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From professor Bruce A. Elleman, U.S. Naval War College Museum
Dec. 3, 2012

The fascinating life of Navy Cmdr. Irvin V. Gillis was the topic of the Eight Bells Lecture on Nov. 29, as retired Navy Capt. Vance H. Morrison talked about Gillis’s career from 1894 as a naval officer.

Gillis served with distinction in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and became the first U.S. naval attaché to China in 1907. Gillis left the Navy in 1914, but was recalled in 1917 for a third tour as naval attaché to Beijing.

After retiring for good in 1919, Gillis began working covertly for the U.S. Navy as the chief intelligence officer in China. He married a Chinese princess and spent almost two decades collecting rare Chinese books, now housed at Princeton University.

During World War II, Gillis and his wife were interned by the Japanese occupation forces in the former British legation in Beijing. When the war ended, Gillis elected to remain in China until his death in 1948.

This biographical account of Gillis was based on an unfinished manuscript written over 25 years by Bruce Swanson, author of “Eighth Voyage of the Dragon,” and is entitled, “A Plain Sailorman in China: The Life and Times of Cdr. I.V. Gillis, USN, 1875-1948.”

After Swanson’s death in 2007, the manuscript was revived and completed by Morrison, former U. S. Naval and acting U.S. defense attaché to the People’s Republic of China, Don H. McDowell, former commander of the Naval Security Group Command, and Nancy Norton Tomasko, former editor of the East Asian Library Journal, Princeton University.

The presentation concluded with a lively question and answer period highlighting Gillis’s important contributions as chief intelligence officer, his role in buying rare books, and his experiences during World War II.

On Dec. 6 at noon, strategy and policy professor Joshua Rovner will present his award-winning book, “Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence.” The book explores the complex interaction between intelligence and policy and shines a spotlight on the problem of politicization, citing the major episodes in the history of American foreign policy that have been closely tied to the manipulation of intelligence estimates.

The lectures are brown bag affairs which are free and open to the public. Those without normal base access should call the U.S. Naval War College Museum at 401-841-2101 at least one day in advance.

Edited and posted by Dan Marciniak