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

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

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home
previous:

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Ch. 4 Pt. 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Admiral William Veazie Pratt

by
Gerald E. Wheeler

U. S. Government Printing Office
Washington, D. C.
1974

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!

next:

[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p112  Chapter IV

Assistant Chief of Naval Operations
During World War I

[Part 2 of 2]

Had Captain Pratt been interested in drama, he would have recognized that once the war began he was being cast in the starring role of an almost classical tragedy. Two powerful protagonists, men of strong will and integrity, each completely sure of the correctness of his position, were contending for direction of the Navy's war effort. Pratt was a close friend of Sims and loyal as such; on the other hand he was Benson's principal assistant, designated in a secret memorandum by Daniels to succeed to the office of CNO were Benson killed or incapacitated,30 and completely loyal in a service sense to his superiors. He was truly trapped between two millstones represented by the  p113 Daniels-Benson deliberateness and Sims' urgent calls for action. It is little wonder that Pratt looked back from the perspective of twenty years and wrote: "I entered upon my work without a grey hair in my head or a nerve in my body. I left with both, with fear in my heart, fear of a breakdown, and with a resolve never to enter that cursed hole again." As he had to, Pratt unloaded tensions and insecurities into letters to his wife. We get a feeling for his situation from Louise's note in September 1917: "It frightens me to think of the thin ice you are on between Sims — the admiral [Benson] and all the men who may be jealous — it worries me a great deal to think of the strain you must be under — and I pray it will all come out right." Viewed with that splendid hindsight of the biographer, it all did "come out right;" that it did, was indeed a measure of Pratt's skill in managing officers senior to him.

In all of his relations with CNO Benson, Captain Pratt hewed very closely to the traditional patterns established within the naval service. In personal correspondence with his family or friends he very seldom referred to Benson except as "The Admiral." With the admiral himself, Pratt never used a nickname, first name, or any salutation except "Dear Admiral" or, on rare occasions, "My Dear Admiral." Benson was equally formal. It was "Dear Pratt," or occasionally, "My dear Pratt." But this was the Navy's way. Admiral Benson's papers, except when writing to family, do not reveal that he was treating his assistant any more formally than the rest of the service. Benson was twelve years senior to Pratt and neither forgot it. Yet, occasionally, there was a direct exchange that suggested that each deeply appreciated the other's worth. Several times the captain wrote personally, effusively, almost in a maudlin sense, of his appreciation for Benson. In one letter, which Benson opened at sea while en route to England in October 1917, Pratt gushed:

I am not much given to saying things, but I want you to know that I have learned to admire the character you show in every line of your face: the dignity, poise, fine clear judgment and above all that sterling nugget integrity which is the soul of honor and which this country needs so much at present. . . . The Navy and the country can thank its [sic] good fortune in having you. I keenly feel the confidence you place in me, and can only say I wish I were worthy of it.

After the war's close, when he had taken command of New York, Pratt again wrote one of his effusive notes: "I wanted to write you a line thanking you for all you have done for me. I have left the office  p114 after nearly two years work under a chief whose sterling integrity and splendid qualities have won my respect, admiration and affection."31

Letters of this type, of course, are normally impossible for a senior to answer. About the best that Benson could come up with was penned while en route to the war zone in October 1918:

I can't tell you how glad I would be to have you along on this expedition, not only for the association, but for the solid advice that I always receive from you and which I feel I shall very much need in the next few months. . . . The one thing that really worries me is the fear that you will work too hard and not get enough rest and recreation. Please keep this in mind and take care of yourself.32

Early in his career as CNO, Admiral Benson tried too hard to master the detail that flowed to him and through him en route to Secretary Daniels. With the avalanche of paper that descended during the war, he did the only practical thing; he concerned himself with policy and key personnel or operational decisions, and left the implementation to Pratt and the staff. In practice this meant that Pratt was perpetually buried in reports, cables, correspondence, and interminable personal pleas for action on this and that. He strongly believed that the staff under him should be delegated the authority to make decisions at their level, when appropriate, but he was always short of experienced assistants. Officers from the Torpedo Flotilla and other associations, Frank Schofield, Harry Yarnell, Harris Laning, Dudley Knox, and others were men in whom Pratt had great confidence and with whom he could work easily. But, in time, they were siphoned off to build Sims' staff and the Assistant CNO then had to carry the burden himself.33 It must have taken a martyr's patience to avoid a bitter reply when Sims criticized Operations for being clogged with paperwork, much of which came from London. In his needling way, the admiral wrote in August 1918:

I am naturally very much interested that you are really attempting to set up a staff organization in the Department. It is rather a curious reflection that the Navy Department should have watched a war for three years and been in a war for one‑and-a‑half years without having organized a practical piece of machinery to carry on its work.

 p115  In order to keep his desk cleared, and decisions flowing out of the Department, Pratt used two other administrative approaches beyond working a sixty‑five-hour week. He sat on many Department and inter-departmental committees. This took time, but it did bring the CNO's authority to them when it was time to act. Mines could be ordered, merchant shipping could be distributed, or new ASW or convoy techniques could be pushed. When he spoke, all knew he was reflecting CNO's ideas. But, from time to time, decisions became stacked up when Benson and Daniels could not make up their minds. On several occasions, when Secretary Daniels was politicking or engaging in ceremonial duties, Pratt would arrange for Admiral Benson to be invited to Annapolis or Norfolk for a speech, launching, or inspection. On those rare occasions when the Secretary and CNO were out of Washington, Pratt as "Acting CNO" would clean out his and the admiral's "in" baskets and action would replace inaction. Benson, it should be noted, unclogged many situations under similar conditions.

Only rarely did the CNO complain about Pratt's behavior. In November and December of 1918, while Benson was in Europe, Pratt had to make an extremely large number of decisions concerning demobilization. Benson snapped at him several times, by cable, complaining that his assistant was making policy rather than referring the questions to Paris. Pratt retreated, and sulked a bit, but quickly got on with his duties. To his wife he confided:

The Lord knows I have been loyalty itself to him and in every way, I have obliterated my own personality; and I do try to consult and refer things to him. But he is a long way off. . . . When I feel sure of his attitude I do act at times because things were so fine that one can't very well wait. I have no desire to usurp any authority, and my only wish is to do what is right, and to serve my country. . . . God knows I haven't got one single thing out of this and don't expect or want to.

In his wartime relations with Admiral Sims, there was no need for Bill Pratt to "obliterate his personality." The older officer was a friend who deeply appreciated the many strong qualities of Pratt. The younger officer had not only been a chief of staff for the admiral, but in a moment of crisis in Sims' career he had defended the latter's record in writing and undoubtedly contributed to his advancement to flag rank in 1916.34 While Pratt's correspondence with Sims was  p116 informal ("Dear Sims"; "I assure you I am remaining cheerful"), he never presumed upon their friendship; in fact, the impositions came constantly from the admiral. Sims badly wanted Pratt to manage his staff, but he quickly realized that he got better service with his friend remaining in Washington. As we have seen, much of what Sims received, in personnel and materiel, came as rapidly as it did because the Assistant CNO pressed the Department to meet his needs. Yet it should not be imagined that Pratt was merely an empty receptacle into which Sims' ideas flowed.

In several areas the two officers were in perfect agreement. Pratt understood Sims' need for an adequate staff and did all he could to supply personnel to London. At first he was held up because of Admiral Benson's need to develop his own office. Once CNO's requirements were met, there was still the problem of deciding what role Sims would play. If he were merely an observer, then he could report through the naval attache's office in the London or Paris embassies; but once he was designated to command United States Forces Operating in European Waters, and raised to vice admiral, a staff had to be provided. This took time, and as we have seen the admiral was most impatient. Pratt also quickly understood Sims' views on convoys as an offensive weapon and rapidly moved to supply ASW craft for the war zone. Here, of course, Pratt met heavy resistance. For instance, Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, who relieved Sims in command of the Torpedo Flotilla, remained a part of the Atlantic Fleet but saw his command steadily dwindle away as the destroyers were transferred to Sims' forces. Gleaves was three years senior to Sims, actually ranking Benson on the permanent list, and quickly became a problem to the Department. He probably should have been in Europe, but Secretary Daniels was opposed to promoting him and did not do so until the end of the war. With his destroyer command rapidly evaporating, Gleaves was placated by being made Commander Convoy Operations in the Atlantic (29 May 1917) and given the armored cruiser Seattle for a flagship. From Seattle, or his office building in Hoboken, Gleaves did a creditable job and, more importantly, was out of Pratt's hair and remained clear of Sims' command.35

While agreeing on staffs and convoys, Pratt and Sims disagreed on convoy operations. The admiral wanted convoys formed outside the  p117 East Coast ports with old cruisers or battleships for escort to European waters. Admiral Benson, and Pratt, thought all merchant vessels should sail independently to a mid‑ocean rendezvous and then form into convoys. As noted earlier, Sims won them over to his views. Again, Benson and Pratt disagreed strongly with Sims' plan to have fast troopships sail unescorted. Both President Wilson and Daniels were concerned about the possible impression on the public were a transport sunk. Pratt, being in Washington, was sensitive to this issue and sided with his superiors. In the case of mines, Sims somewhat agreed with the British that they hampered the Royal Navy as much as the enemy. Pratt, on the other hand, looked at mining as an offensive weapon and grew more sanguine once the electric impulse mine, developed by Commander S. P. Fullinwider and others, proved successful.

More important than the agreements or disagreements between Sims and Pratt was the fact that they could exchange views that differed and still maintain open lines of communication between themselves. Undoubtedly the element of respect that each held for the other made this possible. In time, however, their personal correspondence became a problem of first magnitude to the younger man. At Sims' suggestion Pratt passed Sims' letters, or portions of them, along to officers in Operations and to Benson in order that they might get the admiral's views at first hand.36 In time, Sims' abrasive letters to Pratt provoked an interesting response in the CNO. On 24 September 1917 he wrote to Sims:

Your letter of September 1st, duly received. I appreciate and understand what you say therein and candor compels me to state that Pratt, through a very fine sense of loyalty, in accordance with your general permission to show your personal letters to anyone who could use them to advantage and the general good, has shown them to me. At least, he has shown quite a number of them to me until finally, through a sense of what I considered justice to you, I requested him not to let me read any more of them, as I was afraid that the constant spirit of criticism and complaint that pervaded them, at all times showing unmistakable inference that most of good that was being [done] in this office was due to Pratt, and possibly Schofield, would gradually produce a state of mind on my part that was undesirable, to say the least.

Sims' response to Benson's letter is one of the most unique in his collection of correspondence:

Permit me to say that your action in declining to see any more of these  p118 letters for fear you would be influenced thereby, to the detriment of the efficiency of the work over here, is one of the biggest and finest things that has happened to me during my naval career.37

Lest one think there was a hint of irony in that reply, it should be noted that Sims wrote to Pratt, two weeks earlier, and commented: "I understand, and very much admire, the reasons given by Admiral Benson for requesting you not to show him any more of my letters to you. I don't know of anything done in a finer spirit by any officer of my acquaintance. . . ." In view of the definite animus that Admiral Sims developed toward Admiral Benson, which the latter in time reciprocated, it was almost miraculous that Pratt could survive his situation and receive strongly favorable endorsements from the two protagonists. Here a biographer must conclude that Pratt's own honest forthrightness, integrity, and indispensability protected him well. A less able officer, looking toward future promotions, might have been tempted to seek safer waters or a lee position in the port of the admiral he expected to triumph at war's end.

Yet service to two admirals in conflict was not the only trial that Pratt had to stand. On a daily basis he was tested by the bureau chiefs, Atlantic Fleet officers, and some who desired to demonstrate their fitness for command by going to Europe. Here the Assistant CNO had difficulties because of his relatively junior status. While many of the bureau chiefs were junior to him on the permanent list, their temporary rank of rear admiral put them at an advantage when dealing with Benson's assistant. With Victor Blue, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation when Pratt first reported to Operations, there was a good relationship. Blue was close to Daniels and Benson, and an old friend of Pratt's, and thus was easy to work with. On the other hand, Leigh C. Palmer, Blue's relief, was seven years junior to Pratt (class of 1896) and terribly addicted to following the rules quite literally. Because of his junior status, though temporarily a rear admiral, Palmer hesitated often and waited for guidance from above. In dealings with Sims, this could cause nothing but trouble. Ralph Earle, also from the class of 1896, was Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and another with whom Pratt had steady dealings. The two were friends, but again his junior status made him unduly cautious. As in the case of Palmer, Earle had trouble with Sims and this meant problems for Pratt. Earle wanted to rotate bureau officers to the war  p119 zone and Sims' staff. While the bureau chief was trying to bring fresh information from the "front" to his office, the latter looked at this idea as a means of giving Earle's friends experience in a war zone that would qualify them for advancement. To Pratt he complained:

This business of changing officers is deadly, and gets on my nerves. There is a war going on over here, and our business is to win it, and not use it as a training camp to prepare our personnel for the next war. Do what you can to head off such changes.38

A month later Admiral Palmer tried to detail a captain to Sims' staff to replace Captain Harry Yarnell. The European Commander wrote a stiff reply to Palmer telling him to forget any such ideas. Yarnell was so important to his staff that he would not even dream of giving a friend of Palmer's "some overseas experience." Again to Pratt, Sims grumped: "The principle of permanence in these positions should be established. It is not right, or good business, to have a man in any position [of responsibility] under the continuous menace of having an important part of the machinery of his organization taken out."39

An even greater menace to Sims' organization, as he and Pratt saw it, was the constant jockeying of other admirals for commands in the European theater. From the Pacific Coast came a steady stream of letters from Rear Admiral W. F. Fullam. A classmate of Benson's (number one in the class of 1877), the brilliant but stormy Fullam recognized that he had a terribly unimportant role in the war and wanted action. He stuck it out in the old battleship Oregon, but he regularly reminded Pratt and Benson that he was fit for better work. At the Naval Academy, Rear Admiral E. W. Eberle did everything he could to achieve command of the Queenstown destroyer base. The Army and Navy Register carried inspired stories that Sims was so pro‑British that he was allowing American forces to be commanded by the Royal Navy's Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly. Eberle's friends suggested to Daniels that American sailors deserved a man like the admiral to command them. Sims disagreed strongly and worried constantly that he would wake up some day and find Eberle at hand waiting for assignment. He considered his working relationship with Admiral Bayly to be superb and he feared Eberle would upset it all.40

 p120  Very obviously depressed at the persistence of the rumors that the rear admiral was to come over, Sims complained to Pratt: "Did it ever occur to you that it is a very advisable thing to relieve as much as possible the mind of a man who bears heavy responsibility, from all sorts of petty anxieties." The admiral's mind was finally set at ease when Pratt and Admiral Benson sent him cables that Eberle was not coming.41

Sims' concern about Eberle was minor compared to his abiding fear that Admiral Mayo would bring his staff to England and supersede him in command. There is little doubt that Sims enjoyed being the senior American naval officer in Europe and he recognized that his position would be almost meaningless were Mayo there. His chain of command went through the Atlantic Fleet commander to the Department,  p121 but in practice Sims was fully independent. When the commander in chief visited England in August 1917, his staff quickly irritated the European Commander. Officers like W. S. Pye and E. J. King "pried" into Sims' operations and organization and let him know that he was not following the formal table of organization set for the fleet. To Pratt, who agreed with him, Sims confided that "They seem to almost place success in the war secondary to the completeness of a proper organization." He noted ironically that the visitors told him he should have a Torpedo Flotilla Commander at Queenstown with the rank of rear admiral, though the destroyers were not operating as torpedo craft. They obviously wanted to have Eberle replace Captain J. R. P. Pringle who commanded the American Queenstown destroyers as chief of staff to Vice Admiral Bayly.42 By February 1918 the rumors were becoming stronger than Admiral Mayo would transfer his staff, and possibly the Atlantic Fleet, to England. In his typically direct manner, Sims told Admiral Benson that were the commander in chief to come over, he should be reassigned since he would have no meaningful duty to perform. Of course, if Operations were to make his command independent of Mayo's, then he could stay. In April Admiral Mayo forced the issue by asking Secretary Daniels for permission to take the battleships to Europe. Backed by the CNO, Daniels said no. Practically speaking, there was nothing to be done in the war zone that was not being handled by Rodman's battleship squadron.43 The presence of the Atlantic Fleet would simply complicate a logistics problem that was then getting rapidly out of hand; and the last thing the Navy Department needed in 1918, as the American Expeditionary Force began to arrive in France, was more clogging in the logistics pipeline.

Despite his very vulnerable position within the Office of Naval Operations, it appears that Captain Pratt made very few enemies among the Navy's senior officers. All who visited Washington quickly recognized that he was working almost beyond the limit of endurance. Yet he willingly took time to assist Rear Admiral Raymond Rodgers, then retired, with some passport problems and Louise did her part with the Admiral's wife. Pratt's simple explanation of his assistance was: "I have never forgotten the fact that I owe almost  p122 all my early training to you and to Captain Mackenzie."º When Admiral Fullam moaned about red tape tying up his Division Two of the Pacific Fleet, Pratt was willing to help where he could and send along an encouraging note. Despite the fact that he didn't particularly care for Admiral Gleaves, he fended off a move to have him superseded in his convoy command job while Benson was out of the country. A year later, Gleaves was again being pushed aside and asked for Pratt's personal assistance. "Now is the time when a fellow needs a friend, and if you were really sincere the other day when you said I was always ready and willing to take responsibility, — I want you to argue this whenever you have, or can make, the opportunity."44 Pratt did help and the admiral got his third star at war's end. While assistance of this sort to senior officers might be "bread cast upon the waters," the captain was willing to extend a hand to more humble types. In the summer of 1918 his personal secretary collapsed from nervous exhaustion. He got Louise to invite her to visit Belfast for rest and within a month she returned to duty completely restored in health. Mrs. Pratt had found her lodgings nearby and had personally assisted the younger lady in many ways. Since the captain had been similarly afflicted a few weeks earlier, he fully understood the strain that his secretary had suffered and the need to escape the capital.

In view of the position he occupied, and the magnificent manner in which he carried out his duties, it would have been most unnatural had Captain Pratt not expected to have his services officially recognized. He very obviously was filling a flag billet, though the Navy's table of organization officially did not even call for an Assistant CNO until August 1918. During the war months he participated in almost every major decision made concerning operations. His counsel was sought, and accepted, concerning command assignments in ranks far above his own. By the spring of 1918 he had pushed himself so hard that almost every visitor to Operations recognized that he was on the verge of collapse; but, like his friend Sims, Pratt had begun to believe he was indispensable, if for no other reason than that he kept Admiral Benson free to do his work. In a revealing letter to Sims, the captain confided:

 p123  I worry constantly about the old man [Admiral Benson] and his desire to delve into details. He must be spared on account of his strict integrity. I fear Fletcher [Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher] would get the job if anything happened and were that to occur good bye to you and to me and the present policies we are trying to carry on. That is why I hang on. I hardly dare to leave the office tho right now I am not a well man and need a change. . . . The Navy is safe in his [Benson's] hands, but God help us if it ever got out of them, for the strong men are not to be found; who are willing to stand public abuse and still pursue a steadfast course.45

Goaded by this self-imposed fear that someone else might take over Naval Operations were he and Benson not to perform in a near flawless manner, Pratt finally collapsed in late June 1918. Benson packed him off to Belfast for rest, but recalled him before he got there. After a few more tortuous days in Washington, he finally headed back to Maine and remained there for four weeks. Most of the time he was in bed, simply resting. The cooler air, his year‑old son, the garden, and the tender care of his wife did the job. Upon return to Washington, under strict doctor's orders, he again attacked the mountain of work; but he also took care of his health.

Undoubtedly contributing to the tension, that brought on his collapse, was Pratt's concern about his prospect for promotion. In normal times he would not have expected to be considered for two more years, but the war created the need for flag officers and the selection board was due to meet in late July. Because of his extremely sensitive position, and the manifold opportunities that he had to create enemies, Pratt was pessimistic about his chances and said so to Sims. Though not sitting on the board, the admiral was optimistic:

I believe you are unduly pessimistic. . . . You need not worry about this the least in the world. Not only all of our service but all of those concerned in the British service over here know how much they are beholden to you for the work that you have done since we came into the war. Therefore there is not a conceivable board of Admirals who would dare to turn you down.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that you are exactly the right man in the right place at the present time. There is no . . . [need] to enlarge upon this. You know it as well as I do.46

The captain, with good reason, was not so sanguine. One of the reforms instituted by Secretary Daniels, along with promotion by selection, had been the requirement that lieutenant commanders, commanders, and captains had to serve at sea in rank before they could  p125 be selected for the next higher grade. Pratt, of course, had not had a sea command or a staff billet at sea as a captain. To reduce the possibility of his being passed over, Admiral Benson wrote a letter to the Chief of Bureau of Navigation for inclusion in his assistant's promotion file:

Captain Pratt is my senior assistant and is charged with the preparation of papers on policy and other matters of such important character that I have felt that the best interests of the Service would not allow me to consent to his detachment. I have, therefore, refused to consider the question and I feel that, although it inflicts a personal hardship on Captain Partt [sic], the best interest of the country and of the Service demand his retention on shore duty.47

In this same letter, Benson noted that he had proposed the legislation, and defended it before Congress, that now allowed promotion without sea service in grade when the CNO and the Secretary certified that such duty had been impossible due to official requirements. While not so named, the provision could well have been called the "Pratt Proviso."

By 10 August Pratt knew the worst. He had not been selected, but he had not been passed over; the selection board stopped short of the class of 1889. At first the captain was philosophical. To Louise he confided that "so long as they didn't jump me, I don't care, though if they had selected any of my classmates it would be a little tough." He did comment, a bit peevishly, that "my duty is far more responsible than that of the majority of the admirals. . . ." Possibly to ease the blow to Pratt, Secretary Daniels signed the order on 12 August 1918 (the day after the flag selections were published) that officially made him Assistant CNO. A few days later, Bill Pratt finally let it all spill out in a letter to Louise. He had been optimistic, in his heart, and he was disappointed that his work had gone unrecognized:

The admiral [Benson] said today that undoubtedly sometime the man next to him would have to be a Vice Admiral. That is how they regard the position. In the meantime we are fighting a war, the biggest in the history of the world, and a young captain is holding down the job. . . . If I can keep my health, the honor of the thing will be enough, though I too as well as others need the money. It really was thought a queer way of looking at things not to have even made the man doing the work a temporary rear admiral, though I am consulted and advise on the selection of the highest naval appointments. You must not mention this however.

 p126  Admiral Sims was less charitable. "I am profoundly disgusted with the result of the selections." He was disappointed that his friend had not made the list; but he was even more upset that his chief of staff, Captain Nathan C. Twining, also had been ignored.48 Seen in its best light, it appeared to Sims, Pratt, and Twining that the selection board had stopped short of 1889 in order not to prejudice the future chances of Twining (number 4 in his class) and Pratt (number 6); but this was bare comfort. Sims believed that at least two of those chosen were "proven incompetents" which made him even more indignant about his friends.

In preparation for the 1919 selection board, Pratt made sure that his record was packed with high level testimonials. Admiral Sims wrote a promotion recommendation which noted that he had tried several times to get Pratt assigned to his staff and failed. He praised his friend's seamanship and concluded: "I wish further to state that there are few officers of my experience whom I think are more competent to handle a fleet both [sic] materially, strategically and technically." Secretary Daniels wrote an official certification, as required by the Act of 1 July 1918, that the Assistant CNO had been held ashore at his order. In an attempt to obviate any slipups this time, Pratt urged Admiral Benson to sit on the selection board in 1919. He argued, rather bluntly, that the previous boards had been dominated by Atlantic Fleet admirals and those in shore billets had no one to speak for them. Unfortunately, for Pratt, Admiral Benson believed rather strongly that he should not intrude into this highly sensitive area. Ironically, Pratt was to take the same position Benson had when he later became CNO. The admiral, as in the past, had given his assistant the strongest possible endorsement through his fitness reports. On 30 September 1918 he wrote in the "remarks" section of Pratt's report:

The absolute complete grasp of the Naval profession in all its phases, the careful and thorough study that has familiarized him for foreign services and the international features of the naval profession make him mostº valuable officer.

The above qualities have made him invaluable in his present position and a great part of the success of the Office of Naval Operations has been due to the exercise of these qualities. I feel that I cannot commend him too highly.

 p127  Captain Pratt has not been allowed to go to sea as services were considered indispensable.49

Again, as in 1918, the selection board of January 1919 stopped short of Pratt's class. He was not selected for advancement, but he was not passed over.

In the final months of the war, as it became obvious that the Central Powers would be defeated, Pratt concerned himself with the Navy's future in the postwar world. In Benson's name, he began to organize plans for demobilization, the restructuring of the naval districts, and the completion of certain naval construction programs. His Plans Division had not had time to work out every detail, or even to take up every major problem that so needed consideration, but he did see that planning went ahead.50 Of all the questions that needed careful thought, those concerning the building programs were probably the most important. The shape and size of the postwar Navy hung on conclusions reached. It was in this matter that Pratt disagreed most seriously with his superior; and it was from personal decisions reached at this time that the captain began to develop an outlook on navies and international relations that placed him outside the mainstream of naval thought.

By October of 1918, Admiral Benson and the General Board were pressing hard to have a second major construction program approved. The 1916 program in capital ships had been deferred because of the need for destroyers and merchant vessels. Now they wanted to get these capital ships laid down and the rest of the 1916 vessels started toward completion. In September 1918 the General Board proposed a seven-year construction program that would give the United States naval preeminence by 1925. Because of wartime construction in America, British merchant and naval losses, and practical cessation of naval building in England, while their ships deteriorated from hard use, the United States was in a position to seize maritime dominance with just a little effort. Once supreme, America need not be concerned about defending the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere or the Open Door in Asia. With her merchant marine, backed by a superior Navy, the nation could compete with any power for the world's markets. In short, as the General Board saw it, the time was at hand when the trident should pass from Britannia to Columbia —  p128 by seizure if necessary. Admirals Benson, Mayo, and Charles J. Badger, Chairman of the General Board, had so testified before Congress. If it meant a period of strained relations or dangerous rivalry with Great Britain, the United States Navy was ready.51

Imbued with an Anglophilism that was largely lacking among his seniors, Pratt consistently had stressed cooperation with Britain whenever he had the opportunity to state his position. This was a bit dangerous, professionally, for he was well aware that much of the good work that Sims had accomplished was downgraded in the Department because it appeared that he was "too English" in outlook. The captain also knew that Admiral Benson held rather strong anti-British views. These had been evident early in the war when the CNO agreed with the President and Secretary Daniels that the British were not using their navy effectively to defeat the enemy. It appeared regularly in his hesitancy to accept Sims' recommendations because they supported British policies. Casual visitors recognized this bias when coming to the Department;52 and Benson spelled it out bluntly in a policy recommendation to Secretary Daniels in January 1918:

It should be clearly and constantly borne in mind that a fixed and continuous aim of British diplomacy and British negotiations is to further the interests of British commerce at the expense of the commerce of every other nation, whether friend or enemy.53

In October 1918, with the war obviously about to close, Admiral Benson went to Europe for inspection purposes and to be at hand if naval decisions had to be made concerning the surrender of Germany. To make sure that his assistant had full "guidance" about his ideas on future naval construction, Benson wrote it out. He wanted all of the capital ships provided for in 1916 plus sixteen more of even greater power laid down.54 The admiral undoubtedly knew that such a construction program would upset the British, but he couldn't care less.

As Acting CNO, Pratt was in a position to make his own views  p129 felt. When the British naval attaché complained that a huge American building program hardly squared with President Wilson's call for international disarmament, Pratt was unmoved. In his own homely metaphor, he told the Englishman that Americans and Britons were like a family; "the son had grown up and wished equal representation with the father."55 Yet while standing firm against the British, and reporting it to Benson, the captain advised Daniels not to lay down the battle cruisers from the 1916 bill until more was learned about the troubles this class had experienced at the Battle of Jutland. This advice, it should be noted, was contrary to that of the General Board.56 Implicit in Pratt's actions was the viewpoint that America needed a fleet equal to the British, but no more. This idea was given more careful development as he helped draft a Department position paper concerning a League of Nations Navy.

Before the war formally stopped on 11 November 1918, a small group of naval officers, plus Professor George Grafton Wilson of Harvard University and the Naval War College, had been set to work developing a Navy Department plan for a League of Nations Navy. Such a plan would be put forward whenever the subject of enforcing the League Covenant was discussed. The basic concept was simple. The League Navy would be made up of vessels and personnel from existing national navies and it would be twice the size of any single nation's navy. Great Britain and the United States would commit their navies to the League and each navy would be equal in size and strength. The other maritime nations would contribute the other half of the League Navy, with France, Japan, and a rehabilitated Germany each contributing ten percent and the rest of the world making up the balance. Costs would be shared in proportion to the size of the naval warship contribution to the League Navy. A League Admiralty Board would select the three highest ranking officers of the League Navy and each would come from a different country.57 The beauty of the plan, as Pratt saw it, was that it would lead to an automatic regulation of international naval armaments and maximum freedom of the seas for all nations. It would also assure parity between the navies of England and America.

 p130  In sending the plan along to Benson, the Assistant CNO wrote his own personal analysis of its advantages. Because of its significance for understanding Pratt's views, a good part of the memorandum is here presented as he wrote it:

Professor Wilson has put in a great deal of thought on this matter and it was he who drafted the first tentative plans which we took up for discussion. As he theoretically outlined it, I found a great many faults with it, for it gave an opportunity for such nations as Japan and China, whose population is great, to practically dominate the League Navy and finally own it without paying for it. So the Plans Committee remodeled it and as you will see by looking in the explanations the percentage of representation is such that England and the United States practically control, and with France will have the controlling voice in the directorate . . . it would seem wise that those nations, meaning of course ourselves and Great Britain, who have the means and ability to properly police the seas, should control. At least for the present, and so long as the present state of affairs exist.º I was very strong in advocating equal representation for the United States and Great Britain. While we may not have the number of ships that Great Britain has at present, our future development is going to put us on a par with her, so far as ships are concerned. On the other hand she has the colonies while we have the money and a prospective future for expansion.

From all I can learn I believe Great Britain would be very glad to have some sort of an alliance with us, and I think come to an agreement in the matter of naval armament. I feel very strongly that this is a most wise thing to do for if we don't, I believe that we will have other countries attempting to sow seeds of discord between us and thus to profit by the results of such discord. If we each attempt singly to create Navies of our own, along the old established lines, it will immediately put us in competition with her. I think without the slightest doubt we can very readily surpass her in the matter of building, for we have the means and we have not been so hard hit by this war. However, were we to do this the same old causes for friction in the way of trade competitions, tariffs, etc. would remain. . . . Again, if we compete openly for the supremacy of the seas it will surely cause discord, because, without reasoning as to justice in the latter, the British are bound to wince at their loss of prestige on the sea, and will compete with us to the best of their ability in the matter of building ships. . . . Such competition extended over a number of years is bound to result in the same state of feeling which existed during our War of 1812, and up to and including the War of the Rebellion. This would be a regrettable state of affairs, and it would be directly against the interests of humanity to have the two Anglo-Saxon speaking nations, who should be closely tied together and who of all nations are the only ones capable of effecting the work of reconstruction which must go on, pitted against each other. For these reasons, I feel that there is a great deal to be said in favor of a League Navy and I feel that it is a way in which Great Britain may gracefully  p131 yield her prestige without causing too much dissention [sic] within her own boundaries, and, at the same time, unite with us in effectively policing the seas. We feel very strongly that such a scheme as outlined will probably tend to draw Great Britain and ourselves somewhat closer together and that it will remove the competitive feature between the only two great powers now able to compete with each other, and that it will tend in the course of time toward a general decrease of Naval armament.58

The themes in this memorandum that guided Pratt's actions during the war, and would underlie his thinking in the years ahead, were a desire for cooperation between England and America, naval equality between the two to permit confidence on both sides, and faith in an international organization (dominated by the Anglo-Saxon powers) to keep the peace in the years ahead.

Practically speaking, Pratt's efforts proved completely abortive. The plan for a League Navy was given very little consideration at the Paris meetings. Admiral Benson wanted those post-Jutland capital ships from the 1916 act completed. He also backed Secretary Daniels and President Wilson when they talked of a new construction act that would match the 1916 program. Unfortunately for the Navy, the President was using the new construction proposal as form of blackmail to force Great Britain to join the League or face competition with a great new American fleet. Playing an even deeper game, the President was trying to face Congress and the public with a similar choice — join the League and have security from the pooling of interests, or build a new and expensive fleet to provide national security in a possibly hostile world.59 There was a middle way which Pratt obviously would have preferred. This would involve a treaty or executive agreement between the President and Prime Minister Lloyd George that would limit their fleets at some agreed-upon size and would provide mutual support were either party menaced or attacked.

The President had resisted this type of arrangement during the war and there is no evidence that any formal secret agreement was reached at this time. As early as 13 July 1917 Wilson had informed Sir William Wiseman, a British special agent working through the embassy in Washington, that the Allies had many agreements among themselves they would have difficulty fulfilling and he was not in favor of compounding the situation by adding an Anglo-American treaty or understanding.60  p132 At Paris, in early April 1919, the British again pressed for a promise from President Wilson that he would drop the 1918 naval program and recognize the British right to a navy larger than America's. The furthest the Chief Executive would go was to authorize his personal emissary, Colonel Edward M. House, to let the British know he would suspend the 1918 program and would authorize year-to‑year naval conversations with the Admiralty. In return he wanted Great Britain's support for excepting the Monroe Doctrine from League of Nations sanctions. When President Wilson withdrew his support of the 1918 construction bill, in May 1919, it was because the British had supported the nation's Monroe Doctrine position and they were firmly committed to the League of Nations.61 That was all the President had desired. The point he wished to make to the public and Congress was on the record and there was little likelihood that he could force through a naval construction act until the American decision about joining the League had been made. In the end, of course, the United States did not join the League, no second construction act was passed, and there was no Anglo-American agreement. On the other hand, animosity toward the English had deepened in the Navy because of Admiral Benson's quarrels with First Lord of the Admiralty Walter Long and the Royal Navy's First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wester-Wemyss. This tale is adequately related in Harold and Margaret Sprout's Toward a New Order of Sea Power, first published in 1940.

While Benson was in Paris, Captain Pratt kept the Office of Naval Operations functioning; but he was also preparing to go to sea. Most of his principal assistants had managed to escape Washington and get war zone experience; some like Captain Yarnell had served with Sims in London and were already back in Washington helping with demobilization plans. Pratt did get called to Paris, more as an act of generosity than necessity, and he made the round trip in the month of December 1918. It provided him with a quick visit with family and friends in New York and Paris, but it did little more than that. He carried important documents to Benson and probably briefed President Wilson during the Atlantic passage on board the George  p133 Washington.62 It seems obvious that Benson thought his assistant deserved a "junket" and a rest at sea, to the extent that one can enjoy a North Atlantic crossing in winter.

The trip to Paris was Pratt's only major absence from Washington for twenty-seven months, except for his sick leave in Belfast. He had spent most of those months living as a bachelor while Louise remained in Belfast with Billy. For a time he lived at the Army-Navy Club and then he leased an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue. His house servants from Belfast were with them while Louise was in town. The rest of the time he used local maids and servants. Throughout his personal correspondence there is great stress on "watching his pennies." While Louise never lacked for money for personal needs, due to inheritances, she too was frugal. Both of them invested steadily in war bonds and Louise did a little patriotic bond-sales work in Maine. To avoid the expense of new uniforms, particularly since it had been agreed that the Navy would change from its blouse uniform to the sack coat, Pratt sent his service blues home to be turned inside out and re‑tailored at Belfast prices — a quarter of the cost of District tailoring charges.

In the early fall of 1918 he moved in with his brother Harold's family, which was then occupying an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue near 20th Street, Northwest. Their mother was there also, so Pratt had a little family life despite the absence of Louise. The move to Harold's, despite the crowding, provided him with diversion at the end of his long workdays. He thoroughly enjoyed his nephews and nieces and obviously made some impression on the boys — two of them went on to become career naval officers. For a brief time, prior to Bill Pratt's retirement in 1933, there were two William Veazie Pratts in the Navy. Pratt's decision to move in on Harold came after it was decided that Louise would spend the winter of 1918‑1919 in Belfast on the farm. To survive in any bit of comfort, it was necessary to install a central heating system in the Belfast house. In the end, though the winter was very hard, the improvements allowed Louise to live comfortably and Pratt had added considerably to the value of his property.

To avoid complete stagnation, and to break the tedium of the heavy workload, Pratt enjoyed motoring to Annapolis or into the  p134 surrounding Virginia and Maryland countryside on weekends. When Benson was out of town, his assistant commandeered the official car for such trips. His old friend in the Mathematics Department at the Naval Academy, Commander Paul Dashiell, normally took Pratt in and saw that they had a golf round and bridge or poker session later. On other occasions Lieutenant John L. Saltonstall, a Reserve Officer in the Operations Office, took his boss for excursions to his lodge in the Maryland hills. Pratt was quite fond of Saltonstall and was probably impressed with his social prominence and family reputation in Massachusetts. At war's end he had the lieutenant transferred to Sims' staff because he felt Saltonstall's friendship with many prominent English politicians would help Anglo-American relations.

One of the decisions reached during Pratt's visit to Benson in Paris was that Rear Admiral Robert E. Coontz would relieve him as Assistant CNO. Coontz was a fine administrator and had been handling most of the demobilization planning. The only question left for the captain, upon return to Washington, was what vessel he would command when he went to sea. On 5 January 1919 he was detached from Operations and went to Belfast for several weeks while awaiting orders. One gets an interesting insight into Pratt's character when this simple matter of assignment is examined. Because of his position, the captain could have requested any battleship with a command vacancy. He chose New York, then commanded by Captain E. L. Beach, but no orders were published and the matter was kept confidential. The selection boards were meeting at the time and to relieve Beach might have created the impression that there was no confidence in him by the Bureau of Navigation and that Pratt was being given a first-class assignment in order to show that he had the backing of the Bureau's chief. The selection results were made known on the 19th of January and Pratt received his orders the next day. Beach had been passed over. In writing to Benson, Pratt explained: "I feel that I have played the game fairly." He also noted that the selection board had again stopped at Twining, and thus he and Pratt had again been neither promoted nor passed over. Because of the board's action, Pratt believed that he had to demonstrate his worth in the traditional manner — he had to command a battleship at sea.63

On 23 January 1919 Captain Pratt reported on board New York in the Navy Yard at Brooklyn. There, in the traditionally simple  p135 ceremony of the sea service, the captain read his orders and relieved his old friend. For Pratt it was the beginning of a very important period in his career; for Beach it was the termination of his life at sea. In a despatch to the Secretary of the Navy, Pratt reported his assumption of command. Consistent with his habit of trying to help a friend, who could use every scrap of positive evidence in his record, he added to his notification of relief: "The ship is in most excellent condition in every respect. Every part of her bears evidence of wise care." New York was to have equally "wise care" during the next twenty months.


The Author's Notes:

30 Pratt, "Autobiography," p211.

[decorative delimiter]

31 WVP to ADM W. S. Benson, Washington, October 1917, box 5, Benson MSS/LCMD; WVP to ADM Benson, New York Navy Yard, 25 January 1919, box 11, Benson MSS/LCMD.

[decorative delimiter]

32 ADM Benson to WVP, at Sea, 21 October 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

33 WVP to W. S. Sims, Washington, 2 December 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

34 W. S. Sims to WVP, Quincy, Mass., 3 February 1916, Pratt MSS/LCMD;º WVP to the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Ancon, Canal Zone, 16 February 1916, Pratt MSS/NHD; Morison, op. cit., pp306‑11.

[decorative delimiter]

35 Cronon, op. cit., p143; Thomas G. Frothingham, The United States in the War, 1917‑1918, Vol. 3 of The Naval History of the World War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926), pp131‑33.

[decorative delimiter]

36 W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 3 July 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

37 W. S. Sims to ADM W. S. Benson, London, 28 October 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

38 W. S. Sims to RADM Ralph Earle, London, 10 April 1918 (postscript to W. V. Pratt on carbon copy), Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

39 W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 18 May 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

40 Army and Navy Register, 16 March 1918; New York Tribune, 21 March 1918; W. S. Sims to ADM W. S. Benson, London, 16 April 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

41 W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 20 April 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD; W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 12 May 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD; Cronon, op. cit., p326.

[decorative delimiter]

42 W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 30 August 1917, 1 September 1917, 7 September 1917, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

43 W. S. Sims to ADM W. S. Benson, London, 15 February 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD; Cronon, op. cit., p299.

[decorative delimiter]

44 WVP to RADM Raymond P. Rodgers, Washington, 22 July 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD; RADM W. F. Fullam to WVP, San Diego, Calif., 6 May 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD; RADM Albert Gleaves to WVP, New York, 25 August 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

45 WVP to W. S. Sims, Washington, 12 March 1918, box 552, RG45/NA.

[decorative delimiter]

46 W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 18 May 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

47 ADM W. S. Benson to the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Washington, 19 July 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

48 W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 30 August 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

49 "Report on the Fitness of Officers," 19 July 1918 (Benson), 6 November 1918 (Sims), 2 December 1918 (Daniels), Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

50 ADM W. S. Benson to WVP, at sea, 21 October 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

51 Harold and Margaret Sprout, Toward a New Order of Sea Power: American Naval Policy and the World Scene, 1918‑1922 (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1943), pp50‑59; Davis, op. cit., pp238‑47; Ray Stannard Baker, Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement, Written from his Unpublished and Personal Material (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1922), Vol. III, pp207‑17; Trask, op. cit., pp285‑91.

[decorative delimiter]

52 Morison, op. cit., pp394‑95; Baker, Woodrow Wilson, War Leader, p140; Kittredge, op. cit., pp343‑45; Rufus F. Zogbaum, From Sail to Saratoga, A Naval Autobiography (Rome: Tipografia Italo-Orientale, 1961), pp221, 257.

[decorative delimiter]

53 ADM W. S. Benson to Secretary of the Navy, "Cooperation with the Entente Powers," Memo, January 1918, box 580, RG45/NA.

[decorative delimiter]

54 ADM W. S. Benson to WVP, at sea, 21 October 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

55 WVP to ADM W. S. Benson, Washington, 25 October 1918, box 10, Benson MSS/LCMD.

[decorative delimiter]

56 Cronon, op. cit., p344.

[decorative delimiter]

57 Memorandum for CNO, "Proposed Plans for Establishment of League of Nations Army and Navy," Washington, 11 November 1918, PD 179‑1, RG80/NA; Members of the drafting team were RADMs R. E. Coontz and J. S. McKean, CAPTs W. Evans, H. Yarnell, and W. V. Pratt, and Professor George G. Wilson.

[decorative delimiter]

58 WVP to ADM W. S. Benson, Washington, 12 November 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

59 Forrest Davis, The Atlantic System: The Story of Anglo-American Control of the Seas (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1941), pp262‑66.

[decorative delimiter]

60 W. B. Fowler, British-American Relations 1917‑1918: The Role of Sir William Wiseman (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp243‑46.

[decorative delimiter]

61 The story of the "naval battle of Paris" is told in many places, but the best historical analysis is in Seth P. Tillman, Anglo-American Relations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp287‑94.

[decorative delimiter]

62 Secretary of the Navy to ADM W. S. Benson, Washington, 30 November 1918, box 10, Benson MSS/LCMD; Charles Seymour, Letters from the Paris Peace Conference, ed. Harold B. Whiteman, Jr. (New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 1965), p13.

[decorative delimiter]

63 WVP to ADM W. S. Benson, New York Navy Yard, 25 January 1919, box 11, Benson MSS/LCMD.


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 30 Sep 14