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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Thence Round Cape Horn

Robert Erwin Johnson

published by
United States Naval Institute
Annapolis, Maryland

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p189  13. "And Here Our Navy Is"

The end of World War I found the United States with the second largest navy in the world, and the completion of ships then building or authorized would make the United States Navy the most powerful ever seen. Of the existing navies, it was obvious that only the British Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy could be its serious competitors, and in 1919, a Navy Department Planning Committee reported that the only two powers likely to be rivals of the United States were Great Britain and Japan. While Anglo-American amity had cooled immediately after the Armistice and the commercial policies of Great Britain made it possible that tension between the two western powers might arise in the future, for the present there was no real danger of such a development.

Japanese-American relations, however, were such that difficulty might be anticipated in the near future. The Far Eastern possessions of the United States, always vulnerable to attack by Japan, were rendered more precarious by the Japanese occupation of the former German islands north of the Equator. These flanked the American line of communications to the Philippines and all but surrounded the potential naval base on Guam. Moreover, Japanese policy toward China seemed particularly apt to involve the United States in differences which might lead to war in the western Pacific. Further to complicate matters, there was the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. It was doubtful that Great Britain would fulfill her treaty obligations in the event of a Japanese-American War, but the possibility could not be ruled out.

By the time this realistic appraisal of the situation had been completed, the Navy Department had already decided to depart from the traditional policy in its peacetime fleet dispositions. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts were to receive approximately equal fleets. Secretary  p190 Daniels pointed out that the Panama Canal made it possible to unite the fleet quickly and insisted that the planned annual joint maneuvers would give adequate opportunity for the two forces to become accustomed to working together. In short, he believed that this division of the major warships into two fleets would not violate the principle of strategic concentration at all, and further, that the assignment of equal forces to the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets would result in a healthy spirit of competition that could not fail to bring about increased efficiency in all vessels concerned.

On 18 June 1919, the Planning Committee had submitted its recommendation for the assignment of ships to the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. It was governed by the principle that ships of similar characteristics should be kept together for tactical unity, and by the logistic reality that a large amount of good coal was available on the eastern seaboard, while the Pacific coast, which lacked steam coal, had a plentiful supply of fuel oil. The order that the two fleets be nearly equal meant that some coal-burning pre‑dreadnoughts would have to go to the Pacific, but all of the dreadnoughts tentatively assigned to the west coast had oil‑fired boilers. This resulted in a certain inequality — the coal-burning dreadnoughts were older and weaker ships — so in compensation, the Atlantic Fleet received an additional pre‑dreadnought.

Division along the lines suggested by the Planning Committee seems to have been both logical and practical, but it was not adopted. Instead, four of the eight dreadnoughts assigned to the Pacific Fleet burned coal, while an equal number of those retained in the Atlantic were much newer vessels using oil fuel. This did result in two fleets as nearly equal as possible, except that the Atlantic Fleet was stronger in pre‑dreadnought battleships with seven to the Pacific Fleet's six, and of the seven, two were the South Carolina and Michigan, sometimes considered the first American dreadnoughts.

No explanation of this departure from the recommendation has been found, but it is impossible to escape the conclusion that political considerations were again allowed to outweigh strategic and logistic principles. A presidential election was fast approaching, and it was obvious that the Democratic Party would have to grasp at every straw if it were to remain in power. The political importance of the Atlantic  p191 coast far eclipsed that of the western seaboard, so it was not desirable to alienate the voters of the former section by assigning the older warships to the Atlantic Fleet. This cannot be proven, but it must have been of some importance; indeed, it seems likely that the decision to retain half of the Navy's battleship strength in the Atlantic Ocean was based on political motives. Certainly few responsible men would have held that the Royal Navy presented a threat equal to that of the Japanese men-o'‑war. However, strategy is apt to emerge a poor second from any encounter with politics, at least in peacetime.

While the redistribution of the major warships was being planned, a Pacific Fleet of sorts was still in existence. Admiral Caperton struck his flag in the Chicago upon reaching retirement age in 1919, and Rear Admiral Clarence S. Williams was ordered to relieve him, but without being advanced to the rank of admiral. The few old ships of his command — the Chicago, Denver, Tacoma, and the gunboat Machias — were designated as Division One, Pacific Fleet, and Williams did not assume the title of commander in chief.

Williams's vessels were still on the east coast, so the work of demobilization in the Pacific was carried on under the direction of Rear Admiral Fullam. It was no more spectacular than the wartime activities of his force had been. A ship was sent to Alaska to assist in helping the victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic. The patrol of Mexican and Central American waters was continued by the old gunboats and the submarine chasers as the requisitioned vessels were returned to their previous services or owners. The fitting out of cargo ships for the Naval Overseas Transport Service was halted, and many reservists and other enlisted men were discharged to civil life. Warship building programs were curtailed on the west coast, as elsewhere in the country.

Rear Admiral Fullam struck his flag upon reaching retirement age on 20 October 1919, but his part in directing Pacific Fleet activities had come to an end even earlier. The first ships of the new Pacific Fleet had reached Californian waters early in August under the command of Admiral Hugh Rodman. Their arrival was made the occasion for a mammoth naval review for which the veteran Oregon was hastily recommissioned. After this final association with her younger sisters, the proud old battleship was again retired and in 1925 was  p192 turned over to the state whose name she bore for preservation as a naval monument, supposedly in perpetuity. (The Oregon was requisitioned by the government in 1943 and, stripped of armor and superstructure, was moored at Apra, Guam, for use as an explosives barge. A typhoon drove her on a reef, and there she rested until her hulk was sold to a Japanese scrap company in 1956. She was broken up in Japan during 1957.)

The power of the Pacific Fleet was in the eight dreadnoughts and six older battleships. They were supported by fifty-four active destroyers with the scout cruiser Birmingham as force flagship, fourteen submarines with two tenders, a mine force consisting of two minelayers and twelve minesweepers, and a fleet train of twenty-eight auxiliary vessels. In addition, fifty-four destroyers were retained in reserve with the scout cruiser Salem as flagship.

It will be noted that no cruisers except the destroyer force flagships were included in the Pacific Fleet organization. This omission indicates the United States Navy's most serious deficiency at that date. There simply were no effective cruisers, although ten modern scouts of the Omaha class were building. The first of these, however, was not commissioned until 1923, and even when all were completed, they were too few to relieve the shortage. Most of the hopelessly obsolete armored cruisers were assigned to squadrons in Asiatic and European waters, but eventually some served in the eastern Pacific once more. The old and ineffectual smaller cruisers of the afore-mentioned Division One also joined Rodman's flag, but were useful only for the patrol of Central American waters.

By any standard, however, Admiral Rodman's Pacific Fleet was a powerful force, and its presence on the west coast revealed the extent to which the facilities of the Mare Island and Puget Sound Navy Yards had been expanded. The former was a well-equipped yard in every respect, but it was considered undesirable to dock large ships there because of the shallow and restricted waters surrounding the island. Completion of the 32,000‑ton battleship California proved that Mare Island could build large vessels, but her launching on 21 November 1919 demonstrated one of the dangers of such practice. The "Prune Barge" slid down the ways as planned and then resisted all efforts to stop her until she had crossed the channel and smashed some twenty-five feet of a Vallejo ferry landing. Needless to say,  p193 this had not been planned. Thereafter, Mare Island built only cruisers and smaller ships.

The Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton, Washington, was notably free from Mare Island's shortcomings, but its development had been so slow that there was no thought of having big ships built there. As late as 1909, the major warships sent there for docking had first to unload their ammunition for storage in Mare Island's magazine because Puget Sound had no storage facilities other than open lighters. The political weakness of the Pacific Northwest was never more clearly revealed than by the failure of its congressman to get funds appropriated for the construction of adequate facilities at the only navy yard in the region. But the serious shortage of ships during World War I resulted in a rapid expansion of the Puget Sound Navy Yard, and finally it was no longer necessary to send to the more amply equipped southern yard for workmen and tools when a major job was ordered. Since Mare Island was unable to offer docking facilities for battleships, the assignment of fourteen vessels of that type to the Pacific Fleet assured a busy future for the Puget Sound Navy Yard.

The third major fleet base in the Pacific Ocean was at Pearl Harbor — the Navy Department had decided to establish a large naval station there in 1909. For a time, more rapid progress was made on its development than on that of the Puget Sound yard, but Congress was not enthusiastic about appropriating the necessary funds, and the construction of a large dry dock was delayed by the action of subterranean springs which wrecked it early in 1913. This disaster slowed the development of the entire Pearl Harbor base, and its commandant found mainly deficiencies on which to report in 1918. Four years later, Pearl Harbor remained the "Gibraltar of the Pacific" on paper only, but work on its facilities and defenses was in progress.1

Other bases and shore facilities to support the Pacific Fleet were located principally on the southern California coast. San Diego finally achieved its desire to become an important naval base when a large recruit training center was established there in the course of World War I. It was destined also to become the site of destroyer and submarine bases, while its North Island Naval Air Station was soon to train the pilots for the first carrier air groups. The main operating base for the heavy ships was located in the Long Beach‑San Pedro area. Finally, the whole Pacific coast was linked together by naval  p194 radio stations at strategic points. The west coast seemed rapidly to be approaching equality with the Atlantic seaboard in its naval bases and facilities.

But the outlook was not entirely bright. The large scale discharge of enlisted men resulted in a personnel problem for the United States Navy as a whole, and in the Pacific Fleet it caused many warships to be so undermanned that they were handicapped as cruising units. Some of the smaller vessels had to be placed in reserve and their crews transferred to the large ships to enable the latter to operate efficiently.

Mexican conditions remained unsettled, and the government of that republic assumed a defiant attitude distinctly alarming to American investors, particularly those interested in Mexican oil fields. These investors pressed for American intervention to protect their holdings, and War Plan Green was dusted off once more. For a time in 1919, it seemed very likely that intervention would become a fact. Naval and military commanders were ordered to prepare for a campaign in Mexico, and Admiral Rodman promulgated tentative assignments for his ships if hostilities were ordered. Momentarily the issue was undecided, but cooler heads prevailed. The threat to American property in Mexico was averted temporarily without recourse to arms, and few private citizens of the United States realized how narrowly armed intervention had been avoided.

One of the most onerous of the duties of the Pacific Fleet was removed from its jurisdiction in 1920 when the Special Service Squadron was organized under the command of Rear Admiral H. F. Bryan. To this "Banana Squadron," consisting of the old cruisers Des Moines, Galveston, Cleveland, Denver, and Tacoma, and the gunboats Dolphin, Sacramento, Asheville, and Niagara, was assigned the responsibility for patrolling Central American waters in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It was based on the Canal Zone so that its vessels could be dispatched to either coast without delay. It was ridiculous that one of the world's strongest navies should have had to rely on such a decrepit force for this duty — the flagship Dolphin, no less than thirty-five years of age, was one of the vessels of the original "Squadron of Evolution" of 1889, and only the gunboats Sacramento and Asheville were relatively modern warships — but it  p195 did leave the men-o'‑war of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets free for more important duties.

Early in 1921, the two fleets met for joint maneuvers in the Pacific off the Canal Zone, and concluded their training with a cruise to ports on the west coast of South America. These had been largely neglected since the completion of the Panama Canal, for its construction had deprived the southeastern Pacific of much of its strategic importance to the United States. This fact also reflected the relative stability of the political situation on the South American Pacific coast as compared with Mexico and Central America, although it must be stated that American investments in the latter regions were much greater than those in the countries farther south.

At the conclusion of the cruise in February 1921, the two fleets separated and proceeded to their respective bases. However, the United States Navy was becoming ever more concerned with conditions in the Pacific. At the Naval War College in 1919 and 1920, the major emphasis had been on problems in that ocean; and the war game board was largely occupied with a war between Orange (Japanese) and Blue (American) forces. Almost no one of authority in the Navy Department doubted that the next war would be fought against Japan.

Already protests had been voiced against the separation of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. Civilian writers pointed out that the annual maneuvers were not of sufficient duration to permit the warships to operate in company efficiently and warned against undue reliance on the Panama Canal as a means of reinforcing either fleet in time of need. The canal had already been blocked temporarily by slides, and Canal Zone engineers could not guarantee that service would not be interrupted in the future. Moreover, the locks were peculiarly liable to damage by sabotage, and there were not a few who predicted that the opening move in Japanese-American war would be the explosion of a Japanese freighter in one of the locks.2

The noted British authority Hector C. Bywater also wrote that the American Pacific Fleet, inferior to the Imperial Japanese Navy, would not loom large in Japanese eyes as a deterrent force even if it could count on immediate reinforcement from the Atlantic in the event of war. The only sufficient deterrent might well be the entire  p196 American fleet stationed in the Pacific Ocean, because of the Oriental psychology which counted it dishonorable to retreat before any force not clearly superior. Bywater concluded that it would be nothing less than foolhardy for the United States Navy to continue its two‑fleet policy.

On 5 June 1921, the New York Times announced that the Navy's General Board had recommended a reorganization of the fleet to include the creation of a permanent major fleet in the Pacific Ocean; many naval officers supposedly felt that Secretary Daniels had made "a serious tactical error" in dividing the fleet in 1919. Although it was realized that the United States had little to fear from Europe, there was no thought of transferring all of the capital ships to the Pacific. Such a course would leave the eastern navy yards without employment and would place an intolerable burden on the Pacific coast bases.

Some two weeks later, it was stated that the existing fleets were to remain equal as to the number of warships in each, but that the Pacific Fleet was to consist of modern oil‑burning superdreadnoughts, while eight older ships would be assigned to the Atlantic. The major reason was one of economy — a saving of nine dollars per ton of fuel would be realized by the reorganization.3

Soon thereafter, the Conference on Limitation of Armament began of this deliberations in Washington. The reductions in total capital ship tonnages are too well known to require consideration here, but the importance of the Armament Limitation Treaty's Article XIX must not be overlooked. By it, the United States, Great Britain, and Japan agreed to abstain from fortifying and developing most of their outlying insular possessions in the Pacific Ocean. This meant in effect that the Philippine Islands, Guam, and other islands held by the United States in the western and central Pacific could not be prepared for use as naval bases. In the event of a Japanese attack on these unprotected areas, the American fleet would have no major base closer than Pearl Harbor, while the enemy could operate from home bases without difficulty. With such a disadvantage, even the entire American fleet would not be more than equal to the nominally inferior Japanese Navy. Moreover, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was dissolved by the accompanying four-power treaty signed by the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France, so it was clear that the British would be  p197 unable to deter their former ally from offensive action against American possessions.

Yet another facet of the dissolution of this alliance was the fact that it invalidated once and for all the argument earlier advanced for retaining half of the American battleships in the Atlantic Fleet. Great Britain was no longer bound to support Japan in any war against a Third power, and it was almost inconceivable that the British would side with the Oriental power against the United States. Thus, danger from Europe had become nearly nonexistent, but the situation in the western Pacific would be much graver if Japan failed to honor her Washington Treaty commitments.

Against this background appeared General Order Ninety-four which was promulgated on 6 December 1922 by Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby. By this order, the two major fleets were combined to form the United States Fleet consisting of four divisions: Battle Fleet, Scouting Fleet, Control Force, and Fleet Base Force. The United States Fleet was to be used in either ocean in time of need, but ordinarily the Scouting Fleet and the Control Force were to be based on the Atlantic seaboard, while the Battle Fleet and the Fleet Base Force would be stationed in the eastern Pacific. Since the Battle Fleet was to contain all the modern battleships, it was obvious that a major change in American naval strategy had occurred. However, the Secretary made no mention of the outstanding strategic reasons for the fleet reorganization. He attributed the "merger" of the fleets merely to a desire to promote "a closer coordination of effort and unity of practice which are so necessary to the most effective operation of our fighting forces."4

At any rate, the various divisions of the United States Fleet met for joint maneuvers in the Bay of Panama in March 1923, and upon the conclusion of the exercises, Vice Admiral John D. MacDonald, Commander, Scouting Fleet, in the Wyoming, led the five oldest dreadnoughts and the new Maryland back to the Atlantic Ocean. The remainder of the battleships, eleven superdreadnoughts in all, gathered in Los Angeles Harbor in mid‑April, with Admiral Hilary P. Jones, previously commanding the Atlantic Fleet, flying his flag in the USS Pennsylvania as Commander in Chief, United States Fleet.5 (Admiral Edward W. Eberle, former Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, reverted to vice admiral as Commander, Battle Fleet,  p198 United States Fleet, with his flag in the California. The Maryland returned to the Atlantic coast for completion of the installation of her fire control system and minor modifications before joining the Battle Fleet.)

This realization of the ideal contained in General Order Ninety-four may be considered to have signified the end of the United States Navy's Pacific Station. The primary mission of Admiral Jones's United States Fleet differed almost as much from that outlined in Captain John Downes's sailing orders as did Jones's flagship from the USS Macedonian. For the next few decades, at least, the waters traversed by the ships of the old Pacific Squadron would be the cruising ground of the most formidable American naval force.

And since navies are merely agents of national policy, this transfer of naval strength indicated a corresponding reorientation of national policy. In the future, for a time, American naval thinking was to follow the directive laid down for it by Commodore Downes in 1833.

Downes and his successors in command of the United States Naval Forces on Pacific Station were responsible in a large sense for the westward emphasis. The cruises of his Macedonian and the men-o'‑war which sailed in her wake resulted in significant additions to the fund of hydrographic, meteorologic, and economic knowledge of the eastern Pacific area. The mere presence of the warships encouraged commercial expansion — based in part upon this information — by lessening the dangers to life and cargo, and the naval vessel was able to provide many types of assistance to speed the merchantman upon her appointed way. The businessman was more willing to invest in Latin American republic or Pacific island with the Pacific Squadron as partial guarantor of the investment, and the diplomat found his task the easier because of the silent assurance given by American war vessels showing the flag in the waters of the country to which he was accredited. In many cases, the visit of a unit of the Pacific Squadron led to more amicable relations between the United States and the country visited, although the natural tendency of sailors to disport themselves in time-honored fashion ashore caused difficulty on occasion.

The total lack of sea battles on the Pacific Station has caused the Navy's role in expanding the territorial limits of the United States in that region largely to be overlooked. California was acquired without  p199 any major engagements, but in such battles as did occur, most of the fighting was done by seamen and Marines of the Pacific Squadron, led by officers from their ships. While it was not possible for men-o'‑war to contribute significantly to the acquisition of the Pacific Northwest or of Alaska, units of the Pacific Squadron acted as agents of American imperialism in helping to bring the Hawaiian, American Samoa, and certain other islands under the United States flag.

Naval personnel helped to maintain order in California in the absence of effective civil government, and the Army welcomed the assistance of warships during the Indian troubles on the shores of Puget Sound. For nearly a generation, naval officers governed Alaska and performed a like function in American Samoa for an even longer time. In the event of natural catastrophe, men-o'‑war were usually early on the scene, and their officers and men proved themselves outstanding in relief work.

Through these no other services — often unspectacular, but generally laudable — the Pacific Squadron demonstrated the power and versatility of naval force.

Admiral Hilary P. Jones, standing on the flag bridge of the USS Pennsylvania in 1923, might well have thought of Commodore John Downes's statement of ninety years earlier:

Everything conspires to render the Pacific of great interest to the people of the United States at the present time. Our future sea fights are as likely to take place here as on the Atlantic Ocean, for here we are acquiring a preponderating commercial interest, and here must be our navy also.

And Admiral Jones might well have made a signal to that officer in the USS Potomac: "And here our Navy is!"

The Author's Notes:

1 Paul A. Stevens, Capt., USN, "Pearl Harbor and Its Relation to the United States Navy," Historical Transactions, 1893‑1943 (New York: Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 1945), pp25‑26.

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2 David Hannay, "Sea Power in the Pacific," Edinburgh Review, CCXXXIV (July‑October, 1921), 127. Hannay scoffed at fears that the Japanese might block the canal.

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3 New York Times, 5 June 1921, p19.

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4 Secretary of the Navy, Annual Report, 1923, p3.

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5 Los Angeles Times, 12 April 1923, II, 1.

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