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This webpage reproduces part 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.

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Chapter 1
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p. vii  Introduction

The period spanned by William Veazie Pratt's naval career coincided with an era of extraordinary historical importance. It saw the development of "The New Navy," decisive naval victories on two sides of the globe, the increasing influence of American naval power on the international scene, and the emergence of the United States as one of the foremost world powers. It saw the revision of strategic concepts and the development of tactics to exploit the capabilities of the new ships. It saw the evolution of specialized types of ships, and organizing, training, and exercising these types in combination to form a fleet prepared for major engagements at sea. It saw basic adjustments in the Navy Department in response to the changing requirements of fleet readiness, planning, and direction of the operating forces.

Drawing upon Pratt's varied service afloat and ashore and his close association with many of the most significant events of the era, this biography by Professor Gerald E. Wheeler provides insights of value to an understanding of the modern Navy and its roles in recent American history. The biography also throws light on the policy-level scene in Washington and on the factors and decision process by which the nation's naval power was sized and shaped.

It would be hard to find a more exciting time to start a naval career. When Pratt became a midshipman in 1885, the United States was launching a new construction program, the result of which would be transformation to a modern Navy of steel ships. The Naval War College, just beginning, established a forum for the development of concepts of strategy, planning, and tactics. The lectures of Alfred Thayer Mahan at the College, followed by his classical work on the influence of sea power upon history, soon would provide a basic understanding of the importance of control of the sea and of the relationships of naval power to national power. The phenomenal industrial growth of the United States and a rapidly expanding trade were generating new requirements for world-wide naval presence and for the protection of commerce. A decade after Pratt was graduated from the Naval Academy, U. S. fleet victories in the Spanish American War led to far‑flung insular possessions, new commitments, and new opportunities.

 p. viii  During Pratt's early career as a commissioned officer, the Navy was on the threshold of adapting additional technological advances to combatant ships. A succession of new types was being developed, including a new capital ship, the battleship. Shortly after the turn of the century naval aviation had its start. With the combination of internal-combustion engines and electrical motors for propulsion, the submarine was coming into its own. Radio provided a means for prompt long-range communications between ships and forces, and between Washington and the fleet. The story of Pratt's service in various types of new ships, in home waters and on foreign stations, reveals the extensive nature of the changes then in progress.

Exploitation of the potential of the "New Navy" demanded radical changes at the headquarters in Washington, as well as in the fleet itself. Off and on during prior history the desirability had been expressed for greater professional naval officer involvement in the Navy Department, beyond that in the bureaus. At times there had been dissatisfaction, particularly with regard to the Department's direction of the operating forces. Change was no longer a question of desirability; by now it was a matter of urgent necessity. Step by step the roles of naval officers in the Department were increased. Primary emphasis was placed initially on the assignment of line officers for the gathering of information on foreign navies, the comparing of their strength with that of the U. S. Navy, and the planning for war contingencies. At the turn of the century, a General Board of senior officers was formed "to ensure efficient preparation of the fleet in case of war and for the naval defense of the coast." During the Taft Administration, a "Naval Aide System" was established to provide the line officer advice for the assistance of the Secretary of the Navy in his management of the Department.

Then in 1915, Congress established the office of Chief of Naval Operations. Under the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations was "charged with the operations of the fleet, and with the preparation and readiness of plans for its use in war." Soon thereafter, the duties of the Aide for Material were assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations, a step in the broadening of his powers and duties with regard to the fleet's preparation for war.

Much of the importance of this biography stems from Pratt's duties in connection with the office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He made important contributions during assignments at sea, but never serving as a commander in combat, his experiences in the fleet are  p. ix overshadowed by his activities in Washington. There, in addition to responsibilities related to overall command of the operating forces, he grappled with important problems of organization, training, logistics, fleet readiness, budgets, interservice problems, civilian control, and politico-military matters.

World War I was a transitional period in the maturing of the modern U. S. Navy. Urgent actions were required, in particular, to overcome the German U‑boat campaign against the sea lines of communication upon which the fate of the European allies hinged. As the principal assistant to the recently established Chief of Naval Operations, Pratt was deeply involved with planning and decisions relating to the rapid expansion of the Navy, its preparations for the tasks at hand, and the wartime employment of forces.

The story of this phase of his career is made particularly revealing in the light of his relationship with Admiral W. S. Sims, Commander of United States Naval Forces operating in European Waters. Having been closely associated with Sims, for whom he felt a deep sense of loyalty and affection, Pratt received many personal requests from the Admiral for assistance in influencing decisions in the Navy Department. This involved him intimately in the differences between Sims and the Department. Close as the personal friendship with Sims was, his responses and actions reflected his primary loyalty to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral W. S. Benson, to Secretary Josephus Daniels, and to the needs of the Navy as a whole.

By the end of the war the United States was on the verge of passing Britain as the leading naval power in the world. The growth of the U. S. Navy was arrested by considerations of diplomacy and domestic economy, expressed in treaty limitations on naval armaments and frugal budgets. First in tours with the General Board and later as Chief of Naval Operations, Pratt was again in the midst of highly significant events on the Washington scene.

That these were lean years for the Navy made it all the more important that the resources available be developed into a force best capable of coping with threats in two oceans. Pratt's tours with the Navy's General Board came at important times. In addition to questions related to negotiations on naval limitations, the Board was engaged in formulating overall naval policy, recommending types of ships to be built and their characteristics, developing a program for the modernization of battleships, and determining the requirements for naval bases.

 p. x  During Pratt's tours in the fleet, as he advanced up the line to Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet, he witnessed the evolution of revised concepts of fleet operations and the introduction of a new type that would revolutionize naval warfare — the aircraft carrier. A recurring problem was that of the command structure into which the fleet should be organized. There were several conflicting requirements. Some had to do with preparedness for major fleet engagements, with the carrying out of a variety of naval missions, and with the need for sea power in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Others had to do with the specialized training and maintenance requirements of the various types of ships and their weapon systems. On the question as to whether the fleet should be organized along type command or mission-oriented command lines, Pratt advocated first one and then the other. Finally, a Chief of Naval Operations, he arrived at a solution which drew upon the best features of both. For fleet operational purposes and fleet exercises, ships were grouped into forces best designed for the mission assigned. At the same time, continuity of command for other than operational reasons was assured by assigning ships to type commands. World War II proved this dual assignment to be ideally suited for the forever changing requirements of war at sea and operations involving joint forces. It combined effective means for maximizing the readiness of the many types of ships with the ability flexibly to reorganize the fleets, task forces, and task groups to meet a wide variety of operational needs.

Admiral Pratt concluded his naval career as Chief of Naval Operations during an extraordinarily difficult time. The country was in the depths of a crushing depression. Balancing the need for a strong navy with problems of the domestic economy posed vexing problems. In supporting the policies of his commander in chief, President Herbert Hoover, he found himself at times in conflict with the views of many of his naval contemporaries.

During the final phase of Pratt's naval career, the Japanese-initiated Manchurian incident gave ominous signs for the future. To form a united U. S. Fleet in the Pacific, the Scouting Force was deployed from the Atlantic to the Pacific to join the Battle Force. In less than a decade a balanced Pacific Fleet would be engaged in the most extensive maritime war in history.

This book had its origins in 1969, when as the Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College, the author initiated research in a collection of Pratt papers recently acquired by the Navy.  p. xi His offer to write this book, as a "labor of love," was strongly endorsed by my farsighted predecessor, Rear Admiral Ernest M. Eller. The Naval History Division is deeply grateful to Professor Wheeler for this contribution to American naval history.

Edwin B. Hooper
Vice Admiral, USN (Ret.)
Director of Naval History


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