When he took command of New York from his friend Beach in January 1919, Captain Pratt was paralleling the course he had followed five years previously in Birmingham. Then he was a senior commander about to prove he was worthy of a fourth stripe. Now he was a senior captain facing the test of a major seagoing command before consideration for flag rank. Pratt's class of 1889, which had graduated 35, now had 19 left on active duty of whom one was a Construction Corps captain (G. H. Rock), two were Marine Corps brigadiers (C. G. Long and B. H. Fuller), 14 were line captains, and two were commanders (G. B. Bradshaw and W. J. Terhune) serving under mandatory retirement. Most of the 14 captains were actively commanding battleships or recently had gone ashore from a major command. From the nature of their assignments, it was obvious that 3 of the 14 captains (L. A. Kaiser, C. N. Offley, P. Williams) were no longer in the running for rear admiral. They had not held a major command at sea and now were managing shore facilities. For the 11 captains in competition, the time was rapidly approaching when it would be "up or out."1
In selecting New York for command, Pratt had placed himself at the hub of activity within Admiral Mayo's Atlantic Fleet. Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman was on board flying his two stars in the three-hatted position of Commander Battleship Force Two, Commander Battleship Squadron Three, and Commander Battleship Division Six. In BATDIV 6 with Pratt were two of his classmates, Nathan Twining in Texas (soon to be relieved by F. H. Schofield) and Louis de Steiguer in Arkansas. Mississippi, the fourth battleship in the division, was commanded by William A. Moffett from the class of 1890. While all of the battleship captains in the fleet felt they had to "make good," for Pratt and Twining the duty must have seemed anticlimactic. The former, of course, had held one of the most responsible positions in the Navy during the past year. Twining, as chief of staff to Admiral p138 Sims, likewise had served in a billet that normally should have been filled by a rear admiral and he had done the work in a brilliant manner. In Sims' view, and that of many other officers, Pratt and Twining should have been selected for rear admiral at least a year before.
Once on board New York and underway for exercises in the Caribbean, Admiral Rodman invited Pratt to mess with his staff. The captain gratefully accepted. He didn't care for the old Navy custom that a ship captain should hold himself aloof from his officers, even to the point of dining alone. Basically gregarious, if at times moody, Pratt fit in well with the staff and he particularly enjoyed the company of Lieutenant Commander Jonas Ingram, Rodman's flag lieutenant. The captain not only messed with the admiral's staff, he accepted collateral duty as Rodman's chief of staff. He didn't mind the extra duty, and in fact he found commanding a battleship fairly tame activity and rather enjoyed the extra challenge of keeping "Uncle Hughie's" affairs in good order.2 In time Admiral Benson wrote him a rather blunt suggestion that he stick to his primary assignment. The admiral pointed out that battleship division commanders were not given a chief of staff for a very good reason. The senior fleet admirals wanted to find out if a division commander could really handle his assignment, and they recognized that a good staff captain could make the poorest rear admiral look good.3 Pratt did not give up his collateral duty; he simply made it less obvious to those in the Department. To Louise he admitted that he was "loafing," but that was the way the admirals seemed to want it.
New York, in 1919, was a coal and oil‑burning 27,000‑ton battleship with a main battery of ten 14‑inch rifles and a secondary battery of fifteen 5‑inch guns designed to counter destroyer attacks. The crew consisted of approximately 70 officers and 1,200 enlisted men, though the number on board was normally considerably less. In terms of materiel, New York was in excellent shape when Pratt took over. Because of service with the Sixth Battle Squadron in the Grand Fleet, New York had been kept in top‑notch condition. Admiral Rodman insisted that vessels under his command be maintained in the best materiel condition possible. Captain Beach had not let the ship deteriorate during his tour abroad, but it was Captain C. F. Hughes before him who had brought the vessel to its peak of fighting efficiency. In his "Autobiography" Pratt credits Hughes, another "Downeaster," p139 with having made New York into an outstanding command. Interestingly enough, Pratt was to follow Hughes through several more commands in his career and was to relieve him as CNO in 1930.
Battleship New York, commanded by Captain Pratt.
As commanding officer, Pratt demonstrated certain leadership attitudes that he had developed through the years. He insisted on cleanliness in the vessel and was quite thorough in his inspections. While underway he insisted on full adherence to the schedule of drills, and the logbook of New York notes regular calls to General Quarters, fire drills, torpedo defense, watertight doors, and man overboard drills. He enjoyed conning the ship and took great personal pride in his own shiphandling skill. Perhaps having Admiral Rodman aboard, himself a shiphandler of great reputation, kept Pratt a little closer to the bridge than might normally have been expected. As a flagship, New York led many of the cruising exercises and Rodman saw to it that every captain received plenty of practice in formation steaming preparatory to the battle drills in the Caribbean.
Admiral Hugh Rodman, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet,
p140 Crew morale deeply concerned Pratt. From his duty with Sims, he had absorbed the philosophy of delegating responsibilities as much as possible. He wanted his department heads and division officers to develop into leaders. He liked to set tasks and hold his subordinates accountable. Because of this approach, junior officers learned a great deal and normally remembered Pratt for his willingness to trust them. He expected, in turn, that the division officers would develop a similar approach in dealing with their petty officers, and thus an interest in leadership would exist throughout the ship. During most of 1919 Pratt was assisted quite positively in his work by his executive officer, Commander Charles Belknap, Jr. He had known his executive since teaching him at the Academy and had worked with him in the Torpedo Flotilla. During the war he had Belknap detailed to Operations after he had done outstanding work in organizing the Naval Overseas Transportation Service. It was, of course, no accident that Charley Belknap came on board New York. He was devoted to Pratt and understood quite well his skipper's approach to command.4
When one inspects a Navy Directory for 1919, a glance at the list of officers on board any of the battleships reveals a major problem common to all vessels. Not only was the average capital ship short of officers, but each ship contained a large number of Reserve and temporary officers. At least half of Pratt's junior officers fell into this group. Most of the ensigns and junior grade lieutenants were temporary officers advanced from warrant grade, and his most senior lieutenants dated from the class of 1914. Before assuming this command, Pratt had believed that officers who were not graduates of the Naval Academy were too limited in their backgrounds to be of any great value on board ship. He had modified his thinking a bit, as had Admiral Sims, when the Reserve officers proved effective on board the destroyers. Now he would shift ground a bit more. He soon discovered that his most valuable turret officer, in fact an "E" winner from New York, was Lieutenant C. W. A. Campbell, a "mustang" who had been advanced from chief gunner.5 But Campbell was an exception, and his division officers were considerably less experienced than those he had commanded in Birmingham. Below decks the shortage of assistant engineering officers almost crippled the whole Atlantic Fleet. It would take several years before the officer shortage problem p141 in capital ships would be ameliorated. Then, in the late 1920s, it was again to become critical.
New York's log records quite faithfully the one duty Pratt disliked intensely, that of holding mast and maintaining discipline in the ship. As commanding officer, he knew quite well that he was steadily losing his wartime enlistees and that they were being replaced by a less qualified group of men. The Bureau of Navigation was having a very difficult time in 1919 keeping the Atlantic Fleet filled with trained petty officers; and certain vessels were almost inoperable due to shortages. New York's enlisted complement, for example, was brought almost to full strength by receiving a draft from the naval prison at Portsmouth. Nearly 200 prisoners had their sentences reduced so they could serve at sea.6 Lacking the pressure of wartime dedication, and also being a bit younger in average age, the new drafts of men and the ex‑prisoners rapidly ran afoul of ship's regulations. "Shirking" was a common charge at mast and Pratt regularly awarded twelve hours of extra duty for first offenders. Every port call or anchorage usually resulted in a large number of absent over leave (AOL) and absent without leave (AWOL) offenses. Confinement on bread and water for five days gave first offender AOLs a chance to think matters over. Second offenders and AWOL cases normally were awarded summary courts martial. There were several minor offenses that Pratt usually treated rather harshly. Obscenity, gambling, or disrespect for petty officers often drew confinement on bread and water. Being out of uniform on the bridge resulted in an on‑the‑spot award of eight hours of extra duty. Since Admiral Rodman was a stickler on uniforms, Pratt could hardly be less. Yet, while he was fairly severe in the punishments awarded at mast, Pratt was probably no harsher than the average captain of his day and considerably less so than the men under whom he had served in the years before. He did have one habit that must have helped crew morale, though it was not very consistent with the development of officer leadership. Almost automatically he reduced summary court martial punishments by 50 percent; 30‑days confinement was normally cut to 15, loss of $60 pay would be reduced to $30.
Athletics was another device that Pratt used to develop and maintain morale in his ship. As noted before, the captain had a lifetime interest in sports that dated back to his days as waterboy for the Belfast Baseball Club. He had used athletics to rebuild sagging morale p142 in St. Louis during the long months at Bremerton in 1910, and he pressed the organization of shipboard division teams in the summer of 1920 when New York was going through overhaul in the Puget Sound Navy Yard. In 1919 Pratt decided to improve New York's football team and he found an ally in Jonas Ingram, a former Naval Academy football star. While visiting at Annapolis Roads in the spring of 1919, they convinced a group of graduating midshipmen, who had played on the Navy's famed 1918 team, that they should request duty in New York. Among those proselyted was Ingram's younger brother, Bill. As might be expected, New York's team won its division championship and went on to become the top team in the Pacific Fleet. It should be noted that Admiral Rodman shared Pratt's and Ingram's interest in athletics, and in the fall of 1920 he organized a Pacific Fleet football team.7 It played a fairly full schedule of collegiate teams and helped develop public interest in the Navy wherever it went.
During the spring of 1919 Secretary Daniels decided to divide the United States Fleet and create two fleets of equal strength — the Atlantic Fleet, to be commanded by Admiral Henry B. Wilson, and the Pacific Fleet to be commanded by Admiral Hugh Rodman. The reasons for this move were many and need not be examined in great detail. Japanese gains in Asia during the war concerned the Wilson administration and thus the creation of a strong Pacific Fleet was designed to cause the Island Kingdom to think again before moving further. There was the inevitable need to meet pork-barrel demands from the Pacific Coast politicians. A Pacific Fleet would require bases and the fleet payroll itself was worth attracting. Also, the Secretary wanted to improve the Navy's performance by creating a competition between two evenly matched fleets. Thus he ordered that the units be so distributed that the fighting power of the two fleets would be as equal as possible. Later in the summer of 1921, the Department shifted the battleships and concentrated the oil‑burners in a Pacific-based Battle Fleet and put most of the coal-burners in the Atlantic as the Scouting Fleet.8
With the creation of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Rodman offered p143 Pratt the opportunity to relinquish his command of New York and move into flag country as his chief of staff. The captain was tempted, but he was enjoying his command too much. He answered the admiral's query with a question of his own. Would Rodman have been willing to make the change had he been in Pratt's billet? Of course not. No staff position was as good as a battleship command. So Pratt took Rodman's advice and continued as captain of New York, though he did the chief of staff's work until his classmate, Captain Nathan Twining, came on board to take charge of the staff.9 In staying with his command, Pratt continued to risk his career, whereas the staff position would have reduced his personal responsibility for the many troubles that can beset a battleship. On several occasions during the p144 following months, he must have wondered whether his choice was really wise.
During a routine dry‑docking in May 1919, after winter maneuvers in the Caribbean, New York was discovered to have suffered bottom damage. A •10‑foot dent in the garboard strake was allowing some oil leakage and was presumed to have occurred during the first quarter. A full investigation was made, track charts were examined, and it was concluded that New York probably struck an uncharted of both in the New York harbor channel. The Coast Guard felt its charts were up to date and no wreck or rock was believed to exist. Rodman, probably not wanting to embarrass Pratt, suggested that no blame be attached to the incident and that it be forgotten. Pratt was more persistent. He asked that the channel be searched so that other ships might not meet similar trouble. Eventually it was discovered that a lighter filled with large granite blocks had indeed spilled some into the channel and Pratt had managed to find them with New York.10 During this same yard visit Pratt's command was almost terminated when the pilot lost control in the East River. With a strongly flooding tide, New York was nearly carried past the entrance to Wallabout Bay and into the Williamsburg Bridge. Pratt relieved the pilot, dropped the starboard anchor, and brought the ship's head into the tide. It was a close call, but his seamanship paid off.
When the Pacific Fleet transited the Panama Canal and headed north, it took part in a series of port visits, a cruise to Hawaii, and naval reviews in San Francisco and Seattle. Secretary Daniels joined the fleet at San Diego during the first week of August 1919 and stayed with it, sailing mostly in New York, during visits to San Diego, San Pedro, Hawaii, and Monterey. Pratt enjoyed having the Secretary and his wife on board, no doubt realizing that a renewal of their friendship would not hurt at this point in his career. From Secretary Daniels's diary we get an interesting insight into his activities at sea. He dined with the crew regularly and visited almost every space in New York. He had two teas for the officers, with Mrs. Daniels at each. For the cruise to Hawaii and back, Mississippi's band was brought on board because it was superior to New York's. Movies were shown almost every night and Daniels proved to be a fan. Except for the tragic death of a young seaman, crushed by a turret, the cruise was pure delight and Pratt had proved a good host. His executive officer, Commander Belknap, saw things a bit differently:
p145 This has been a cruise of continual steaming broken by one night political stands and salutes. Captain Bill Pratt has stood the strain very well except now he is suffering from sciatica. He surely is a star. . . .11
Secretary Daniels left New York in Monterey Bay, where the battleship was coaling in preparation for the fleet reviews in San Francisco and Seattle. At this point Pratt's (and New York's) troubles began. In standing out of Monterey Bay, New York began vibrating excessively and whichº required shutting down the starboard engine. A blade on the starboard screw had been thrown and other blades bent. Despite this casualty, New York met all engagements, including Daniels' formal review of the Pacific Fleet in San Francisco Bay on Labor Day and President Wilson's review in Seattle on 13 September. The captain had hoped to dock New York at Bremerton, but was ordered to accompany the fleet to San Francisco. Here, again, Pratt's seamanship was put to the test. He described his troubles in his "Autobiography" and his own language is worth reading:
I had hoped to dock in Bremerton immediately, since the ship needed it badly, but was informed we must visit San Francisco first. At that time, San Francisco was not an easy port for battleships to enter. There was not quite enough water over the bar to the main ship channel, so that our deep draft craft were sure of not bumping, if there were much of a swell on. They always came down the North Channel, making a sharp turn to port, when inside the Heads. On the starboard hand is a bad shoal, the Potato Patch, which is always breaking. Knowing the handicap the ship was under, I went to Rodman and asked his permission to leave formation in time to enter by the main ship channel joining the fleet inside. I preferred to take this chance, moving at slow speed over the bar, then getting a straightaway run for the Heads, in preference to making the sharp turn necessitated by using the North Channel. He said, "All right, see the chief of staff." I saw him. He was a hard-worked man. At once he disagreed with me as to the risks involved in running the North Channel, especially with a starboard engine which could not be used. The New York was a reciprocating engine, outboard turning screw ship. I felt that if the matter were referred to Rodman, being a seaman, he would agree with me, but my pride had been stung by some of the remarks made and I stalked out of the cabin, with the remark, "I can take a ship anywhere that you can." It turned out as I feared. Our ships always run that passage at slack water. The morning of the Fleet's appearance off the port turned out to be foggy. We were to run the passage at high slack tide. The entrance to port was delayed. I was the last big ship in the column. When the nose of the ship passed the head, the ebb now running strong p146 struck her bow and she swung to starboard; I couldn't check the swing. We were heading straight for the Mile Rock. Thoughts of the City of Pekin,a lost within the Heads with all hands on board, and Ward her captain, whom my father and I both knew, and an abler skipper never sailed the Pacific, flashed across my mind. I knew that at a pinch, if worst came to worst, I could back and fill across the main ship channel, lying athwart the tide until I could strike a sounding, drop anchor and swing to the ebb. Something had to be done. So I rang for full speed, then for more speed, knowing I couldn't hit the ship ahead of me if I tried. When we had gotten on good headway, I stopped the engines, put the helm for a hard left rudder and watched. I didn't dare to try backing yet. The ship hung, then very slowly started to swing to port. We were out of the jam.12
From San Francisco Pratt took the crippled New York back to Bremerton for dry‑docking and replacement of the starboard screw. Here he discovered more damage, this time on the side-hull plating. A board decided that when coaling from Orion, preparatory to the Hawaiian cruise, the side had been dished in. There was minor water leakage but not enough to impair New York's operational readiness. Despite this clearance, Pratt and New York wintered in Puget Sound. He intensely disliked the inactivity because of the deterioration in crew morale, but little could be done to alleviate the situation. The navy yard, like those on the East Coast, preferred to stretch out the work to keep the laboring force employed and there was little a commanding officer could do except fidget a bit. To relieve crew tedium, and reduce the energy that would be dissipated on liberties in Seattle, the men played football in every spare moment and even did some maintenance work on the golf course used by the officers.
What might have been a dreadfully dull stay in Bremerton was relieved on the first of March 1920 when Captain Pratt received telegraphic orders to proceed to Washington, D. C., for duty in connection with a Senate investigation of the Navy that was to begin on 9 March. The captain quickly learned that his life would have been much easier had he been able to stay with New York. In Washington he was to join a free-for‑all fight between Admiral Sims and the Navy Department. Pratt's loyalties, personal and institutional, were to be put to a very severe test.
From his own papers, or those of Sims, it is not possible to determine whether Pratt knew that his friend was planning to mount a major attack on Secretary Daniels and the Navy Department. There were hints of such a plan in the admiral's wartime letters from London, but p147 it would have taken a superior level of prescience in Pratt to have anticipated the form the assault would take. For instance, in November 1917, Admiral Sims wrote a rather testy letter to Pratt reiterating his common complaint that the Navy Department was not making efforts to support his forces nor even to give him an adequate staff. He concluded his letter ominously:
My great fear is that this war may be lost or that the Allies may be forced into a very unsatisfactory peace and that the subsequent examinations as to the causes of this condition may reveal the fact that we have not done our utmost to prevent it and that our military decisions in many cases have been unsound.13
Again, on 13 August 1918, Sims returned to the theme of non‑support by the Department:
When the history of this war comes to be written there will be a number of features that will not be very creditable to the United States Navy. If hearings are held on the conduct of the war, a number of rather disagreeable facts must inevitably be brought out. Without going into details, I may say that as far as the Navy is concerned we will have fought this war with the bulk of our experienced personnel of the Navy on the side of the ocean where there is no war. . . .
If Pratt did not detect in this letter a plan for a future confrontation between Sims and the Department, he can be excused. Most of the admiral's personal correspondence with his friend had a carping quality to it, and the August letter was merely typical.
On 28 January 1919 Admiral Sims fired a bitter salvo at Pratt that slashed deeply into him. This ten‑page letter took up the 15 November 1918 report of the Chief of Naval Operations, addressed to Secretary Daniels, and titled "General Character of the Operations of Our Naval Forces During Present War." The twenty‑seven-page report was an outline of the Navy's wartime operations and was designed for use in public statements or for inclusion in the Secretary's annual report. There was nothing critical in the paper and personalities were completely obliterated. Except by reference to a few actions, Admiral Sims was barely mentioned. Secretary Daniels, Admiral Benson, and Admiral Mayo were not named at all. Sims objected to the report because, in his view, it was "wholly misleading." It left the impression that the Navy was prepared for war, had a plan for fighting it, made quick and correct decisions in the area of operations, and supported the Allies without quibble. He summarized his objections succinctly:
p148 And now, after all the trials due to lack of support in time, and due to all the blundering, I receive a copy of this letter from operations to the Secretary setting forth to him (which probably means to the outside world) the claim to have always forseenº everything, planned everything and supported us up to the handle. Even claiming that the Department had forseenº everything even before we came into the war and had put all necessary measures into operation immediately.
The Admiral warned Pratt that "if I am ever called upon I cannot support any such paper as the one in question." He closed disarmingly with the expectation that there would be no "postmortem examinations" as there had been following other wars. But if there should be, he concluded a bit threateningly:
. . . the cablegrams exchanged between the Department and me during the first four months of our participation in the war will be, I think, pretty damaging testimony to the game played by the Department, and will make this Departmental letter, dated November 15th, 1918 look pretty sick.14
Pratt was particularly offended by Sims' blast for two reasons: he had written the report because Admiral Benson was in Paris at the time; and he felt personally responsible, due to involvement, for many of the decisions made and actions taken by the Department about which Sims complained. While the admiral talked about "they" or "the Department" in his critique, Pratt saw himself as the target. Writing from his cabin in New York, at anchor in Guantanamo, the captain humbly assured Sims that he had fully understood the war, had been guided completely by Sims' requests, and was grieved that Sims would think he (and Operations) was reacting ignorantly. He concluded by wondering whether this report was the place to air "any real or fancied difficulties or delays we may have experienced within our own naval service in getting things done? I think not. My feeling is that every man did his best according to his own lights."15
From Pratt's viewpoint the question of the conduct of the war was at rest; perhaps Sims too was going to let the sleeping dogs lie. While the captain had been operating New York, the admiral had returned to Newport and a glorious welcome and had taken up again the presidency of the War College. Many, Pratt among them, had hoped he would accept the position of CNO, or at least commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet; but Sims wanted neither. According to his biographer, p149 the admiral wanted the administrative freedom to launch one more crusade for reform in the Navy and a four-star billet would prevent it.16
At the War College Sims settled into the routine of its administration, but his correspondence gave evidence that he was not simply going to sit back and wait for retirement. He believed that Secretary Daniels was "wholly wrong" in planning to divide the Fleet into Atlantic and Pacific units and said so. To him there must have been some sort of political pressure behind it all and he would have none of it. Even worse, it would be "perfectly scandalous" if Admiral Henry B. Wilson were made commander in chief of either fleet. Sims considered Wilson to be inept and assumed that he was the type Daniels would appoint.17 The Secretary did not disappoint him. Yet there was nothing of substance, at least nothing very dramatic, that Sims could use to attack the Secretary until the publication of the Navy's Annual Report for 1919. Appended to it was a list of recipients of medals awarded for service in the past war. The admiral now had his issue. On 17 December 1919 Sims wrote to Daniels, criticized the awards list, and refused to accept the Distinguished Service Medal he had been slated to receive.
If we can set aside the personal animus that Admiral Sims bore toward Daniels, and toward Admiral Benson as it later developed, it is possible to see that he was working from admirable premises. Sims had believed throughout his long career that the Navy could only be improved if men of integrity criticized their service when it was justified. He honestly believed that there were important lessons that could be drawn from the past war, but such lessons would be obscured or lost unless the Department faced the fact that all had not gone well. The report of 15 November 1918, because it presented only a superficial view of the Navy's wartime operations, glossed over Sims' long struggle to make his European operations effective. He knew that criticism could not be impersonal; it was a tenet of his philosophy that officers had to be held responsible if they were to accept the privileges of command. This applied to political appointees, like the Secretary of the Navy, as well as to the admirals and those below them. The major problem that Sims faced in trying to force the Navy into a critical self-evaluation was the fact that a Democratic administration was fighting for its political life in 1919 and 1920. It would be very difficult to get the Secretary to admit that there had been any trouble in prosecuting the p150 war, that was traceable to his stewardship. And if the Secretary had no major difficulties, then the admirals working for him must have been singularly free of problems. Unable to penetrate the administrative screen, that could point to a glorious victory at sea, Sims sought allies in the Republican camp. In adopting partisan allies, the admiral made it less likely that he would be able to achieve his strategic objective — a truly introspective examination by the Navy's top leadership into those areas where improvements and reform were absolutely necessary. Practically speaking, the admiral threw out the baby with the bath water.
Sims' letter to Secretary Daniels received public distribution and brought the action he desired, an investigation by a subcommittee of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. Between 16 January and 10 February 1920, Sims plus six other officers and Secretary Daniels gave their views on the awards. The admiral was successful in showing that the Secretary had not adhered to any particular policy or principle in changing the awards list submitted to him by Rear Admiral Austin M. Knight's Board of Awards. The subcommittee majority, all Republicans, "tut‑tutted" at Daniels' actions; the minority believed he had acted wisely and humanely.
Sims was disappointed at the reaction of the service. While many wrote encouraging letters to him privately, and a few hardy souls expressed themselves in the Army and Navy Journal, only Rear Admiral Hilary P. Jones and Captain Raymond D. Hasbrouck joined him in rejecting their medals.18 If he expected Captains Pratt or Twining to join him, he was disappointed. Both had received Distinguished Service Medals and Pratt was also awarded the Army's Distinguished Service Medal. In March 1919 Pratt had asked Admiral Benson not to recommend him for any sort of a medal because it would then leave the admiral's hands free to deal with questions that were sure to arise concerning awards. To Sims he explained, "It is also a matter of pride to me, to be among that small number of Army and Navy men, who, having held active and somewhat prominent positions during this war and having the satisfaction, leave office with nothing more than what they went in." In a note to him at the end of March 1919, Benson told his ex‑assistant that he sympathized with his views, but "I am afraid you will have to submit to being one of the victims." On 28 June 1919, p151 aboard Pennsylvania, Pratt and Twining, plus several others from Sims' London staff were further honored when they received the French Legion of Honor. In a way, both were even more closely identified with the Administration's conduct of the war.19
The awards controversy was merely the overture to the larger investigation that Admiral Sims had hoped to promote. On 16 January, the first day of the awards hearings, the admiral was asked to read a letter he had sent to Secretary Daniels concerning "Certain Naval Lessons of the Great War," dated 7 January 1920. In its seventy-seven numbered paragraphs Sims charged that the Navy had not been prepared for war by the Secretary and the Chief of Naval Operations, and that his urgent requests for staff, ships, and personnel had been put off dangerously long, and that the Department had cooperated almost reluctantly with its British ally. Again the Senate Naval Affairs Committee called for hearings and they opened on 9 March 1920.20 Pratt arrived in Washington a few days before in order to start organizing a defense for Secretary Daniels.
In the capital Pratt found that the Secretary had the whole department at work preparing to meet Sims' charges. From several sources the Secretary was advised to try to focus the testimony in such a way as to present the picture that it was all a quarrel among the admirals. Some suggested that Sims was really trying to smear Admiral Benson, but the Secretary suspected differently. He believed that Sims was mad because "I did not let him belong to British Admiralty and get him full admiral for life."21 Daniels' biographer interpreted it differently as did Tracy Kittredge. In his Josephus Daniels: Small‑d Democrat, Joseph Morrison argued that Sims wanted to drive Daniels from the cabinet in disgrace because he was so inept as a Secretary. He further concluded that Benson was a secondary target for having held up the despatch of naval forces to Europe. Kittredge, in his ex parte account (Naval Lessons of the Great War), written in December 1920, left no doubt about the "enemy" at the hearings — it was the Secretary of the Navy. Every chapter was devoted to supporting Kittredge's conclusion that:
As a public official Mr. Daniels has flagrantly violated his trust. It would be disastrous to permit him to escape his responsibility. . . .22
p152 Pratt's testimony at the hearings took six days and more than 400 pages in the printed record. He had spent a month listening to the statements of others before he sat in the witness chair on 19 April 1920. He suspected he would have few friends left in the Service after he was finished; fortunately he was mistaken.23 While many of his friends and colleagues from Naval Operations testified in support of Sims' views, there were many who joined him in presenting a different line of argument. Officers like Rear Admirals J. S. McKean, C. J. Badger, Joseph Strauss, Hugh Rodman, and W. S. Benson testified almost neutrally. They told the truth in a simple and straightforward manner, answered questions candidly, and in the end their testimony was used by both Sims and Daniels to support their respective positions. Pratt's testimony had this same quality. He admitted errors, assumed responsibilities that were his, and supplied hard data that clarified or refuted many of Sims' charges. Almost everyone admitted that the Navy was not ready for war in April 1917. Pratt showed that some planning had been done, but it was not the type engaged in by the German General Staff when it had an offensive objective in mind. There were officer shortages, but Congressional legislation dating back to the 1880s had caused it. Materiel shortages existed because the money had not been authorized by Congress. Above all there was a reluctance to plan for war because the President, the Congress, and the people wanted the country to be neutral in thought and deed. To change a building program that was underway, to emphasize antisubmarine craft, would have been a provocative, unneutral, and an overt act. Finally, as Pratt concluded on the last day of his testimony, the Navy Department was not properly organized to prepare for and prosecute a war. There were basic flaws in the statutory acts that governed the Navy and only Congress could have improved the situation.24
Pratt's testimony concerning his friend Sims was normally generous, though he occasionally used the needle. He believed that the admiral basically had misunderstood his position in Europe. He was not a commander in chief. He was a subordinate of Admiral Mayo, in command of the naval forces in Europe; and Sims was an assistant to Admiral Benson when it came to dealing with the European admiralties. Pratt testified that Sims' requests were normally proper, but his constant p153 repetitions caused the Department to pay less and less attention. According to the captain's interpretation: ". . . had he confined himself to simpler statements and repeated himself less he would have presented his views and would have eliminated the chance of being judged to have overstated his case."
Midway in his testimony Captain Pratt twice summarized rather clearly the classical dilemma that military leaders face in a democracy. He neatly juxtaposed the impatience of military planners and leaders like Sims with the reality of dealing with the public that fell to politicians like Secretary Daniels and President Wilson:
We entered the war in the middle of April, and of necessity our entire organization had to go through the transition from a peace to a war basis. Before we entered the war, our naval establishment was on a peace basis and our forces were enjoined to preserve a strict neutrality. It would be far more just to ascribe the failure to produce the desired results immediately, to the difficulties attendant upon the transition from peace to war than to an ungenerous motive which was not true. I doubt whether we shall ever be prepared to wage effective war at the instant of its declaration. As a military man, I do not believe that our democratic form of government lends itself to the same instant readiness to strike other nations that an autocratic form of government does. (19 April 1920)
The two forms of preparedness, and the most efficient which it is thought a democratic government will ever sanction lies first in its fleet and second, in certain essential methods of training of the youth of our country. Behind the barricade of our fleet all other war preparations may ripen. The readiness to strike instantly has always been the military man's dream. This thought is aggressive. It savors of the motives that have impelled the great military nations of the world. It grips our naval and military men's minds, though they be thoroughly democratic at heart, because the habits of a life time and thought have tended to make them see more clearly along the straight road of mechanical efficiency than down the more devious but natural paths that human nature treads. . . . Behind the bulwarks of the allied and of our own fleets, we built up our full military and naval strength. A democratic government will, in my opinion, never be prepared to wage aggressive war in full strength, at the start. (21 April 1920)25
The naval investigation closed on 28 May and Pratt was free to return to New York. By that time the public, and probably most of the Navy, had forgotten what the hearings were about or who had "won." To many it was a slugging match among the admirals, or at worst a political knife fight in an election year. With the death of the p154 66th Congress in early 1921, the subcommittee issued a partisan-structured majority and minority report. The Democrats, President Wilson, and Secretary Daniels had been turned out. Sims would soon retire. No bills were in the legislative hopper that would incorporate "Certain Naval Lessons of the Great War." In returning to the West Coast and New York, Pratt must have wondered whether he had helped his quest for a broad stripe or whether he had greased the ways for a quick slide onto the retired list. During the next few months the captain got his answer: he still had good friends in the Department and they were ready to give the extra push he needed to move upward.
While his stay in Washington had been trying at the very best, Pratt had escaped the tedium of wintering in Puget Sound and he had had the opportunity to let the Department know he was ready for more important assignments. Admiral Coontz, now CNO, had kept in touch with the captain and continued to fill him in on affairs in Operations. While in the capital, Pratt had dined regularly with Secretary Daniels, Assistant Secretary Franklin Roosevelt, and those admirals who were working on the Department's case. By a stroke of fortune, when he returned to New York, it was in San Francisco Bay. The Democratic Party's national convention was held in San Francisco in June 1920 and Pratt berthed the Assistant Secretary in his own cabin. In the captain's judgment, "a better shipmate and mess mate doesn't exist, for he is one of us."26 Apparently Roosevelt felt welcome, for he not only lived in New York, but he held social gatherings in the wardroom and undoubtedly solved a few political problems while showing midwesterners around the ship. In short, Pratt had the opportunity to do a little "fence mending" during the first half of 1920 and he used his time well.
Franklin D. Roosevelt,
In the summer of 1920 of 1920 New York engaged in battle exercises in the Puget Sound area and then made a fleet cruise to Hawaii. As commander in chief, Admiral Rodman was working hard to tighten up the operational unity of his command, but he had some serious problems that needed solution. The 1916 construction program, as modified during the war, provided a stream of new destroyers for the fleets, but Congress was not providing money for crews. He couldn't operate the 170 destroyers and destroyer minelayers attached to his command and couldn't even find berthing space for more than 60 of them.27 Only 54 could be operated with full crews and very few enlisted men p155 could be spared for the rest. The battleships had their problems too. There was no developed operating base south of Bremerton that could berth the big ships, so they rolled outside the breakwater off San Pedro. The Puget Sound area was becoming the Pacific Fleet's summer drill grounds, but the fogs, currents, and lack of good anchorages made operations difficult and a bit hazardous. The admiral noted particularly, in a routine report to the Secretary, that smoke from forest fires was as dangerous as fog in the late summer and early fall.28 The southern drill area, at sea between San Pedro and San Diego, was ideal, but the lack of a shipyard to handle battleships was bothersome. The whole Navy recognized the enormous advantages of the Hawaiian area as a base for the Pacific Fleet, but the Pearl Harbor base was not well enough developed to base the fleet there for any great length of time. Furthermore, the families of the crews, officers and enlisted, p156 could not afford to move to Hawaii without subsidies for travel and there was no money for dependent transportation.
The cruise to Honolulu during September 1920 dramatized the serious nature of the personnel situation. Fleet speed out was held to 12 knots because the fireroom crews were too inexperienced to handle the work demands in the coal-burning battleships and old cruisers. On the return trip 13 knots was possible by using the oil‑burners in some of the boiler rooms as well as coal. This operation made it seem even more imperative to Rodman that the coal-burners be based in the Atlantic and the newer oil‑burning battleships in the Pacific. Not only would a higher fleet speed be possible, but oil was cheaper on the Pacific Coast and coal was cheaper in the Atlantic ports. The admiral used the Hawaiian cruise for another purpose also. Always a stickler for seamanship, Rodman insisted that every battleship captain take his vessel into Honolulu and Pearl Harbor without a pilot. Pratt considered it "routine," but the order was not popular with a few of the more timid skippers.29
On 18 September 1920, Admiral Coontz wrote Pratt the personal letter he had been patiently expecting. After a bit of chitchat about the Department, he commented that Secretary Daniels was "inclined to do the best he can for you in regard to duty and has asked me to write to you whether you would prefer to go the General Board on the completion of your cruise in January or whether you would rather relieve Admiral Wiley on November 1st." The CNO believed that the General Board was the more important billet, but he left the choice to his friend. To hold down curiosity or comment among members of his staff, Coontz asked the captain to send him a one word reply — "January" or "November" to signal his decision. Pratt really didn't have to give it much thought. The General Board was close to the seat of power, with selection boards due to meet in the spring, but Commander Destroyer Force Pacific Fleet was a flag billet. To serve as the commander would mean he could demonstrate his fitness to be an admiral by serving as one. So he opted for what was commonly known as "the destroyer command." The most surprised, and irritated, person involved in the decision was Rear Admiral Henry A. Wiley. He had tried to stress the importance of his command and he wound up his tour being relieved by a captain. Wiley knew Pratt, felt he was competent to manage p157 the command, and therefore offered no formal objection. Pratt was honest in his assessment of why he had been selected:
I have always thought that Secretary Daniels offered me this position, in an attempt to make up to me for something I might have lost by not being permitted to go to sea during the war, and being obliged to stick close to a desk which I detested. He was extremely considerate, and his point of view was not that of the service man, to whom seniority is a sort of fetich.30
On 1 November 1920 Captain Pratt relieved Rear Admiral Wiley and broke his broad pennant in Charleston. He now commanded more than 10,000 enlisted men, over 100 destroyers, divided into Flotillas Two and Four, and a handful of auxiliaries including the old cruisers Charleston, Brooklyn, and Birmingham and the tender Melville, all of which were used as flagships at one time or another. To control this force effectively, Pratt immediately selected a staff and set it to work. In his selections he revealed certain principles that were to guide him through the years as he chose other staffs to assist him.
In a very human way, Pratt preferred to surround himself with men he knew and whom he judged to be willing to give him full personal loyalty. He surprised many by asking Captain Franck Taylor Evans to be his chief of staff. Taylor Evans was the son of the famous Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans and already a bit of a legend. He had served with Pratt and Sims in the Torpedo Flotilla and with Sims during the war and had made his reputation as a first-class seaman and a very cantankerous officer. Outspoken and at times profane, he seemed the antithesis of his boss. Loyalty was important to him and Pratt never regretted his choice. For aides the force commander chose two lieutenants who had served with him in New York. Russell Berkey became his flag secretary and was to serve almost eight years on Pratt's staffs as he advanced in rank. For flag lieutenant he chose C. W. A. "Jimmy" Campbell, the "mustang" chief gunner who had won an "E" for New York's turret four. Pratt wanted a bachelor for an aide and it looked as if Campbell would never marry. To Pratt's family he was known as "The Lieutenant" and he served almost 14 years as an aide — a naval record in itself. Commander Hollis Cooley became the force engineering officer and he too was to follow Pratt up the ranks and to spend almost eight years with him. Commanding his first flagship, Charleston, was an old and dear friend from Torpedo Flotilla days, Captain Dudley W. Knox. He had worked for Pratt in Operations p158 during the war until detailed to Sims' staff in London. He was plagued with health problems, and a reputation for less than superior management. Taylor Evans summed up Knox's reputation, in his traditionally bluff manner, when he heard he was retiring:
What a damned shame about Dudley Knox. I know and you know that he ain't a hell of a good ship keeper but a man of his high character and who has done so much good should not be put aside.31
From the bridge of Charleston Pratt would see other old friends going about the work of keeping the force operating smoothly. Commander William F. Halsey, Commander Destroyer Division 15, and skipper of Wickes as well, had been in the flotilla and at Queenstown; Commander Raymond A. Spruance had Aaron Ward and Pratt had known him from his tour at the Naval War College; and commanding Destroyer Squadron 11 was J. V. "Babby" Babcock, an old and trusted friend. This was the way the force commander liked things — good ships and good company.
From the very beginning Pratt practiced what he had learned from Sims and Rodman about staff management. Relationships were close and informal. The staff dined together with Pratt. He regularly invited in the destroyer captains for conferences and he worked steadily to build team spirit. Pratt enjoyed bridge, poker, golf, and practical jokes which he could take as well as give. Performance, above all, counted with him. He had been surprised when Rodman once told him that he had hesitated to have him for captain of New York because he thought Pratt was a social snob. In choosing his own staff, the captain considered "background," except in a professional sense, to be the least important quality in an officer. Years later, he reminisced about his selections:
In selecting the members of my staff, I never cared a snap of the fingers, whether they were born in the cow yard or whether they first saw the light of day inside the walls of a palace. I never cared a straw, who their wives were, or what their wealth and social status might be, only as it affected their husband's manners, characters, and efficiency in attending to the business of the Navy.32
The Destroyer Force, Pacific Fleet had its origin in the creation of the fleet itself. With his selection as Commander Pacific Fleet, Admiral Rodman was ordered on 26 June 1919 to form a Destroyer Force and Rear Admiral Henry A. Wiley was detailed to command it. Ships were p159 plentiful, in fact embarrassingly so, as the wartime construction programs were completed. In a very short time Wiley was experiencing the same problems of enlisted shortages that plagued every command in the Navy. By January 1920 Admiral Rodman was at a loss over what to do with more than 170 destroyers. There were too many for San Diego and Puget Sound was a poor operating area. He suggested that a flotilla be berthed in Hawaii and possibly another at Mare Island in San Francisco Bay. Shortages in funds during the first half of 1920 reduced destroyer operations and also seriously cut into shipyard monies for destroyer overhauls. By the time Pratt took over from Wiley, the materiel condition of the Force was sagging badly. Engineering casualties were common due to inexperienced engineering crews and a lack of qualified engineering officers. As a temporary measure, until the large Naval Academy class of 1922 graduated, CNO Coontz asked the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation if senior "engineering duty only" officers might not be placed on seagoing staffs as fleet, force, flotilla, squadron, and division engineers, and those with the rank of commander be allowed assignment as senior engineering officers on capital ships. Such a move would allow many lieutenant commanders and lieutenants, then serving in the battleships and on staffs, to join the Destroyer Force.33
Pratt met the problem of destroyer complement shortages by reducing wastage of crew time and by resorting to the rotating reserve system. Both Wiley and Pratt recognized that sending a division of destroyers to Mare Island was wasteful in terms of crew absence and steaming expenses. It cost almost $2,000 for the oil consumed in deploying a destroyer round trip between San Francisco Bay and San Diego, and the crews would be away a minimum of two weeks. By contracts with the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in San Pedro, the charge for drydocking and cleaning would be just $1,050 and the crews need only be away overnight. In time, and most reluctantly, money shortages forced the Bureau of Construction and Repair to accept this innovation. Later Pratt recommended, and Admiral Rodman approved, that a floating drydock be purchased for San Diego. Construction and Repair again objected. The cost of dredging a place for the dock would make the project p160 unfeasible.34 The captain knew well the power of the bureaus when he had been Assistant CNO; he now was getting fresh experience in the fleet.
In order to get the best use of ships and crews, Pratt found it necessary to use the "rotating reserve" idea that he had helped to inaugurate in pre‑war years with the Torpedo Flotilla. His San Diego-based Destroyer Force was divided into three groups of vessels; one‑third (3 divisions or 18 ships) would lie at a pier with a bare maintenance crew for the group; one‑third (3 divisions) would lie in the stream with 50 percent complements; and one‑third (3 divisions) would lie in the stream and operate with full complements. Over a period of time all vessels would move from one status to another and crews would be provided to assure complete complements to the full-schedule boats. Although a third of his destroyers had half crews, Pratt allowed them to steam and operate to the maximum extent, consistent with safety. The result, of course, was a high state of readiness in his Destroyer Force. By March 1921 the Pacific Fleet Destroyer Force, in the eyes of CNO's Aid for Materiel, was doing a bit too much. He could not see how Pratt could operate the tenders, flagship, and all those destroyers with the number of enlisted men reported. To Captain W. C. Cole (a classmate of Pratt's), the Force Commander was operating either his tenders or his destroyers with less than authorized complements and this violated policy. He wanted a quiet investigation made of Pratt's methods. CNO Coontz handled the matter less officially by reminding his friend in a personal letter that he was supposed to operate just eighteen boats in full commission and that there must be full crews on the tenders. Pratt took the hint. He had been shaving complements here and there.35
Officers of the Destroyer Force, Pacific Fleet. Left to right, Commander Henry C. Gearing, Jr., Captain Pratt, Lieutenant Homer L. Grosskopf, and Captain Franck T. Evans.
During his nine months as Commander Destroyer Force, Pacific Fleet, Pratt saw to it that his destroyermen received plenty of operating experience. He enjoyed the speed and dash of his charges and he worked hard to see that the ship captains and division commanders developed a spirit of aggressiveness. He knew that Admiral Rodman would back him completely, but he also knew there was a limit. Concerning operations, the Force Commander later wrote:
p162 We had a lot of smashups. It wasn't recklessness, but destroyer men must learn to take chances, else they are not much use in war.
One thing Rodman would not stand for. He had no use for men who were squeamish in handling the ships under them. He would give you a stiff reprimand if you went too far, and that was a long distance to go with the old man, since he was so able a seaman himself, that the sky was nearly the limit, but he despised you if you were over cautious.36
At the end of his first month in command, Pratt's force participated in joint exercises with the battleships off Bolinas Bay in northern California. Rodman reported to CNO that destroyer-battleship operations were not as smooth as he desired, yet the maneuvering had shown a large amount of improvement over previous operations.
To improve destroyer operations, Pratt insisted, with Rodman's blessings, that schools be utilized and that innovations be tried. Under Admiral Wiley a "Destroyer Staff College" had been established in San Diego to give destroyer officers shore-based instruction. Pratt saw to it that his senior destroyer officers got time at the school, particularly those operating vessels with reduced complements. He agreed completely with Rodman that battleship officers should attend the school also in order that there would be mutual understanding among officers from both classes of ships about their respective duties in fleet operations. In order to indoctrinate his young officers as rapidly as possible, Pratt had a torpedo-officers school set up at San Diego base. Again the emphasis was placed on utilizing fully the time of officers in reduced complement boats. When these destroyers rotated into full-commission status, the Force Commander wanted everyone well trained and ready to operate. To develop the spirit of instant readiness, Rodman always insisted that fleet operations start promptly. This became a fetish with Pratt and he insisted that weather conditions like fog, should not delay departures. As an innovation he permitted Lieutenant Berkey to develop an operations technique that would allow divisions to stand out of San Diego harbor in heavy fog conditions. Accurate time checks, close speed control, soundings, and sharp lookouts were absolutely necessary, but the system worked. Such departures were always harrowing experiences for the destroyer captains who could envisage a grounding in the Spanish Bight or a collision with a cautious vessel p163 inbound, but Pratt wanted his people to operate under conditions they might have to accept if an emergency was at hand.37
Service under Admiral Rodman helped to deepen in Pratt a realization that the Navy could help itself considerably were it to pay some attention to public relations. When Rodman took the Pacific Fleet to Puget Sound, he made sure that local chambers of commerce throughout the region were invited on board the vessels, given tours of inspection, and served a meal with the crew. As he reported to the Secretary of the Navy, "It has been the policy of the Commander-in‑Chief to cultivate the interest of such bodies up and down the coast and of the public in general and to make them feel that our interests and theirs are closely associated, and in many ways interdependent." During the fall of 1920 the Pacific Fleet football team played private organizations like San Francisco's Olympic Club and a string of West Coast universities. When playing in California the Pacific Fleet normally pooled its bands and the spectators were treated to a massed band of over 100 instruments. The team won all of its games, tanks to the number of superb players recruited from ex‑Naval Academy teams, and proved to be more than self-supporting, for it earned many thousands of dollars for Navy Relief. At Christmas Rodman saw to it that the battleships, in ports along the Pacific Coast, brought in poor children for a party and a good holiday meal.38 Probably of even greater consequence for fleet morale, and the improvement of public relations, the admiral was tireless in attacking the poor image the enlisted men had in some port cities. He rejected suggestions from Los Angeles civic authorities that special shore patrols be established, that areas be placed "out of bounds," or that the whole fleet be given venereal disease tests. He argued that the morals of the fleet's sailors were no different than those of the shore communities and he would not allow the Navy to be singled out. If Los Angeles felt the Navy should place certain areas or businesses off limits, the city itself should take the action and enforce it against the public as well as the Navy.39
p164 In early 1921 the Navy held a United States Fleet concentration off Panama and Pratt had the opportunity to command the combined destroyer forces of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. Rear Admiral Ashley Robertson, Commander Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, would not be present, so the Pacific Force commander took charge. Just before steaming south, Pratt had a fine occasion to draw his men together and give them a sense of community with the wartime destroyer forces. Admiral Lewis Bayly, RN (ret.), visited the West Coast with his niece and they were escorted into San Francisco Bay by a division from the Destroyer Force. Admiral Bayly had commanded the antisubmarine forces based on Queenstown during the war and was well known to most of the destroyer skippers in Pratt's command. Upon arrival in San Diego, the admiral was received with full honors, including a seventeen‑gun salute to his flag — an honor he had never received during the war since his fourth star came only with retirement. Pratt had never met Bayly during the war, but he recognized the admiral's closeness to Sims and the Queenstown force. These honors, in a small sort of way, gave the Force Commander and his men the lift that comes from knowing that they were sailing in an important stream of the Navy's history.40
At the conclusion of the Panama exercises, a sizable segment of the Pacific Fleet steamed south for a visit to Chile to celebrate its centenary of independence. Pratt took Destroyer Squadron 15 and Birmingham as his flagship. The visit to Valparaiso and then overland to Santiago was a great success in terms of fleet morale. Throughout the Navy there had been concern that budgetary cuts would limit the foreign cruising that was so vital to recruitment as well as to training. In the Navy of the 1920s the slogan "join the Navy and see the world" meant something to the recruiters and Admiral Rodman was helping a lot. Pratt noted that Chilean wines were excellent and that the champagne which flowed so freely in Santiago seemed extra bubbly. Because he was serving as a flag officer, though lacking the rank, he was invited to all the glittering affairs and received his second foreign decoration as a "souvenir" of the voyage. The Government of Chile bestowed on the flag officers the "Insignia al Merito." But, it took Pratt almost ten years to receive that decoration. It was lost in the State Department during the time that Congress was ruling officially that the foreign decorations could be received.
p165 While returning to San Diego, the Destroyer Force suffered its worst casualty under Pratt's command. Sailing in formation at night on 26 February 1921, Woolsey was struck by S. S. Steel Inventor. The destroyer sank in a few hours with the loss of sixteen men. Admiral Rodman ordered Pratt to remain behind with Birmingham and a division from his force. An investigation was made in Panama and the evidence was clear that Steel Inventor had ploughed into the three columns of destroyers which had the right of way. The merchantman's commander tried to mask the violation by throwing his helm over and showing his port (red) running light, but there were too many witnesses who could testify that he had come down on the three columns of destroyers with his starboard (green) light in view. Pratt later expressed his counterpart for such behavior: "They are a pest on the ocean, these hard-a‑port skippers. It was a needless and thoughtless waste of human life and valuable property."41
The Destroyer Force command was a boon to Captain Pratt and he enjoyed the sunny climate of southern California. Louise and Billy were with him most of the months in a house they rented in Coronado. Here she had the opportunity to entertain the wives of the destroyer commanders and her husband's staff. She played this role well and with her husband drew considerable pleasure from escaping the long dreary winter in Maine or the harshness of the weather south of Boston on the East Coast. Lacking the grand officers clubs which are available today, it was necessary for the Navy wives to use their own homes for the inevitable entertainment associated with their husband's careers. Because of the national prohibition laws, it probably was just as well that the clubs were unimportant.
Despite the satisfaction Pratt drew from his command, the spring brought the tension that had become an annual part of his life. The selection board for rear admirals was meeting in June and the class of 1889 could no longer be ignored. The class of 1886 was finished and all who had been passed over for rear admiral had retired or were awaiting retirement. The class of 1887 would be combed over once more as would the class of 1888, but it was thought unlikely that there would be many selections from those two classes. Clearly the selection board now had to consider 1889. The idea of "deep selection" was not a part of the precept to the selection board; thus those junior to 1889 realized they were not in the race. It was probably p166 a blessing, to her at least, when Louise left for Belfast with Billy in early June. They were spared the grouchiness that was always present when her husband was preoccupied.
Pratt must have been reasonably sure that he would be selected. His service reputation was outstanding and his formal record, as reflected in fitness reports, was "excellent" throughout. As the selection board leafed through his captain's record, these phrases stood out:
One of the most competent officers of my acquaintance . . . . Particularly efficient in strategy and in the development of tactics.
(Captain W. S. Sims, 10‑31‑15)
Captain Pratt is an officer of unusual professional ability. He has a thorough grasp of the Naval profession in all its various phases, theoretical and practical. . . .
(Admiral W. S. Benson, 3‑31‑18)
Captain Pratt is an ideal naval officer, proficient, energetic, capable, and performs his duties most satisfactorily. I heartily recommend him for advanced rank.
(Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, 6‑30‑19)
A very good sailor man and navigator. A splendidly trained officer for General Staff duties. He is in my opinion one of the best trained and most valuable officers in the Navy and is fully qualified for the duties of Flag rank.
(Rear Admiral J. S. McKean, 11‑15‑19)
A very earnest hard working officer of exceptional ability. Should make an excellent flag officer.
(Vice Admiral C. S. Williams, 9‑30‑20)
Captain Pratt is an exceptionally fine officer in every respect — intelligent, energetic, a fine seaman, and gets results. His administration and work in command of the Destroyer Force leaves nothing to be desired. He is strongly recommended for promotion.
(Admiral Hugh Rodman, 3‑31‑21)
On 21 June 1921, an All‑Navy message went out to the fleet and newspapers announcing the board's results. Pratt had been selected. With him were Mark L. Bristol and Archibald H. Scales from the class of 1887, Richard H. Jackson from 1888, and Nathan C. Twining, Benjamin F. Hutchison, Thomas P. Magruder, Sumner E. W. Kittelle, and Louis M. Nulton from Pratt's class. Only George Marvell had been passed over and he would be picked up when the rest of Pratt's classmates were considered in 1922. With the public announcements there came a flood of letters to Pratt congratulating him on his selection. Many carried the same theme — it was about time the Navy recognized his distinguished service. There were notes from the "losers" too. Captain E. L. Beach, of the class of 1888, now destined for retirement, sent a warm letter the day after the message came in. In passing it along to Louise, Pratt wrote in the margin:
p167 This shows the fine spirit of the Navy. Beach is one of the men passed over and is an excellent officer. He has had hard luck. The system that permits such things is not good.42
A few weeks later, after the excitement of selection had passed, Pratt made a suggestion to his wife that was typical of his very humane spirit. He asked her to write to the wives of three officers who had been passed over for captain and to express to them, in an offhand way, the admiration that he had for their husbands. He explained to her:
This passing over a naval officer is the greatest punishment he can have. I have seen the effect, it is heart-breaking in some cases, for it ruins a man's entire life in certain respects. . . . It is a great source of regret to me that my good fortune is attended by so many others' ill luck. I don't like it. The best selection I have had in the past, that which appeals to my pride most, has been the selection for any high class duty of responsibility. That harms nobody.43
In late June Pratt's official orders were posted; he was to go to the General Board in Washington. He had the usual round of parties during July (though Louise had already left), with the grandest being a "farewell and welcome aboard" for Pratt and his relief, Rear Admiral Guy H. Burrage. The San Diego Chamber of Commerce gave the party at the Grant Hotel and almost all of the flag officers in the area were present. The gold-mounted fountain pen was deeply appreciated by Pratt, but he probably more enjoyed seeing his squadron and division commanders who were gathering for a last fling with "the commodore" — as he was often addressed. The party over, Pratt took the Southern Pacific train east for his new duty at the Navy Department. He wanted this assignment and explained why to Louise:
I suppose I could have gotten the assignment of a Navy Yard, but I feel that I am a little closer in touch with the big plans and projects on the General Board besides being right on the spot if anything turns up. At this stage of my career I dislike getting away from the big end of it, even for a moment. Of course I am working for the C‑in‑C billet from now on.
1 U. S., Department of the Navy, Register . . . to January 1, 1919, pp14‑15.
2 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp230‑31.
3 ADM W. S. Benson to WVP, Paris, 28 March 1919, Pratt MSS/NHD.
4 Pratt, "Autobiography," p235.
5 Ibid., pp246‑47.
6 Admiral Russell S. Berkey to author, Old Lyme, Conn., 28 August 1971.
7 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp233‑35; ADM H. Rodman to Secretary of the Navy, Honolulu, 13 September 1920, File 27383‑357:53, RG80/NA (hereafter cited as CINCPACFLT Report).
8 Davis, op. cit., pp250‑54; Earl S. Pomeroy, Pacific Outpost: American Strategy in Guam and Micronesia (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1951), pp60‑61; Gerald E. Wheeler, Prelude to Pearl Harbor: The United States Navy and the Far East, 1921‑1931 (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1963), pp72‑75; Secretary of the Navy to RADM J. S. McKean, Washington, 16 June 1919, box 42, Josephus Daniels MSS/LCMD.
9 WVP to RADM W. S. Sims, at sea, 4 July 1919, Sims MSS/LCMD; Pratt, "Autobiography," p237.
10 Reports in File O‑S, New York, Battleship, RG80/NA; Pratt, "Autobiography," pp232‑33.
11 CDR Charles Belknap to RADM W. S. Sims, at sea, 11 September 1919, Sims MSS/LCMD; Cronon, op. cit., passim.
12 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp241‑43.
13 VADM W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 21 November 1917, Sims MSS/LCMD.
14 CNO, "General Character of the Operations of Our Naval Forces During the Present War," Washington, 15 November 1918, Pratt MSS/NHD; ADM W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 28 January 1919, Pratt MSS/NHD.
15 WVP to ADM W. S. Sims, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 10 March 1919, Pratt MSS/NHD.
16 Ibid.; Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims, pp459‑62.
17 ADM W. S. Sims to WVP, London, 7 February 1919, Pratt MSS/NHD.
18 The awards story is treated in a very biased way by Tracy B. Kittredge in Naval Lessons of the Great War, pp41‑73; Professor Elting E. Morison puts the story into better perspective in his Admiral Sims, pp433‑39.
19 WVP to ADM W. S. Sims, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 10 March 1919, Pratt MSS/NHD; ADM W. S. Benson to WVP, Paris, 28 March 1919, Pratt MSS/NHD; New York Times, 28 June 1919.
20 Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims, pp439‑41.
21 Cronon, op. cit., p519.
22 Morrison, op. cit., pp123‑28; Kittredge, op. cit., p7.
23 Cronon, op. cit., p505.
24 U. S., Congress, Senate, Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs, Hearings: Naval Investigation (66th Cong., 2nd Sess., 30 March 1920) (Washington: GPO, 1921), vol. I, pp1521‑28.
25 Ibid., I, 1229, 1465‑66.
26 U. S. S. New York, Log, 24 June 1920, RG24/NA; Pratt, "Autobiography," p243.
27 CINCPACFLT Report, 3 January 1920, File 27383‑357:6 RG80/NA.
28 CINCPACFLT Report, 24 August 1920, File 27383‑357:47, RG80/NA.
29 CINCPACFLT Reports, 5 September 1920, 13 September 1920, 29 April 1921, File 27383‑357:51, 53, 96, RG80/NA.
30 ADM R. E. Coontz to WVP, Washington, 18 September 1920, Pratt MSS/NHD; Pratt, "Autobiography," p245.
31 CAPT F. T. Evans to WVP, Lakehurst, N. J., 29 June 1921, Pratt MSS/NHD.
32 Pratt, "Autobiography," p249.
33 Squadron Engineer (Squadron 4) to COMDESFORPACFLT, San Diego, 1 July 1920; Fleet Engineer (Pacific Fleet) to CINCPACFLT, San Francisco, 25 August 1920; CNO (Coontz) to the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Washington, 1 October 1920, File 27368‑194, RG80/NA.
34 COMDESFORPACFLT to CINCPACFLT, San Diego, 23 October 1920; CINCPACFLT to CNO, San Pedro, 1 January 1921, File 27368‑210, RG80/NA.
35 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp250‑51; COMDESFORPACFLT to CNO, San Diego, 23 March 1921, File 27368‑232, RG80/NA.
36 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp251‑52.
37 CINCPACFLT Report, 10 November 1920, File 27383‑357:61, RG80/NA; ADM Russell S. Berkey interview with author, Old Lyme, Conn., 13 June 1969; ADM Russell S. Berkey to Author, Old Lyme, Conn., 28 August 1971.
38 CINCPACFLT Report, 30 December 1920, File 27383‑357:75, RG80/NA. New York had a tradition of Christmas parties for children of the poor in Brooklyn that dated back to her first commanding officer. As commanding officer in 1916, Captain Rodman continued the tradition as did Captain C. F. Hughes when New York was in the Grand Fleet. ADM Berkey's Letter, above.
39 CINCPACFLT Report, 23 March 1921, File 27383‑357:92, RG80/NA.
40 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp256‑58; CINCPACFLT Report, 11 January 1921, File 27383‑357: 77, RG80/NA.
41 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp255‑56; CINCPACFLT Report, 6 March 1921, File 27383‑357:89, RG80/NA.
42 CAPT Edward L. Beach to WVP, Mare Island Navy Yard, Calif., 22 June 1921, Pratt MSS/NHD.
43 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Francisco, 9 July 1921, Pratt MSS/NHD.
a By the time Admiral Pratt wrote his Autobiography twenty years later in 1939, his memory played him false: the disaster he had in mind was the foundering of the steamship Rio de Janeiro, February 22, 1901. Captain William Ward was drowned, as were about 130 others (the exact number varies from report to report); but about 80 passengers were rescued. A detailed page on the disaster, with several contemporaneous newspaper accounts, photographs, and a partial list of passengers and crew, can be read at MaritimeHeritage.Org. According to newspaper reports of the time, William Charles Ward was born in North Carolina, and did serve briefly, at some time between 1893 and 1895, on a ship named City of Peking; at the time of his death he was 38 years old. In 1894 Ensign Pratt and his father were both in Chinese waters: the time and place surely account both for their knowing the man and for the Admiral's slip of the pen half a lifetime later.
Much closer in time to the writing of Admiral Pratt's Autobiography and thus possibly influencing his memory as well, was the foundering of the City of Pekin, a British freighter that struck a rock and sank in April 1930 near "Shireshima Island off the coast of Korea" (which appears to mean Cape Shiroshima on Dogo Island, closer to Japan than to Corea), but all 80 passengers and 50 crew were rescued.
A detailed page on Captain Ward, with more newspaper articles but also a good photograph of him and a recent photograph of his grave in Raleigh, can be read at The Dead Bell.
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William V. Pratt,
U. S. Navy
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