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Ch. 6 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,
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Ch. 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p193  Chapter VI

The General Board

[Part 2 of 2]

While the Washington Conference had been a fascinating assignment for Pratt, and proved to have continuing significance for his career, the admiral soon found that the General Board would now have to deal with the results of the Five-Power Treaty. The Navy would need a formal policy to guide it and there was a plethora of questions to be answered concerning naval characteristics for various ship types it wished to build. Finally, in the background, there was a steady drumbeat from Congress calling for reduction in naval expenditures so that taxes could be lowered. President Harding had set the tempo on 12 April 1921 with his first message to Congress:

I know of no more pressing problem at home than to restrict our national expenditures within the limits of our national income, and at the same time measurably lift the burdens of war taxation from the shoulders of the American people.38

In the winter of 1921‑1922, while the Conference was in session, the Congress began to frame appropriate authorization acts for fiscal years 1923 and 1924. In the hearings before the various House and Senate subcommittees of the Naval Affairs Committees and the Appropriations  p195 Committees, it steadily became evident that there was a new spirit being shown toward the Armed Services. It was one that verged on hostility. Secretary Denby, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, Admiral Coontz, and each of the bureau chiefs who testified experienced this new testiness. Admiral Jones, the Commander in Chief of the U. S. Fleet, depicted this climate when writing to the Scouting Fleet commander: "The general atmosphere in Washington is very pessimistic in regard to the Navy. There seems to be no chance of the Navy having a real press agent at this time, as the press is practically unanimous in refusing to publish anything favorable to the Navy, as all papers are committed to the drastic limitation of armaments." To Admiral Mark L. Bristol, U. S. High Commissioner to Turkey, he was even more despondent when describing Congressional hostility: "Such an attitude is utterly incomprehensible to me. Just why individuals in Congress should assume the attitude of personal hostility to any man because he wears a uniform is beyond me, but such certainly seems to be the case."39

The reasons for Congressional antipathy are not difficult to determine. The Washington Conference had been a great success from the viewpoint of the "man in the street" and Congress wanted to believe it also. The battleship-construction holiday potentially meant great savings; scrapping the six unfinished battle cruisers and the seven battleships, which ranged from the 76 percent completed battleship Washington to the 4 percent completed battle cruiser Ranger, would mean further savings in construction costs; and disposal of 18 second-line battleships would lead to lower operating expenses for the Navy and the possibility of reducing the number of enlisted men required to man the fleet. The President and Congress both wanted to cut naval expenses drastically because the nation was experiencing a mild business recession in 1921‑1922. Lowering of taxes and budget retrenchment were considered the proper ways to encourage an upturn in business activity — the concept of crowd government spending as an economy accelerator was still a decade from consideration. Thus, while the Congress expected to see a sizable reduction in the Navy's requests for funds, this did not occur. There were 2 battleships to finish (Colorado, West Virginia), 2 battle cruiser hulls to convert to aircraft carriers (Lexington, Saratoga), 10 scout cruisers of the Omaha class to complete, and many destroyers and submarines that had been  p196 authorized in 1916 but not finished as yet. Particularly exasperating to some legislators was the inability, because of inflation, to finish any of the vessels within the original cost estimates. Wages for shipyard laborers, steel prices, and shipyard charges were rising steadily despite the business downturn. Adding to Congressional irritation was information from the Department that most of the battleships needed to be modernized, that aircraft and pilots needed to be added to the fleet, and that the newer and more complicated vessels required larger crews than the prewar ships. It was little wonder that there was restiveness on Capitol Hill.

Secretary Denby, because of his previous legislative experience and basic political acumen, recognized the signs that Congress would be very difficult to deal with. Within the Executive Branch he had already felt the pain associated with budget trimming by the newly created Director of the Budget. In order to guide the President, and Congress, in their approach to naval armaments, Denby asked the General Board to draft a formal statement of "Naval Policy." The Board held formal hearings during late February and much of March on the subject and finally sent its formal statement to the Secretary on 29 March 1922.

Pratt, of course, participated in the hearings and the drafting of the policy. In the hearings he expressed himself often and pressed regularly for an enduring and meaningful statement. On one key question he carried the Board with him. At issue was whether the policy statement on vessels, and their characteristics, should express what the Navy believed Congress would allow in a reasonable period of time or whether the Board should spell out boldly what the Navy actually needed in order to maintain a basic policy of "A Navy second to none." Pratt stood for cleanly stating what the Navy needed to achieve parity with Great Britain and a forty percent superiority over Japan. Admiral Rodgers agreed and the rest of the Board fell into line.40 Based on the evidence in these hearings, it is rather doubtful that Pratt had anything to do with drafting the transmittal letter which accompanied the proposed policy statement. In it was a bald criticism of the Five-Power Treaty. Writing for the Board, Rear Admiral Rodgers noted:

The General Board desires to record here its opinion that the naval situation of the United States in the Pacific, both as to ships and as to bases, resulting  p197 from the Treaty for the limitation of Naval Armament agreed to by the Conference . . . will be such as greatly to lessen the power of the United States to prepare to defend its interests or unaided to enforce its policies in the Western Pacific, should these be seriously threatened.41

The "Naval Policy" of March 1922 became the Navy's basis for future planning. It posited that there should be "a Navy second to none and in conformity with the ratios for capital ships established by the treaty for limitation of naval armaments."42 Throughout the policy was an emphasis on well-armed vessels with great steaming endurance. Naval-base development on the Pacific Coast was called for and when read carefully there was detectable a general Pacific Ocean orientation to the whole statement. While the published policy said nothing about theoretical enemies, throughout the confidential hearings only one nation was discussed with any great seriousness — Japan. An early draft proposed to state that the "strategic objective" of the Navy was in the Pacific, but this was taken out because of concern that Congress would be offended by a too specific reference. A few officers wanted to mention the Atlantic, but their views were quickly set aside.43 The message from the Board was clear; here was a policy for achieving a well-rounded navy, equal to England's, and capable of fighting the next war against Japan in the Pacific Ocean.

At the same time that the General Board was spelling out battleship, cruiser, aircraft carrier policy, etc., it also was required to develop specific answers concerning arming and using these ship types. In view of later stands taken, particularly at the London Naval Conference of 1930, it is interesting to read Pratt's statements concerning cruiser developments. Several days of hearings were held with Rear Admiral C. B. McVay, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, as the principal witness. The major questions to be answered concerned the speed, endurance, armor, and guns for the next group of cruisers to be requested from Congress. Ten "scout cruisers" (Omaha class) were under construction, but no one had any interest in continuing these 6‑inch-gun vessels (The 29 March "policy" would read concerning smaller cruisers: "To build no small cruisers"). Japan was now building 8‑inch-gun cruisers (Furutaka class) and England was doing the same; thus the Board saw no other alternative to the 8‑inch gun. Pratt's  p198 contribution to the hearings was typical of his approach to this type of question. He argued that the expected uses of the ships should determine their characteristics. Because the cruiser fell between the destroyer and the battle cruiser, it had such functions to fulfill as offensive scouting, defense of the battle line against destroyer torpedo attack, escort of destroyer divisions as they attacked enemy formations, and attacks on enemy commerce and defense of American merchantmen. From this catalogue of functions, Pratt set these priorities in characteristics: gun power (8‑inch guns), speed (34 knots maximum), steaming endurance, and armor protection. Because these vessels would be operating in the Pacific, most Board members stressed a cruising range of 10,000 miles. Pratt disagreed. He thought that intermediate operating bases would be seized in a campaign against Japan. Thus, firepower and speed would be the most important characteristics. By the end of the cruiser hearings, he was supporting a cruiser with twelve 8‑inch guns, and machineguns for antiaircraft protection.44 Most of the Board preferred fewer large guns and a secondary battery of 5‑inch guns which could be used against destroyer or aircraft attack. Pratt was willing to give up the 5‑inch guns, mine rails, and torpedo batteries in order to have more 8‑inch guns and improved armor protection. He believed, along with the Bureau of Ordnance people, that more guns, despite their slow rate of fire, would result in the volume of fire necessary to break up destroyer attacks. He wanted armor, and was willing to sacrifice endurance and secondary batteries, to assure survivability. At one point the admiral even suggested that two classes might be desirable: one to be well armored for battles and the other to be less well protected.45 In the end, the next class of cruisers (Northampton) represented a compromise that really satisfied no one; 10,000 tons displacement, nine 8‑inch guns, four or eight 5‑inch guns in the secondary battery, 32.7 knots speed, no torpedo tubes, and an expected 10,000‑mile cruising range. The armor in this class was minimal and later led to the Northamptons being described derisively as "tin‑clads."

During 1922 and 1923 the General Board had to make a series of decisions concerning aviation in the fleet and in the hearings associated  p199 with these questions, Pratt received a liberal education on the future of this relatively new development. During these years the Board typified the conservatism that so exasperated the Navy's aviation enthusiasts. No member of the Board in 1922 or 1923 had had any direct experience with aviation. As junior members, Pratt (USNA 1889) and Captain Frank H. Schofield (1890) were better educated to understand the technicalities involved. Rear Admirals W. L. Rodgers (1878), H. Huse (1878), and Joseph Strauss (1885) were unfamiliar with aircraft and Rodgers seemed unwilling to learn anything about them. Making the education of the Board more difficult was the fact that the Navy's aviators were generally quite junior to the members of the Board. While Rear Admiral William A. Moffett (1890) was Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, and had earned his stars in battleships, his most important flying assistant, Captain Henry C. Mustin (1896), was a war‑accelerated four-striper. He was clearly identified with aircraft even though he had commanded a cruiser. Those who had won their aviation designations first and had grown up with aviation, such as Commanders Theodore G. Ellyson (1905), Kenneth Whiting (1905), and John H. Towers (1906), were clearly too junior to command much more than admiration for their daring from the older Board members. Yet the post-World War I Board had to grapple with questions associated with the conversion of two battle cruisers into aircraft carriers, the transformation of the collier Jupiter into the first experimental carrier Langley, the placement of catapults and aircraft on various ship types, the gun armament for future carriers, the operational uses of the carriers, and the design and military characteristics of carriers to follow Saratoga and Lexington (ex‑battle cruisers).

In the hearings concerned with aviation and aircraft carrier policies, and in testimony before Congressional committees at the same time, Rear Admiral Moffett, Captain Mustin, and other representatives of naval aviation spread the "Gospel" concerning naval aviation as a future weapon. Moffett was very direct in describing aviation as adding offensive power to the fleet. Arguing for the addition of aircraft to all of the fleet's ship types, and full utilization of carrier tonnage available within the Five-Power Treaty, Moffett stated to the House Naval Affairs Committee:

Without the utilization of our full allowance of carrier tonnage, together with the equipment of all other suitable ships of the fleet with catapults  p201 and airplanes, it will be impossible for the Navy to undertake anything but a defensive and consequently a losing naval campaign.46

Six months later, the admiral spelled out his views even more precisely in a memorandum prepared for the Secretary of the Navy:

The Navy is the first line of offense and naval aviation as an advance guard of this first line must deliver the brunt of attack. Naval aviation cannot take the offensive from shore; it must go to sea on the back of the fleet. I do not believe aircraft on shore can ward off a bombing attack launched, perhaps from carriers by night from an unknown point for an unknown objective. On the other hand, a fleet equipped with adequate aviation of its own can drive the enemy carriers back out of effective range. Both in offense and defense the fleet and naval aviation are one and inseparable.47

These views of Moffett, while not directed specifically to the General Board, were made known to it through his own testimony and that of Mustin.

In March and November 1922 Mustin spelled out precisely how much airpower the Bureau of Aeronautics wanted to add to the fleet. 3 more carriers would be added to Lexington and Saratoga; each new carrier would displace 23,000 tons; each destroyer division would have 3 fighters and 3 scouts as a part of its equipment, with either a fighter or a scout in each ship; every battleship would have 2 fighters and a spotting plane; every cruiser would have a fighter and a scouting plane on board; even train vessels, when possible, would carry at least 1 fighter. The fighters, scouts, and bombing-observation planes would be grouped into squadrons with a ratio of 2 squadrons of fighters for each scouting or other type of aircraft. The purpose of taking so many aircraft to sea was to assure control of the air over the fleet. With such control obtained by the fleet's fighter aircraft, then spotting planes could direct battleship gunfire and torpedo and bombing planes could attack the enemy battle line.48 After describing potential aircraft carrier support in a Pacific Ocean campaign, Mustin fielded the following questions from the Board:

 p202  Captain McNamee: It seems to me that Mustin is contemplating a carrier that will operate singly and not with the fleet.

Captain Mustin: No, sir. I have thought all along that if any carrier operations were made on the coast of Japan that the striking group would be composed of the five carriers, the eighteen battleships, and the ten light cruisers. That would make it possible to make a raid with five squadrons of bombers and send fifteen squadrons of fighting planes for their escort — three to one basis — while retaining eight squadrons of fighting planes for protection of the battleships.

Admiral Rogers: Do you contemplate making all naval warfare in support of the air attack?

Captain Mustin: No, sir. Our whole aviation program is laid out on the basis that the battleship is the dominant factor in naval warfare, provided it is properly supported by aircraft.49

The General Board's response to this sort of testimony was as varied as its membership, but on the whole conservative. Admiral Rodgers was generally hostile and carried extra weight because he chaired the Executive Committee. He disliked the clutter the aircraft and their catapults created on board battleships and found it difficult to imagine a destroyer carrying a plane. The admiral suspected that battleship tactics would be impaired by the presence of their planes and the problems of recovering them. Occasionally he quibbled about aviators trying to escape the routine of shipboard life by getting into aviation. He knew the years required to make a good seagoing officer and he couldn't see how aviators could amount to much. Rear Admiral Harry McL. P. Huse was ignorant on aviation matters, while willing to be educated, but he was due to retire in December 1922. His questions were intelligent and he even seemed to enjoy discovering various facts about air operations; but he hardly seemed appropriate to decide important questions concerning naval aviation. Pratt was deeply interested, showing it with his questions, and understood quite clearly what Moffett was trying to do. He enjoyed pulling both sides of an argument together with a new synthesis. When Rodgers complained about aviators wanting to escape the tedium of life at sea, Pratt argued that they were like destroyermen or submariners. After tours of duty in aircraft, the fliers could expect to be ordered to battleships, cruisers, or other types. Pratt was very much with Captain Mustin in trying to put aircraft on as many ships as possible. He had gotten a glimpse of the future for spotting planes when he allowed his Destroyer Force  p203 vessels to be used for experimental work. Destroyers fired on distant targets and aircraft directed the fall of their 4‑inch projectiles. The communications were rather primitive in 1921, but the admiral easily saw the potential value of the system.

It is possible that Pratt's open-mindedness again was the result of his friendship with Sims. He had been to Newport in reply to Sims' invitation for him "to come up and give the new class a song-and‑dance on the many interesting things you can tell us about the conference." He found that the War College people were very much up to date in their thinking about aviation use at sea. Captain Harris Laning, the head of the tactics department, was deeply wedded to "command of the air" principles and later so testified before the Board. And, as usual, the indefatigable Sims was peppering all who would listen with his views about the need for a "three-plane Navy." Sims and a few other die‑hards, Rear Admirals Fiske and Fullam, were waging their own war for a Navy that was as interested in aircraft carriers and submarines as in battleships. Pratt didn't really agree that the battleship was finished and that the carrier was the capital ship of the future, but he did believe that the carriers would be another important type of capital ship in the years ahead.

Pratt's interest in submarines was almost as deep as his concern that aviation be properly integrated into the fleet. His earliest exposure to the value of the submarine for defensive purposes came during his tour in Panama. There he saw how submarines had become a part of the Canal's defense system and had urged that their usefulness be increased by placing radio equipment in them. In Naval Operations during the war he had developed a full appreciation of the submarine's effectiveness as a commerce raider. It was with regret that he saw the antisubmarine warfare treaty adopted at the Washington Conference. In a memo to Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, written after the American delegate signed the treaty, Pratt protested that the treaty was outlawing a weapon, but not the illegal practice of sinking merchant vessels without proper care for the crews and passengers. He felt it inconsistent to prohibit a practice by an undersea vessel and not a surface commerce-destroyer.50 In a comment to the General Board a month later, he described the importance of submarines in Pacific Ocean warfare:

 p204  In another war the economic pressure would come first and the battle strength last. The first and only pressure we could put on Japan, would be to put economic pressure on her. That has been very much handicapped by the Submarine Treaty. It amounts to this: Not only in operating and training for battle, but we have got to realize we must build those types to make strength in economic pressure certainly of equal importance in a Pacific campaign.51

What is obvious here is that Admiral Pratt had a good feel for technological change. He suspected that naval warfare in the future would differ greatly from the past. In a future war with Japan, for instance, he recognized that as an island nation she would be vulnerable to blockade and attack on her merchant commerce. He also recognized, with Moffett and Mustin, that aircraft carriers might well be the most important means of bombing the Japanese islands. Certainly capital-ship bombardment of the islands would be too limited in area covered and too dangerous due to the need to approach the Japanese coast too closely. Only command of the sea, the air, and the area beneath the sea would make it possible for the battle line to engage Japan's coastal fortifications.

As might be expected, the General Board paid a great deal of attention to modernizing the Navy's older battleships. Because the ratio system of the Five-Power Treaty dealt specifically with the capital ships, it was incumbent upon the Navy to see that every vessel was fully capable of standing in the battle line were it necessary to engage Japan or Great Britain. Otherwise, the United States would not be at treaty strength. The treaty made provision for the signatories to up‑date their capital ships so long as there was no change in the number of guns or the caliber of the main batteries or in the side armor. Each completed battleship could have an extra 3,000 tons displacement added to it when the signatories decided that new protection was needed for defense against submarine or aircraft bombing attack. The treaty assumed that such additional weight would come from "bulge or blister or anti-aircraft deck protection."

After a series of hearings, the General Board recommended that the oldest battleships (New York, Texas, Wyoming, Arkansas, Utah, Florida) have their boilers converted from coal to oil‑fired boilers, have blisters added for oil storage and torpedo protection, and that extra armed decks be constructed for protection against bombing  p205 attack.52 Admiral Pratt participated in these hearings both as a Board member and as an expert witness on several occasions. He advised the Board, as a witness, that the desired modifications, so long as they were done within the allowed 3,000 tons additional displacement, were completely legal. When pressed about the possibility of changing side armor and replacing older armor with new high-strength belting, he advised against the change. He argued that this would be illegal; all nations had engaged in "give and take" discussions when the treaty was framed, and the United States should stick to the decisions agreed upon. He explained that the treaties had tried to stabilize the offensive capabilities of the battleships and still provide room for added defensive measures, because aircraft offensive power was changing so rapidly at the time.53

While the General Board made the decision to modernize the older vessels on 26 April 1922, Congress did not authorize funds until December 1924. The delay was attributable to another General Board recommendation, in December 1922, that $6,500,000 be sought, in addition to the modernization funds. The additional monies would be used for modifying the turrets on the thirteen oldest battleships so that the main batteries could be fired with gun elevations of 30 degrees. In the period between April and December 1922, the Board was confronted with statistical evidence from the Bureau of Ordnance and war‑gaming results from the Naval War College that concluded that the Navy's battle line was 30 percent inferior to that of Great Britain. The Board summarized its case in simple table comparing the hitting power of the American and British battle lines based on War College and Bureau of Ordnance data:54

At 15,000 yds. At 20,000 yds. At 24,000 yds.
Naval War College:
U. S. Fleet 100 100 100
British Fleet 144 141 255
Bureau of Ordnance:
U. S. Fleet 100 100 100
British Fleet 140 150 230

 p206  Admiral Huse chaired the Board's hearing on 5 December 1922 when the decision was made to ask for the $6,500,000. He opened the proceedings with this ominous statement:

The hearings that we are about to begin relate specifically to methods of increasing the strategical and tactical efficiency of our capital ships as one step in attaining and maintaining a navy second to none.

The navy of Great Britain is superior to ours in the number and in the aggregate tonnage of its battleships and we have forty-five 12‑inch guns on our older battleships that cannot penetrate the armor of the older British battleships at 15,000 yards while the guns of the latter can penetrate the armor of ours . . . . At a late target practice, the British fleet opened fire at 30,000 yards; the maximum range of a majority of our ships is about 21,000 yards. This is enough in itself to call for action on our part; and it is only one of several points of inferiority.55

Admirals Coontz and Pratt must have been uncomfortable at the hearings because the evidence suggested that the United States had accepted a treaty situation where the British had come out ahead. In a memorandum a few days earlier, the Board informed Secretary Denby that it had not selected the ships to be retained under the treaty and that its provision for equality between the American and British fleets had included some of the newer vessels that were to be scrapped. Pratt agreed with the Board that the battleship guns had to be elevated and he felt this was completely legal under the treaty provisions. In a special memorandum to Assistant Secretary Roosevelt he argued; "Our gun elevations must be increased in order to protect ourselves against the indirect air effort [spotting planes] of those ships whose guns have a greater range than ours, due merely to mechanical limitation in our elevation, and not to the power of the gun itself."56 In another memo to the CNO, Pratt explained how the United States had been so trapped. By reducing the retained battleships to a certain aggregate tonnage, the British could discard a large number of older battleships and still have plenty of large-caliber long-range guns in their retained vessels. The American Navy had planned to discard old ships and build new ones, but the "stop now" approach of Secretary Hughes had upset this program. With only three new vessels allowed (Colorado, Maryland, West Virginia), the United States was  p207 stuck with a large number of vessels that needed modernizing, including increased elevations for the turret guns.57

Secretary Denby accepted the recommendation of the General Board and requested a special supplemental authorization from the Bureau of the Budget. From this point the issue became confused due to a mistaken argument used in communications with Congress. Denby urged the appropriation partly because the British had altered their battleship turrets to permit long-range firing. This was so, but the alterations had been completed long before the Washington Conference and not subsequent to it as was inferred. It took two years to reduce British irritation and to get them to agree to the Navy's plans without placing a formal protest. It also took that much time to convince Secretary Hughes and Congress that the changes were vital and not just another form of naval competition that supposedly had been laid to rest at the conference. Probably the best argument for prodding Congress and the Bureau of the Budget was written in October 1923 by the Board:

War is not a game with prearranged handicaps. The stakes are too great. They may involve no less than national existence. . . . Present and prospective conditions indicate that to limit the elevations to less than 30 degrees would be to invite defeat by not doing our best for victory. The General Board believes that the degree of elevation should not be determined with reference to action of other powers but solely on the basis of our own national interests.58

During those very interesting two years on the General Board, Admiral Pratt participated in a variety of activities that took him away from his regularly assigned duties. In the fall of 1922 he was assigned to a special board convened by Secretary Denby to make recommendations concerning the shore establishment. Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, now approaching retirement, was Senior Member and his group became commonly known as the Rodman Board. While a survey was made of naval bases on all coasts, Pratt only visited the East Coast yards. Much of the ground had been covered by three earlier boards, active between 1917 and 1922, and thus the Rodman Board's job consisted of writing a full report and setting priorities based on the new "Naval Policy" and the Five-Power Treaty. Pratt drafted most of  p208 the board's report dated 12 January 1923. As a premise for its conclusions, the report stressed the importance of the shore establishment:

The Nation should not be allowed to rest secure in the belief that an adequate naval defense is had in vessels only, even though it consists of a well-rounded navy, but it should know that without adequate bases the fleet can not live.

The report then called for continental naval bases in the following order of priority: 1) San Francisco Bay, especially a fleet base on Alameda; 2) Puget Sound, a base capable of handling the whole fleet; 3) New York-Narragansett Bay region; 4) Chesapeake Bay, a base capable of serving the whole fleet in every respect. The Board further recommended that two advanced bases be developed in the Hawaiian Islands and the Panama Canal Zone. With the new Pacific Ocean strategy of the Navy in mind, the report urged that the naval base on Oahu be given fiscal priority over all other base developments.59 In July 1923 the Joint Army-Navy Board formally accepted the Navy's priorities when it listed those areas most important for joint defense considerations: Hawaiian Islands, Guam (maintenance only), Manila Bay, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, and the New York-Narragansett Region.60

Admiral Pratt made one minor, and somewhat unique, contribution to the Navy during his tenure on the General Board. In July 1922 he sat in on a discussion involving the Assistant Secretary and the two commanders in chief. The topic was improving the public image of the Navy. Everyone in the Department recognized the need for more public backing of the Navy if it was to survive the budgetary attacks coming from Congress. A public relations effort in the press was being made by the Office of Naval Intelligence, but it had not been very successful. Among other possibilities touched upon had been the idea of a "Naval Day." A few days after this meeting, Pratt typed out a memorandum for Assistant Secretary Roosevelt and presented a full panoply of suggestions concerning the development of a "Naval Day." He thought its principal goal will be "to instill into the hearts of the American youths true Americanism. When this is done there is little doubt that the Navy will be truly understood and be able to hold its own through the coming years." He listed a  p209 large number of memorable historical dates associated with the Navy's past, but suggested that a fall date would be preferable. There would be no interference with fleet maneuvers at this time and the weather would be good throughout the country. While there were several fine battles that could have been commemorated in September and October (e.g.Bonhomme Richard and Serapis, 23 September 1779), he recommended 27 October, the birthday of President Theodore Roosevelt. Pratt knew that the Navy Department could hardly institute a national celebration in its own honor, so he suggested that the Navy League be approached to make the program its own. Finally, the admiral listed a variety of events that could take place: open houses on ships and stations; illuminations and full-dressing of the vessels; a football game between the Battle Fleet and the Scouting Fleet, preferably near the Mississippi River; ship visits to coastal cities; and speeches by naval officers in the cities.61

Pratt's memorandum apparently was one of the background documents explaining why, on 29 August, Robert J. Kelly of the Washington office of the Navy League wrote to Secretary Denby to propose that October 27 be set aside as Navy Day. The next day the Secretary answered that he considered the idea a good one and pledged the Navy's cooperation. On 12 September Denby issued an All‑Navy message setting 27 October as Navy Day and asking all ship and shore station commanders to cooperate with local Navy League officials in promoting the celebration. Navy Day 1922 was a tremendous success and Pratt did his part by addressing the Rotary Club of Portland, Maine.

These two very busy years on the General Board provided Pratt with enough employment to fill his working days completely, yet he managed to do even more. Because he was in Washington, friends and shipmates from earlier years wrote for advice, and assistance, with their career problems, particularly promotion troubles. Pratt approved of the selection system for promotion; yet he recognized that at the time most men were advancing by seniority with only the most obviously unfit, or unlucky, being passed by for advancement. A good case in point was that of Captain Franck Taylor Evans. Pratt's former chief of staff in the Destroyer Force had "lost numbers" (seniority) in a prewar incident and seemed destined to retire in rank.  p210 Pratt felt he was a good officer and wrote a personal note to the Assistant Secretary urging that he look into the matter and possibly review the case.62 For other officers he put in a "good word" to see that they received their sea command or an executive officer's billet so they could move up. In one case we see Pratt at his humane best. Rear Admiral Sims was due to retire on 14 October 1922 and Taylor Evans, as Newport Naval Base Commander, would be in charge of the ceremonies. He and many others in the service felt Sims had done much harm with his attacks on the Navy and would have preferred to skip any honors for the testy admiral. He did ask Pratt for his own views. The admiral answered fully and directly:

Aside from this personal discussion, I have a word or two to say about Billy Sims. . . . I feel that the discussions Sims entered into, (call them controversies rather) with our late secretary, Mr. Daniels, were most unfortunate. I say unfortunate, because I think it did the service harm. To a much greater degree I feel that the discussions entered into by Fullam and Fiske with Secretary Daniels have done the service greater harm. Nevertheless, I feel that throughout it all Billy Sims has always been actuated by the highest motives. He was the commander-in‑chief of all our forces in European waters, and though he may have his mistakes like all men, his work was a splendid work and will stand the searching analysis of the future. Above all, Sims is one of the most leading characters that the Navy has had for years. His personality is an exceedingly strong one. His generosity and kindness towards others entitles him to the respect of every naval officer in the service. Never for one moment, though I have cordially disagreed with him in many matters, have I failed to regard Sims with a great deal of personal admiration, and for that reason I feel, regardless of the ideas of other officers who would now, on the day that he is leaving the service, discredit him, that such an attempt would do the service much more harm than it possibly could do Sims. Were I in your place I would not only fire the salute, but give him every honor to which I personally think he is entitled.63

Taylor Evans accepted Pratt's advice and Sims was given the full retirement ceremony that he had so fully earned in forty‑two years of service to his country.

In the winter and early spring of 1923 Admiral Pratt accompanied Secretary Denby, Chief of Naval Operations Coontz, the Commander in Chief of the U. S. Fleet (Admiral H. P. Jones), and a large delegation of Congressmen on board the transport Henderson to U. S. Fleet  p211 maneuvers in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Panama.64 As was normal with observers from the General Board, Pratt was assigned umpire duties during the maneuvers and thus "earned his keep." Actually, he already had been given a good workout delivering lectures on strategy and tactics, naval policy, and fleet operations to the Congressmen and newsmen on board Henderson as it sailed south. He enjoyed this role; it was a bit like War College days. More importantly, for him, the admiral had a chance to visit leisurely with key senators and representatives and to make himself better known to Secretary Denby. Pratt already was becoming a public figure through his writings and the newsmen found him a good source of reliable information concerning the Navy. A measure of his quotability can be found in the 9 December 1922 issue of the New York Times. An editorial printed on that date commented on Secretary Denby's General Order 94 which formally created the U. S. Fleet with its Battle Fleet and Scouting Fleet divisions. The writer called attention to an early article by Pratt which had noted the feasibility, due to the Panama Canal, of operating a single fleet, though divided between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Again, on 1 April 1923, one of Pratt's lectures on board Henderson was quoted at great length (a half page in the Times!). This was possible because he had the ship's press print the talk in pamphlet form for distribution to the guests. Pratt's foresight paid dividends in the publicity given his argument for Congress to maintain the Navy at treaty ratios:

The naval point of view is this. Having made sacrifices for good ends, and having established what we believe to be fair and just ratios of naval strength, we should see that this just balance is maintained, nor should we allow the position of the United States in this respect to be jeopardized by a failure to live up to treaty standards. We arrived at our standards by fair abstraction. It is fake economy to fail to live up to them.65

The high point of the Panama maneuvers was a testing of the Canal's defenses. As was to be the case in most future exercises, it was found that the Canal could be attacked with impunity by carrier-based aircraft, though some doubted the legitimacy of an exercise that used "constructive carriers;" i.e., battleships and tenders serving as carriers and using single planes as squadrons or air groups. More significant to some was the demonstration that the Canal could be attacked successfully by landings in Costa Rica followed by a ground  p212 campaign. Pratt, of course, had proved this during his tour in the Canal Zone.66

Another highlight in the fleet exercises came with the sinking of the old battleship Iowa (BB‑4) in the Bay of Panama. The vessel was rigged with radio apparatus to control her rudder and she was maneuvered to make the firing against her more realistic. For two days Iowa was attacked with contact high explosives and was taken under fire at night by star-shell illumination. This type of gunfire was designed not to sink the vessel, though the topside structures were reduced to a shambles. On the second day (22 March 1923), some of the Congressmen and newsmen began to wonder aloud it Mississippi, which had done most of the firing with its 14‑inch rifles, could actually sink the old battleship. Admiral Jones then passed the word to sink her. From an observation point aboard Maryland, Pratt described the final "engagement" to his wife:

Then the word went out from the C‑in‑C to sink her and she was attacked with service shells and charges. Our position was near the target to observe. Salvo after salvo struck the ship; clouds of smoke and bursting shells and tons of water fell on her. Her smoke pipe fell over and a piece of turret flew up in the air. The old ship staggered and reeled and finally settled over on the starboard side. I had told Secretary Denby that it would be a nice idea to give her a fitting burial, so as she started to settle below the sea they played the Star Spangled Banner, and fired a 21 gun national salute. She sank out of sight at the last strains of the national air and went down to a fitting end.67

While Pratt enjoyed the social activities of the cruise, he was more than pleased with the personal professional decisions that he had helped to guide. He recognized that his reputation for administration was very solid and he had to resist those who wished to add him to their staffs. Admiral E. W. Eberle, the Battle Fleet commander, knew he would replace Coontz as CNO and asked Pratt to join his staff. Pratt was due for sea duty and recognized that such an assignment could be permanently damaging to his chances for advancement; so he said "no thanks."68 A week or so after his talk with Eberle, Secretary Denby told Pratt he was making up the "command slate" and wondered if the admiral would like to take over the Special Service Squadron. After a day's delay, Pratt again said no. He told Denby he was a "fighting man" and preferred a command in the Battle Fleet.  p213 The Special Service Squadron was the naval power behind the Monroe Doctrine in the Caribbean, but it also was reputed to be a naval dead‑end. To Louise, the admiral confided that his record was good and, though the competition for a command in the Battle Fleet was heavy, he thought he deserved the next opening. Pratt felt fairly comfortable with his reply to Denby because he had talked it over with his friend Admiral Coontz before giving it. The CNO told Pratt that he wanted to give him the Scouting Fleet command, a vice admiral's billet, but the Secretary preferred Rear Admiral N. A. McCully who was two years senior to Pratt. These were rules of the game that Pratt understood. In his letter to his wife describing these negotiations, Pratt rationalized that he could afford to wait for higher command; besides, he commented, "the Scouting Force is all shot to pieces. Its morale is bad. They can't shoot. The men and officers and disgruntled and they have no well-considered plan of action and the strategy and tactics and doctrine of that force have not been developed." In short, while the command would be an honor, he would just as soon leave it to McCully to clean up.69

Two weeks later, after several rumors appeared in the press that he would command the Scouting Fleet, the new slate was published. On 30 June 1923, Pratt would relieve Rear Admiral Charles F. ("Freddy") Hughes in command of Battleship Division Four (BATDIV 4) in the Battle Fleet. While it was not a vice admiral's billet, Pratt exulted to Louise, "it is the best sea duty assigned to any man in my class thus far." Always one to look ahead, the admiral could see nothing but a clear track. This letter to his wife provides enormous insight into the truly competitive and ambitious spirit of Bill Pratt and deserves quoting at length:

Because of this assignment I am immediately in the line of promotion and when the time comes I will go up with more actual experience in high command, probably than any officer on the list. They are not pushing me too fast. That would be bad, but I am distinctly being groomed, and in case of troubles there is little doubt that my assignment might be higher even than it is now, which is pretty good. When you consider that I jumped Ad. Welles (1884) — Simpson (1880) — Hoogerwerf [sic] (1881) and many others to get what I did, there is little complaint to feel that I was not made a vice admiral right yet. It really was more than I had any right to expect, for nobody as young or as far down the line had ever been even suggested before my name was proposed. Coontz tells me plainly that I am his choice to relieve McCully  p214 when his cruise is up. He is finishing a short cruise now I understand and Eberle the new CNO is a friend. Denby has nothing against me, and Roosevelt is for me. So all that is necessary is for me to make good.70

This letter, in many ways, revealed the ingredients necessary for successful advancement within the flag ranks of the Navy of the 1920s. The career pattern was vital for the successful officer. A proper mixture of sea and shore duty was necessary, but successful command at sea paved the way for future assignments. Pratt had done well in New York and with the Destroyer Force, Pacific Fleet, and he had demonstrated great staff ability as Assistant CNO and in the General Board. Knowing all of the important senior officers and civilian administrators in a very personal way, undoubtedly contributed to the ease with which the admiral could pick and choose among the billets that would be available. Duty on the General Board, where he would be constantly in the eyes of the older officers and available to put subtle pressure on the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, was also an asset. Finally, of course, the most important ingredient for success at this time was Bill Pratt's own service reputation. He was an excellent officer and there was no reason for him not to move up.

During his last months in Washington, in the spring of 1923, Pratt was again alone. Louise had stayed with him through most of his General Board tour, but she left for Belfast in the spring to open the farm and make preparations for a two‑year stay while her husband was with the Battle Fleet on the Pacific Coast. She had experienced this life of alternating loneliness and full family living long enough that she no longer gave it much thought. Bill, however, still felt a bit of guilt at leaving her to manage Billy and the family affairs. He admitted, "I don't suppose there is a man in the Navy who sees less of the family and who assumes less responsibility in respect to them." He had always admired Louise's independent ways and took refuge in her skills. "It is really hard on you, but you have the ability to do it." The justification for this form of deprivation was evident. Pratt was determined to reach the top and this took complete concentration on his work. In the egocentric way that all ambitious men must act, Pratt concluded one letter to his wife with a justification: "In competition I am making a place for myself little by little which so far as the Navy goes is as good as that of any man in my class or of my time. In addition I am becoming known outside."71


The Author's Notes:

38 Pres. Warren G. Harding in Congressional Record (12 April 1921), p169.

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39 ADM H. P. Jones to VADM J. D. McDonald, New York, 10 March 1922, Jones MSS/LCMD; ADM Jones to RADM M. L. Bristol, New York, 9 March 1922, Jones MSS/LCMD.

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40 General Board, Hearings 1922, "General Naval Policy," 6 March 1922, G. B. Records, NHD.

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41 General Board to Secretary of the Navy, Washington, 29 March 1922, General Board No. 420‑2, Serial 1108, G. B. Records, NHD.

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42 Ibid.

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43 General Board, Hearings 1922, "Naval Policy," 24 February 1922, G. B. Records, NHD; "Naval Building and Maintenance Policy," 10 March 1922, G. B. Records, NHD.

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44 General Board, Hearings 1922, "Military Characteristics of Light Cruisers," 9 October 1922, G. B. Records, NHD; General Board, Hearings 1922, "Battery for Light Cruisers," 2 November 1922, G. B. Records, NHD.

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45 General Board, Hearings 1923, "Characteristics of Proposed 10,000 Ton Cruisers," 2 February 1923, G. B. Records, NHD.

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46 U. S. Congress, House, Committee on Naval Affairs, Hearings on Sundry Legislation Affecting the Naval Establishment, 1922‑1923 (67th Cong., 2nd sess., 21 February 1922) (Washington: GPO, 1923), pp365‑66.

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47 RADM W. A. Moffett to Secretary of the Navy, Washington, 10 August 1922, as cited in Edward Arpee, From Frigates to Flat-Tops: The Story of the Life and Achievements of Rear Admiral William Adger Moffett, U. S. N. (Lake Forest, Ill.: Privately Printed, 1953), pp98‑99.

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48 General Board, Hearings 1922, "Naval Air Policy," 3 March 1922, G. B. Records, NHD; General Board, Hearings 1922, "Naval Aeronautic Policy," 7 November 1922, G. B. Records, NHD.

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49 Ibid., "Naval Air Policy," 3 March 1922.

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50 WVP to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Washington, 17 February 1922, PD 226‑103:4, box 129, RG80/NA.

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51 General Board, Hearings 1922, "General Naval Policy," 6 March 1922, G. B. Records, NHD; Ernest Andrade, Jr., "Submarine Policy in the United States Navy, 1919‑1941," Military Affairs (April 1971), pp55‑56.

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52 General Board to the Secretary of the Navy, Washington, 26 April 1922, General Board No. 438, Serial 1121, G. B. Records, NHD

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53 General Board, Hearings 1922, "Characteristics of Aircraft Carriers," 10 February 1922, G. B. Records, NHD; General Board Hearings 1922, "Interpretations of Treaty re Modernizing Capital Ships," 17 April 1922, G. B. Records, NHD.

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54 Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, memorandum, Washington, 15 November 1922, PD 226‑103:28, box 130, RG80/NA; General Board to Secretary of the Navy, Washington, 29 November 1922, General Board No. 420, Serial 1153, G. B. Records, NHD.

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55 General Board, Hearings 1922, "Modernization of Existing Capital Ships," 5 December 1922, G. B. Records, NHD.

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56 WVP to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Washington, 2 January 1923, Advisory Book III, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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57 WVP to ADM Coontz, Washington, 28 December 1922, Advisory Book III, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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58 Secretary of the Navy to Director of the Budget, Washington, 27 December 1922, File 29370-107:81, Bureau of the Budget 12/2/22-3/31/23, RG51/NA; General Board to Secretary of the Navy, Washington, 30 October 1923, General Board No. 420‑2, Serial 1195, G. B. Records, NHD.

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59 U. S., Congress, House, Committee on Naval Affairs, "Report of the Special Board on Shore Establishments," Hearings on Sundry Legislation Affecting the Naval Establishment, 1922‑1923, 27 September 1922, pp1577‑96.

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60 Joint Board to Secretary of War, Washington, 11 October 1923, Joint Board No. 304, Serial 218, Adjutant General File 660.2 (10/11/23), RG94/NA; Wheeler, op. cit., pp75‑77.

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61 WVP to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Washington, 15 July 1922, Advisory Book III, Pratt MSS/NHD; Armin Rappaport, The Navy League of the United States (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1962), pp92‑94.

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62 WVP to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Washington, 7 December 1922, Advisory Book III, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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63 WVP to CAPT Franck T. Evans, Washington, 22 September 1922, Advisory Book III, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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64 Coontz, op. cit., p424‑28.

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65 New York Times, 1 April 1923, sect. II, p7.

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66 Ibid., 8 April 1923, sect. II, p1; U. S., Department of the Navy, Annual Report of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1923 (Washington: GPO, 1924), p6.

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67 WVP to Louise Pratt, at sea, 22 March 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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68 WVP to Louise Pratt, Panama City, Canal Zone, 24 March 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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69 WVP to Louise Pratt, at sea, 5 April 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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70 WVP to Louise Pratt, Washington, 18 April 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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71 WVP to Louise Pratt, Washington, 19 April 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.


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