On 25 June 1923, at 0945 on board Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay, Rear Admiral Pratt read his orders directing him to relieve Rear Admiral Charles F. Hughes of command of Battleships Division Four (BATDIV 4) of the Battle Fleet. Unlike future changes of command that he would experience in the Battle Fleet, Pratt held this occasion to minimum ceremony. With his battleship division captains assembled on the quarterdeck, Hughes ordered his blue flag hauled down, and Pratt's Aide ordered that the new division commander's flag be broken. Admiral Hughes went over the side and departed for his new duty as a Naval War College student. Pratt now stood on the first rung of the Battle Fleet command ladder.1 Whether he would ascend any higher would be determined by a variety of factors; but the most important of them was completely in the admiral's hands. His performance as a division commander would be the vital criterion in determining his fitness to wear the three stars of Commander Battleship Divisions, Battle Fleet (COMBATDIVS), or possibly to occupy the admiral's billet as Commander in Chief, Battle Fleet (COMBATFLT) or even that of Commander in Chief, United States Fleet (CINCUS).
Rear Admiral Pratt relieving Rear Admiral Charles F. Hughes as commander of Battleship Division Four, 25 June 1923.
As a battleship division commander, Pratt was allowed a small staff to assist him and he selected it carefully. Again, as in the case of the Destroyer Force staff, the admiral wanted competence and loyalty. Lieutenant Russell S. Berkey was ordered on board as flag secretary. While Pratt had been on the General Board, "Mr. Berk" was continuing his sea duty as executive officer of Selfridge (DD‑320) and then moved ashore for a tour at the Naval Academy. He had served with Pratt in New York and had been Aide (and flag secretary) with the Destroyer Force "gang." He was a known quantity. Lieutenant C. W. A. ("Jimmy") Campbell reported in as flag lieutenant and signal officer. By now "The Lieutenant," as Bill Pratt called him, was almost a member of the admiral's household. He too had been in New p217 York and on the Destroyer Force staff. When Pratt went to Washington, Campbell was assigned to the Washington Gun Factory. Still a bachelor, he had now acquired an automobile and brought it on board Pennsylvania. A few eyebrows were raised in the Battle Fleet when the word got around that Pratt seemed to have acquired a staff car: only the Battle Fleet Commander, himself, rated such a perquisite in his official outfit. Like Berkey, Campbell also brought his golf sticks and contract bridge skills for those moments of recreation that Pratt fully enjoyed. The admiral inherited his division radio officer, Lieutenant (j.g.) W. B. Goggins, and the division Marine officer, Major V. I. Morrison, from Hughes. Both were replaced in time.
Again, as he had done with the Pacific Fleet Destroyer Force, Pratt worked hard to develop a close-knit and smoothly functioning team among his battleship captains. He used the conference method at every opportunity and invited his commanding officers to dine regularly with him and his staff when at anchor. During his first two weeks in command he worked steadily with his staff to master division and fleet maneuvers and the signals that controlled them.2 The ship was at anchor, but cardboard hulls were maneuvered day and night around the decks of flag country. While he had participated in division, squadron, and fleet evolutions as captain of New York, Battle Fleet evolutions were a new order of business. Admiral S. S. Robison (COMBATFLT) and Vice Admiral Henry A. Wiley (COMBATDIVS) were determined to weld the battleship divisions into a precisely operating fleet that could extract maximum advantage from its big‑gun firepower. Fortunately for Pratt, though it represented a challenge, Admiral Hughes had developed his division into the best in the Battle Fleet. His captains were good shiphandlers who had long before mastered the signal book.
In order that he might concentrate fully on his new job, Bill and Louise decided that she should not move to the West Coast. She and Billy would remain in Belfast where the boy could settle down to school. "The Farm" was not a particularly comfortable place to live in the winter, but Louise would get along. From his letters during these two years that he was on the West Coast, one quickly detects the ambivalent attitude that Pratt had toward his family and the Navy. He felt constant pangs of guilt over leaving Louise to raise their only son. To fill the void left by a wandering father, he regularly p218 wrote letters to be read to Billy. Occasionally interesting in detail, they tended to be filled with admonitions to study, to work, and to obey. Almost every letter to Louise had a nostalgic sentence or paragraph in it. From Port Angeles he wrote in the summer of 1923:
There isn't a day in my life that goes by that my thoughts don't return to Billy and to my loved wife. That to me is home. Washington — New York and other places may be excellent temporary quarters for longer and shorter periods, but like Billy, I feel like saying when I get northward of Boston, I am on my way to my home. You have made it a spot which I dearly love.3
Though he missed his family deeply, the admiral's letters also reveal that he was thoroughly enjoying his command. After a few days of division maneuvers he exulted to Louise; "If I do say so I think this division of battleships put the eye out of the others in shiphandling . . . . I have a beautiful set of captains and we wheel these big fellows around much as we used to do with the destroyers. Of course, as you know, this is meat and choicest for me and I love it."4
Pratt early learned that the Battle Fleet by 1923 had developed a rhythm of its own, built around its operations on the Pacific Coast. He also recognized, much to his delight, that to be in the fleet was to be free of the bureaucracy of the Main Navy building in Washington. From his flag bridge he could see the limits of his responsibility. The crews of the four battleships in his division (Pennsylvania, Arizona, Mississippi, and Idaho) looked to him for commands, guidance, inspection, and above all leadership. There was some paperwork associated with his command, but this he left to "Berk" and "Jimmy." He still detested detail and reports; his staff had been selected to relieve him of this bother. From Pennsylvania's bridge he could also see New Mexico. Over there was Vice Admiral Wiley, COMBATDIVS, and his staff's job was to keep an eye on Pratt and his classmate, Rear Admiral Louis M. Nulton, who commanded BATDIV 3 (New York, Texas, Oklahoma, and Nevada). Wiley, it must be noted, also had command of BATDIV 5 (New Mexico, Tennessee, Maryland, and California) but his chief of staff handled the division routine in the name of the admiral. Wiley received his commands from California's flag bridge. Admiral S. S. Robison, as COMBATFLT, by hoist and blinker saw to it that his subordinates were constantly informed of his wishes. Except when Admiral R. E. Coontz (CINCUS) p219 was present, Admiral Robison commanded the Pacific; he could indeed be thought of as a modern "admiral of the ocean sea."
Within two weeks of assuming his command, Pratt, led BATDIV 4 northward to the Puget Sound area for summer maneuvers. What Rodman had begun in 1919 was now the first part of the year's cycle of operations for the Battle Fleet: summer maneuvers in the north; south to the San Pedro‑San Diego area for the fall; a winter concentration in the Panama area or the Caribbean; then back to California, and occasionally to Hawaii, for spring gunnery exercises and competitions. Such movements meant that Pacific Coast residents from San Diego to Bellingham had the opportunity to see their Navy regularly. National holidays, such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, Armistice Day, and above all Navy Day, called for individual vessels or larger commands to visit the port cities for public relations purposes. The smaller cities, like Morro Bay or Gray's Harbor, could expect a destroyer or two to call. Larger cities, or places with deep water, might be visited by a battleship or even a division of them. In Washington, and in the Battle Fleet, it was clearly recognized that showing the flag was one way to develop support for increased naval appropriations. The steady use of San Diego, San Francisco, and Puget Sound was also a means of demonstrating to Congress the inadequacy of the west coast's ports and the compelling necessity to enlarge their naval base capacities for handling the Battle Fleet.
As the BATDIV 4 rounded Cape Flattery and steamed down the Straits of Juan de Fuca, in mid‑July 1923, Pratt's divided disavows about the Puget Sound area quickly became evident. He loved the scenic beauty of the region, as all must who view the Olympic Mountains from the straits. He and "Jimmy" fished Lake Crescent and motored through the dense Douglas‑fir forests on weekends. The residents of Port Angeles, Bellingham, Seattle, and Tacoma opened their clubs and their homes to the Battle Fleet's officers; and picnics, barbecues, and a round of dances were held for the blue jackets in every port. Everyone seemed genuinely pleased that the fleet had come.5 And well they should, since the fleet's payroll was generously off‑loaded to enhance the region's economy. On the other hand, Pratt disliked the area's physical environment for maneuvers. Swift currents, lack of good holding ground, and an inordinate amount of fog required constant alertness p220 on the part of every ship captain and flag officer.6 The opportunity to lose a ship, and a command, was present in every day of operations. It was grand training in seamanship for the battleship captains, but it took the nerve of a born gambler for an admiral to eschew interference in the shiphandling of his subordinates. Pratt took his chances. He wanted to develop initiative in his captains, so he kept his hands off, density of fog notwithstanding.
Once in the Puget Sound area, Pratt's division exercised almost daily with those of Nulton and Wiley. Occasionally he would work with only his own battleships and a division or two of destroyers. On those days the admiral was in his glory. He moved his charges about as p221 if they were destroyers and he undoubtedly made the more timid of the captains a bit anxious. Yet he was pleased, as he told Louise, that "the snappiest destroyer men have asked to be assigned to my division . . ." His relations with Wiley (COMBATDIVS), however, pleased him less. The vice admiral and his chief of staff had taken Admiral Robison's directives quite literally. The commander in chief wanted gunnery improved and almost every evolution carried out under wartime conditions.7 For the battleship divisions this meant drill, and more drill, day and night. To his wife, Pratt complained; "Admiral Wiley and his chief of staff Ingersoll [sic, Captain Leonard R. Sargent] are like two children playing with a new toy . . . . They seem to think that the highest proficiency is a multiplicity of details, and order and maneuver until we are all tired out and disgusted." He summed up his irritations in a rare burst of profanity; "Too d––––– many bosses, too much staff, too much attention to detail, too little judgment and simplicity and too little commendation."8
A later photograph of Commander Battleship Divisions, Battle Fleet, Vice Admiral Henry A. Wiley.
Pratt's attitude toward his senior was conditioned by another factor worth mentioning. Wiley was a stickler for the pomp and etiquette common to the Navy of the 1920s. Pratt was still his relaxed, somewhat sloppy self. He was friendly with junior officers, had an easy smile, and a touch of carelessness in his dress. Long before Fleet Admiral King affected a handkerchief tucked in his breast pocket, Pratt carried one in sight. He almost never wore ribbons or medals, even on formal occasions, and his uniform blouse normally had an unsecured button. On full-dress occasions his frock coat seldom was crisply pressed and almost every photo shows him with his sword belt unhitched and with the scabbard touching the ground. He privately compared himself to his seniors in a letter home:
Wiley . . . is more like Gleaves. He likes pomp, salutes and old line etiquette of the quarterdeck. Thinks it is essential for efficiency. Robison like myself is simple. I abhoreº it. I dislike it for myself, not for others. I feel that courtesy is everything, but courtesy is not noise or show; it lies below the skin. . . . I know that many higher‑ups think I am lax in discipline, do not approve of my easy manner with my juniors, but before the good Lord, I can't help it. It wouldn't be natural for me to be otherwise. I don't expect them to change, why expect me. . . .9
p222 BATDIV 4's summer routine in Puget Sound was interrupted by the death of President Warren Harding. He had stopped in Seattle, while returning from Alaska, and took a fleet salute and courtesy calls on board Henderson. Pratt called with the other flag officers and then rode in the Presidential motorcade at the head of a parade. He had several opportunities to observe the President at close range. He told Louise he looked tired and that his speech was badly delivered and poorly received.10 Like many others, he had no hint of the poor condition of Harding's health. A few days later he was stunned to learn the President had died in San Francisco on August 2.11
With the rest of the nation, the fleet went into mourning for thirty days. A mourning gun was fired every half-hour on 2 August, the flags flew at half-mast, and black crepe ribbon was worn on the uniform sleeve and the sword belt. On 10 August, while the President was buried in Marion, Ohio, commemorative services were held in Seattle. BATDIV 4 held services in all ships, but Admiral Pratt delivered a special eulogy on board Pennsylvania with all captains and a few officers from each ship present. In keeping with his traditional approach to most men, Pratt was able to find much that was good about Harding:
If I may point out to you any qualities in the character of our late President which seemsº to me to be outstanding, I would say that kindliness and mercy, simplicity, courtesy, and a keen sense of justice were those outstanding traits upon which the character of our late President was firmly founded. . . .12
In the afternoon a regiment of blue jackets, led by Rear Admiral Pratt and fifteen officers from each ship in his command, marched at the head of a funeral cortege which preceded a touring car filled with floral wreaths. The limousine was the one in which Harding had ridden on 27 July.
At the end of August 1923, Pratt led BATDIV 4 out the Straits of Juan de Fuca and turned south for San Francisco Bay. As usual, the Battle Fleet was welcome, and the round of entertaining began with the close of mourning. Typical of the period was Admiral Robison's statement in COMBATFLT's weekly newsletter for 31 August; "The San Francisco Commercial Club extended the privileges of the club to the officers of the Fleet, for a period of fifteen days." Other p223 clubs did the same for officers or enlisted men from the ships. Supplemental to entertainment ashore, the battleships took turns in holding dances for the officers or smokers for the crews. It was difficult for the fleet's officers to repay their hosts ashore for a good night of entertainment. Thus an evening of dancing on Pennsylvania's quarterdeck was a unique and pleasant approach to the problem. Because his wife was in Belfast, Pratt enjoyed visiting these affairs. He liked music, was a good dancer, and genuinely found pleasure in mingling with the younger officers. After one particularly enjoyable evening, during which the junior officers had invited him to their quarters to listen to a little music, Pratt wrote to Louise that such diversions had many benefits. "It requires so little of one and the returns come in a thousand-fold in increased loyalty to the ship. If they see you are interested in them, they will go to the devil for you." Specifically referring to the younger officers; "The personal touch means so much. I can get along with kids beautifully and I love to associate with youth."13
Athletics in the Battle Fleet was pressed both for morale and physical conditioning and Pratt fully endorsed the concept. He continued to be an ardent baseball fan, watched football games at every opportunity, and played golf whenever he was in port and near a course. Despite back problems, and associated sciatica pains, he tried to remain in good physical condition by walking as much as he could, even when at sea. He had used athletics, long before, to relieve the tedium of shipboard life in port and he firmly believed that what was good for a ship was good for a fleet. Pratt was also very much in the mainstream of American culture in the 1920s with his belief that competition was vital in the "American way of life." For the naval officer, such a view was perfectly natural; his whole career consisted of competition for the next rank or command. Admiral Rodman had organized a Pacific Fleet football team, plus ships' teams, and four years later Admiral Robison was continuing the tradition. In the summer months it was baseball. The battleships competed among themselves for a Seattle Times trophy. In the fall there was football and the scores were faithfully reported in COMBATFLT's newsletters (e.g., on October 13; Procyon 73-Prometheus 0).º When shore facilities were not handy for traditional sports, cutter races among the vessels allowed the brawnier types in the deck ratings to reduce their surplus energies.
p224 In port, or lying to in a roadstead, smokers for the crews were held regularly and Pratt enjoyed visiting them. Quite often one battleship crew would host another for food, music, and boxing or wrestling matches. Through such devices, fleet champions in the various weight classes were developed. As might be expected, during United States Fleet concentrations and maneuvers in Panama waters or off Guantanamo or Culebra, competitions in all sports were held between the Battle (Pacific) Fleet and the Scouting (Atlantic) Fleet. Most of this was done at minimum expense to the taxpayer and it returned a maximum in morale for the Navy.
Pratt's visit to the San Francisco area with BATDIV 4 was dramatically interrupted during the afternoon of 9 September 1923. He was playing golf with "Jimmy" Campbell at the Presidio's course when a Marine orderly reported with a message that the Battle Fleet Commander wanted to see him immediately on board California. Admiral Robison got to the point quickly. The night before a portion of Destroyer Squadron Eleven (DESRON 11) had piled ashore north of the Point Arguello light at Point Pedernales, known locally as Point Honda. The full scope of the catastrophe was not known, but the admiral was ordered to visit the scene and then continue to San Diego where he would head a court of inquiry.14 Two days later Admiral Robison formally announced the membership of the court: Rear Admiral Pratt, President; Captains G. C. Day and D. F. Sellers, Members; and Lieutenant Commander L. E. Bratton, Judge Advocate. Pratt's appointment had been recommended by Admiral Coontz (CINCUS) and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt. Both believed that he would handle the assignment with the proper degree of sensitivity to the Navy's and the public's interests.15 As in the case of the Washington Conference, Pratt was to find it very difficult to serve two masters — the Navy and the public.
That evening Admiral Pratt, with Campbell driving, started out for Point Honda to view personally the scene and obtain full information. The facts of the tragedy were not difficult to establish: they stood almost completely revealed as the admiral and his Aide looked down from the bluff above to the beach and rocks at Point Honda. Below lay seven 4‑piper destroyers being pounded to pieces; Delphy (DD‑261), S. P. Lee (DD‑310), Young (DD‑312), Woodbury (DD‑ p225 309), Nicholas (DD‑311), Fuller (DD‑297), and Chauncey (DD‑296). Later it was revealed that Farragut (DD‑300) and Somers (DD‑301) had grounded but had not suffered major damage. Twenty-three enlisted men (3 from Delphy and 20 from Young) had perished. The wrecks occurred a little after 2100 on 8 September. While leading his ships in column at 20 knots, heading 150 degrees by the compass, Captain E. H. Watson, squadron commander, signalled for the squadron to turn in Delphy's wake to 095 degrees. The turn was to take the squadron into the Santa Barbara Channel between Point Conception and San Miguel Island. Unfortunately DESRON 11 was •twenty‑one miles north of its estimated 2100 position. The court's job was to determine why such an enormous navigational error existed, why the six other destroyers followed their leader to destruction, and whether anyone should be held responsible for the tragedy.16
At the commencement of the court's hearings, on 13 September, Pratt tried to make it a closed affair, because he distrusted newspaper reporting; but the public would not have it. After heavy complaints from the press, Secretary Denby and Admiral Coontz ordered open sessions.17 For Pratt it was a miserable position to be in. To his wife he commented after several weeks of hearings; "It is the worst job I ever had. Most of these men are my friends: I commanded the force, am looked upon as a destroyer man and a friend of the organization. Yet I have to give it the biggest knock it ever had. . . . I have got to do this for the good of the Navy and because it is so."18 Starting with Captain Watson, the destroyer commanders and the division leaders waived their right to remain silent before the court of inquiry. Such action made the gathering of facts much easier, but it also made each officer a potential defendant should courts-martial be ordered. Pratt thanked Watson and the rest publicly by stating that they were "living up to the best traditions of the service."19 The officers of DESRON 11 had made it much easier to convey to the public the true facts of the case.
Before the hearings began, the newspapers had created a sympathetic atmosphere for Captain Watson and his skippers. The catastrophe appeared to be the result of bad weather, perversely changing p226 currents — perhaps due to the great Japanese earthquake the week before — and bad radio bearings from the Point Arguello radio station. More dramatically, the officers and men had acted efficiently and heroically once stranded. But as the hearings progressed, the destroyer captains, division leaders, and squadron commander gradually revealed that bad navigation techniques, dogmatic devotion to "follow the leader" doctrine, and apparent abandonment by the destroyer commanders of individual responsibility for the safety of their ships had caused the disaster. By the close of the hearings the public and Secretary Denby wanted blood.
In its "findings" the court charged Captain Watson, Lieutenant Commander D. T. Hunter (Commanding Officer of Delphy, DESRON 11 flagship), and Lieutenant L. F. Blodgett (navigator of Delphy) with "culpable inefficiency and negligence." Charges of "negligence" were lodged against Captain Robert Morris (COMDESDIV 33), Commander W. S. Pye (COMDESDIV 31), Commander L. P. Davis (Commanding Officer of Woodbury), Commander W. L. Calhoun (Commanding Officer of Young), Commander W. S. Toaz (Commanding Officer of S. P. Lee), Lieutenant Commander W. D. Seed (Commanding Officer of Fuller), Lieutenant Commander H. O. Roesch (Commanding Officer of Nicholas), and Lieutenant Commander R. H. Booth (Commanding Officer of Chauncey). Court martial proceedings were ordered immediately for those charged, and in November Captain Watson, Lieutenant Commander Hunter, and Lieutenant Commander Roesch were found guilty; Lieutenant Blodgett, the two division commanders, and the remaining five destroyer captains were acquitted.
Admiral Pratt and the court of inquiry had done as much as the public and the Navy expected. To Louise he confided that "I have done much of the examination myself, in preference to leaving it exclusively to the judge advocate, for I wanted it to stand out clearly, the heart of it, in order both that justice might be done and that the people might know that no attempt has been made to cover up anything. The result has been that the papers have taken an exceedingly nice attitude towards us and I hope that we may win back through our procedures and openness some of the good will we lost through the accident itself." The admiral had written "the opinion of the court" and this controlled the recommendations which were drafted by Captain Sellers.20 Pratt had condemned bad navigation and insisted p227 on the commanding officer's personal responsibility for his ship. Above all, he and the court had deplored blind "follow the leader" doctrine. The report even invoked the independent spirit of Nelson at Cape St. Vincent and Copenhagen to show why orders cannot be blindly obeyed.
Through his letters to Louise, which reveal his private motives and actions taken with the court in executive sessions, and his public statements and questions which were fully reported in the San Diego and Los Angeles newspapers, one gets a fascinating picture of a very professional senior naval officer at work. He wrote of his inner turmoil when he told his wife; "My, oh my, but my heart goes out to the men I have got to pass judgment on. Between ourselves, strictly, so far as I see it now, I have nothing left to do but pass the severest judgment on several." And in a later note; ". . . worst of all I have to sit as a judge upon men I like and who are friends of mine. I know you like Watson. . . . So do I like him."21 At one point, when the final report was being drafted, suggestions were made to cloud some issues by legal and technical language. Again, Pratt would not allow it. He wanted a simple document that the fleet and the newspapers could understand. It was vital to him that public confidence be restored in the Navy.22 As in the case of the Washington Conference, the admiral seemed to have an instinctive feel for the national pulse and recognized the limits of public tolerance within which he had to operate. He did have good guidance from Secretary Denby, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, and from Admiral Coontz whom he visited several times on weekends by motoring up to San Pedro. As the former Chief of Naval Operations, and a politically astute person himself, the admiral was in a position to keep the important issues foremost in Pratt's thinking.
Of all the pressures on the court's president at this time, none seemed more important to him than the absolute necessity that the Navy's officers be clearly instructed about their professional obligations. Throughout his career Pratt had paid closest attention to seamanship, navigation, and shiphandling. The transcripts of the hearings and the report itself stress the need for commanding officers to know their business. At the same time, Pratt and the court did not want to generate a new spirit of timidity in the fleet, particularly in the Destroyer Force. He took care to bring out at the inquiry that destroyermen p228 were supposed to have an elan, a spirit of derring‑do, that was traceable to prewar flotilla doctrine and its successful use in European waters during the war. This spirit called for complete submission to the squadron's doctrine and willingness to follow the squadron leader into the most dangerous situations.23 But, again, Pratt would insist that good seamanship and good navigation were mandatory so that a ship would not be needlessly hazarded while trying to follow a vigorous leader. As a battleship division commander, and a former Destroyer Force commander, the traditional conundrum of leadership was evident to Pratt. A leader must command, but he also must develop a spirit of leadership as well as followership in those he controls. To many it appeared that Captain Watson had created too strong a band of followers; to others "the system" was to blame. Emphasis on loyalty to seniors and blind acceptance of orders from above, plus a modicum of competence, seemed to be the way to the top. Pratt felt that the selection system instilled this conservative spirit so deadly to the development of a sound officer corps. Yet he had no alternatives in mind; in fact he and Sims had pressed for the selection for promotion system then in operation.
Pratt and the rest of the court signed their report on 13 October. All hoped that the Navy and the public understood what they were trying to do beyond establishing facts and assessing responsibilities. To Louise he wrote; "At least if these men are court martialed they will know exactly why."24 Court-martial proceedings were ordered by Admiral Robison; but Vice Admiral H. A. Wiley's court, in exonerating all but Watson, Hunter, and Roesch, appeared to have placed the Navy's reputation in jeopardy again. Pratt was finished, and glad of it; he was anxious to rejoin his division.
BATDIV 4 was lying off San Pedro when the admiral returned to his command. His work now consisted of drills preparatory to deployment south for combined fleet maneuvers in the Panama Canal area in early January. While he disliked working off San Pedro for a variety of reasons, it did give Pratt an opportunity to visit with his brother and mother. Edgar Pratt was now practicing law in Los Angeles with reasonable success. Bill enjoyed visits with his brother, though they often turned into marathon bridge sessions. Edgar was also a golfer, so weekends in Los Angeles normally included a Sunday round on the links. Campbell and Berkey soon were close friends of p229 Edgar and felt comfortable with these visits. Pratt's mother, Abbie Pratt, was in Good Samaritan Hospital in the last weeks of a terminal illness. In their practical New England way, the brothers had already decided to construct a family vault in Belfast, and Louise had gotten the work underway. With spring the remains of Nichols Pratt, still resting in Redlands, and those of his wife would be moved to the vault. "We want them," Pratt wrote to Louise, "as we want to do ourselves, to go home for their last long sleep."25 With his mother's death, Bill drew even closer to Edgar and was to spent most winters with him in the years ahead.
San Pedro and Long Beach, in the inter‑war years, were the bedroom of the Battle Fleet's battleship divisions. San Diego could not handle the big ships, so they operated out of San Pedro's inner and outer harbors when they weren't deployed otherwise. This meant that the wives and families of the officers and enlisted men normally made their homes in this area when their husbands drew Battle Fleet duty. Decent housing was in short supply, and it was expensive, but few men chose to live the bachelor life that Pratt had imposed on himself. In time domestic arrangements began to control fleet operations. The battleships would sortie daily for maneuvers or gunnery exercises, but normally they would be at anchor by 1630 with only the duty section on board. Weekends were spent in port unless a pressing need to finish some drill or another forced a Saturday sailing.26 Pratt intensely disliked this approach to Navy life and argued regularly for remaining at sea during the week and returning to port only for weekends. He believed such an existence reduced a naval officer's career to something approaching that of a shoe clerk or shopkeeper with his regular hours. Considering his early career spent on distant stations, or working under "sun‑downers" when closer to home, the San Pedro routine grated on Pratt's professional sensitivities. He wasn't alone in this. Contemporaries of his, who later wrote their memoirs, had scathing remarks about this problem. But in the flush days of the 1920s, when officer resignations for domestic reasons were quite common, family morale shared equal importance with that of battle readiness among the concerns of COMBATFLT.
The United States Fleet maneuvers of 1924 were to be the largest, in numbers of ships involved, to be held to that date. Admiral Coontz had several goals in mind, not the least of which was to expose to the p230 public the poor materiel condition of the fleet. By January 1924 it had become imperative to modernize the older battleships by converting their coal-fired boilers to oil‑fired boilers. The General Board was again pressing for modifications to the battleship turrets so that all battleships could hit beyond 24,000 yards.27 And, most seriously, reduced budgets had prevented routine heavy maintenance throughout the Navy. The fleet, in short, was badly run down. Operations had likewise suffered from pinched funds. DESRON 11, during its fateful run to Point Honda, was engaged in a competitive steaming exercise, but only using cruising turbines. The main turbines were not in operation because it would have meant exceeding the costs allowed for the trip. At that, destroyers had been limited to 15 knots for several years and there was some question as to whether the squadron could make a sustained 20 knots.28
Judging from the amount of newsprint expended on the fleet maneuvers, Admiral Coontz was successful in getting the Navy's problems before the public. Most of the battleships carried newsmen in them and they were briefed regularly on what was happening. The Panama Canal, and its defenses, was to be the focus of the maneuvers. The results were easily anticipated. Were an enemy fleet to arrive by surprise on either side of the Canal, it could attack the defenses successfully and prevent the Battle and Scouting Fleets from concentrating. It was equally obvious that an enemy expeditionary force could overwhelm the Canal's defenses by a land campaign.29 Reporters from the naval-minded New York Herald and Providence Journal spelled out the dangers and prescribed remedies:
|1.||Increase the number of heavy calibre guns defending the Panama Canal;|
|2.||Raise the size of the Army garrison in the Canal Zone and improve its mobility by constructing a better road system;|
|3.||Increase the number of aircraft in the area in order to improve the scouting and defense;|
|4.||Station more modern submarines in the Zone;|
|5.||Adjust the battleship turrets so that all guns in the Battle Fleet can hit at long ranges.30|
p231 Leaving nothing to chance, Admiral Coontz had Rear Admiral Pratt lecture the newsmen during the maneuvers. He enjoyed these briefings and handled the task easily. At the close of the critique of the maneuvers, which was closed to the press, CINCUS's staff released a report for use by the journalists. In terms of fleet operations, Coontz identified several problems. The old armed cruisers, such as Seattle were inadequate as flagships but they would have to be used. The battleships of the Battle and Scouting Fleets simply could not operate together. The lack of homogeneity was critical. The coal-burners were slower and lacked the cruising radius of the newer vessels; even worse, some were almost total cripples due to bad boilers. The 12, 14, and 16‑inch guns on the battleships lacked a common maximum battle range, and the different quality of armor protection of each ship made it difficult for them to stand together in the battle line. More scout cruisers were absolutely necessary; destroyers simply were not satisfactory in this role. Destroyer leaders were badly needed to carry the division and squadron staffs. Finally, the submarines were a disgrace. They were too slow, badly ventilated, and leaked oil constantly. The latter problem was not only a fire hazard, it made detection of the undersea craft quite simple. Because of their low speed, it was only by accident that the scouting submarines were able to position themselves in proper relation to the fleet and then they could not maintain station except at lowest fleet speeds.31 In other times, the Department would have been most reluctant to release so much information about the United States Fleet's deficiencies; but Congressional economy had reduced materiel readiness to such a poor state that it was absolutely necessary to inform the public that its first line of defense was in sad shape. The legislation at the end of the year proved that Coontz' strategy was first-rate.
At the close of the winter maneuvers in the Gulf and the Caribbean, the Battle Fleet stood north to visit East Coast ports. Besides the good publicity, the move had several other beneficent results. Recruitment was stimulated by the knowledge that assignment to the Battle Fleet would mean travel opportunities. The visit to the East Coast meant that enlisted men could be discharged without paying transcontinental travel costs. Such a visit also enlarged the opportunity for Battle Fleet sailors to trade billets with Scouting Fleet and p232 shore-based personnel.32 This was common practice in years when the Department could not authorize transfers if they involved travel charges.
Before BATDIV 4 left San Pedro, Pratt hoped to meet his family in New York. Louise and Billy had been planning a trip to Europe and were to leave in late February or early March. Because of a few changes in the schedule of the maneuvers, and the necessity to leave a bit earlier than planned, Louise and Bill did not meet. She admitted that she felt a little guilty about leaving before her husband's arrival, but it had to be. Both she and Bill were concerned about Billy's health and believed he would be healthier abroad. Setting aside her uneasiness, Louise was delighted at knowing that her brother Ralph and p233 the ever delightful Posey would be joining her at Deauville in July. She also would see Gertrude and Gill, the widow and niece of her youngest brother, Edward. So 1924 would be a banner year for Louise Pratt as she made another Grand Tour while Bill tended to his "battle-wagons."
Louise J. Pratt and William ("Billy") V. Pratt, Jr. on the boardwalk at Deauville, France, 1924.
During March and April of 1924 the Battle Fleet carried out tactical exercises in the Caribbean and then transited the Canal. Upon return to San Diego and San Pedro, all ships began the spring schedule. Gunnery training underlay all activities. Drill at short-range and long-range, antiaircraft, division, and fleet battle practice, day and night, took place around the clock. Target practice in June, with live charges, would climax the annual cycle. For everyone in the fleet the stakes were high. Division admirals and battleship captains hoped that winning battle-competition "Es" would bring recognition by selection boards. For turret crews it could mean extra pay and the pride of wearing the battle efficiency "E" on their turret and dress jumpers. The spirit of competition was such that gunnery scores improved remarkably in 1923 and 1924. By January 1924, the Director of Fleet Training could lament — with pride — that the prize money had been exhausted.33 Fortunately Congress recognized the value of this expense and appropriated additional funds in a spring deficiency act. While crucial for improving fleet gunnery, competition occasionally led to unexpected consequences. On 12 June 1924 tragedy struck Pratt's division.
Arizona, Mississippi, and Idaho were steaming in column engaged in an experimental gunnery exercise. Using only her forward turrets, Mississippi was simulating a chase by firing almost dead ahead. Turret number two, an "E" turret commanded by Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas E. Zellars, had been firing raggedly. With two salvos to go, fire-warning lights flashed in the fire control center. The magazines for number two were flooded and a wisp of smoke was observed escaping from the exit hatch. On the ship itself, and to Pratt in Arizona, evidence of a gunnery casualty came from the sight of the turret training slowly to port, through almost 180 degrees, until it locked at maximum train aft. All knew there had been a flare-back into the turret, but few were prepared to learn that 44 enlisted men and 3 officers had been killed. The cause was easily deduced. Because the ship had been steaming into a strong wind, a wind velocity around p234 •fifty miles per hour had blown down the 14‑inch rifle's tube. This air bank had prevented the compressed‑air charge, activated when the breech was opened, from blowing out residue incandescent gases and burning bag fragments. A gun captain had failed to report the burning debris and the next charge exploded when rammed into the open breech.34 It had happened before, but never with such a large number of fatalities.
On 17 June 1924 the Battle Fleet held a memorial service for Mississippi's dead at the Navy's athletic field in San Pedro. The fleet's officers, in full-dress uniform, and the enlisted crews from all battleships formed a square around the forty-seven coffins almost hidden with flowers. Outside the square were the families and friends by the thousands. Because Mississippi was a part of his division, Admiral Pratt delivered a funeral address, "full of feeling, full of the traditional spirit of the service," according to Vice Admiral Wiley. Though the fleet's chaplains officiated, Pratt received a scathing letter from a conservative clergyman who believed a naval officer had no business participating in funeral rites. Pratt justified his role; "I made no reply, but I felt that my men would rather have a word from the old man, than from anyone else."35
The termination of competitive firings in June 1924 saw the Battle Fleet's vessels begin steaming north to their Fourth of July ports of call. This signalled the commencement of another year of division exercises in the Puget Sound area, Labor Day visits to San Francisco Bay, a late summer concentration in Hawaiian waters with a mock attack against Oahu, gunnery practice in the San Pedro‑San Diego area, and a tropical concentration in the winter. There were few deviations from this schedule during the 1920s. Lean appropriations for operations kept the Battle Fleet and Scouting Fleet rather closely tethered to the coasts. Many objected strenuously to the lack of adequate steaming, but the funds for fuel could not be pried from the Congress. The major excursion of the 1920s came with the Battle Fleet's cruise to Australasia in the summer of 1925; and this exception probably came about because Admiral Coontz was CINCUS. As CNO he had urged more steaming for the fleet. With the crisis in Japanese-American relations during the spring of 1924, resulting from immigration legislation, many in Congress finally accepted the p235 arguments that the Battle Fleet needed to test the waters of the Western Pacific.
In September 1924 Pratt found it necessary to seek medical relief for a problem that had grown increasingly annoying and was to continue with him the rest of his life. He had developed nasal polyps that were impairing his breathing, causing colds, and definitely affecting his good humor. He spent three weeks in the hospital ship Relief while undergoing a series of painful minor operations to correct the trouble.
During this same summer he and Louise agreed that she and Bill should spend at least another six months in Europe. She obviously was enjoying her stay and the boy's fragile health was improving. Because it was unclear whether or not the admiral would remain on the West Coast, when his tour in the Battle Fleet was completed in June 1925, Louise decided that she and Billy would come to California in the spring. There was a private school in Santa Barbara where she thought their son would fit. These plans were never executed. The decision was made in the Department, as the 1925 "command slate" was drafted, that Pratt would relieve Rear Admiral C. S. Williams as President of the Naval War College. The relief was scheduled for late summer 1925 after the Battle Fleet returned from its cruise to the Southwest Pacific. But, again, "the best laid plans. . . ."
On 2 June 1925 Pratt received telegraphic orders detaching him from command of BATDIV 4 and ordering him to report to the Secretary of the Navy for temporary duty with the General Board.36 A critical period had arrived in the construction of the aircraft carriers Lexington (CV‑2) and Saratoga (CV‑3), and Secretary Curtis D. Wilbur needed expert advice from people closely associated with the Five-Power Treaty of 1922. Admiral Coontz was about to lead the Battle Fleet to Australasia and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, who had resigned the previous year, was in the Himalayas. So Pratt was ordered east. It happened that many ship-construction and modernization questions were before the General Board at the time; therefore his stay would be spent usefully before going to Newport in September.
The major question that needed an immediate answer dealt with the final tonnage of the aircraft carriers being converted from battle cruisers. The General Board wanted to add to the allowed 33,000 tons maximum displacement of each vessel the 3,000 tons allowed in p236 the Five-Power Treaty for modernization of retained capital ships and aircraft carriers (Chapter II, Part 3, Section I (d)). This would allow Lexington and Saratoga to be commissioned at 36,000 tons. The trouble came from the fact that the bulges, blisters, and additional antiaircraft deck armor authorized in the treaty would only add up to 1,100 of the 3,000 extra tons. Hence, the final displacement of 36,000 tons would be 1,900 tons beyond the allowed displacement, as Secretary Wilbur, a lawyer and judge, interpreted the treaty.
Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur.
Pratt tackled this question by consulting all of the conference documents, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt's diary, General Board decisions of 1922, and his own memory. To him, the General Board, and to the international law expert, George Grafton Wilson, it was clear in February 1922 that the carriers were in existence, though the process of converting them from battle cruiser hulls was still being planned. Thus they were "retained" aircraft carriers within the meaning of the treaty. Making this point more secure was the fact that the carriers were definitely under construction when the treaty came into force on 17 August 1923. In a formal memorandum dated 19 June 1925, Pratt then cleared the way for adding 1,900 tons to these ships beyond the 1,100 tons devoted to bulges, blisters, and antiaircraft deck armor. He argued further, since internal compartmentalization was a form of antisubmarine protection, that all of the extra steel bulkheads devoted to this purpose could be charged against the extra 1,900 tons.37 This issue was of crucial importance. Were the carriers to be reduced by 1,900 tons, it would require eliminating either side armor, or 8‑inch-gun houses, or eliminating one fire room at the expense of 1½ knots in speed.38
Not satisfied with Pratt's views on the subject, Secretary Wilbur requested the admiral to visit former Secretary of State Charles E. Hughes at his summer cabin on Lake George. Pratt went to New York City with Wilbur to discuss the matter with Secretary of State Frank Kellogg before seeing Hughes. Now retired from public office, Hughes met Pratt with knickerbocker-clad informality. They spent a day discussing the intentions and language of the treaty. On 30 June Pratt reported to the General Board that Hughes agreed with his premises about the right to add 3,000 tons for protection.39 But p237 the admiral's idea of using the extra weight associated with internal compartmentalization, as part of the 3,000 tons, was still up in the air.
Pratt made one last attempt, on 2 July 1925, to convince Wilbur that his interpretations were sound. Going to the French text of the treaty, he noted that the word "caissons" was used and this could mean either bulges or compartments and that blisters were clearly called "soufflages." Four days later the Secretary settled the question. If it could be proven that the British and French were using this interpretation, then he would change his mind; otherwise, the tonnage would p238 have to be 33,000 tons plus just 1,100 tons of additional protection as provided in the treaty. When such proof was not forthcoming, the Secretary stated that he would leave it to the General Board to decide where the reductions would be made.40 The General Board decided to remove side armor and not reduce the carrier's speed. Pratt had made the best case possible in the tradition of the "sea lawyer," but Judge Wilbur would take no chances with the nation's integrity. He had been called to his position to clear the Navy of any taint from the Teapot Dome scandals; he could not risk America being charged with a treaty violation.
Pratt spent the balance of the summer of 1925 as a working member of the General Board, though he was only on temporary additional duty. The routine had not changed much since his last association with the group. Because it was summer, most of the regular members took leave for a portion of the period. As usual, the Executive Committee met daily at 1000, had its coffee, and adjourned within the hour. When Admiral Jones, the chairman of the Executive Committee, was present, business could be conducted. At times he made decisions with only one other at the table; but these were rare occasions. The full Board met in June and August, but in July so many were on the leave there was no last Tuesday of the month meeting.
While handling such topics as "characteristics of light cruisers," "reduction in displacement, Lexington and Saratoga," or "U. S. S. Florida and U. S. S. Utah, major alterations," Pratt also composed a 68‑page report entitled; "Thoughts and Notes Anent a Future Conference for Limitation of Naval Armament."41 Secretary Wilbur, before leaving for a cruise in the Pacific Northwest, asked the admiral some questions about future disarmament conferences and the Navy's reaction to them. Pratt's answers, in this memorandum, consist of fifty questions and replies. At the end he comments:
Undoubtedly, things have been said in the memorandum which could easily evoke the reply that they were none of my business. Perhaps so, but what I have said I believe. What has been said has been stated frankly, the more so because I have no desire ever to participate in any conference of naval limitation of armament again. They may be good, but I am fearful of the results for my own country. . . .
p239 Despite this fervent disclaimer, the admiral did not have a great deal to say that was very controversial. In general, he had grown a bit more conservative than he had been in 1922, and he now was pretty much within the mainstream of service thought. Read by a senior officer, who might wonder whether Pratt was loyal enough to accepted service wisdom, the memorandum must have had the ring of an Apostle's Creed. America could not go any further in reducing her naval power; she had gone the limit in 1922. He reasoned that 15 battleships, at 35,000 tons each, were vital to the country's defense. At least 25 cruisers were needed, at 10,000 tons each. The current 135,000 tons of aircraft carriers was as low as it was practical to go. Submarines might be limited, but 80,000 tons was about the minimum that America could consider. Pratt was willing to discuss the abolition of military aircraft and the drastic reduction of armies, but he was afraid the other nations might not buy this. Pratt's Anglophilism was still intact and he saw no danger of war with Great Britain. He could not say the same for Japan. Yet he thought there was little reason to expect a Pacific war in the near future. In order to do something at a conference, he thought the service life of battleships might be extended, provided further modernization was allowed. Many of his views, particularly those concerning battleships, have a mechanistic quality to them derivative of his recent fleet experience. The existence of 15 battleships allowed 3 divisions of 4 ships and a fast-moving wing of 3. The 10,000‑ton cruiser and 35,000‑ton battleship made it possible for America to operate in the Western Pacific.
At the end of August 1925, Pratt joined the General Board as a regular member. Admiral Eberle, the CNO, directed that at the 28 August meeting he occupy the ex officio seat reserved for the Naval War College President. This was to be his regular place for the next two years. On 31 August 1925, with no sighs of regret that were audible to his colleagues, Pratt was detached from his temporary duty and proceeded to Newport. He had been to Belfast and Newport for three weeks leave in late July and August; now it was time to settle in for a little family life on Narragansett Bay. In many ways it was a return home for Bill and Louise.
1 U. S. S. Pennsylvania, Log, 25 June 1923, RG24/NA.
2 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Francisco, Calif., 1 July 1923, 4 July 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.
3 Ibid., Port Angeles, Washington, 14 July 1923.
4 Ibid., 17 July 1923.
5 Activities of the Battle Fleet and its battleship divisions can be traced in the biweekly "Newsletters" of COMBATFLT, File 27383‑357, RG80/NA.
6 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp272‑76.
7 COMBATFLT to COMBATDIVS, Port Angeles, Washington, 31 July 1923, Fleet Training Division (FTD), File 31‑10, box 26, RG38/NA; COMBATFLT, Battle Fleet Letter No. 68‑23, "Preparations for Short Range Battle Practice," FTD File 500‑11, box 119, RG38/NA.
8 WVP to Louise Pratt, at sea, 29 August 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.
9 Ibid., Port Angeles, Washington, 14 July 1923.
10 Ibid., Seattle, 27‑28 July 1923.
11 Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), pp448‑51.
12 WVP to Louise Pratt, Seattle, 10 August 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.
13 Ibid., San Francisco, 8 September 1923.
14 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp276‑79.
15 Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. to RADM W. V. Pratt, Washington, 20 September 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.
16 Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson, Tragedy at Honda (Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Company, 1960), pp45‑87.
17 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Diego, 13 September 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD; Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. to RADM W. V. Pratt, Washington, 20 September 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.
18 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Diego, 6 October 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.
19 San Diego Tribune, 22 September 1923.
20 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Diego, 30 October, 12 October 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.
21 Ibid., San Diego, 20 September, 3 October 1923.
22 Ibid., San Diego, 12 October 1923.
23 San Diego Tribune, 28 September 1923.
24 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Diego, 13 October 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.
25 Ibid., San Pedro, 22 October 1923.
26 Wiley, op. cit., pp238‑39.
27 General Board to Secretary of the Navy, Washington, 30 October 1923, General Board No. 420‑2, Serial 1195, G. B. Records, NHD.
28 Lockwood and Adamson, op. cit., pp12‑14.
29 Army and Navy Journal, 29 December 1923, 26 January 1924.
30 "Panama at Enemy's Mercy," The Literary Digest (9 February 1924), p15.
31 "Memorandum for the Press. Report of ADM R. E. Coontz, CINCUS, 3 March 1924," William F. Fullam MSS/LCMD.
32 Army and Navy Journal, 8 March, 19 April 1924.
33 Director of the Fleet Training Division to CNO, Washington, 7 January 1924, FTD File 72‑32, box 39, RG38/NA.
34 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp279‑81; Wiley, op. cit., pp244‑51; Stirling, op. cit., pp196‑87.
35 Pratt, "Autobiography," p281.
36 W. V. Pratt Service Record, Military Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Mo.
37 RADM W. V. Pratt, "Memorandum for Secretary Wilbur — RE Tonnage of the Lexington and Saratoga," Washington, 19 June 1925, Pratt MSS/NHD.
38 RADM W. V. Pratt to Secretary of the Navy, 2 July 1925, Pratt MSS/NHD.
39 Minutes of the General Board, 1925, 30 June 1925 G. B. Records, NHD.
40 Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur to RADM W. V. Pratt, New York, 6 July 1925, Pratt MSS/NHD.
41 RADM W. V. Pratt, "Thoughts and Notes Anent a Future Conference for Limitation of Naval Armament," Washington, August 1925, Pratt MSS/NHD.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
William V. Pratt,
U. S. Navy
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 27 Sep 14