 maps. Foreword by Melville Bell Grosvenor [7-8]. Endpapers "The Anatomy of a Sailing Ship" and "The Anatomy of a Steamship". Index [430-34].

First published, 1962.
New edition, 1973.


Man Learns to Sail
Man’s First Brave Ventures on the Water
[Old World to New: The Voyage of Ra II]
On the Nile and the Mediterranean
Athenians Stem the Persian Tide at Salamis
Resurrecting a Greek Ship 2,300 years old [Michael Katzev]
The Arab Dhow
The Chinese Junk
[People of the Sampan]
Viking Longships: Scourge of the Seas
Medieval Mariners Enrich Coasts with Commerce
Sunset of the Galleys

He Discovers New Worlds
Henry the Navigator, Prince of Explorers
Vasco da Gama, Pathfinder to the Indies
Columbus: Westward to a New World
Magellan’s Victoria Girdles the Globe
The Search for a Northwest Passage
Elizabethan Sea Dogs Defy the Might of Spain
[Naval Science Replaces Rules of Thumb]
Warship Vasa: Ghost from the Deep [Anders Franzén]

He Turns Oceans into Highways
Stately East Indiamen Ply the Spice Routes
Sailing Mayflower II Across the Atlantic
Captain Cook and the Seagoing Clock
The Bounty: Mutiny in the South Seas [Luis Marden]
War at Sea in the Age of Nelson
[Evolution of the Shipborne Gun]
[Seaman’s Life in Days of Sail]
Fighting Ships for a Young Nation
[Birth of a Navy]

He Perfects His Ships
Yankee Merchants Tap China Trade
The Great Chase for the Whale
The Quest for Speed
Rounding the Horn in a Square-Rigged Ship
[Rocks and Gales Took Their Tragic Toll]
Summer Cruise on a School Ship
“See How She Scoons!”

He Employs the Power of Steam
The Steam Engine Takes to the Water
“Steamboat A-Comin’!” [John J. Putman]
Dreadnoughts and Blue Riband Liners [James Dugan]
[The Battle of Tsushima]
World War II: A Sailor’s Story
Today’s Navy: In the Air, Under the Sea [Thomas Y. Canby]
[Oceanauts Probe the Undersea World]
Tankers, Freighters, and the Luxury Fleet [Merle Severy]
Peaceful Atom Joins Merchant Marine
[Tomorrow’s Travel in Ships That Fly]
Keeping the Sea Safe [Philip M. Swatek]
[Lonely Sentinel: The Lighthouse]
The Frozen Frontier
[Sturdy Ships Against the Stubborn Ice]

Man Sails Again for Pleasure
A Classic Ocean Race: Newport to Bermuda [Carleton Mitchell]
The Golden Age of Yachting [Edwards Park]
Around the World in 1,739 Days: A Teenager Sails Alone [Robin Lee Graham]
[Lone Adventurers Challenge the Sea]
Small Boating: Everybody’s Sport [Carleton Mitchell]

Maritime museums, other famous ships you can see, acknowledgments

*In square brackets: other contributors. They are usually credited in the short prefatory notes supplied by the editors. Wherever necessary, I have used internal evidence and online research to discover the identity of the author. Titles in square brackets are brief essays on sundry topics which do appear in the book but are not mentioned in its ToC. They offer many a charming glimpse in the back alleys of history, so they are listed here.


This massive hardback, part of The Story of Man library, fully lived up to my high expectations. It is well written and stupendously illustrated. For a single volume, though a heavy one, a lot of ground is covered: from flimsy rafts and inflated hides to sailing, steam-powered and even atomic ships. It is easy to complain about omissions and lack of depth. It is mightily stupid, too. The book is intended as a brief and lavishly illustrated introduction to a huge subject. Within these deliberate limitations, it is perfect. War, commerce, expansion, exploration, sport, leisure: seas and ships have been used for all those purposes from time immemorial. This book will tell you a great deal about all of them – and then some.

The illustrations are, of course, the chief glory of this book. If the Foreword by Melville Bell Grosvenor, Editor-in-Chief, is to be believed, more than 100,000 pictures were studied before the final 423 were selected and Merle Severy, the Editor, was led to “museums, maritime exhibits, libraries, galleries, and private collections in more than 20 countries.” I can well believe it. Internet didn’t exist back then, after all. Perhaps it is worth noting that Messrs Severy and Grosvenor were experienced mariners themselves. Mr Severy had, indeed, served in the merchant marine and contributed a fine chapter on “Tankers, Freighters, and the Luxury Fleet”.

The variety of illustrations is staggering. Contemporary and historic photographs range from quiet dry docks to terrifying storms at sea, from the crowded harbour of New York to the crowded beach at Normandy, and from ships sinking in flames to ballistic missiles flying in the sky. Reproductions of paintings in full colour are equally diverse: from portraits of kings, queens and explorers to massive battles and fishing adventures, including the two whale scenes described by Melville in chapter 56 of Moby Dick. Original artwork produced especially for this volume includes a number of helpful maps and detailed paintings. Quite apart from their value as illustrations, many of the photos, especially the ones by the NG staff, are works of art in their own right.

The selection is impeccable. There is hardly a type of ship mentioned in the text which is not shown in all of its glory. The variety, again, is overwhelming: canoes, dhows, junks, galleys, caravels, galleons, frigates, sloops, barks, brigs, schooners, clippers, whalers, yachts, yawls, liners, tankers, freighters, battleships, icebreakers, hovercraft, submarines, paddle-wheelers, bathyscaphs, destroyers, cruisers, gunboats, aircraft carriers, Viking longships, East Indiamen. You name it! The captions are extensive, relevant and – always a sign of careful preparation – contain very few repetitions with the main text and a good deal of additional information.

The endpapers deserve a few words of their own. They perform the role of a nautical glossary. Heavily annotated drawings of the clipper Young America (built in New York City, 1853; reported missing in 1886) and the cargo passenger liner Mormacpride (built in Chester, PA, 1960) give you a wonderful opportunity to acquaint yourself with a number of nautical terms at a glance. This is particularly helpful in the case of the sailing ship. The complex rigging system is quite incomplete, of course, but all sails and many parts of the masts and the hull are noted. It is a good idea to become familiar with foresails, topsails, topgallants, royals, skysales, staysails, jibs, spankers, gaffs, yards and other esoteric terms like these. They are mentioned countless times in the text and it helps a lot to know exactly what they are. For the rest, use Wikipedia.

Messrs Severy, Grosvenor and everybody involved in the picture research for this book did a fantastic job indeed!

So did Captain Alan Villiers (1903–1982), evidently the right man to write the text. He was born Australian, but seas and sailing made him a citizen of the world. He was everywhere, he sailed everything: around the world he sailed his own ship, Joseph Conrad; across the Atlantic he sailed Mayflower II; along the East Coast of Africa he sailed an Arab dhow; off the Brazilian coast he sailed a jangada; he even sailed on a square-rigger around Cape Horn; some of these adventures, including a number of photos[1], found a place in this book, too. On the top of all that, Captain Villiers was a prolific writer whose bibliography about “men, ships, and the sea” includes more than 40 (!) books. During the 50s and 60s, he contributed a number of maritime articles to NG and was the obvious choice for a commission of a longer text on the subject. He writes well, adroitly mixing personal experience with historical research. He is not afraid of being poetic about his beloved ships (i.e. the galleys in ancient Greece: “oar blades flashing wet in the golden sunshine, spray curling white along the powerful ram, large sail swelling in the soft, warm breeze”) and he has a keen eye for telling details. He is an evocative and witty raconteur, entertaining and easy to read. Consider the opening and the concluding paragraphs of “The Arab Dhow” as a representative example of his style:

Pariah dogs barked themselves hoarse and Arab sailors and stevedores eyed me with interest as I walked along the harbor of Maala one October morning not so many years ago. I had come to Aden to sail back into the past, to ship out with the Arabs in their ancient dhows.

Friends had arranged for me to sail first in a small Red Sea dhow with graceful lines and a single big cotton sail. But when I found the
nakhoda (captain), he shouted to all and sundry that his ship had no comforts for such a softy as I – nor even a cabin.

“Look here,” I said, “don’t you worry about me. I’m a sailor.” A sailor? A foreigner in a white suit? Laughter swept the wharf. At last I persuaded him and signed aboard.


Bayan’s voyage took nine months, covered about 10,000 miles, and netted each sailor about $50. I learned something about the ancient lateen sail – a wonderful puller on the wind, a powerful driver before it.

I learned something about Arab sailors, too. When we struggled into port they did not rush off the ship. They sat down and made themselves a cup of coffee. Only later, with dignity and peace of mind, did they go ashore. I liked that.

I don’t think the value of the text as a historical overview should be underestimated, either. It’s a common practice, while praising NG’s stunning visual presentation, to dismiss their text as superficial and misleading. I don’t think it is. Brief and confined to basic facts it is, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as superficial. Of course, there are no notes, not even a bibliography, but I doubt the historical facts presented are very inaccurate. Nor do I think they are very dated more than forty years later. For my part, the text is informative and even thought-provoking. Just one curious fact among many that impressed me was the casual mention that around 600 BC the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa from east to west. The caption repeats that, but then adds, significantly, that the feat was “not duplicated for 21 centuries.” Though not entirely accurate (the Portuguese explorers from the late fifteenth century sailed around Africa from west to east), the statement is basically correct and it makes you appreciate anew the maritime achievements of the Phoenicians. Such bits distinguish the texts of National Geographic from the run-of-the-mill boring-as-textbook variety of history.

Captain Villiers has a special way of bringing history to life. He describes some of the great sea battles of history, notably the ones at Salamis, Lepanto and Trafalgar, with great vividness. He is totally convincing that they are the ultimate proof of “the importance of sea warfare in the fate of nations.” He is often able to infuse his narrative with drama and suspense that are normally the province of fiction writers. The first voyage of Columbus, heading into the terrifying Unknown week after week, and the heroic attempts of the Portuguese to sail around Africa, and against their superstitious fears, are just two memorable examples. Nor is Captain Villiers afraid of arguing with the experts. “Some scholars doubt this voyage”, he says about the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa, and then concludes: “As a sailing ship seaman, I don’t.”

History is a highly speculative science. Despite his limited space, Captain Villiers discretely indulges in some speculation. This is a dangerous practice, for it easily degenerates into conspiracy theories, but I am pleased to say our Captain uses it sparingly. When he relates the “standard story” of Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to reach the yet-to-be-named-so Cape of Good Hope in 1488, with a 13-day gale (“I don’t believe that”) that “blew him southwards against the prevailing winds”, Captain Villiers speculates that Dias might have had some “prior knowledge” about the Cape’s currents and winds, possibly by another captain whose name has been lost in the “conspiracy of silence” practiced by the Portuguese at the time. This is an interesting, if not very credible, hypothesis. Much more interesting is the case of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage. After he reached the end of West Africa, how did he know to turn, not southeastward along the African coast, but southwestward towards the ocean? It meant some 3,500 miles of open sea more to sail! The decision must have seemed crazy to his crew. But, of course, it wasn’t. Vasco da Gama thus avoided almost completely the notoriously windless “horse latitudes”[2] and came “astonishingly close to what became the classic sailing route to the East”, namely one that nearly touches South America before heading east-southeast for the Indian Ocean. Either da Gama had knowledge of Atlantic currents which, so far as we know, nobody possessed at that time, or he had a hunch, an inspiration, call it what you will, which borders on magic.

Having said all that, I must add that Captain Villiers is somewhat idealistic. He tends to gloss over some of the unpleasant sides of his heroes. However much we may admire the courage of Columbus to brave the Atlantic when it was the ultimate frontier, and even if we assume that he was not really a fool but had simply been misled by others, it is scarcely mentioned that he was a gold seeker and a slave trader. The atrocities of Portuguese colonisation in the Indian Ocean are likewise badly neglected.[3] With but very few exceptions, all great voyages of exploration were driven by very obnoxious motives indeed! These ranged from desire for wealth to passion for exploitation that easily turned into genocide.[4] Certain amount of glamorising is to be expected in this kind of book, and one should keep an open mind. It must never be forgotten that this is only a starting point, not an end in itself. Facts and especially speculations should be confirmed by independent sources. Different points of view should be considered and accepted or rejected on the strength of the available evidence; if such is lacking, suspension of judgment, however difficult, must be practiced. This is true, by the way, of every historical study, no matter how thoroughly documented.

A gentle dose of irreverent sense of humour does something to redress the balance. If I have given the impression that Captain Villiers is fond of rose-coloured glasses, I have done him an injustice. He is aware of the dark (under)currents of history. When he describes the pompous ceremony that was performed every year in Venice for some five centuries, with the stately galley Bucentaur majestically sailing at the port and the Doge solemnly proclaiming “We wed thee, O sea, in token of our true and perpetual dominion!”, Captain Villiers observes with a wry smile that “all the fine pageantry and martial music could not disguise the fact that this was a marriage of convenience. Venetian convenience. The “love” was a one-sided love of profit that came from “dominion” over the sea.” It is doubtful that the Captain wrote the captions himself, but one of them well summarises Columbus’ motives with a neat alliteration as “God, gold, and glory”. Captain Villiers, in one of his lyrical digressions during which he enters the heads of his “characters”, agrees about the greed and vanity of Columbus:

Soon he must arrive in the fabulous East, and Europe would have new access to the riches of Asia. He would be Admiral of the Ocean Sea, supreme governor of all those lands, a don of Spain. An eight of all the profits from his discoveries would be his and his family’s forever. Glittering prizes!

Finally, a word or two about those “other adventurers on the sea”, authors of altogether eleven chapters, or some one fourth of the book. Many of these vivid accounts of personal experience relate events after 1962, so they must have been added for this “New Edition”. Two of them deal with the ever-fascinating subject of discovering and salvaging shipwrecks, in these cases a Greek ship from the fourth century BC which sank near Cyprus and the Swedish galleon Vasa which famously capsized and foundered on her maiden voyage just off the Stockholm harbour. I found the essays on yachting less captivating than the rest, but I guess people seriously interested in this wonderful form of recreation might think otherwise. The exception is Mr Graham’s round-the-world journey alone on a yacht. He started as a 16-year-old teenager, took his time across the oceans, and completed the voyage five years later, including his marriage and honeymoon. He became, and still remains, the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe and his story has become well-known, not least because it was serialised in NG at the time. Mr Graham wrote a book and even a feature movie was made about his achievement, but the concise and lavishly illustrated account here holds up quite well nearly fifty years later.

My favourites from this group are Mr Marden’s brief but superb account of the timeless story of Bounty and Mr Severy’s love affair with tankers. Mr Marden did a lot more than summarising the most notorious mutiny of all time. In 1957, he visited Pitcairn Island, lived for a while among the 153 islanders (55 of them with the family name “Christian”, presumably descendants of Fletcher), and even tried to find some traces of the ship on the ocean’s bottom. The last activity was largely unsuccessful, but the other two yielded interesting results. Among his photographs, there are several which feature the replica of the ship built for Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), the tropical extravaganza with Marlon Brando.

Mr Severy served as a purser on the USS Mascoma, a T-2 tanker 523 feet long, for 14 months after WWII. He was handsomely paid, too. After his first journey from Norfolk, Virginia, to just a couple of miles off Bahrein, he was paid $36,690.74 for some two months of leisurely cruising the seas, including a romantic stop for repairs at “Port Said, crossroads of the East!” Years later, probably circa 1970, Mr Severy visited for a much shorter time (only from Ireland to the Canary Islands) the Universe Iran, a monster 1,133 feet in length and with the mind-numbing deadweight of 326,933 tons (for comparison, Mascoma’s deadweight was less than 17,000 tons). This is big even by today’s standards: in the early 1970s it must have been staggering. Mr Severy concluded that, for all technical advances in navigation, not only hadn’t the human factor been eliminated, but the crews had remained essentially the same international groups of quirky characters, the quirkiness being inversely proportional to the port time. An incurable romantic with a prodigious sense of humour, Mr Severy is a great fun to read and a fine choice to quote at the end:

If you really want to get the feel of how big a Universe tanker is, you might try going down a ladder over the side of one into a bobbing launch. When she’s riding high in ballast. Off Africa in the dead of night.

That’s the way I ended my recent voyage aboard the
Universe Iran, largest ship in the world when she was launched. The 1970’s have seen larger, but the Iran’s 326,933 deadweight tons and 1,133-foot length are big enough for me. Her deck could swallow three football fields. From keel to flying bridge she’s as tall as a 15-story building.

Not long ago a 523-foot tanker of 16,500 tons – a T-2 – was considered a good-sized ship. No more; 1970 saw ships 20 times her tonnage; 1973 marks the debut of 500,000-tonners; and a million-tonner, half a mile long, is on the drawing boards.

Why this gigantism? It cost roughly half as much to transport Persian Gulf oil to Europe by such mammoths, plying the old explorers’ route round the Cape of Good Hope, than by smaller ships over the vulnerable Suez route, 6,000 miles shorter.


[On the Mascoma:]
The captain, deeply tanned and built like a wrestler, fixed on me a noncommittal stare, then wrapped his fist around mine.

“You will like this ship, Bob,” he said in a thick Norwegian accent. (To the captain, all pursers were “Bob.”)


The eyes of a windjammer sailor would pop at the quarters those men took as a matter of course. Our forecastle was aft – one to four men to a cabin – airy, clean, steam-heated, with fresh linen supplied by the steward. At supper my thoughts of the good old days of hardtack and salt horse were interrupted by the messman at my elbow: “How would you like your steak?”

Officers and crew ate the same food, prepared in the spick-and-span galley between the two messrooms. We had fresh fruits and vegetables, juices, eggs, fresh-baked bread and pies. But we did run out of ice cream – the crew raided the freezers too often.


The captain was loath to let a little thing like time get in the way of a farewell drink. We boarded about ten minutes after 12. The pilot had gone; our next turn for the passage was at 3 a.m. The captain swore mightily. He told me to come ashore with him. To make a protest, he said with a wink.

Soulless ships run with cold efficiency on strict timetables? In a pig’s eye. But we did manage to leave at three.


The junior third mate enjoyed boasting of his prowess with women. Listening to such waterlogged Romeos, I worked out the first law of tankeromantics: the shorter a man’s port time the taller his stories.


For seven months and 14 days we were on a shuttle run between the Persian Gulf and Japan.
A 7½-month payroll is a frightful thing to contemplate, but I didn’t mind it, for the Pacific miles were going by outside my porthole. I didn’t even mind a seaman’s interrupting for a handful of aspirin. “Got a headache?” I asked.

“Not yet. But I’m going to have a helluva one about this time tomorrow.”

As I watched these men beeline for the gangplank at San Francisco, I knew that that $100,000 would melt away like the piles of jellyfish on the Port Said beach. Soon many would be back aboard a tanker making their unsung runs from nowhere to nowhere.


[On the Universe Iran:]
This mighty ship met and rode the open ocean at 15 knots as calmly as Capt. Alex Smith commanded his polyglot crew. Fifty-three men of 13 far-flung nations manned this Japanese-built, U.S.-operated ship on long-term lease to Gulf Oil, flying the Liberian flag and emblazoned on the stern with “Monrovia,” a home port she’ll never enter.


Deck hands send my gear down by rope to the launch coming alongside far below.

Perhaps I paused a moment overlong before swinging over the rail onto that ladder. Through the dark came Oskar Zimmerman’s
[the captain] reassuring: “Show them you’re a seaman.”

Arthur Clarke once said that “one could write a history of the world whose chapter headings were the names of ships; such a roll call would include Santa Maria, Golden Hind, Endeavour, Victory, Beagle, Great Eastern, Monitor, Nautilus.”[5] Captain Villiers has done something very much like that, even though he was obliged to pass some of these names with no more than a few brief paragraphs and to change the chapter headings. He was certainly fortunate to have the support of the National Geographic Society.

In the whole of human civilisation, the conquest of water is one of the greatest stories. If you have any interest in it, however superficial, you almost certainly won’t be sorry to add this volume to one of your (stouter) shelves. Maritime historians should, of course, avoid this book, but even they would, I am sure, enjoy greatly the illustrations. The lay reader is in for an entertaining read and an unforgettable feast for the eyes. Old copies are still available at ridiculously low prices. Unless you have an irrepressible aversion to ships and seas, I suggest you use the opportunity. Lovely book!

[1] Wikipedia has a fine collection of photographs by Alan Villiers that testify to his prowess as a photographer. None of them, I think, can be found in the book, but some do come from adventures described therein. Grace Harwar and Parma were square-riggers on which Alan Villiers sailed in 1929 and 1932-33, respectively. The latter adventure is barely mentioned in the text but prominent among the photographs in the chapter “Rounding the Horn in a Square-Rigged Ship”. The situation with the former is the other way round. The first-hand account how Alan Villiers and 12 other crazy sailors, most of them still teenagers, crossed the 15,000 miles from Australia to Ireland on Grace Harwar round the Cape Horn is one of the most harrowing in the whole book. One man was killed in an accident aloft, another went insane and attempted suicide three times, one boy was swept off the deck into the ocean and barely saved in time. This in 1929, on a sailing ship made of steel. The author concludes: “We had survived. But 13 men before the mast? Never again.” Perhaps they should make the next Survivor aboard a sailing ship crossing half the world. Let’s see how many will survive this!
[2] A caption later in the book casually explains the horrifying origins of this phrase. When ships were becalmed in those latitudes, they jettisoned horses to save water!
[3] These are described in graphic detail in a fine Russian book of popular history which has, unfortunately, never been translated into English. The title is В Индийском океане (In the Indian Ocean) and the author is Игорь Можейко (Igor Mozheiko). It was first published in 1977; second edition, corrected, augmented and with a new preface, appeared in 1980. Igor Mozheiko (1934–2003) was much better known as a science fiction writer under the pen name Кир Булычёв (Kir Bulychov), but he was also a historian who specialised in Far Eastern history, particularly medieval history of Burma. His book about the Indian Ocean has a telling subtitle – “Очерки истории пиратства в Индийском океане и Южных морях (XV-ХХ века)” (“Essays on the History of Piracy in the Indian Ocean and the South Seas, XV-XX century”) – but it also goes into considerable detail about the Portuguese colonisation of those lands and seas. It has been translated into German (Am Mast der Totenkopf, 1981), Czech (Pod pirátskou vlajkou, 1983), Bulgarian (В Индийския океан, 1985) and Polish (Rozbójnicy oceanu Indyjskiego, 1989) language. For more information, see here.
[4] James Cook’s First voyage (1768-71) – note how late! – was one of the first expeditions whose primary object was to increase our knowledge of the world, not to conquer, colonise or destroy it. To his credit, Captain Villiers notes this: “This was a new type of expedition – one dedicated primarily to scientific discovery. And it took a new and rare breed of commander – humane, intelligent, thorough, and skilled in navigation and cartography.”
[5] See the essay “Ships for Tomorrow” from the collection Voices from the Sky (1965). ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Aug 19, 2015 |
The book tells a true story of naval evolution, from small boats to beautiful ships. It is very captivating and enjoyable reading companied with powerful pictures. ( )
  PrisonLib | Nov 29, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alan John Villiersprimary authorall editionscalculated
Canby, Thomas Y.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dugan, JamesContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Franzen, AndersContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graham, Robin LeeContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grosvenor, Melville BellForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Katzev, MichaelContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marden, LuisContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mitchell, CarletonContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Park, EdwardsContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Putnam, John J.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Swatek, Phillip M.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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