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Ch. 11 Pt. 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Admiral William Veazie Pratt

Gerald E. Wheeler

U. S. Government Printing Office
Washington, D. C.

The text is in the public domain.

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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p421  Chapter XII


At the end of a biography, whether one writes or reads it, there are usually questions still unanswered. If the story is that of an admiral, particularly one who has reached the apex of the Navy's command structure, it is natural to ask — "What was his contribution?" Admiral Pratt was not very helpful in answering this. In December 1939, when he completed his autobiographical manuscript, he called attention to nothing that might be considered his unique contribution to the Navy. He said that he was enjoying retired life, was deeply interested in his Primrose Hill rose garden, and added little more.

The admiral was basically a private person. He did enjoy recognition when it was deserved, but there is little evidence that he sought prominence or tried to project anything but an honest image of himself. By the time he reached rear admiral, Pratt could scan the Navy list and conclude that no one in the promotion zone was any more deserving than he was of advancement to flag rank. He was reasonably sure a promotion board would see things similarly. When he sought Battle Fleet duty in 1927, which would mean a vice admiral billet and eventually four stars, he did so with confidence that his qualifications equalled or were better than any admiral with his seniority. The flag list was short enough in the 1920s that any officer on it knew the strengths and weaknesses of those above and below him. Pratt had performed well in each assignment; his record could speak for him. When he did need personal assistance, to break out of the pack of senior captains and junior rear admirals, Admiral Coontz was willing to lend a hand. After that first boost to the Destroyer Command, and three years later to command of Battleship Division Four, his reputation carried him. What is evident is that he could move to the rank of admiral simply by being a sound leader and administrator.

What a biographer and naval historian can observe about most of those who advanced to command of the Battle Fleet, or CINCUS, or  p422 CNO, in the inter‑war period, is that their "contributions" were generally modest. Excepting the field of naval aviation and carrier operations, the Navy of 1941 was not terribly different from that of 1919. This meant that there had been few dramatic changes or unusual circumstances, like a war, which would permit individual distinction as in previous decades. Before the turn of the century, Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce was fortunate enough to be associated with the founding of the Naval War College. Captain Alfred T. Mahan opened the eyes of the world's navies to the uses and meaning of sea power, though exercise of command of the sea had been the recognized purpose of naval warfare for centuries. Admiral George Dewey made his historical contribution at Manila Bay in May 1898. Admiral William S. Sims, through persistence, forced the Navy to change its gunnery practices and taught the North Atlantic Fleet how to use its destroyers. Later, in wartime, he would lead America's naval effort against the German submarines and contribute to concepts leading to England's and America's mastery of the U‑boats. But in the inter‑war years the opportunities for prominence would be fewer. Rear Admirals William A. Moffett and Joseph M. Reeves had the good fortune to serve in flag rank when American naval aviation took the lead in regard to the world's fleets. With new ship types, and constantly evolving aircraft, operational breakthroughs were still occurring regularly. Thus it was possible for Moffett to become "the father of naval aviation" and Reeves "the father of carrier warfare." What we see, then, is that Admirals Coontz, Eberle, Hughes, and Pratt, and later Standley and Leahy, could head the Navy list and yet it would be very difficult for the naval historian to tie any major naval advancement to their names. On the other hand, when each is viewed from the perspective of his own times, and an attempt is made to see what was contributed to the Navy that was important when they were in high command, then it is possible to recognize that Admiral Pratt and the rest have good reason to be remembered.

Those who knew Admiral Pratt during his years in flag rank undoubtedly were aware of the ambivalent attitude he had toward war and the use of naval power. He was, in many ways, a nineteenth-century military man. He accepted balance-of‑power politics and the use of warfare to maintain relationships among nations. Yet he felt, perhaps instinctively from his New England heritage, that wars were enormously wasteful of a country's population and resources. As an Anglophile, and one who sincerely believed that Anglo-Saxon  p423 institutions were superior to those of other cultures, he consistently promoted the idea of alliance with Great Britain. But he was realistic enough to know that isolationist America of the 1920s and 1930s would never accept a peacetime treaty arrangement. Thus equality of naval power between the two nations, so that together England and the United States could dominate the rest of the world's navies, was always a major facet of the admiral's thinking. At the end of the World War, when it appeared that America might join the League of Nations, Pratt helped design a League Navy to be based on Anglo-American sea power. He was willing to plan toward the day when national armaments could be gradually reduced behind a shield of League military and naval protection. But in these early years of the 1920s he was in no sense one who believed in unilateral disarmament; nor was he willing "to set an example" by having America reduce its Navy with the expectation that others would follow in her wake.

Recognizing that the Millennium was not at hand, Admiral Pratt worked constantly to have the Navy trained to the highest level of readiness with its materiel in the best condition possible. He learned quite early that the key to a first-class Navy was an effective officer corps. He had experienced the frustrations that come in wartime when the best men are not in the top commands and he strove steadily to see that this situation would not again eventuate — at least not while he was on the active list. To improve the quality of flag officers, he pressed to have War College completion a basic desideratum for selection to rear admiral. He also attempted to establish the requirement that every potential flag officer must have taken a Naval War College correspondence course and graduate from the junior course before being detailed, in later years, to a senior course in one of the war colleges. As noted previously, there were not enough middle-grade officers available to allow this requirement to be accepted by the Bureau of Navigation, but it became a goal for it to work toward. To assure that those in aviation received equal consideration with the rest of the service, the admiral insisted that young admirals and those who were aviators be assigned to selection boards. His desire to have rear admirals screened for movement to the upper half of the flag list was denied, but there is little doubt that the quality of the Navy's admirals did improve because of Admiral Pratt's innovations.

With the rest of the officer corps, Pratt had suffered through the years of Secretary Daniels' stewardship that seemed at times to him to be bumbling; yet he could applaud that politician's stress on education  p424 and training for the service. In peacetime the Navy would have to prepare itself, through operations and in schools, for the demands of war. After three teaching tours at the Naval Academy, and two at the Naval War College, it was almost inevitable that the admiral would want to make operational training as effective as possible. To him the creation of type-training commands within the United States Fleet would permit the soundest development of doctrines for the operations of battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines, cruisers, and destroyers. Admiral Reeves had demonstrated what carriers could do in task groups in 1928, when Pratt was COMBATFLT. Therefore he wanted that brilliant innovator and his successors to have full opportunity to develop this new weapons system. While submarines had been in service since 1900, when Holland was commissioned, there was still much to be learned about their operation, both with the fleet and independently against enemy supply lines. For the destroyers there were the traditional two tasks to be mastered — fighting with a main body and defending against submarines. Type training, then, became the means to update operations and Admiral Pratt pushed this approach as CINCUS and CNO. What we must conclude is that the admiral possessed the vision to recognize and react to the fact that naval warfare had steadily become more complicated as ship types and their weapons became technologically more sophisticated. He knew, from experience, that organizational change was mandatory if the Navy was to remain "second to none" in fighting power as well as materiel.

One final question must detain us before we close the book on this most interesting naval person. In his masterful biography of Admiral Sims, Professor Elting E. Morison describes the role played by Sims as the dominating leader of the "band of brothers" who operated the Torpedo Flotilla of the Atlantic Fleet. As we have seen, Pratt was the chief of staff for the "band" during 1913 to 1915. In time a good many of those associated with Sims, either in Newport or later in Europe during the World War, would themselves rise to great places and perpetuate the mystique of the "Sims touch." Pratt, J. R. P. Pringle, Harry Yarnell, Frank Schofield, Nathan Twining, J. K. Robison, and Hutch Cone were just a few of those who gained from having served with that tempestuous leader. Thus we might wonder why Admiral Pratt, like his friend and mentor, did not create his own "band of brothers" which through the years would add to the luster of his name.

 p425  A good part of the answer must lie in the fact that Pratt had a very different career pattern from that of Admiral Sims. The former manned a desk in Washington during the World War while his friend was "at the front." Those who served in Operations with Pratt were generously allowed to escape to Sims' staff in London or to more active billets in Queenstown, the North Sea, or the coast of France. All could testify, as did Lieutenant Commander Belknap, that Pratt was "delivering a full load of goods each day," but it was subordinate labor far removed from the action in Europe — hardly the class of assignment that attracts followers. Later, when he obtained his first flag command, as COMDESFORPACFLT, Pratt entered the new environment of the peacetime Pacific Fleet, soon to be renamed the Battle Fleet. Already patterns were emerging that would continue until Pearl Harbor and which would reemerge in the years after Japan's defeat in 1945. With the exception of the battleship division commanders, most seagoing flag officers in the inter‑war years seldom served more than a year in a major command. Despite the inefficiency that resulted, from an operational viewpoint, detailers in the Bureau of Navigation played this game of "musical billets" so that a maximum number of senior officers could demonstrate their fitness for a higher command. In the jargon of the 1960s and 1970s, this is somewhat cynically described as "ticket-punching" — serving a minimum amount of time in a job so as to have another qualification in the promotion file. Pratt was COMDESFORPACFLT for 8 months, COMBATDIV 4 for 2 years, COMBATDIVS for 9 months, COMBATFLT for 11 months, and CINCUS for 16 months. Except for his staffs, there were few who could have associated themselves with the admiral for any meaningful amount of time and thus be identified as a member of his "band."

There were other reasons, of course, why Admiral Pratt did not gather a strong entourage of followers. Very much to his credit was his proclivity for ignoring sycophants and pushing ahead strong leaders who often disagreed with many of his ideas. The Navy gained because he saw that Admirals Reeves, Schofield, Pringle, Upham, Leahy, and Standley received "career-enhancing" assignments; it was Pratt's way of doing things, but it added nothing to his short-term reputation. Finally, it must be recognized, Admiral Pratt was wrong on two issues of transcendent importance to the Navy and it would have been most unusual for the senior officers of his day to ignore these misjudgments. He assisted President Hoover in the latter's quest  p426 for naval limitation because he expected the President and Congress to build the Navy to treaty limits. To this end he worked against the advice and policies of the General Board. Less disastrously, at least during his tenure as CNO, Pratt showed a willingness to trust Japan and to extend the hand of friendship to the Royal Navy. Again, he was out of step with the nationalistic views of his fellow flag officers. Bluntly put, not many rising officers would care to become known as a protege of such an admiral. It could be a shortcut to non‑selection and early retirement.

With the Navy's renaissance following enactment of the Vinson-Trammell Act of 1934, the fleet could again plan ahead with confidence. When he was discussed in wardroom small talk, Pratt was remembered as the CNO who served in President Hoover's star-crossed Administration. That the Navy was better, because of his time at the helm, was seldom admitted. Yet, while he left behind no "band of brothers," there were many who privately would have put their own concurring endorsement to the letter Admiral Pratt received from Rear Admiral John W. Greenslade on 23 February 1933:

Having, perhaps, more than average concern for the good of the service and interest in the development of doctrines, methods and organization, I have followed your career with keen interest because I saw in you one of the extremely few officers who have looked ahead and worked determinedly for the sound development of our Navy and advancement of the naval art. And I am happy to be able to speak my conviction at this time that I followed the right trail for you have, without doubt, developed into the outstanding leader since the modern navy came into being. Upon your retirement you may feel assured that there remains a following well imbued with the principles for which you stand and willing to make sacrifices to maintain them.

The admiral appreciated this letter. The Navy and nation after 1933 had good reason to appreciate the contributions and service of Admiral William Veazie Pratt, U. S. Navy.

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