Morton Tinslar Seligman 1895-1967: A Hero’s Life Subject to Ongoing Questions

Did my cousin Morton Tinslar Seligman leak classified information to a reporter during World War II?

In my last post, I summarized the background to the story of Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston and his article about the Battle of Midway that revealed that the US Navy had had advance knowledge of the names and locations of various Japanese ships, helping the US Navy to secure victory in that battle.  One of the key issues in that story was the question of how Johnston had obtained that information and whether he had obtained it from my cousin, Morton T. Seligman, from a secret dispatch from Admiral Nimitz.  Michael Sweeney and Patrick Washburn’s excellent monograph on this topic, “ ‘Aint Justice Wonderful’ The Chicago Tribune’s Battle of Midway Story and the Government’s Attempt at an Espionage Indictment in 1942,” Journalism & Communication Monographs (2014), provides a thorough and carefully researched analysis of this matter.

As I wrote last time, the first government document mentioned in the Sweeney and Washburn article that names my cousin Morton T. Seligman as a possible source of Johnston’s access to classified information was a July 14, 1942 memorandum to the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Navy by William D. Mitchell, the chief prosecutor for the government’s case against the Tribune and its employees.  Mitchell’s memorandum claimed that two unnamed officers had seen Commander Morton Seligman writing down a list of the Japanese ships located in the area near Midway.  The Mitchell memorandum then noted that Seligman had stated that he did not remember making such a list, but that he might have done so.  Sweeney and Washburn, p. 48.

In their research of this matter, Professors Sweeney and Washburn found that Seligman was also mentioned in files from the Tribune’s own internal investigation, files Sweeney and Washburn obtained from the Tribune and its attorneys, Kirkland and Ellis.  According to Sweeney and Washburn, “only one officer is repeatedly mentioned in its internal investigation documents as being linked to Johnston—Commander Morton Seligman….Aboard the Barnett, the two of them had bunks that opened onto a common room and the Barnett’s mess set up coffee urns there that made it a popular place for men to gather.” Ibid. at 53.

According to Sweeney and Washburn, “[e]xtensive notes in the legal archive [of the Tribune] make it clear that Seligman shared sensitive information with Johnston aboard the Barnett, but memory problems cause by battle injuries on the Lexington may have prevented him from remembering the details.  The memoranda underscore Johnston’s desire to avoid harming the career of any naval officer and they make it clear that he specifically tried to cover for Seligman.”  Ibid., at pp. 53-54.

The Tribune/Kirkland Ellis files contained information indicating that Seligman had called the Tribune at least three times between July 17 and August 11, including twice in the days shortly after his meeting with Mitchell.   The memoranda describing these phone calls, cited as “Dear Howard, Memorandum”  and “Maloney-Seligman Phone Conversation” in the Kirkland and Ellis files, are probably the most damning evidence against Seligman in the Sweeney and Washburn article, albeit quite circumstantial and not originating with Seligman.

In the memoranda describing these phone calls, Seligman is depicted as anxious about the investigation, having been questioned by the Navy and then by the FBI several times in June while he was in the hospital recuperating from his injuries.  He called the Tribune to speak with Johnston, and according to these memoranda, was assured by both a Tribune editor and by Johnston that his name had not been revealed to any of the authorities and that they would protect him.  According to the memoranda, Seligman told the Tribune that he had told the FBI that he could not remember the Nimitz dispatch or any of the other details they were investigating as a result of his injuries and their effect on his memory.  Ibid. at 55.  The impression left is that Seligman had revealed something to Johnston or that he feared he had, but could not remember the details.

A final memorandum from the Kirkland and Ellis files dated August 11 that has no named author or recipient and that does not even name Seligman specifically but refers to “S,” a person who appears to be Seligman, also refers to Seligman’s memory problems and his statement that he neither remembered seeing the Nimitz dispatch nor discussing the planned Japanese attack on Midway.  Sweeney and Washburn at pp.55-56.

The Gothic Revival Tribune Tower in Chicago

The Gothic Revival Tribune Tower in Chicago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the case went to the grand jury in August, 1942, Seligman was one of eight naval officers who testified, but I cannot find anything that describes his testimony or whether he was questioned about the Nimitz dispatch or about providing Johnston with any other information.  On August 19, 1942, the grand jury concluded that there was not enough evidence to indict the Tribune or its employees, and the case was closed.  Ibid., pp. 64-69.

Over 30 years later, a naval officer named Robert E. Dixon, who had been a lieutenant commander aboard the Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea and then had been aboard the Barnett after the battle, apparently confided to a newspaper editor named Robert Mason that Seligman had arranged to have decoded copies of Japanese radio transmissions delivered and that Seligman had regularly shown these messages to Johnston.  Dixon also told Mason that he had seen Johnston taking extensive notes on these decoded messages.  Dixon claimed he did not then immediately report this because Seligman was his superior officer. He claimed, however, that he did disclose all of this to the FBI once Johnston’s Midway story appeared in print.  Ibid., pp. 71-72.

This conversation, revealed by Mason in a letter to the editor in 1982 to a naval publication called Proceedings, is not corroborated by any other document in the FBI files or elsewhere uncovered by Sweeney and Washburn and thus remains a hearsay statement by Mason in 1982 about what he claims he was told by Dixon in 1975 about what Dixon claims he saw Johnston and Seligman doing aboard the Barnett in 1942.  It may in fact be true, but it is hardly very persuasive evidence at this point.  Sweeney and Washburn themselves pose the question in their conclusion:  “Did the FBI and Navy believe Dixon or did they believe Seligman?  Did they know what Seligman had done or merely suspect it?” Ibid., p. 73.  We will probably never know the answer to either question.

There thus remain even now numerous questions about how Johnston got the information and whether Seligman revealed it to him deliberately.  Since Seligman clearly was suffering from memory impairment in June and July of 1942, one has to assume that he was also suffering from some impairment in May while aboard the Barnett.  If he did reveal the information, it might have been due to carelessness resulting from his medical condition.  Even if he revealed it deliberately, it might have been due to some confusion caused by the shock and the injuries he had just suffered.  Johnston, who was apparently known even by the Tribune to have been investigated by several governments in Europe for some questionable behavior as a journalist there before he came to the US, might have taken advantage of Seligman’s trust and his impairments to get this information from him.  Ibid., at pp.18-21.

Another possibility is that Seligman revealed the information to Johnston off the record, assured that Johnston would not reveal it.  One of the quotes from a conversation that Seligman had with Maxwell, a Tribune editor, is consistent with this theory.  According to one of the memoranda from the Kirkland and Ellis files, Maxwell stated that Seligman had said to him, “I told [Stanley Johnston] he’d get me in trouble if he used anything we talked about.” Sweeney and Washburn, p. 55.  Thus, perhaps Seligman had confided in Johnston, but with the express agreement that it was all off the record and not to be disclosed publicly.  Johnston’s disclosure might have been in bad faith or he might have assumed that the Navy censors would block any classified information; it’s not clear whether Johnston knew that the article was not going to be submitted to the Navy for clearance before publication.

Since all the principal actors in the story are no longer alive, all we can do is speculate about the actual events.  I certainly do not know what happened, and I admit to some bias in favor of my long-lost cousin.  But everything else in his record reflects integrity and honor.  He was a man who had already served in the Navy for over twenty years.  He had risked his own life a number of times in the course of that service.  Why would he ever have done anything deliberately that could be seen as a betrayal of the Navy, an institution to which he had devoted his life, and of the United States during wartime?  It makes no sense to me.

US Navy Cruise book from Fold3 dated 1943

From Pinfeather, US Navy Cruise Book (1943) for US Naval Air Station Bunker Indiana, p. 3 , at

After his hospital stay, Morton Seligman continued his naval service.  He was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Peru, Indiana, where he was welcomed as a war hero.  Nothing in the press coverage suggests that there was any public knowledge of the accusations made against him.  (“Captain Seligman Will Command U.S. Navy Base,” The Kokomo Tribune (September 19, 1942), p. 1; “Lexington Officer to Command Air Post,” Washington Evening Star (September 26, 1942), p.13.)

His service there was marked by further heroic efforts.  In May, 1943, there had been a major flood in Kokomo, Indiana, and Commander Seligman was commended for his help in rescuing citizens from th flood waters.  The Kokomo mayor praised his leadership, saying, “The commander and his boys, without sleep or rest, braved the dark and cold throughout many long hours until the job was done.”  (“Flood Rescue Brings Praise for Coronadan,” San Diego Union (June 24, 1943), p. 1, Section B)

Not long after the flood, Seligman must have returned to San Diego where he was assigned to the post of executive officer of the Alameda Naval Air Station in Long Beach, California.   (“Flood Rescue Brings Praise for Coronadan,” San Diego Union (June 24, 1943), p. 1, Section B; photograph, Long Beach Independent, August 31, 1943)

lng beach indep aug 31 1943

Long Beach Independent, August 31, 1943


As of November 1, 1944, he was retired from the Navy and was granted a retirement promotion to Captain.  Morton lived the rest of his life in the San Diego area with his wife Adela.  Morton Tinslar Seligman died from a stroke on July 9, 1967; he was 72 years old.  He was survived by his wife and his mother; he had no children.

Seligman obit

San Diego Union, July 11, 1967, p. A9

When I look back at Morton’s life, I feel a deep sense of sadness.  He was a man who dedicated his life to service and faced incredible dangers; he lost his sister at a young age, he lived far from his family from the time he was 18 years old, and his first marriage ended in divorce.  The Navy must have been the most important part of his life as an adult.  Some might say he got away with leaking classified information; I would say he got away with nothing.  He suffered both physically and professionally after the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The premature end to his military career at age 49 must have been very painful for him.  Since there is no evidence of any malicious intent on his part, I believe that he paid a big price for acts that were perhaps caused by injuries he suffered in the line of duty or by the betrayal or carelessness of a reporter he thought he could trust.  Whatever the truth, he deserved better after his many years of faithful service.

Morton Tinslar Seligman:  A Heroic Career Ending in Accusations and Controversy, Part II

As I wrote last time, my cousin Morton Tinslar Seligman was a naval hero, both in wartime and in peacetime.  He served in World War I, clearing mines from the North Sea and earning a Navy Cross for his efforts.  He risked his life in an attempt to rescue two Navy pilots who were killed in a plane crash during peace time.  He again risked his life during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942, serving as executive officer of the USS Lexington and being among the last two to leave the ship when it was destroyed by the Japanese. For his efforts, he was again recognized by the Navy and was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross.

According to various reports, he also suffered severe injuries in the course of the Coral Sea battle as the Lexington exploded around him.[1]  Stanley Johnston, who would later play a critical role in the events that damaged Seligman’s career, was a reporter who had been aboard the Lexington with him during the battle.  According to an article in the Albuquerque Journal on June 18, 1942, Johnston had written in the Chicago Tribune that Commander Seligman had several times been “blown through open doors and out of scuttle holes like a cork out of a bottle.” (“Commander Morton Seligman of Santa Fe, Lexington Hero,” Albuquerque Journal (June 18, 1942), p. 1.)[2]

English: The Aircraft Carrier USS Lexington on...

English: The Aircraft Carrier USS Lexington on fire during the Battle of Coral Sea, Public domain photo from (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the Lexington sank, Commander Seligman was assigned to two different ships.  First, he was on the USS Astoria as of May 13, 1942. [3]  As of May 16, 1942, he was assigned to the USS Barnett, [4] a ship that also carried the war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune Stanley Johnston, the same reporter who had described Commander Seligman’s heroism aboard the Lexington.[5]  These facts are not disputed and can be seen from the documents depicted below:

Morton Seligman on the USS Barnett National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 - 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 - 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135

Morton Seligman on the USS Barnett
National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 – 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135

Stanley Johnston on the USS Barnett

Stanley Johnston on the USS Barnett

At some point before June 7, Stanley Johnston obtained information revealing that the Navy had been able to decrypt Japanese code and learn the location of various Japanese ships.  Breaking the code had helped the US Navy during the Battle of the Coral Sea, but more importantly, would help during the Battle of Midway, which took place during the first week of June, 1942, one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The Battle of Midway is considered to be one of the most significant battles of World War II and a turning point in the war against the Japanese.  According to the official Naval History and Heritage website, “The Battle of Midway, fought over and near the tiny U.S. mid-Pacific base at Midway atoll, represents the strategic high water mark of Japan’s Pacific Ocean war. Prior to this action, Japan possessed general navalsuperiority over the United States and could usually choose where and when to attack. After Midway, the two opposing fleets were essentially equals, and the United States soon took the offensive.”  One of the key factors leading to the United States’ success in this battle was the Navy’s ability to read Japanese coded communications and learn their strategy and ship locations.[6]

English: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 2, 2011) In commem...

English: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 2, 2011) In commemoration of the Battle of Midway, fought June 4-7, 1942. The U.S. Navy effectively destroyed Japan’s naval strength by sinking four of its aircraft carriers. It is considered one of the most important naval battles of World War II. Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) created posters for a Battle of Midway Remembrance Dinner. (U.S. Navy photo illustration/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


After the Battle of Midway was successfully concluded, Stanley Johnston wrote a first page article for the Chicago Tribune, describing the victory and alluding, albeit somewhat indirectly, to the fact that the Navy had been able to break Japanese coded communications to learn the locations and identity of the Japanese ships.  The Navy and President Roosevelt himself were livid about the fact that the newspaper had revealed this government secret, and an investigation was conducted to bring a legal action based on the 1917 Espionage Act against Johnston, a Tribune editor, and the Tribune itself.  Just as the grand jury was to begin proceedings, however, the Navy decided that it did not want to pursue the matter if doing so would result in more disclosures that would jeopardize the war effort.  Without the critical testimony of Navy witnesses regarding the impact of the disclosure on the US war effort, the case before the grand jury was weakened, and ultimately the grand jury failed to issue an indictment against the Tribune or its employees.[7]

One key question raised during the investigation and afterwards by journalists and naval historians was the question of how Johnston had obtained the information about the Japanese ships and about the code-breaking in the first place.  Many concluded that Commander Seligman had been the source of the information. At least one writer suggested that Seligman had intentionally leaked the information to Johnston; others just concluded that Seligman, whether intentionally or not, had provided Johnston with access to the information.  Whatever their view of his state of mind, the majority of sources concluded that Seligman, whether directly or indirectly, was the key source of Johnston’s information about the code-breaking that revealed the names and locations of the Japanese ships. [8]

USS Barnett

USS Barnett

The most recent and most comprehensive and scholarly analysis of how Johnston obtained the information is in the 2014 article by two Ohio University professors, Michael Sweeney and Patrick Washburn, “ ‘Aint Justice Wonderful’– The Chicago Tribune’s Battle of Midway Story and the Government’s Attempt at an Espionage Act Indictment in 1942,” Journalism & Communication Monograph (2014).  I was very fortunate to be able to obtain a copy of this article from Professor Sweeney and will do my best to summarize their findings regarding Morton Seligman’s role in this matter.  I am not attempting to review all the writings on this issue, but the Sweeney and Patrick article itself summarizes much of the literature and cites to all the important sources, both primary and secondary, and I am largely relying on it though I have read some of the other sources as well.

First, some background: Stanley Johnston, the Tribune’s war correspondent, was “the only journalist at the Battle of the Coral Sea….No American journalist was at the crucial Battle of Midway in the following month.” Sweeney and Washburn, p. 18.  The Navy required any reporter in the war zone to be accredited, which included signing an agreement requiring the reporter to conform to the security regulations regarding what could and what could not be revealed to the public and what had to pass through Navy censors before publication.  Although Johnston did not sign such an agreement because he shipped out on the USS Lexington before he had a chance, no one disputes that he was aware of these restrictions and agreed to follow them. Ibid., p. 21.

As stated above, Seligman was on the Barnett as of May 16, 1942, along with Johnston, and the ship arrived in San Diego on June 2, 1942.  A few days later Johnston was back in Chicago at the Tribune and was there to report on the Battle of Midway, which took place between June 4 and June 7, 1942.  Ibid., p. 22-26.  On June 6, Johnston wrote an article that identified which Japanese ships had been destroyed during the battle, information that was not publicly available according to the Navy, and known by no more than ten men in the Navy.  The Navy became immediately suspicious about Johnston’s knowledge of these facts.  In addition, the headline to the story (apparently written by someone other than Johnston) suggested that the Navy had obtained advance notice of the Japanese battle plans, saying “Navy Had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea.”  The Navy also realized that the Tribune had not submitted the article to the Navy for clearance before publication. Ibid., 27-28.[9]

Chicago Trbune June 7, 1942

Chicago Tribune June 7, 1942

An internal investigation by the Navy led to the discovery that Johnston’s article was strikingly similar to a coded dispatch that Admiral Nimitz had sent to the Navy’s Pacific fleet outlining Japan’s plan to attack Midway and the list of Japanese ships that would be involved in that attack.  Ibid., p. 29.  On June 8, Johnston met with the Navy and was interrogated about his sources.  Johnston insisted that he had learned these facts while on the Lexington and the Barnett just by overhearing conversations among the crew. He denied ever seeing the Nimitz dispatch or any written list of Japanese ships.  After the first meeting, however, Johnston changed his story when he next was questioned by the Navy, claiming that he had found a writing with the list of Japanese ships and had copied it.  He explained why he had not initially admitted this by saying he had not wanted to get any of the brave servicemen aboard the ship into any trouble.  Ibid., pp. 33-34.

Meanwhile, the commanding officer of the Barnett, W.B. Phillips, reported to the Navy that one of the Lexington commanders on the ship told the Barnett’s communications officer that he had been authorized to show decoded messages to Johnston.  Phillips said the Lexington officers had thought that these disclosures were permissible since Johnston had been a witness to the Coral Sea battle and was already familiar with naval operations as a result.  Ibid., pp. 34-35.  The specific officer or officers were apparently not named by Phillips.

The Navy’s investigation was followed by an investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI, as directed by President Roosevelt.  Johnston was interviewed again, this time by William D. Mitchell, Attorney General under Hoover who was appointed by the Attorney General, Nicholas Biddle, to lead the prosecution of the case.  Johnston again insisted that he had obtained the information from conversations on board the ship.  Ibid., p. 45.  He downplayed the importance of the written list of ships that he had mentioned in his second interview with the Navy a month earlier.  Mitchell asked him to explain the striking similarity between his report and the Nimitz dispatch, and Johnston said he had no idea how that happened and denied seeing any secret dispatch.  Mitchell was unpersuaded and believed that Johnston must have seen the Nimitz dispatch.  Ibid., pp.  45-48.


William D. Mitchell, former US Attorney General

In a July 14, 1942 memorandum to the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Navy, Mitchell wrote that two officers, who remain unnamed, saw Commander Morton Seligman working at a table in the quarters he shared with Johnson, writing down a list of the Japanese ships.  The Mitchell memorandum then noted that Seligman stated that he did not remember making such a list, but that he might have done so.  Ibid., p. 48.  This is the first mention of Seligman in the Sweeney and Washburn article, and it suggests that Seligman was questioned by Mitchell sometime on or before July 14, 1942, but nothing more specific is provided in the text or in the footnotes about that interview or about the two unnamed officers.  Thus, by mid-July, Morton Seligman had become a key part of the government’s investigation.

In the third part of the story, I will address more specifically what Sweeney and Washburn found out about my cousin Morton Seligman’s role in this matter of state secrecy versus freedom of the press.



[1]    Michael S. Sweeney and Patrick S. Washburn, “Aint Justice Wonderful” The Chicago Tribune’s Battle of Midway Story and the Government’s Attempt at an Espionage Act Indictment in 1942”, Journalism & Communication Monograph“(2014), at 53-55;

[2] Other newspapers also carried the story.  E.g., “Morton Seligman Emerged as Hero of Last Hours of Lexington,” Clovis News-Journal, June 18, 1942, p.1.

[3] National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 – 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135

[4] U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2011.

Original data: Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939-01/01/1949; A-1 Entry 135, 10230 rolls, ARC ID: 594996. Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group Number 24. National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.  National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 – 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135.

[5] National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 – 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135.  One source claims that Johnston had even been with Seligman aboard the Lexington and assisting him during those last critical moments before the ship sank in the Coral Sea. “Editorial: The Battle of Midway—A Secrets Storm,” Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2013, at ;

[6] “Battle of Midway, 4-7 June 1942: Overview and Special Image Selection,” at ; Battle of Midway from Wikipedia at .  See also  “Midway:  The Story that Never Ends,” by Thomas B. Allen (June 2007) at

[7]  Michael S. Sweeney and Patrick S. Washburn, “Aint Justice Wonderful” The Chicago Tribune’s Battle of Midway Story and the Government’s Attempt at an Espionage Act Indictment in 1942”, Journalism & Communication Monograph“(2014), at 65-71.  See also “Midway:  The Story that Never Ends,” by Thomas B. Allen (June 2007) at (“fearing disclosure of code-breaking secrets in an espionage trial, the Department of Justice quietly closed the case.”).   Allen also wrote that the impact of disclosing this information was substantial:  “Pearl Harbor code breakers believed that the damage had already been done. A key code, Japanese Fleet General-Purpose System, was changed on 15 August, only two months after an earlier change. Other alterations were made in “virtually all Japanese codes and ciphers,” and it took cryptanalysts nearly four months of around-the-clock work to crack the new version and once again penetrate the Japanese navy’s operational radio traffic.” Ibid., citing and quoting from Edwin T. Layton, USN (Ret.), with Captain Roger Pineau, USNR (Ret.), and John Costello, And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway—Breaking the Secrets (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1985), p. 453.


Much has been written about the aftermath of the Tribune’s publication of Johnston’s article and the reporting of government secrets.  In fact, the issue has taken on new relevance in recent times after Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the NSA’s surveillance activities and the publication of those disclosures by the press.  It is far beyond the scope of this blog to try and describe that aspect of the matter; my focus is on the alleged role that my cousin Morton Seligman had in the matter and its effect on him and his career.  For an excellent analysis of the other issues as raised by the case, see Sweeney and Washburn, op. cit.

[8] See, e.g., Carey Shenkman, “70 Years Later, Still Playing Politics with the Freedom of the Press, June 18, 2014, at ; “Editorial: The Battle of Midway—A Secrets Storm,” Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2013 at ; Grant Sanger, MD, “Freedom of the Press or Treason?,” Proceedings Magazine, September, 1977 at ; “Midway:  The Story that Never Ends,” by Thomas B. Allen (June 2007) at ; “Stemming the Tide of Japanese Expansion,” at .  The author with the harshest view of Seligman is Capt. Lawrence B. Brennan, U.S. Navy (Ret’d), whose anger undermines any sense of objectivity to his conclusions.  Brennan, “Spilling the Secret—Morton T. Seligman, U.S. Navy (Retired), U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1919,” Naval Historical Foundation, February 28, 2013, at .  The most recent scholarship on this issue is found in the 2014 monograph of Professors Michael Sweeny and Patrick Washburn, cited and discussed above in note 7 and in the text.

[9] The failure to submit the story for clearance was an important element in the investigation and case against the Tribune, but is beyond the scope of my interest here.  For more on that, I recommend reading the full article by Sweeney and Washburn.

Morton Tinslar Seligman:  Naval Hero, Part I

Midshipman Morton Tinslar Seligman c. 1918  Courtesy of Arthur Scott

Midshipman Morton Tinslar Seligman c. 1918
Courtesy of Arthur Scott

The story of Morton Tinslar Seligman is a fascinating one.  Morton, the son of James Leon and Ruth Seligman and my first cousin twice removed, was a decorated Navy hero in World War I and in World War II, but his name is also clouded by accusations that he leaked important classified information to a member of the press after the Battle of the Coral Sea during World War II.

Morton was born on July 1, 1895, in Salt Lake City, but grew up in Santa Fe, attended the University of New Mexico and then the US Naval Academy, from which he graduated in June, 1918, as described earlier.  After he graduated from Annapolis, he was commissioned as an ensign and was assigned to the U.S.S. Manchuria transport service.  By July, 1918, he was overseas engaged in submarine patrol off the coast of England and France.  After the war ended, he was promoted to lieutenant j.g., and from December, 1918, until October, 1919, he was engaged in an operation to clear the North Sea of mines.  He returned to New York in November, 1919, having overseen twenty subchasers in his command. Of those twenty, one was lost at sea due to explosions and fire, one was damaged so severely that it was not safe to sail it back to the US, and one was damaged but did eventually return.  No crew members were lost as a result of these damages, and his mission was completed successfully.

Morton Seligman WW 1 service history page 1

Morton Seligman WW1 service history

New Mexico Commission of Public Records, State Records Center and Archives; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Series Title: Service Reports; Series Number: 18.1.6; Box Number: 10899; Collection Name: New Mexico Adjutant General Records; Collection Number: 1973-019

For his service, Morton was awarded the Navy Cross for distinguished service.  (“Servicemen Cheer Hero at Canteen,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 1943, p. 18)  His commendation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. C-272, engaged in the important and hazardous duty of sweeping for and removing the mines of the North Sea Barrage during World War I.

I am not sure where Morton was stationed once he returned to the US, but as of August 19, 1925, he was stationed in Honolulu as part of the aviation corps, according to a wedding announcement in the San Francisco Chronicle.  On that date, Morton married Eleanor Reynolds, the daughter of Ziba Wells Reynolds, who had been a pay director in the Navy; her brother Lieutenant Stewart Reynolds was also serving in the Navy.  The article, reprinted below with a photograph of the bride, reported that Morton was assigned to Honolulu for the next three years.  (Another article stated that his Honolulu assignment was for two years, and that appears to have been more accurate.  “Sail from San Pedro,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 2, 1925, p. 14)

Morton Seligman marriage article 8 19 25

San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 1925, page 14

On August 29, 1925, Morton and Eleanor sailed out of Los Angeles to Hawaii on the SS Calawaii, arriving in Honolulu on September 5, 1925. (National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii, compiled 02/13/1900 – 12/30/1953; National Archives Microfilm Publication: A3422; Roll: 083; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787 – 2004; Record Group Number: RG 85)

Two years later they returned to California on the SS City of Honolulu, departing June 18, 1927, for Wilmington, California, where Morton was assigned to V.F. Squadron 6, a fighter squadron, part of the US Navy Battle Fleet. ( U.S., Military Registers, 1862-1985[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013.)

Although he is listed as residing in San Diego in the 1929 San Diego city directory, he must have been reassigned during that year to Washington, DC, with the Bureau of Aeronautics. (“Mrs. Seligman Leaves for Washington, D.C.,” San Diego Union, September 23, 1929.)

It seems that the marriage did not survive long thereafter because by April 3, 1930, the date of the 1930 census, Morton was divorced, and he was living with a fellow Navy aviator in Washington, DC.  He was still with the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1931, according to the Washington city directory of that year, although he was temporarily attached to the US Marine Corps as part of a special assignment to transport aircraft to Port au Prince, Haiti, in October, 1931. ( U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007.)  He returned from Haiti on November 2, 1931, giving the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington as his address. (Year: 1931; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 5067; Line: 7; Page Number: 64.)

Lt. Morton Seligman c. 1932  Courtesy of Arthur Scott

Lt. Morton Seligman c. 1932
Courtesy of Arthur Scott

By 1933, Morton was living in San Diego and was remarried to a woman named Adela.  I cannot find a marriage record or any other document that reveals Adela’s birth name, but she is listed with him as his wife on the 1933 San Diego city directory. He was now a Lieutenant Commander with the VF-1-B squadron, according to the U.S. Military Register for the year.  He and Adela were still living in San Diego as of 1939, according to that year’s directory, and Morton was still serving in the US Navy. According to the US Military Register for 1939, Morton was now a commander at the Naval Air Station in San Diego.  The 1940 census also has Morton and Adela living in San Diego, Morton’s occupation still as a naval aviator. By this time, Morton was 44, Adela was 41.   Morton had been serving in the Navy for over 20 years.  ( U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007.)

In October, 1941, Morton risked his life in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue two naval aviators who died when their plane crashed into the bay off the coast of San Diego.  According to the San Diego Union:

“Comdr. Morton T. Seligman, Naval Air station executive officer, made a dramatic attempt to rescue the fliers a few minutes after the crash.  Speeding to the scene of the accident in a crash boat, Cmdr. Seligman discovered that no one aboard was a diver.  Despite the fact that he had never donned a diving helmet in his entire navy career, the officer put on the helmet and diving suit, instructed the crew of the crash boat how to operate the air pumps and then dived overboard. 

“In 25 feet of water, Cmdr. Seligman discovered the bodies of the airmen in the smashed plane.  In trying to extricate them, Cmdr. Seligman suffered severe cuts on his left hand from jagged pieces of metal and wood.”  (“Two Fliers Die As Navy Plane Falls Into Bay,” San Diego Union, October 5, 1941, p. 1)

Two months later, the US would enter World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a place where Morton had once served.  Not long after, Morton was an officer on the USS Lexington, which was destroyed during the Battle of the Coral Sea, which took place from May 4 through May 8, 1942.  The battle was described as follows on the official US Navy website Naval History and Heritage Command:

“The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands and eastward from New Guinea, was the first of the Pacific War's six fights between opposing aircraft carrier forces. Though the Japanese could rightly claim a tactical victory on "points", it was an operational and strategic defeat for them, the first major check on the great offensive they had begun five months earlier at Pearl Harbor. The diversion of Japanese resources represented by the Coral Sea battle would also have immense consequences a month later, at the Battle of Midway.  ….. 

“Preliminary operations on 3-6 May and two days of active carrier combat on 7-8 May cost the United States one aircraft carrier, a destroyer and one of its very valuable fleet oilers, plus damage to the second carrier. However, the Japanese were forced to cancel their Port Moresby seaborne invasion. In the fighting, they lost a light carrier, a destroyer and some smaller ships. Shokaku received serious bomb damage and Zuikaku’s air group was badly depleted. Most importantly, those two carriers were eliminated from the upcoming Midway operation, contributing by their absence to that terrible Japanese defeat.”

English: Battle of the Coral Sea

English: Battle of the Coral Sea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The website also notes that “The U.S. Navy [was] tipped off to the enemy plans by superior communications intelligence” that helped them in their fight against the Japanese in this battle.

As for Morton’s role, a US Navy Cruise Book described the battle and the USS Lexington’s role in that battle in great detail.  According to this source, on the morning of May 7, 1942, the aircraft carrier was hit by five torpedoes and numerous bombs.  Although seriously damaged, the ship did not sink, and by 1 pm it was on even keel and only had one fire burning.  Then another major explosion occurred, caused by gasoline vapors igniting below the deck.  Several fires started, and by 5 pm the commanding office of the ship, Admiral Fitch, ordered the crew to abandon ship.  After the admiral and the crew had left, “Captain Sherman and his Executive Office, Commander Morton T. Seligman made a final inspection of their vessel amid flying debris, smoke and flames.  They then slid down a line, with the commanding officer being the last to leave—just as the torpedo head locker exploded, shaking both from the line and into the sea.  All but 26 officers and 190 men were rescued (including seven brothers aboard named Patten), and it is thought that none of these casualties occurred by drowning after abandoning ship.”

( U.S. Navy Cruise Books, 1918-2009 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2011. Original data: United States Navy. Various U.S. Navy Cruise Books. Navy Department Library, Washington, D.C.)

English: USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sin...

English: USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. Note planes parked aft, where fires have not yet reached. Removed caption read: Photo # NH 51382 USS Lexington burning during the Battle of Coral Sea, May 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For his service and heroism aboard the Lexington, Seligman was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross.  His citation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Navy Cross to Commander Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of this profession as Executive Officer of the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. LEXINGTON (CV-2), in action on 7 and 8 May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea. During and after that battle Commander Morton directed the damage control and fire fighting parties, inspecting and visiting all critical parts of the ship. He personally assisted in removing all the wounded in many places. His distinguished leadership and timely decisions contributed greatly to the success of our forces and was largely responsible for the small loss of life that occurred when the ship was abandoned. Commander Seligman’s conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Navy of the United States.

Navy Cross

Navy Cross

A month later, Morton Seligman would be caught up in a controversy involving another major Pacific battle, the Battle of Midway.  More on that in Part II.

My Seligman Great-Great-Grandparents:  Two Pioneers Who Made A Difference with Integrity and Kindness

By the 1890s, my great-great-grandparents were “empty nesters.”  Their daughter Eva, my great-grandmother, was married to Emanuel Cohen and raising her family in Philadelphia.  (I’ve written about my Cohen great-grandparents here.) Their son James was working as a draftsman for the Department of Interior in Salt Lake City, Utah; he would marry Ruth V.B. Stevenson in 1893 in Salt Lake City, and have two children, Morton Tinslar Seligman, born July 1, 1895, in Salt Lake City, and Beatrice Grace Seligman, born December 4, 1898, also in Salt Lake City.  By 1900, however, James, Ruth and the children had moved to Santa Fe, where they were living next door to Bernard and Frances.  James was working as a clerk in a dry goods store, presumably the Seligman store.

Bernard Seligman and James Seligman and families 1900 US census

Bernard Seligman and James Seligman and families 1900 US census  Year: 1900; Census Place: Santa Fe Ward 4, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Roll: 1002; Enumeration District: 0126; FHL microfilm: 1241002

Arthur, the youngest child of Bernard and Frances, had returned to Santa Fe after college in Philadelphia, and in 1896, he married a widow named Frankie E. Harris in Cleveland, Ohio.

Marriage certificate of Arthur Seligman and Frankie E. Harris

Marriage certificate of Arthur Seligman and Frankie E. Harris Cuyahoga County Archive; Cleveland, Ohio; Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Marriage Records, 1810-1973; Volume: Vol 42-43; Page: 489; Year Range: 1892 Sep – 1896 Jul

Frankie had an eight year old daughter Richie from her first marriage who became a part of the Seligman family.  In fact for her ninth birthday on August 3, 1897, Bernard and Frances hosted a birthday party for Richie and 42 of her friends in their Santa Fe home.

Ritchie Harris birthday snip

City News Items Date: Tuesday, August 3, 1897 Paper: New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM) Volume: 34 Issue: 138 Page: 4

(This same “gossip column” also reported that Arthur and James Seligman and some friends were going on a two week fishing trip soon after this birthday party.)

Arthur and Frankie had a son together just a year later; Otis Perry Seligman was born on February 14, 1898, in Santa Fe.  Thus, by 1900, Bernard and Frances had four grandchildren living in Santa Fe plus three more grandsons living in Philadelphia, including my grandfather John Nusbaum Cohen.

On the professional side, I could not find any specific references to Bernard’s political activities or his business activities during the 1890s although the 1900 census listed his occupation as a dry goods merchant.  In 1894 he seems to have taken an extended trip to Europe, including to Germany and to Italy.

Traveling Seligmans 1894

Saturday Small Talk Date: Saturday, October 27, 1894 Paper: New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM) Volume: 31 Issue: 214 Page: 4

From this clipping it is hard to know whether or not he was traveling with Frances.  I also wonder who the relatives were in Italy and who he was visiting on the Rhine.  Was this purely for pleasure or was it a business trip?  I don’t know.

At some point after this trip, however, Bernard and Frances moved back to Philadelphia.   Bernard was living in Philadelphia when he died on February 3, 1903, at age 65 from myocarditis.  He was residing at 1606 Diamond Street at the time.

Bernard Seligman death certificate

When I looked back to see where my great-grandmother Eva was living at that time, I was hardly surprised to see that she, her husband Emanuel Cohen, and their three sons were also living at 1606 Diamond Street as of the 1900 census.  In fact, in 1900, Emanuel’s brother Isaac and nephew were also living at 1606 Diamond Street after the death of Isaac’s wife.  Thus, Eva and Emanuel Cohen, my great-grandparents, were housing not only their three children, but also at least four other family members, Eva’s parents and Emanuel’s brother and nephew.

According to his obituary, Bernard (and presumably Frances) had moved back to Philadelphia three years before his death, to “recuperate from over-work.”  The obituary goes on to say that Bernard had been doing well until sometime in the prior year when he had a “severe stroke of paralysis which weakened him considerably.”  The paper noted, however, that he had been improving and that no one thought that he was near death.  The obituary described his death as “shocking” and reported that the day before his death he had appeared fine and had even sent a dispatch relating to business matters to his son Arthur.


“A Good and True Man Called Hence,” Santa Fe New Mexican, February 3, 1903, p. 1

The obituary recounts all of Bernard’s many accomplishments, both political and business, and describes him as follows:

“Mr. Seligman was a pioneer in New Mexico, and during his residence of over forty years in this city and territory, was one of the most progressive, shrewdest and brightest businessmen and citizens of the commonwealth.  He was a man of the strongest integrity and keen perception and high courage, public spirited and thoroughly posted on public affairs, indeed a valuable and good citizen in every sense of the word, a loving husband and a kind and indulgent, yet at the same time, a firm and sensible father.  He was a prominent and important factor in the building up of the commercial, educational, civic, moral, and material interests in this city and county and of the entire territory.  A good and true man has gone to the great beyond.”

What can I possibly add to that? Only that I wish that I had known him.  I stand a bit taller knowing that I am descended from Bernard Seligman.

Just two years later, my great-great-grandmother Frances Nusbaum Seligman also died.  She died in Philadelphia on July 27, 1905, at age 59.

Frances Seligman death certificate

She had been living at 1431 Diamond Street at the time of her death.  Again, I checked to see where my great-grandparents Eva and Emanuel Cohen were living, and 1905 Philadelphia directory, their address was, not surprisingly, 1431 Diamond Street, and they still had their three sons and Isaac living with them in 1910 as well.

Frances was described in her obituary in very loving terms:

“She was a beautiful and accomplished woman, as good as she was beautiful and as beautiful as she was good, and of a most lovable and gentle disposition.  She was an exemplary wife, a fond and good mother, and a dutiful and loving daughter.  Indeed she was all that is implied in the phrase ‘a thoroughly good and moral woman.’  … She will be especially remembered by the poor people of [Santa Fe], to whom she was particularly kind.  Many and many truly charitable deeds have been put to her credit.”

The obituary further commented:

“From the moment of her arrival to within a few years ago, when she commenced to spend most of her time in Philadelphia, she was a social leader, admired, respected and popular.  She was a woman without guile and always ready to lend a helping hand in social as well as in charitable work.”

frances seligman obit July-27-1905 new mexican

(“Gentle, Good Woman Gone,” Santa Fe New Mexican, July 27, 1905, p. 1)

While I was impressed and proud when I read my great-great-grandfather’s obituary, I was very moved and emotional in reading about my great-great-grandmother Frances.  The words “good,” “gentle,” and “kind” are the same words that I have heard my father and my cousin Marjorie use to describe their grandmother, Eva Seligman Cohen, the daughter of Frances Nusbaum and Bernard Seligman.  She seems to have inherited or learned those very traits from her parents, two people who left the city of Santa Fe a better place by the time and the effort that they spent in caring for their community while they lived there.  As I will describe, their surviving children also left their mark, my great-grandmother Eva by her kindness and caring for others, and her two brothers James and especially Arthur by their service to Santa Fe and New Mexico.


Bernard Seligman


Frances Nusbaum Seligman

These two photos were given to me by my cousin Arthur Scott.  They were taken from a video made by his sister of family photos in their home.  The one of my great-great-grandmother Frances is so far the only photograph I have of her.