The fascinating story of the historian who became a naval intelligence officer

Historians in the News
tags: Britt Zerbe, USS Bataan



History shapes us and lays the foundation of our future. With a doctorate in history and as the assistant intelligence officer aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, Navy Lt. j.g. Britt Zerbe understands this perhaps better than anyone. 

Though he claims Albuquerque, New Mexico, as his hometown, Zerbe said his mother would say he's a gypsy at heart -- a sentiment he embraces.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in history at the University of New Mexico in 2004, Zerbe headed to Japan to teach English for two years. But his journey didn’t stop there. He obtained his master's degree in history from the University of Exeter in Devonshire, England, in 2007, and he was invited to stay and join the doctorate program. He said he happily agreed and completed is Ph.D. in 2010.

Over the next three years, Zerbe spent his time as a professor and a guest lecturer on modern European history -- specifically English history. His love for English naval history led him to author a book about the Royal Marines. 

Zerbe said his favorite moment during his time in England was a visit to the HMS Victory, a warship turned museum, famous for being the flagship of Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar. Although the ship has been dry-docked since 1922, it is the world's oldest naval ship still in commission.

"I actually got to sit and eat where Admiral Nelson did," Zerbe said. "I was sitting between the director of the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the commander of the Victory, Royal Navy Capt. Oscar Wilde. We even ate a typical 18th-century meal like Nelson would have eaten during his time."

Scholar Turns Sailor

This continued passion for history, and especially naval history, helped to influence Zerbe's decision to join the Navy.

The hiring of professors was in an off-season when he returned to the United States in 2013, Zerbe said, so he decided it was a perfect time for a change of direction in life, so he went to speak to a Navy recruiter. With a Ph.D. under his belt, Zerbe was easily accepted and sent to Officer Candidate School for commission as an intelligence officer.

"I use a lot of the same skills I did in the academia world," Zerbe said about his new field. "I take a lot of information and then compress it down for others."

Working in intelligence provides enough variety to keep his "gypsy heart" satisfied, he said. While the basic skills of the job stay the same, he explained, the mission and command requirements affect how they are used.

"The world is always changing," he said. "Because of that, the intelligence world is also always changing and I love that. …You'll never be pigeonholed."

Zerbe will move on to his next command soon, which presents another avenue for him to make use of his background in history and bring the past and present together. He'll be heading to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the nation.

As far as the future is concerned, Zerbe said, his only plan is to do the best he can for as long as he can while in the Navy, adding that he is happy where he is at and plans to serve a full 20 years or more.



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