[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 3

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.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Ch. 4 Pt. 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p89  Chapter IV

Assistant Chief of Naval Operations
During World War I

[Part 1 of 2]

Captain Pratt's tour at the Army War College from September 1916 to May 1917 was briefer than usual and probably not so valuable as it might have been had he taken the course in normal times. As things stood, the war in Europe was more than two years old and evidence was mounting that the United States would be unable to remain neutral much longer. For a Navy captain it was obviously much more desirable to have a command in the fleet, or even a desk in the Navy Department, than to be tied to a school — particularly an Army one. On the other hand, while he had taught at the Naval War College and was known for his fine staff work in planning, Pratt was not a war college graduate. Even more important to him professionally, though the Navy's officers were not yet aware of its true significance, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels had insisted that a War College diploma would be a prerequisite for flag selection. So the Pratts settled down in Washington and Bill began "hitting the books."

The War College program disappointed Pratt, but he enjoyed his new friendships among the Army types. Though recognized as an outstanding staff officer, he was never fond of detail. He didn't mind learning about principles of war, as the Army interpreted them; it was writing a field order that bored him. But he mastered the style and prose of the Army's operation orders and wrote examples to be used in re‑fighting such battles as Austerlitz, Cerro Gordo, Antietam, and Cold Harbor. He was a bit amazed at the lack of time devoted to the battles recently fought in Europe. In his "Autobiography" he commented:

Europe had for two years been plunged into what we now call the World War. Yet, in this Academy of War, everything was quiet. We studied the battles of the Wilderness, and even resurected [sic] the Mexican Campaign,  p90 but not one phase of what was transpiring in Europe injected itself into our work here.1

Probably Pratt's memory was just a bit dim when he wrote that paragraph in 1939. At mid‑course the decision was made to divide the students and staff into working committees so that the enormous quantity of intelligence from Europe could be digested and put into pamphlet form for distribution to the Armed Services. Pratt engaged in this work and it undoubtedly added greatly to his fund of information that would be so badly needed as he worked in the Navy Department later. Because he was a captain, and had taught at the Naval War College, Pratt was incorporated into the staff, for consultations and lectures dealing with inter-service cooperation. He was also the resident specialist on Canal Zone fortifications and taught more in this area than would normally be expected of a student. Thus, despite his memoirs, it does appear that the captain went through a reasonably up‑to‑date course with the Army.2

While duty at the Army War College was supposed to absorb all of his time and energy, Pratt could not stay away from the Navy Department. His visits there grew in frequency until, by the latter part of 1916 he was spending almost every afternoon helping his friends in the Office of Naval Operations and the Bureau of Navigation in whatever ways he could. Finally, on 7 February 1917, he was given orders to temporary duty in Admiral Benson's staff. He was not, it should be added, detached from his War College status; but the captain thrived on the extra work. At the War College he lived in a world of theory and re‑fought old campaigns whose lessons were possibly important to the Army students, but which had only marginal value to a Navy captain. In his other duty, Pratt spent his afternoons in the "real world" of Naval Operations where Benson and his staff were trying desperately to prepare the Department for a rapidly approaching war with the Kaiser's navy. Every working hand was needed, for the Navy under Secretary Daniels' leadership was not ready for war. The United States Atlantic Fleet, commanded by Admiral Henry T. Mayo, was in reasonably good operating condition; but it was undermanned, short of certain classes of vessels, and lacked plans for positive action. The Department showed very clearly  p91 all the signs of too many months of President Wilson's "watchful waiting" and indecisive neutrality.

While studying at the Army War College, Pratt stayed in contact with his friend and mentor William Sims. During most of 1916 Sims had commanded the new battleship Nevada and introduced it into the fleet. After selection to rear admiral, Sims went ashore in January 1917 to become President of the Naval War College. From their academic vantage points the two old shipmates clucked disapprovingly about the condition of the Navy Department and exchanged views on how the menace of Germany's fleet should be met once America was in the war.

The younger officer was pulled in two directions concerning the Department. With Sims he disliked many of the democratizing innovations  p92 Secretary Daniels had introduced into the Navy. Yet both of them approved of the new promotion system that featured selection, and both were delighted at the secretary's insistence that admirals should be War College graduates. Above all, the two were most pleased with the creation of a planning section in the Office of Naval Operations, even though it was too small to be very effective. In a more personal way, Pratt veered sharply from the deepening animus that Sims was displaying toward Secretary Daniels and Admiral Benson, which will be discussed later. The captain was delighted to work for the CNO and at all times gave him his fullest loyalty. He recognized that Benson was conservative, too deliberative in his decision making, and decidedly Anglophobic. Yet Pratt admired his integrity and the deep sense of loyalty that Benson displayed toward Daniels and President Wilson and toward the Navy for which he was responsible. While still a "part-timer" on Benson's staff, Pratt had been sounded out by several senior officers who were considering a political move to depose Benson and probably Daniels as well. Pratt would have none of it and the idea eventually was abandoned.3 Later, as his work assumed backbreaking proportions because of the inability of Daniels and Benson to act quickly, Pratt probably rued his unwillingness to join the cabal; yet to do so would have been contrary to every principle of loyalty and subservience by which he lived.

In late March of 1917 Secretary Daniels quietly ordered Admiral Sims from the War College to England to become a liaison officer between the Admiralty and the Navy Department. While few were privy to the fact that Sims had been sent abroad, Pratt was fully informed due to his duties in CNO's office. Once America declared war, on 6 April 1917, Pratt began to exchange strategy ideas with his former chief. From this correspondence one is able to get a good idea of how the captain felt the United States should carry its part of the Allied effort. From this same correspondence it also becomes evident why President Wilson and his advisers, Benson's office particularly, were so distressed with the British prosecution of the war against Germany.

As might be expected, the views of Pratt and Benson concerning the naval war in Europe were unsophisticated. Because of his desire to sully in no way American neutrality, President Wilson regularly had denied Department requests that naval observers be sent to England or the continent to study the war at first hand. The result,  p93 of course, was that the Navy did not really understand the problems of controlling the German submarines; nor did anyone in America suspect the desperate condition of England and her allies that had resulted from the U‑boat depredations. With little factual information at hand, Pratt participated in the drafting of an "Estimate of the Situation" which was to guide the CNO's thinking during the spring of 1917. This estimate, dated 13 March, stressed defensive measures to be taken in American waters. The immediate threat was expected to be from German submarines operating against American merchant tonnage and the Atlantic Fleet. To meet this menace, merchantmen would be armed, 110‑foot patrol craft would be constructed, and non‑rigid airships (blimps) would patrol from air bases along the American littoral. In brief, the naval war would be fought defensively in the Western Hemisphere. The ultimate threat would come from the German High Seas Fleet were it able to defeat the Royal Navy and then move westward against the United States. In this estimate there was no plan for an antisubmarine campaign in European waters nor a program for a comprehensive revision of the naval construction program authorized in August 1916.4

Underlying Pratt's estimate was a deep pessimism, shared by President Wilson and his CNO, about the British ability to contain the Germans. The war of attrition on the Western Front had led to hundreds of thousands of Allied casualties at Verdun, the Somme, and at Passchendaele, apparently for no obvious strategic purpose. This mindless, and bloody approach to warfare had shaken American confidence in British and French military planning and operations. Once in the war, Wilson and General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John J. Pershing were in agreement that the American reinforcement would fight under its own generals and preferably in its own sectors of the front. This pessimistic view of Allied battlefield capabilities was reinforced when the President, Daniels, or Benson considered the naval stalemate that had existed since Jutland. That the German High Seas Fleet had been contained was not enough. American "armchair strategists," and some responsible naval officers as well, could not understand why the German submarine bases weren't closed — why "the hornets were not smoked from their nest."5 Those on the scene recognized the impregnability  p94 of the German naval operating bases, carefully guarded by coastal artillery and minefields, but this picture was not available, or believed, in Washington. The result of this American ignorance was the emergence of the judgment that the British were not trying to win and were really hoping the United States would "pull their chestnuts out of the fire." Strategically speaking, this American naval view meant that Admiral Benson and Admiral Mayo, the commander in chief, of the Atlantic Fleet, adopted a defensive and highly protective posture in the Atlantic area. If the British failed, as they were expected to do, then the U. S. fleet was the only weapon available to meet the Germans in American waters.

It became the tasks of Admiral Sims, once he understood the situation in Europe, to restore American confidence in British naval judgment and to devise his own strategy for defeating the German submarines. Important to the latter task was the education of Captain Pratt. Sims was confident that once his friend knew the facts, and accepted his approach, he would be able to bring the Operations Office around to his way of thinking. Sims was overly optimistic during the first months of his stay in Europe, but eventually he was to succeed — despite Daniels and Benson, he would later charge. There was one important factor he did not have to worry about; Pratt was already an Anglophile and willing to do his best to ready the United States Navy for the relief of the watch in the North Sea and the Western Approaches. A month after Sims arrived in London, Pratt wrote to him stressing the need for cooperation; ". . . there are mighty few who like yourself, and if I may say it, myself, who are straight Anglo-Saxon to the bone and who realize that England has carried the bag for a long time."6

With Sims in Europe, asking once a week that his friend join him as chief of staff, and the Navy Department hard at work organizing for the war it must prosecute, Pratt's interest in the Army War College dropped to zero. The same must have been true, quite obviously, for those Army officers in attendance. Finally, because of the pressing need to get every regular Army officer committed to the job of preparing an American Expeditionary Force, Secretary of War Newton Baker ordered an early graduation for the class of 1917. Pratt was detached on 19 May 1917 and immediately reported for full-time duty in the Office of Naval Operations. As he stated in his own modest way; "In the end I graduated, so to speak, and was given a diploma,  p95 which to my mind was more an honorary concession, than it was an earned degree." Regardless of the conditions under which he earned his War College diploma, the captain now began to drive himself at a pace that amazed most who knew him, but which eventually was almost to force him into early retirement as a health casualty of the war on the Potomac.

Once at work in Operations, Pratt lived the life of a somewhat ascetic bachelor. Louise was expecting a child, after fifteen long years, and she had gone to New York City to stay with her brother Ralph and Posey to await the event. Both she and Bill knew that he would be impossibly busy; both also knew that she would get excellent medical care in New York, and she was to need it. Perhaps they were sensitive about having a child so late in their lives, or perhaps they felt this was their business alone, but very few in Pratt's circle knew their "secret." It wasn't until June that he wrote to Sims that "we have always wanted one, but never had any luck before." Sims certainly was one to understand the situation; his first child was born when he was almost fifty, though he had married much later than his friend. If one might be permitted a biographer's surmise, it is quite possible that Pratt would have felt guilty with the company of Louise in Washington. The admiral, and those in Queenstown ("at the front"), were not allowed to have their wives overseas, by Sims' specific orders. With Louise away from Washington, Pratt undoubtedly felt lighter in conscience when he corresponded with his old friend and Sims' staff, since Pratt, too, was doing his part to win the war.

During the twenty-three months that Captain Pratt worked in the Office of Naval Operations (February 1917-January 1919) he occupied the unenviable position of being the man in the middle between a variety of powerful contending interests. Because of his position in Benson's staff, Sims was to badger him unmercifully; he had to fend off the attempts of Admiral Mayo to weaken CNO's control over the operating forces; at times he had to handle problems that arose between the semi-independent Commander of Naval Forces Operating in European Waters (Sims) and the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet (Mayo), who was Sims' superior. At all times he was an interested party in the power struggle between CNO and the somewhat lordly (in their independence) chiefs of the various bureaus. Many of the battles, such as the last mentioned, were really Benson's, but Pratt made them his own because so much of the CNO's detailed work had fallen on him.

 p96  In his first weeks of duty, after reporting in May, Pratt was an assistant to Captain Volney Chase, Benson's chief of staff. With Chase's untimely death on 25 June, Pratt became Assistant to the CNO, even though Rear Admiral J. S. McKean also served in the office. Thus the captain received a striking vote of confidence from Admiral Benson and Secretary Daniels; but it also meant, in all of the battles ahead, that one of the contending parties would be sure to lay some of the blame on Pratt when he did not get what he wanted. In short, Bill Pratt was to be a typical chief of staff; suspected by all, appreciated by few, and an object of covert concern even to his chief.

Of all the problems which perplexed Pratt and the CNO, none was to cause greater concern, and lend itself less to direct solution, than the question of how the Navy should fight the war. Despite later testimony in 1920, it is obvious that there was no meaningful war plan for fighting Germany under the conditions existing in April 1917. What did exist was a plan for mobilization of the fleet preparatory to engaging the German High Seas Fleet in the West Indies or off the North American coast. But by June 1917 it was rather obvious to Pratt, and Sims in London, that this event was unlikely to eventuate unless there was a total collapse of the Allied effort. Instead, the major military problem was how to defeat the German submarines before their toll of Allied merchant tonnage caused the Allied effort on the continent to falter and eventually to fail. In simple naval parlance, it was a question of protecting lines of communication from attack by a unique and terribly effective weapon. What made this problem less obvious, and therefore less capable of solution, was the reluctance of Admirals Benson and Mayo to believe it existed.

One of the unfortunate results of British propaganda efforts in America, and "management" of information at home, was the creation of the viewpoint that the German submarines were ineffective and that the Allies were winning the war. Upon arrival in London, Sims was given the full and unvarnished story. The U‑boats were sinking Allied and neutral merchant tonnage faster than it could be replaced. With six more weeks of sinkings, food imports into the British Isles would not be enough to meet demands, and shipments of munitions to the Allied armies would slow to a trickle.7 It took  p97 the combined efforts of Sims, Ambassador Walter Hines Page, and Prime Minister David Lloyd George to get the story to President Wilson and Secretary Daniels without its impact being reduced by filtering through the Atlantic Fleet and the Office of Naval Operations. Getting the true picture before the President and the Secretary was the first step, but devising a strategy to solve the problem was even knottier.8

As noted before, Admirals Benson and Mayo had been basically pessimistic about the outcome of the war before America entered. From this outlook had developed a strategy and naval construction program that anticipated the defeat of the Royal Navy. The Atlantic Fleet was concentrated on the Atlantic Coast, more often as not within the protection of Chesapeake Bay, and a capital-ship construction program was laid down in 1916 that would give the United States a fighting chance of defeating the Germans at sea — provided they didn't arrive before 1919 or 1920. A modest number of naval auxiliaries (cruisers, destroyers, submarines) was provided for in the 1916 construction act, such as 10 scout cruisers and 50 destroyers, but the emphasis was on the big‑gun vessels — 10 battleships and 6 battle cruisers. These ships, plus those existing and under construction in 1916, would provide a Navy large enough to handle the Germans and perhaps the Japanese as well. Then, in the late spring of 1917, the value of the existing American fleet was being questioned and suggestions were coming by cable that the construction program should be radically revised. These messages from the doughty vice admiral in command of the Navy's European forces were both insistent and demanding. Sims wanted more antisubmarine craft, more crews, more materiel, more staff, and more recognition that "there was a war going on in European waters."

Sims' strategy for operations against the German submarines was simple and needs to be understood in order to comprehend the role that Pratt played in Washington.9 Basically, Sims argued that the primary mission of the United States Navy was threefold: (1) assure that the supplies and munitions needed in England and on the continent got through; (2) see that the American troops reached England  p98 and France with minimum loss; (3) reduce the German submarine fleet until it was no longer effective. In setting these naval tasks, Sims worked from certain premises that guided his thinking. He did not believe that the German High Seas Fleet could sortie and not be defeated by the British, particularly if an American battleship squadron was added to the Royal Navy. Because of technological limitations, Sims was of the opinion that very few U‑boats could operate in American waters. Those that could cross the Atlantic would be so few in number that their ability to inflict meaningful damage would be severely circumscribed. Finally, because of technological considerations, the German submarines had to operate at the convergence points for Allied and neutral shipping approaching the British Isles or the English Channel. Certain tactics were then advocated by Sims and his staff to accomplish the tasks.

Basic to seeing that supplies got through to England and the French channel ports, Sims pressed for adoption of convoys. Until his arrival in London, the Admiralty had resisted convoying; but within three weeks the British reversed themselves and convoying became doctrine. To Sims, convoys were not a defensive device; they were an essential element in the antisubmarine offensive. Patrolling for submarines with destroyers and other craft had been akin to locating the proverbial "needle in the haystack." When merchantmen and transports were gathered into convoys, the U‑boats would have to come to them and there they would find destroyers or other warships protecting the covey of vessels. Single merchantmen were easy prey for the Germans. Now they would have opposition. Sims summarized his tactical arguments in a letter to Secretary Daniels dated 29 June 1917:

We are dispersing our forces while the enemy is concentrating his. The enemy's submarine mission is and must continue to be the destruction of merchant shipping. The limitations of submarines and the distances over which they must operate prevent them from attacking our naval forces, that is, antisubmarine craft. . . .

It therefore seems to go without question that the only course for us to pursue is to revert to the ancient practice of convoy. This will be purely an offensive measure, because if we concentrate our shipping into convoys and protect it with our naval forces we will thereby force the enemy, in order to carry out his mission, to encounter naval forces which are not embarrassed with valuable cargoes, and which are a great danger to the submarine. . . .10

 p99  There were other important questions associated with convoys that had to be solved, but Sims had won the key argument. The Navy Department had been reluctant to organize convoys in American waters because all of the vessels would then proceed at the speed of the slowest. Yet Sims' arguments prevailed. Early massing was necessary, if it was ever to occur and, more importantly, such massing was vital if the captains were to be trained in zigzagging and other defensive maneuvers. To attempt the training in submarine-infested waters would have been too late and probably suicidal.

A sharper disagreement existed between the Navy Department and Sims' staff when it came to the subject of convoy troop transports. When possible, soldiers and marines were loaded into the few high-speed transports and these were allowed to sail independently. The speed of Leviathan, Great Northern, or Northern Pacific assured a fair degree of immunity from submarine attack. But other, and slower, troop transports had to be used and these had to be convoyed from ports of embarkation to debarkation terminals. Sims felt that escorting with destroyers in waters west of 15 degrees west longitude was wasteful of antisubmarine-craft resources, but the President and the Secretary of the Navy insisted. Were a loaded troopship sunk, the results would be politically disastrous if not militarily so.11

Finally, in order to accomplish the naval tasks so vital to winning the war, Sims pressed to have every vessel capable of antisubmarine operations placed under his command. He could see no reason for a single destroyer remaining in American waters. If Admirals Mayo and Benson felt that patrols off the East Coast were necessary, these should be carried out with old cruisers, tugs, yard craft, and any other miscellaneous craft they could dig up that were not capable of operating in European waters. He stated his views pithily in a note to Rear Admiral L. C. Palmer, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation:

Do not forget, however:

1. That the war will be lost or won according to whether we or the Huns win the submarine campaign — whether we maintain the essential lines of communication or they cut them.

2. That the war will be won or lost by us on this side of the ocean where these lines converge.

3. That the most dreaded enemy of the submarine is the destroyer, whether operating alone or escorting convoys.

 p100  4. That, therefore, the most important considerations are now, and must remain:

(a) Increased numbers of destroyers, and

(b) The war efficiency of the destroyer personnels.12

From Sims' egocentric viewpoint, victory or defeat would hinge on the efforts of his command, particularly those destroyer forces operating out of Queenstown, Ireland. He believed he had been charged with full responsibility for operations in European waters and he was determined not to fail. Any hesitancy on the part of the Navy Department to meet his needs, no matter how demanding, could only be seen by Sims as wrongheaded application of priorities, self-seeking behavior, or stupid political interference by men who had no business being where they were.

In the Office of Naval Operations, Captain Pratt was forced to see the war from a different perspective. He early accepted the Sims strategy for defeating the U‑boat, but he was unable to give his full attention to answering Sims' demands. Because there were few senior officers available for duty in Operations, Pratt's energies were devoted to a variety of study, coordinating, and operating committees as well as carrying out his duties as Admiral Benson's chief assistant. As the Navy searched mightily for new technical devices to combat the enemy, Pratt chaired a "Board on Devices and Plans Connected with Submarine Warfare." Thousands of intelligent as well as "crackpot" ideas and suggestions poured into the Navy Department; he had to help sort out those worth followup. Coordination among the Army, Navy, and Shipping Board to assure the best utilization of merchant shipping, foreign and national, required his efforts. With the institution of a Plans Division in the Office of Naval Operations, a development he had urged the year before, Pratt became the director. Finally, of course, as assistant to Admiral Benson and later (August 1918) Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, he had a mountain of daily communications to digest, order, and present to his chief for action. An admiring subordinate of Pratt's reported to Sims:

Pratt has absolutely made his own personal feeling secondary to the needs of the service, and goes wherever he is sent with a cheerful aye, aye. Speaking of him, I want to tell you that he is as usual delivering a full load of goods each day, and he has by his precise, exact, and efficient methods, won the full appreciation and confidence of the Admiral.13

 p101  Despite the load upon him, the captain found time to scrawl a letter to Sims at fairly regular intervals, though he could not match his friend's weekly letters. Sims understood. From his point of view it was more important that he keep Benson's assistant fully informed of his plans and requirements than it was to receive his friend's almost undecipherable handwritten letters. While he found Pratt's handwriting "astonishing," and occasionally requiring a staff effort to get a full "translation," the admiral did appreciate getting advanced warning when his interests were involved and he did urge the captain to write when possible.

Pratt's efforts, and the work of the Department in general, basically was devoted to implementing Admiral Sims' strategy. To achieve those ends, the Department had to decide what resources in ships and personnel would be needed. It then had to accumulate the resources through construction programs, recruitment, and training programs for officers and enlisted men. Finally, the Department had to allocate the resources after deciding upon priorities. In all of the planning and implementing, Pratt was constantly at the center of decision making.

Ironically, the most pressing shortage in the Navy during the war years was the lack of a strong list of first-rate admirals. While the number of officers and enlisted personnel was to expand enormously, from 58,000 in June 1916 to 232,000 in June 1918, the number of admirals did not increase proportionately. The war was fought with those holding flag rank in 1917 plus a modest increase from selections made in June 1917 and in January and August 1918. From the viewpoint of Sims, Pratt, and others concerned with prosecuting the war, there was too much "deadwood" at the top levels. Sims blamed Secretary Daniels for this condition; he felt that too many individuals had been promoted because they tended to agree with the Secretary's views on naval administration. The sturdier types, independent in their way, had been "plucked out" earlier or, if in flag grade, had been detailed to backwater commands to make room for those acceptable to the Secretary and CNO. While we need not accept Sims' ad hominem derogations, it should be recognized that promotion by selection had only just begun and the admirals and senior captains in 1917 had arrived at their positions on the Navy list by seniority and not having been "plucked." This meant that good health, a clean record, and not having offended those above had been vital criteria for advancement. The previous promotion system thus had left a strong tradition of  p102 careful attention to seniority. Almost every personnel document carried the officer's current signal number and the semi-annual publication of the Navy Register told the story of each officer's steady advancement as a variety of attrition factors eliminated those senior to him. "Keeping his finger on his number" was a hallowed phrase full of meaning to the average officer; but most were quite aware that a change from number 199 to 186 in a six month period did not represent any meaningful growth in competence.

There is a further irony in the fact that the Navy's senior officers in 1917 had been prepared for the wrong tasks. The years of fleet growth after the Spanish-American War had seen the addition of battleships, armored cruisers, and protected cruisers, but only a relatively small input of destroyers and submarines. With the new capital ships, the Navy had been organized into fleets, squadrons, and divisions and all had learned to operate with drillfield precision upon command of the appropriate flag officers present. Basically, the Atlantic Fleet was trained to meet the Japanese, German, or British navies in Caribbean or Pacific waters, form into line of battle (preferably with the weather gage), and then shoot it out with their large-caliber guns. Leadership, seamanship, marksmanship, and a bit of good luck, were assumed to be the vital criteria for victory — assuming that there was no great disparity in numbers of big‑gun ships. The combatant auxiliaries, destroyers and submarines, would be used principally for scouting, and possibly for torpedo attack; but their roles were of necessity less significant than that of the battle line once the fleets made contact. Then, in 1917, the big ships and their admirals were relegated to training and defense duties; the lesser craft, manned by the more junior officers of the fleet, were called "to the front." Sims wanted a few rear admirals and captains for operational duties at Queenstown, Brest, and Gibraltar, but most of all he needed experienced lieutenant commanders and lieutenants to man his destroyers and subchasers. Faced daily with the ominous report of losses, Sims' demands for ASW (antisubmarine warfare) craft and personnel became shriller by the week. He never dared to insist that the Atlantic Fleet be stripped of its middle grade officers. But, to meet his needs such would have to be the case were the European forces given first priority.14

 p103  While Pratt appreciated Sims' requirements, he was unable to alter certain priorities that had been established by Admiral Benson, Secretary Daniels, and even President Wilson. Admiral Benson and Admiral Mayo were determined that the battleship fleet would remain fully manned and ready for action. Furthermore, in keeping with the doctrines of Mahan, the fleet would remain concentrated and would not be "disintegrated" into many detachments.15 Because of these views, the British request in early July of 1917, that a squadron of coal-burning battleships be sent to reinforce the Grand Fleet, was rejected by the Navy Department, despite Sims' hearty endorsement. In denying this proposition, President Wilson and Secretary Daniels stated bluntly to Benson and Sims that the British would have to develop an aggressive plan of action to defeat the Germans before America would send its battleships to European waters. Without any plans in evidence, the Atlantic Fleet had to remain in American waters as the first (or last) line of defense. To put it mildly, Admiral Sims was beside himself in outrage at this decision. The British desperately needed to lay up five pre‑dreadnought battleships of the King Edward class, because of deterioration, yet they could not do this without replacements. Throughout the summer of 1917 Pratt tried, without success, to get Admirals Benson or Mayo to change their views. At one point he suggested that the Japanese be asked to detail four of their battle cruisers to Hampton Roads as replacements in the Atlantic Fleet, but Benson would have none of it.16

It was not until 10 November 1917 that the Navy Department relented. Admiral Mayo and his staff had visited England in August and upon returning to America the commander in chief recommended that the British request be honored. President Wilson and Secretary Daniels still demurred. In November Admiral Benson joined Colonel House on a European trip and, after visiting the Admiralty, he too urged that the coal-burners be sent over. With this recommendation, Daniels caved in and orders were issued for New York (Captain C. F. Hughes), Texas (Captain Victor Blue), Wyoming (Captain H. A. Wiley), and Arkansas (Captain W. H. G. Bullard) to prepare for a trans-Atlantic crossing. In an evening meeting at Daniels' home, Captain Pratt helped decide whether Rear Admiral Thomas S. Rodgers  p104 or Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman would command what became the Sixth Battle Squadron in the Grand Fleet. He admired Rodman's seamanship and said so when queried by the Secretary, even though Admiral Charles Badger and Henry Mayo favored Rodgers. "Uncle Hughie" was ordered that night to this most important command. Pratt was to have more to do with that colorful Kentuckian in the future.17

Another problem of priorities that deviled Pratt and "the gang in Operations" involved Sims' insistent demands for more officer personnel. From his arrival in April until August 1917, the admiral reminded the Department on almost a daily basis that he had no staff and that this was embarrassing to him. He believed that the British could not take him seriously when every task undertaken had to be handled by either his aide, Commander J. V. ("Babby") Babcock, or himself. He could not readily accumulate intelligence or even answer inquiries from Operations because of shorthandedness. While Ambassador Page lent him quarters and the use of his naval aide and staff, this nowhere met the needs of the Commander United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters. He suspected, correctly, that Admiral Benson at first desired to reduce the importance of his assignment. He had been sent to London originally for observation and liaison purposes and had fallen heir to the European command because he was on the spot. On 24 April he was given charge of all destroyer operations in European waters and on 26 May Sims was advanced to Vice Admiral; but no staff additions were in sight. Seven times he requested that Captain Pratt be sent to London to head his staff. The reply was always the same; Pratt could not be spared. The Captain explained the situation himself: "I have personally wanted to go with you [in] the worst way. Chase and the others have insisted that this is my job, that I am giving greater equivalent to the Government, and as you know that is our War College training."18

What Sims could not (or would not) understand was that there was a severe officer shortage and that the Atlantic Fleet was doing significant work in training the very officers that he so badly needed. The officer shortage in 1917 was traceable to three facts: the number of vessels in the fleet had grown steadily since the Spanish-American War; the officer input had expanded more slowly than the fleet because the Naval Academy class sizes had been raised only once between  p105 1901 and 1916; and there was no other source of regular officers except for a few "mustangs" who were allowed to move up from warrant ranks. With the great naval expansion act of 1916, the Naval Academy class sizes were almost doubled, but the first large graduation was not due until June 1920. As in 1906 and 1907, when classes were graduated early to help man the new dreadnoughts coming into commission, the classes of 1917 and 1918 were graduated early (1918 on 27 June 1917) to meet the wartime needs. Yet there still were not enough regular officers to meet fleet and shore establishment needs. The expansion of shipbuilding and naval foundry and ordnance facilities, the creation of enlisted training centers, and the new naval flying schools, and the expansion of the Naval Academy all required officers for managerial and instructional positions. Within the fleet the admirals called for full wartime complements where they had operated with 75 to 90 percent manning before. And, finally, the fleet was to become the reserve officers training school. College graduates, after a brief period of instruction ashore, were assigned to Admiral Mayo's vessels for on‑the‑job training and indoctrination. Eventually, of course, there would be a steady stream of new United States Naval Reserve Force ensigns available for duty in the war zones, but this would take time. Were the fleet robbed of its trained officers, readiness for combat would diminish and the pace of training would of necessity slacken. Pratt understood all this because he had helped Commander (later Captain) Harris Laning sell his officer training program to Admirals Benson and Mayo.19 He also had decided that Rear Admiral Leigh C. Palmer's priorities were correct; a core of experienced officers had to be retained for training purposes or there could be no expansion of the officer base. He argued to Sims: "We must not and cannot make the mistake England did in her first expeditionary Army." He did believe that bright reserves would be useful to Sims because, "we all hold here that a man gets the best training at the front."

Exasperating Sims as much as his chronic shortage of staff personnel were the innumerable quarrels with Naval Operations concerning the use of personnel and ships to combat the German submarine menace. Here, again, Pratt was caught in the middle. He understood Sims'  p106 strategy and tactical ideas, but he was also cognizant of the personnel shortages and was pretty much in sympathy with operational approaches that ran counter to his friend's views. Pratt, for instance, favored the use of naval gun‑crews on the merchant vessels sailing to the war zone. His close friend in Operations, Captain Frank H. Schofield, had studied the idea of using armed guards and had convinced Pratt that his analysis was sound. Sims disagreed bluntly. Schofield was a fine analyst; he had merely drawn logical conclusions from an unsound premise. The admiral pointed out that heavily armed battleships needed destroyers for escorts — one need only look at Admiral Jellicoe's Grand Fleet; how, then, could a gun or two on a merchant vessel be of any use against a small target like a U‑boat. More importantly, Sims was desperately afraid that the use of naval gun‑crews would have two disastrous secondary results: the armed guard personnel would not be available for duty in his destroyer forces, where they were badly needed; and, even more significant, arming the merchant vessels was being used as an excuse for not getting down to the business of organizing convoys.20 To Sims, as we have noted earlier, convoys were a weapon in the offensive against the submarines and he wanted to get on with the war. In time the admiral's views triumphed. By the end of the summer almost all merchantmen were sailing eastward in convoys, escorted by whatever vessels could be scraped together for the duty. A good portion of the credit for changing the Department's views must be given to Pratt; but the steady stream of argument from the European commander was the foundation for the change.

Sims' deluge of cables and letters to the Department and its senior officers occasionally border on the abusive. His lack of staff personnel and the apparent inactivity in Operations triggered many an epistolary salvo that only a friend like Pratt would have been willing to receive. When his friend did snap back occasionally, Sims could be delightfully contrite:

I will follow the advice that you give me in your letter, the principal object of which was to notify me that I had been clubbing you unnecessarily, or rather too severely. Please do not think anything of this, as I was only letting off a little steam under the pressure of the work we have to do over here. You must excuse me for having been irritated over the position in  p107 which I was left for such a long time, without any staff to do much of the important work that I wanted to do.


Do not for a moment assume, however, that I do not understand the difficulties under which you had to work, or that I do not fully appreciate all [that] you and the gang are doing. . . . I can assure you that I am profoundly grateful [for your letters]. Not, however, to the extent of refraining hereafter from pasting any of your ideas and arguments that I consider to be punk. I consider it no unimportant part of your job to put up these arguments, and no less an important part of my job to swat them in my retiring and modest way when ever I can show that they are full of large and ragged holes. I believe you have done, and are now doing, admirable work. . . .21

Throughout 1917 Sims' strongest letters concerned the imperative need that any vessel capable of fighting submarines be assigned to his forces. When the destroyers, yachts, and subchaser flotillas began dribbling in, he called for more. At times he complained about not being notified that they were coming or that they were being sent to bases of which he did not approve. On other occasions he worried about officers he considered incompetent being assigned to him. When told that most of the officers coming over would be reserves, he wondered what all the Naval Academy-trained lieutenants were doing. When finally assigned a staff — actually handpicked by Pratt — he demanded that he be consulted because insensitive types (i.e., anti-British) might be sent and they would do more harm than good. With hindsight it is easy to see that Sims had complained so long, and so loudly, that he was unable to turn down the volume once things began to improve. Yet, to give the commander his due, his responsibility was awesome and he never forgot it. His philosophy of command was very simple and effective: give the right man the job to do, and hold him responsible, but support him in all his requests. When he doesn't measure up, sack him. Sims intensely resented control or meddling from Washington. His constant theme was that the man closest to the action must be in full charge but held accountable. Pratt, we might add, absorbed this philosophy of command in its entirety and lived by it.

Of all the wartime decisions in which Pratt played a significant role, none was of greater long-term consequence than the decision  p108 to defer construction on capital ships authorized in the 1916 naval act; here the evidence is quite clear that the captain was far in advance of his seniors. Less than a month after leaving the Army War College he wrote a strong memorandum to the CNO urging that shipbuilding priority be given to merchant tonnage and ASW craft and submarines. All civilian shipbuilding ways should be devoted to merchantmen and the naval yards should concentrate on ASW vessels. When battleships were under construction, they should be completed; but no other battleships, or battle cruisers, should be laid down. He noted that the General Board wanted all of the capital ships built and the Navy rounded out in combatant auxiliaries because it believed that in the not too distant future the United States might be at war with one or more of its current allies. Pratt did not reject this premise: he simply concluded that it was more important to make sure that the current war was not lost, rather than worrying about a future one. He stated his own assumption pithily: ". . . we did not enter the war alone. We have allies, and their efforts against the now common enemy have stood between us and possible aggressions for over two years. They have needs. Their needs are immediate and imperative. Their cause is our cause now."22 Very obviously underlying Pratt's "Estimate of the Situation" was the premise that relations with Japan were not, and need not be, as bad as many believed. By coincidence Sims wrote to Pratt, on the same day that the captain's memorandum went to Benson: "I think your dope about Japan is about right. I do not think that we will have anything to fear from them after this war is over for many years to come. Of course, the war itself is going to strengthen us immensely in a military sense and our battle fleet must soon hopelessly outstrip theirs."

While Pratt and Sims might be in agreement that the priorities for shipbuilding should be reordered, and that the likelihood of war with Japan was somewhat remote, the President, his Navy Secretary, and the CNO were less sanguine about giving up capital ship construction. Japan was on their minds, but so was the possibility that the British Fleet would be used against them were the Central Powers to win. The threat of Japan had been present since the opening of Wilson's administration, though it was now less pressing.23 On the other hand, there was the nagging fear that the Allies would collapse. Secretary Daniels confided to his diary on 2 May 1917: "General Board reported  p109 that sub‑marine warfare critical and action must be taken at once. . . . Thought in a few months England would be starved into submission."24 Pratt urged Sims to get the British to promise that their fleet would never be used against America. The admiral replied that he and Ambassador Page had discussed this with Prime Minister Lloyd George and that the Englishman had suggested embodying this in a treaty. Going even further, Colonel House, in Europe during July, wrote to the President that Foreign Secretary Balfour expressed willingness to press France, Italy, Russia, and Japan to join Great Britain and the United States in a multilateral pledge of mutual naval assistance for a period of four years after the war, were America to stop capital-ship construction and concentrate on ASW craft. Wilson refused to consider such a treaty. The Senate would never agree to it; besides, he believed America would prefer again to play a lone hand once the war was over.25 Despite the President's unwillingness to seek reassurance by treaty, Secretary Daniels finally agreed on 20 July to the proposed revision of ship construction priorities. Pratt actually had written his first suggestions in March and then stated them fully on 7 June. Four precious months of ship-construction time now had been lost.26

The Navy Department's slowness in changing the shipbuilding priorities was symptomatic of a malaise that afflicted the Navy's leadership and was to place intolerable burdens on Captain Pratt and his friend Sims. The source of this malaise was Secretary Daniels and the men he had chosen to help him administer the Navy Department. By 1917 the Secretary had been in office four years and some startling changes had taken place in the Navy during that period. He had gained early notoriety by his actions to "reform" the service. His 1914 General Order closing the wine messes on board ship had probably reduced tendencies toward drunkenness that had certainly existed in a few officers; and such action undoubtedly eliminated inefficiency or negligence in steaming operations that could be traced to officers who drank and tried to stand watches. On the other hand the move definitely lowered officer morale for reasons easily imagined. Being able to have liquor on board ship was an officer perquisite forbidden  p110 to enlisted men a number of years previously. By closing the wine messes, the Secretary was not only demonstrating his well known opposition to liquor, but he was also pressing ahead with his efforts to democratize the service by reducing the gap between officers and enlisted men. The Secretary was definitely far ahead of his time with another order that required schooling for enlisted men on board ships and at shore stations. This move was designed to make it easier for the sailors to qualify for admission to the Naval Academy (another innovation) or possibly qualify for advancement to commissioned status through promotion from chief petty officer or warrant officer. Daniels unsuccessfully encouraged mixed messing throughout the Navy and set an example, now and then, by inviting enlisted men to dine with officers when he visited units in the fleet.27 On balance, one could say the Navy's officer corps was conservative and behind the times in resisting enlisted schooling; on the other hand, Daniels was definitely too far in advance of his times in his attempts to democratize and civilianize the Navy. His actions in these areas annoyed many officers, junior and senior, but his ardent pacifism and unwillingness to press naval construction deeply worried the senior officers.

Since the days of President Theodore Roosevelt, the fleet had been growing steadily in numbers and quality of battleships, but in 1913 it still had a long way to go if it were to be a match for the British Navy or that of Germany. The General Board presented Secretary Daniels with its construction plan calling for forty-eight battleships by 1920 and immediate construction of four per year to make up for time lost during President Taft's administration.28 With these capital ships, plus steady construction of destroyers and submarines, the Board hoped to achieve a "Navy second to none." Faced with possible budget deficits in the recession years of 1913‑1914, President Wilson directed economies and Daniels complied by halving the battleship construction requests. With this action, he soon came under heavy fire from political partisans in Congress and the press; he also received sniping fire from Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske, his Aid for Operations, and from the General Board's officers. Again, his personal enthusiasms, this time pacifism, were blamed for his administrative action. In 1914, despite the European war, Daniels stood with the  p111 President in his resistance to overt preparedness activity and again called for two instead of four dreadnoughts in the annual building program. Again he was taken under fire by Navy League, certain periodicals, and some of his admirals. By mid‑1915 President Wilson was more interested in "preparedness" and his Navy Secretary quickly fell into line. The legacy of these years, despite the enormous naval bill drafted in late 1915 and passed in the summer of 1916, was an uneasiness in the service that Daniels was not interested in a large, first-class Navy. In fact, the secretary wanted the best the nation could afford; but he preferred that all nations should reduce their navies once the Great War was concluded.

Finally, in terms of creating a spirit of non‑confidence in Daniels throughout the officer corps, there was the problem of leadership at the top. Many of the Navy's senior officers sincerely believed that a general staff, similar to that of the Army's, was badly needed for purposes of efficiency. They respected the principle of civilian control of the Armed Services, but they believed an admiral, under the direction of the Secretary, should direct all fleet operations and possibly control the supporting bureaus as well. Such a "chief of naval operations" would need a full staff to assist with management and war planning. Daniels would have none of it. He felt that this smacked too much of "Prussianism" and that the war in Europe was clear evidence that the military had gotten out of control. He had inherited an aid system and believed that his Council of Aids was enough of a centralized staff for America's democratic system. When Congress did create an Office of Naval Operations in March of 1915, with a Chief of Naval Operations as its director, it was in spite of Daniels' covert resistance. Despite the new legislation, he did not appoint Bradley Fiske, his Aid for Operations, as Chief. Instead, Fiske was relieved and Captain William Shepherd Benson was selected for the new position and promoted to Rear Admiral. From the service viewpoint, a very able officer had been discarded because his views were unacceptable to the Secretary and he was replaced with a captain who probably would be more amenable to Daniels' wishes.29 In fact, the new Chief of Naval Operations, while completely loyal to Daniels, had the integrity to be his own man. Assisting him from late 1916, of course, was Captain Pratt.

In taking over as CNO in May 1915, Benson accepted the onerous  p112 burden of defining and developing a position in the Navy that had not existed before. Under existing legislation, he had charge of all operations and war planning under the direction of the Secretary. His staff was meager and he had no authority over the Department's bureaus. He could keep track of the fleet, but the Bureau of Navigation determined who would command its ships, and an admiral senior to Benson commanded the Atlantic Fleet. Other admirals would provide supplies, build new ships, or see that the vessels were in operating condition. If Benson thought any action should be taken by a bureau, he would have to get the Secretary to order it if his own request fell on deaf ears. In time, because of Daniels' penchant for selecting fairly junior captains (or even commanders) to head bureaus as temporary rear admirals, Benson was able to assert authority based on seniority; but even here some bureau chiefs exercised striking independence, particularly if they were close to Daniels on a personal basis. In brief, the command structure of the Navy, despite new legislation, was exactly what Secretary Daniels wanted and officers like Bradley Fiske and William Sims detested. All policy and major operational decisions had to be signed by the Secretary. If he insisted on examining all details, and Daniels did, decision-making would be interminably slow. When a new CNO must learn his job with the rules not being very explicit, then the chances of rapid action in his office are not very good. Admiral Benson was conservative by nature, and deliberative by habit. Secretary Daniels was liberal in politics, suspicious of naval leaders, and determined not to be gulled into undesirable actions. The result of this leadership, at the very apex of the Navy, was what Abraham Lincoln might have described as a "very bad case of the slows."

The Author's Notes:

1 Pratt, "Autobiography," p200.

[decorative delimiter]

2 U. S., Army War College, "Chronicle of the Army War College," Unpublished MS, Army War College Archives, Carlisle Barracks, Pa., pp267‑78.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp202‑03.

[decorative delimiter]

4 "Estimate of the Situation," Washington, 13 March 1917, box 580, RG45/NA.

[decorative delimiter]

5 Ray Stannard Baker, War Leader, 1917‑1918, Vol. VII of Woodrow Wilson, Life and Letters (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939), pp140, 211‑12; E. David Cronon, ed., The Cabinet Diaries of Josephus Daniels, 1913‑1921 (Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), pp181‑82, 191.

[decorative delimiter]

6 WVP to W. S. Sims, Washington, 6 May 1917, box 552, RG45/NA.

[decorative delimiter]

7 Morison, op. cit., pp341‑44; William Sowden Sims, The Victory at Sea (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1921), pp7‑11; W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 18 August 1917, Sims MSS/LCMD.

[decorative delimiter]

8 Burton J. Hendrick, The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1922), Vol. II, 274‑79. The best study to date of the interactions among Sims, Benson, and the Admiralty is David F. Trask, Captains and Cabinets: Anglo-American Naval Relations, 1917‑1918 (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1972). Professor Trask and I have used basically the same American sources and our conclusions are generally in agreement.

[decorative delimiter]

9 Sims, op. cit., pp392‑99.

[decorative delimiter]

10 Ibid., p388.

[decorative delimiter]

11 Secretary of the Navy to W. S. Sims, Washington, 28 July 1917, box 580, RG45/NA; W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 11 August 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

12 W. S. Sims to RADM L. C. Palmer, Queenstown, Ireland, 8 October 1817, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

13 LCDR Charles Belknap to W. S. Sims, Washington, 26 July 1917, Sims MSS/LCMD.

[decorative delimiter]

14 W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 3 July 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD; W. S. Sims to ADM W. S. Benson, London, 9 October 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD; W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 21 November 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD. See also, Trask, op. cit., pp89‑91.

[decorative delimiter]

15 Secretary of the Navy to W. S. Sims, Washington, 10 July 1917, box 580, RG45/NA.

[decorative delimiter]

16 Baker, op. cit., pp155‑56; W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 18 August 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD; W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 24 September 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD. On the Japanese battleships, see "Hearing of Captain Pratt, before the General Board," Washington, 19 October 1918, Sims MSS/LCMD.

[decorative delimiter]

17 Cronon, op. cit., p235; Pratt, "Autobiography," pp219‑20.

[decorative delimiter]

18 WVP to W. S. Sims, Washington, 2 July 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

19 CAPT Harris Laning's efforts are described in his unpublished manuscript, "An Admiral's Yarn," deposited in the Naval War College Library. See also Gerald E. Wheeler, ed., "The War College Years of Admiral Harris Laning, U. S. Navy," Naval War College Review (March 1969), p71.

[decorative delimiter]

20 WVP to W. S. Sims, Washington, 2 July 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD; W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 3 July 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

21 W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 1 September 1917, 11 August 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD. In his correspondence with his friends, the admiral usually closed with his leitmotiv — "cheer up" or "please remain cheerful."

[decorative delimiter]

22 WVP to CNO, Washington, 7 June 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

23 Baker, op. cit., pp161‑62.

[decorative delimiter]

24 Cronon, op. cit., p145.

[decorative delimiter]

25 WVP to W. S. Sims, Washington, 2 July 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD; W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 28 July 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD; Baker, op. cit., pp152‑53, 161‑62.

[decorative delimiter]

26 Tracy B. Kittredge, Naval Lessons of the Great War (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1921), p308. The change in naval construction priorities and a possible Anglo-American naval treaty are fully discussed in Trask, op. cit., pp95‑96, 102‑25.

[decorative delimiter]

27 Joseph L. Morrison, Josephus Daniels: The Small‑d Democrat (Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), pp59‑67.

[decorative delimiter]

28 General Board, "Naval Policy — Building Program," General Board No. 446, Washington, 28 March 1913, G. B. Records, NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

29 Morison, op. cit., pp315‑18; Fiske, op. cit., pp561‑89.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 26 Sep 14