Short URL for this page:

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

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

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sea Duty

Yates Stirling

published by
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p140  Chapter X


[image ALT: missingALT.]

After a year on the staff of the War College, I became the executive officer of the battle­ship Rhode Island, in October, 1913. I was now a commander. I had climbed up through the grades of ensign, junior lieutenant, lieutenant, and lieutenant commander to commander. I had been promoted to each of these grades through seniority alone, after examination, both mental and physical. From now on it was to be for me a question of selection by a board of admirals; the survival of the fittest.

In order to overcome, at least partially, that baneful condition of stagnation in naval promotions, Congress had authorized what was called "selection out." By this method a star-chamber board of admirals selected for retirement from the list of commanders and captains those officers believed the least fit, for any cause. This method had met with serious objection both in and out of the Navy, and Congress had changed it to the method of "selection up," which is yet in force. This latter method now is applied to all grades from lieutenant.

The Rhode Island was commanded by Captain C. S. Williams, and flew the flag of Admiral N. R. Usher. The Rhode Island led a division of three other battle­ships.

Almost our first problem after I joined was the holding of division target practice with these four ships firing on four targets in tow of a battle­ship of another division. The targets represented enemy ships in formation. Admiral Usher seemed to be of the  p141 opinion that all that would be necessary to carry out the practice was to form his division in column, steam by the targets at the stipulated distance and fire. The flag lieutenant and the gunnery officer of the Rhode Island, knowing that I had just spent two years at the Naval War College, came to me and asked me to prepare an order for the Admiral to sign, giving in detail the plan of conducting the practice. They had in their minds that the Admiral did not appreciate the seriousness of it and feared he would rashly rush in where angels fear to tread. This modern gunnery, they believed, was something the older officers could not be trusted with, for they were too old to learn new tricks. They thought the War College could solve the problem by giving them an order that everyone could understand and Usher could not change.

I succumbed and together we wrote out a very complete order outlining the method of procedure in strictly war college phrases. The next thing was to persuade the Admiral to accept and sign it.

I was called into the Admiral's cabin a few days later. The flag lieutenant and gunnery officer were there, both rather fidgety I thought. The Admiral turned on me; sparks flying out of his eyes.

"What is this rigamajig," he asked, holding up our carefully worked up procedure for division practice. "Craft tells me you wrote it, using War College form and phraseology." Then he added: "What's the good of it? Is there anything difficult in firing this simple division practice?"

I said: "No; but if anything should go wrong and a poor score made, having such an order might help." I began to see that I was the one that had rushed in where angels feared to tread. I then tried to insinuate, diplomatically, that he had four captains, none of whom would know what was in the Admiral's mind without such an order, and that the idea was to rehearse the practice just as actors rehearse a play. After a few short rehearsals, all would know just how the Admiral was going to conduct the practice. Then I said: "The seaman's eye has been given a knock‑out by our modern instruments of precision." I showed him where every point in the practice had been covered and that all we had to do was to carry out the plan and not change it after the order had been signed and sent out. Once put into effect it was automatic. We at last convinced him, and he signed the order of procedure. Our division made the best score in the Fleet. The Admiral was  p142 delighted. I had won more converts for the War College. To me the whole thing as planned seemed simple but to others it appeared mysterious. It was in effect simply the idea of indoctrination. The order gave each captain knowledge of how the Admiral's mind worked in this particular case, and once they knew, they could co‑operate. Without such an order, at that time, everyone would have been ignorant of what the Admiral intended to do and how he would do it.

After our division practice was over, our division umpired and towed for the new dreadnaught division under Admiral Cameron Winslow, consisting of the Delaware, North Dakota, Florida, and Utah. Their gun range at that time, 1913, seemed to us almost incredible, about ten thousand yards, or five miles, as I remember. These practices were part of Sims's plans for fleet gunnery efficiency.

The secretary of the navy, Mr. Josephus Daniels, to impress upon the cabinet members the Navy's gunnery skill, invited them with their wives to witness this practice. The members of the President's cabinet with their wives arrived in Hampton Roads in the yacht Mayflower from Washington. The men went to the firing division. The wives all were brought aboard the Rhode Island.

I recall very vividly the first time I met Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt, the present First Lady, then the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. I had a list of the women and detailed an officer of the Rhode Island to accompany each one and be available to explain anything they wished to know. Lieutenant Emory Land, now rear admiral, retired, was detailed to escort Mrs. Roosevelt. She wanted to see all there was, and when I went into the wardroom, where all were assembled, she had donned a suit of dungarees, trousers and all, and Land was taking her up the mast to the top, an excellent place from which to witness the firing. None of the other women seemed willing to risk climbing the mast. I saw Mrs. Roosevelt after the practice, covered with soot but radiantly enthusiastic over the experience.

As executive officer, I escorted the senior cabinet lady, Mrs. William Jennings Bryan. Mr. Bryan, of course, was a pacifist, however, as a friendly gesture to his intimate friend Daniels, had come to see the shooting of the new dreadnaughts. I did my level best to entertain Mrs. Bryan, the wife of the great commoner, and used all my persuasion to attempt to arouse her interest  p143 in what to me was a rare and wonderful sight. Mrs. Bryan and I were standing on the navigating bridge of the Rhode Island when the four big dreadnaughts came over the hożizon about ten miles away. The targets and towing ship, a battle­ship, were about a mile ahead of us. We were trailing behind the long tow of four great targets. I had just described, in as fluent language as I could command, what was about to happen. I said: "Mrs. Bryan, those great ships armed each with from eight to ten twelve-inch guns are just appearing in line formation. They will steam in to about five miles from the enemy ships, represented by the four towed targets ahead of us. First the ships will fire a few single ranging shots to get the distance and then will fire salvos, each ship firing at its own target eight or ten shells in a salvo. You will see the shots falling short, going through the target screens or going over the target, just as in real battle, and you can imagine the destruction and death that would be caused if those were enemy ships instead of mere canvas screens. . . ."

When I had got to this part of my description, some time before the firing began, Mrs. Bryan suddenly sat down in her chair, from which she could not see over the weather cloth, and said: "Oh, I don't take any interest in that sort of thing." I was sunk. I could not budge her from her chair, although when the firing began I kept describing what was happening. She would not stand up to see and I believe she had closed her ears as well as her eyes and mind to what she believed was the terrible game of war.

Shortly after this our division received orders to proceed to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and report to Admiral Friday F. Fletcher, commanding our naval ships off the Mexican coast.

Admiral Fletcher, with two divisions of battle­ships and several cruisers and gunboats, was observing events on the east coast of Mexico. President Huerta of Mexico was ruling his country with an iron and ruthless hand. President Wilson's avowed policy was to refuse recognition of the Huerta government for he was supposed to have obtained power by murdering the elected President, Madero. The United States Government was giving encouragement to General Carranza, a rebel popular with the people, in his fight against Huerta, whom our President had denounced as a brigand and a murderer. Our government had refused to allow arms to be sold to Huerta, and Fletcher was  p144 watching that no arms be shipped into any of the Mexican east coast ports.

Admiral Fletcher's mission was rather vague. Watchful waiting it might be called. The American Ambassador to Mexico had been recalled because he was of the opposite political faith and not in sympathy with the administration, leaving diplomatic affairs in the hands of Nelson O'Shaughnessy, the Chargé d'Affaires. No other ambassador could be sent without recognizing the Huerta government, which Wilson would not do, even indirectly. John Lind of Minnesota was sent down by Wilson as his personal representative to carry demands from the President to Huerta. These demands were said to be to cease warfare and give a general amnesty, then hold elections for president of Mexico, in which Huerta was not to be a candidate. It went without saying that these demands were scorned by Huerta.

I met the O'Shaughnessys when they sought better security in Vera Cruz. They were both friends of Huerta, and Mrs. O'Shaughnessy was quite outspoken, blaming President Wilson's impossible policy. I remember she claimed that Mexico could be kept peaceful only by such a dictator as Huerta and that if Huerta should be forced out, anarchy would prevail and American lives and property in Mexico would be in great jealousy. It seems her prophecy came true.

John Lind was a most personable man and we were all very fond of him. His task was a hopeless one. He had a big heart and would go to any lengths to help the persecuted. Some high-ranking and wealthy Mexicans had been ordered by Huerta to come to Mexico City from Vera Cruz. They knew this would mean death to the men of the families. Lind offered them asylum in the consulate. A dangerous thing to have done, for a consulate does not have the same immunity as a legation. Fletcher advised Lind to bring them to a warship. The families were crowded into the consul with Mr. Canada, the Consul, and all feared attack from agents of Huerta. I was sent ashore in a ship's boat to wait at the sea wall just across the plaza from the consulate. Lieutenant George M. Courts, the Admiral's flag lieutenant and I took posts to observe that there would be no danger from the police or a quickly gathered mob. When all seemed clear I gave the prearranged signal and Lind, Canada, and the Mexicans all hurriedly debouched from the consulate and fairly ran across the plaza to the awaiting boat. We all arrived at the same time  p145 and I was amused to see a big navy revolver sticking out openly from Lind's back pocket. The Mexicans were sent to Galveston on the next safe merchant ship.

I have been often told that I resemble Smedley Butler. At the time he was on some secret duty in Mexico. When I was leaving Vera Cruz, some months later, I dropped in to say good‑by to Consul Canada. I had seen him fairly often but was not an intimate friend. This time he was most solicitous and told me how much I would be missed, that they just could not do without me. He opened up a fresh bottle of old vintage whiskey and insisted upon drinking several toasts to my health and happiness. I began to wonder why all this delicate attention. Then on my departure, while we were going down the stairs toward the door, I noticed that he was regarding me very closely. Then he blurted out suddenly:

"Oh, hell, I thought you were Butler!"

That took all the conceit out of me. It was bad enough to be thought to look like Butler, but to be taken for him by an intimate of his was certainly the limit. That pays him back for his: "To Hell with the Admirals."

It is unfortunate that relations between Americans and Mexico and the people of that country always have been strained. There has always been evidence of ill feeling between the two races. This attitude toward everything foreign and American particularly is expressed in the word "Gringo." Until Wilson took the decided stand against Huerta, much of this antipathy was kept from breaking bounds. Our weak policy in giving practically no security for our nationals in Mexico caused the Mexicans to consider our people as helpless as the Chinese, and many expressed the situation of Americans in that country as similar to game in the open season.

Resulting from this ill feeling, a ship's boat from a warship, together with the crew, were seized by Huerta troops at Tampico. Admiral Mayo at once demanded their release and set a time limit for an apology and a salute to our flag for the insult.

This incident gave the American President the opportunity he seemed to be seeking to ask Congress to permit force to be used against Huerta. Congress passed the resolution Wilson requested.

While the Mayo demands were still being considered by Huerta, Mr. Bryan, as Secretary of State, not having been consulted by Mayo before the demands were made, probably felt no responsibility  p146 for them, and showed his lack of sympathy by extending the time for a reply, and giving out openly, that, as far as he was concerned, it made little difference whether Mexico fired a salute to our flag or not. Of course no salute was ever fired.

At this time Huerta's troops occupied the three important cities of Vera Cruz, Tuxpan, and Tampico. Vera Cruz, at the sea end of the railroad from Mexico City, was an important shipping point for Huerta. He held the railroad and the territory between the capital and the seaport. Tuxpan and Tampico, shipping points for Mexican oil, were vital to Huerta because of the value of the tax on oil. This likewise made these two ports valuable to the rebels.

The oil of Mexico naturally loomed large in the controversy between Mexico and our Government. The oil fields in the vicinity of Tuxpan were owned and operated by the British. The largest producer was the Aguila Company, a subsidiary of the Dutch Shell. The American-owned fields were mostly near Tampico, and the largest company was the Huasteca Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of the Standard Oil. These two firms were deadly rivals and strong competitors. If they had co‑operated both would have fared better at the hands of the Mexicans, who took delight in keeping open the breach between them.

Admiral Fletcher's warships were concentrated at both Vera Cruz and Tampico. Fletcher remained most of the time at Vera Cruz, while the second in command, Admiral Mayo, with his battle­ships, gave his full attention to Tampico and the valuable American oil properties in that vicinity.

When the Rhode Island became Fletcher's flagship, he appointed me as his temporary chief of staff. He knew I had just been on duty at the Naval War College, and he was a firm believer in the College and its methods. The Admiral directed me to draw up plans in detail, under his supervision, for a blockade of the Mexican coast and for the capture and occupation of Vera Cruz by the naval force under him. When these plans were completed they were distributed to his captains. Fletcher now felt he was prepared for eventualities toward which he was sure the situation was leading.

As part of Wilson's obsession to force Huerta to give up his dictator­ship, the prevention of arms reaching him was a cardinal point. Fletcher's warships could prevent munitions of war from being landed at Mexican ports when carried by merchant ships  p147 flying our flag. The situation was quite different when foreign merchant ships were carrying that obnoxious cargo. There was a German merchant ship, known to have a large consignment of arms for Huerta, and due any day at Vera Cruz. Wilson was determined that these guns for Huerta would not be landed at Vera Cruz.

President Wilson, having received authority from Congress to use force against Huerta, directed the Secretary of the Navy, Daniels, to order Fletcher merely to seize the Vera Cruz custom house and thus prevent the arms from getting to Huerta. It was a foolish and ill‑considered order and exemplified how dangerous is civilian interference into the methods of military action. Admiral Fletcher was a wise and scientific naval man and appreciated that such a restrictive order could not be carried out with safety to his men. The objective was the custom house. Just to seize the custom house against formidable opposition by Huerta's troops and a hostile population would certainly have led to great loss of life to our sailors and possibly even annihilation. Fletcher seized the city of Vera Cruz with his men, including the custom house.

President Wilson was then greatly disturbed, and he had a right to be. Technically the United States was at war with Mexico, and there had been a loss of eight of our sailors and over a hundred Mexicans. If then Wilson had gone further and had decided upon full intervention in Mexico, it would have been a logical next step to the capture of the railroad at Vera Cruz, and lives and property of both foreigners and Americans in Madison would have been rendered safe. It would, at that time, have not been too difficult a task. Then expropriation today would not have occurred.

Our occupation of Vera Cruz placed all foreign and American lives in Mexico in jealousy and the administration at Washington seemed helpless to devise effective means to protect them from serious injury and even death. American invasion inflamed the bitter dislike of the Mexican for the "Gringo" into hatred, and the populace thirsted for American blood. While several thousand Americans were gathered in the city of Tampico, seeking protection against armed violence, having collected from outlying districts, the Navy Department in Washington peremptorily ordered Admiral Mayo's warships to leave the Panuco River, where they were anchored off Tampico for the purpose of protecting our nationals. The reason for this order has never been explained. The Navy Department attempted to blame the Navy for it, but  p148 that was easily disproved. In obeying this immediate order, several thousand American citizens were left by the Navy at the mercy of Mexican mobs and Huerta soldiers out of hand. To our country's everlasting disgrace, these Americans had to be rescued and transported out of the river by foreign warships, while our warships remained at anchor at sea off the river.

Viewing the situation today after a lapse of twenty-five years, I feel that Admiral Mayo would have been justified if he had refused to obey the order to evacuate the river until all Americans had been rescued from the mobs, even if to do so would have meant the use of force and even the occupation of the city of Tampico.

The handling of the Mexican situation at that time by the Wilson administration showed a woeful lack of decision and utter weakness. It completely destroyed American prestige in Mexico, and our people are suffering from that spinelessness today. The statistics are said to show that during the continuance of this weak American policy towards Mexico, over 150 of our people were murdered by the Mexicans in cold blood. Secretary Bryan wrote diplomatic notes of protest but they were no longer legal tender and no redress was ever given.

I missed the capture of Vera Cruz, for my ship had been relieved by another. My brother, Lieutenant Archibald Stirling, was serving in the Utah and was in that ship's battalion during the capture of the city.

While serving as Admiral Fletcher's Chief of Staff, I had an opportunity of meeting high-ranking officers and civil officials, both our own and foreign. Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock was the British senior naval officer on their American and West Indies Station. His flagship was the Suffolk, an armored cruiser. He was one year senior in rank or precedence to Admiral Fletcher. Our country's interests at the time were so much heavier than the British that Fletcher informed Craddock in a personal conversation, at which I was present, that he could not defer to him or recognize him as the senior foreign naval representative in cases of concerted action. Craddock was most understanding and said he was quite willing to waive his seniority in all issues that did not concern British interest solely.

I fear Admiral Fletcher committed an error of judgment in confiding in the Navy Department. He wired the substance of Craddock's agreement to Washington, and of course, as might have been expected, the authorities gave Fletcher's dispatch to the  p149 newspapers, and I believe Washington even thanked the British Admiralty for Craddock's generous gesture. That was too much for the dignified Admiralty, and Craddock received a cable from London saying that most certainly a British Admiral could not waive his rank for anyone, not even an American Admiral.

Admiral Craddock came over to see Fletcher in person to tell him of the Admiralty's refusal to permit this waiving of rank and said, after he had informed him, with a boyish grin:

"I never could knock any sense into that Admiralty Board."

Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Craddock were the best of friends, and there were never any serious differences between them.

Craddock was fond of fishing for tarpon and spent considerable time away from Vera Cruz. I saw him land a 125‑pound fish in the Panuco River near Tampico. I was fishing at the same time, and I claimed mine was even bigger, but unfortunately I lost it while gaffing it after playing it for two hours.

I did, though, have one fish story on the Admiral. The day after I had lost my big fish I saw tarpon jumping ahead of my boat and told the coxswain to steer in that direction. The boat was a small motor wherry. Suddenly there was a flash, and a big fish landed at my feet, then bounced itself over the engineer's head and dropped into the bow sheets of the boat, where he could not bounce out. The coxswain hit it on the head and silenced it, although I was trying to tell him to catch my hook into its mouth and heave it over the side. We had no further luck. When we rounded up alongside the station ship our young paymaster, a fishing enthusiast, was at the gangway. He says the fish and called to me: "Captain, did you catch him?"

I said: "No, he jumped into the boat."

Of course no one would believe me. The fish weighed 75 pounds.

Admiral Craddock in my opinion was a most likable man. He was not a brilliant student of war. Apparently, with all his charm of manner, he enjoyed just a trifle of an inferiority complex when with Fletcher. Fletcher was very scientific, an expert in ordnance, having designed the breech mechanism of our broadside guns, then being used in the Navy. Fletcher was also a most conscientious student, an expert in strategy and tactics, in fact at that time was working on a plan of tactics for the battle line, a new and simple method of handling ships in maneuvers. Fletcher  p150 did not know how to play. The two men were opposites. Craddock was above all the sportsman.

At a dinner on board the Spanish cruiser, at which all the senior foreign naval officers were present, Fletcher and the German captain were deep in some scientific subject. All were listening. Finally Craddock turned to the Spanish captain next him, and I heard him say in a loud aside: "I don't know what they are talking about. It's too deep for me. I'm just a dunce. Do you know what a dunce is? A very stupid man."

About a year later, Craddock, in command of a hastily organized force, manned principally by reservists, went down to defeat in the Pacific before two crack German gunnery ships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The battle was fought about sunset, and Craddock's ships were illuminated against the horizon while the German hulls merged into the gloom of the land. Craddock went down with his ship. Everyone who knew him regretted greatly his loss. Many felt he was too bold — the Beatty type — and should have avoided battle. There was a battle­ship hastening to join him which would have given him the superior force.

Craddock's defeat, we all know, was avenged by Admiral Sturdee. Sturdee had been in command of the gunboat Beagle in Samoa and had the American and British landing force when the commission arrived in the Badger. He was then a man of the greatest energy and élan. The secret withdrawal of two battle cruisers from the Grand Fleet, and their dashes at high speed to intercept the German Admiral von Spee, before he could capture and terrorize Great Britain's Falkland Islands, was Sturdee's own strategical conception; and he accomplished it almost miraculously. The German armored cruisers were sunk after a running fight at a range where Sturdee's guns could reach the enemy while the German shells all fell short. It was almost a repetition of the fight off Chile. I have often thought that Sturdee and Craddock were warm friends and this was Sturdee's way of avenging his friend.

The German captain of the cruiser Bremen in Vera Cruz and I used to discuss quite often naval matters. I remember his saying to me one day when I had told him that in our Navy many believed that Germany was building her navy against us in a bid for colonies in Brazil:

"You are wrong. We're building against the British navy. That navy stands in our way everywhere in the world."

 p151  After leaving Vera Cruz, the Rhode Island went to Cuba for target practice and then to Boston Navy Yard for repairs.

When Captain Sims was made commander of the submarines and destroyers of the fleet, he asked me to take command of the submarine flotilla. I was only too happy to serve with him although I realized the duty would bring a lot of hard work and disappointment, for our submarines at that time were very much down by the heel in material condition, not yet having won naval recognition of their usefulness as important weapons of war on the seas.

At Boston I received my orders to command the Submarine Flotilla of the Atlantic Fleet. The flotilla then had been made an independent command, having been divorced from the destroyers under Sims. The crew of the Rhode Island, expecting the ship would return to Mexico at once to fight, and our captain being sick in the hospital, got up a "round robbin," signed by the entire crew, to have me remain in command. It was sent to the Navy Department. I was surprised to receive it from a classmate, John Blakely, on duty in the Bureau of Navigation. Blakely wrote that he had confiscated it from the mail before it had got to the Secretary. I have it preserved in a frame as a prized possession.

Before I had even seen a submarine, I was sent in my flagship, the Ozark, a monitor, to Tampico, Mexico, in May 1914. I was in command of the vessel. We received en route instructions to go to Lobos Island and report to Captain Sims, who was handling affairs at this base near Tampico. Many of Sims's destroyers were anchored there. The Dixie, the flagship of Sims, was also a repair ship. It had been the intention to capture Tampico from Huerta, but two days before our arrival at Lobos, Carranza's troops occupied the city without much opposition. The Ozark with its two 12‑inch guns in a forward turret would have been most useful in taking the city.

It was decided that the Ozark would go up the Panuco River and anchor off Tampico. The ship would be useful there as a stabilizing force, which it proved to be. First, because of the great prevalence of malaria we were directed thoroughly to screen the ship. Also we filled numerous bags with sand and were directed to place them for the protection of the broadside guns' crews, but to camouflage them so that they would not be too  p152 evident. Even then it looked as if we might after all have to take Tampico away from Carranza.

When the Ozark anchored off the city, everyone said there was a marked change for the better in the attitude of the Mexicans toward the Americans. I encouraged in every possible way putting fear in their hearts. The more I was told of the treatment of our people throughout Mexico, the more I was convinced that intervention was the logical step to take.

I remember one day a Carranza colonel, in command of the troops, came to visit us. He was curious to see inside the turret. When he looked through one of the sighting telescopes, he let out a cry of amazement: "I can see my office window."

Then he became solemn. He must have realized the import of what he saw through the gun sight.

When Vera Cruz had been seized, Admiral Badger took his entire Atlantic Fleet to Vera Cruz. There were rumors at the time that this fleet concentration was because of a veiled hint of a coalition of great European powers to coerce this country either to put at an end the chaotic state of affairs in Mexico or else waive the Monroe Doctrine and let other powers perform the task. Foreign business was suffering seriously from this guerrilla warfare, and the European powers were in no wise in sympathy with the policies of the sentimental President Wilson. If the world had not been interrupted by the approaching war in Europe, we might have had difficulties on this side of the Atlantic over the perplexing Mexican situation which has not ended even yet.

The foreign oil companies even then were threatened with expropriation of their properties. Mexican labor was rebellious and encouraged in that attitude by Mexican officials. Secretary of State Bryan wrote endless dispatches of so‑called "representation" to the Mexican authorities which always were ignored. Even then we were sowing the dragon's teeth by our spineless stand. We took Vera Cruz and then stopped, apparently fearing that we had gone too far. As things have turned out, we did not go far enough.

It almost seems the hand of fate that has taken Mr. Daniels to Mexico as our Ambassador when expropriation, long anticipated by those who knew the Mexican people and their dictator rulers, has finally been consummated. He must now fight the conditions brought on by our weakness in refusing to stand up for  p153 American rights over two decades ago when he was a cabinet officer.

Admiral Mayo made the Ozark his headquarters when it was too rough to return to his flagship anchored outside the river. Northers were frequent in the winter months, and I remember one almost tragic incident. Admiral Fletcher and I had visited Tampico and were in the city when a norther began to blow. When we reached the mouth of the river, heavy seas were breaking over the bar. My surveying experience had taught me the danger in crossing a breaking bar even in a surfboat, much less a fast motorboat. I urged the Admiral not to attempt it. He was just about on the point of returning to the station ship up the river when a Standard Oil tanker came along, and its master called to us to steer in the lee of his ship. It looked like an opportunity, and the Admiral was impatient to get aboard his flagship and sail for Vera Cruz. We were soaked to the skin and nearly capsized several times. Our boat was half full of water when we got across the bar. The Rhode Island, seeing our predicament, had got underway to give us a lee. We both had to jump for the Jacob's ladder at the stern of the ship. The boat was hoisted with the greatest difficulty. Then the Admiral turned to me and said:

"Well, Stirling, we came through that, but I'd never risk it again." Fletcher had plenty of nerve.

Naturally I was most anxious to join my submarines, and as everything seemed to be going tranquilly in Tampico, I wrote a letter submitting that the Ozark now could be sent north to join her submarines. By inadvertence the letter was routed direct to the Navy Department, making it appear that I had gone over the head of the Commander in Chief of the Fleet. I received a mild rebuke from him, which I explained at once. However, his letter to me came up later in a most aggravating way through what I have always believed was a deliberate intent by someone in the Department to cast doubt upon testimony I had given before Congress.

Shortly after this I returned north on board a naval collier. The World War had begun. A fight between a German and a Britain cruiser occurred in the West Indies while we were nearing Cuba. We intercepted some of their messages. On arrival north I was given another monitor as a flagship, and later the auxiliary  p154 cruiser Prairie, which acted also as a tender for the submarines of the K‑class which were just going into commission.

It was known that Germany was building many submarines and some of large size; yet our naval authorities were hard to convince of the importance of that type as a reliable weapon of war. Submarine exploits were proving it was not just an expensive toy as many still believed. It was rapidly climbing to a position of prominence among the units of a fleet. It was showing that it was an indispensable instrument of sea power and now bids fair to take a place not far below, if not on a par, with great surface warships in both offensive and defensive operations at sea.

When I got myself oriented in my new duties, I found many things in which to interest myself. Material had been sadly neglected by the Navy Department because of lack of interest, lack of money, poor organization, and divided control. In those days, only a few years advanced from submarine infancy, the Department had been inclined to give the submarine arm little consideration. Many believed it an expensive luxury. At best most of the submarines of the 1914 vintage and earlier were small, compared to the giants of today, and gave the impression of being oily, greasy, unkempt conglomerations of engines, batteries, and equipment, most intricate and confusing to understand, even by experts. Like the air service the submarine personnel was seem to be temperamental, unreasonable, and at times almost mutinous in its attitude toward control by surface officers. The opinion of the Bureau of the Navy Department seemed to be expressed in the saying: "The best way to exterminate vipers is in their nests."

One of the worst aspects of submarine operation was the vital question of obtaining trained men. Officers and enlisted men were being sent to submarine duty just as to surface vessels without regard to their special qualifications for the duty. There was but one place to train men and that was at sea in the active flotilla. The flotilla was expected to be ready for operations with the Fleet at any time, whether trained or not. This lack of trained submarine personnel to man the new ships just going into commission, necessitated long periods of training in shallow water, less than 200 feet, before a submarine could be considered ready for any and all work with the fleet at sea. I was making a special point of deciding myself when one was ready. If a submarine was needed for work in deep water and I thought the crew was not adequately trained, I would report to the Commander in Chief  p155 of the Fleet that the particular vessel was prepared only to act as a surface ship and was forbidden to dive in water deeper than 200 feet, at which depth submarines can stand the pressure. Of course my action was criticized by the Navy Department. It was said by some that the submarine service was attempting to make people believe that their work was more dangerous than it really was in hopes that Congress would increase submarine pay as it had that of the air service.

I had several experiences in our submarines that convinced me that I was on the right track. One was while running through a dummy mine field laid for an experiment by Commander Belknap of the Mine Force. I was in the K‑5, commanded by a most experienced officer, Lieutenant Holbrook Gibson. The mines were laid in about 100 feet of water. The K‑5 was running at 60 feet depth. The mines could be seen through the glass portholes in the conning tower and avoided. Gibson decided to go deeper and directed the man at the manifold to add so much water in the adjusting tank. Before building up a pressure in the tank equal to that of the water at the depth the vessel was running, the man opened the sea cock into this almost-empty tank with the result that the K‑5 went to the bottom. The ship was running very slowly and the tank had filled at once. In deep water the ship might have been lost. The man was inexperienced. Another time, while making a stationary dive in the K‑6, the ship was badly trimmed, and when the ballast tanks were filled, the ship took an alarming inclination down by the head. Even the quick blowing of all tanks did not stop the submarine from striking the bottom with considerable force at over 150 feet. These were only my personal experiences, and I had learned of others. Admiral Fletcher, then the Commander in Chief, approved of the idea of complete training in shallow water before reporting a submarine ready for maneuvers with the Fleet.

New submarines were joining the flotilla almost monthly. The K‑type were in commission and the L‑type would follow. These vessels were about 500 tons displacement. There was to be a fleet maneuver at which the ships of the submarine flotilla were directed to form a line through which an enemy force was expected to pass. The submarines were to be awash and attack submerged. I had fourteen vessels in all. I reported to Admiral Fletcher that there was but one submarine that I considered ready to submerge with safety. The chart showed 2000 fathoms at the  p156 location of the proposed submarine scouting line. The Admiral directed me to make a report in writing; which I did at once. I gave the reason in each case. Some were lack of training and others material defects, air compressors and batteries principally.

Then the Navy Department directed me to make a full report as to the cause of the failure of the flotilla. Here was a welcome opportunity for me to aid in bringing about greater effectiveness in submarine administration in the Navy in general. Innocently and trustfully, I wrote a long report in which, after outlining all our difficulties, trials, and tribulations, I proposed an organization in the Navy Department that would have full authority and responsibility for the development and the operation of this new and important weapon of war and thus end the multiple control and divided responsibility from which the submarine service was suffering.

Looking back upon it, I can see that it was not a very politic letter, for it aroused too many antagonistic forces against me. My report touched the sensibilities of many who believed that they were being unjustly criticized. Every Bureau of the Navy Department that was involved considered it had been attacked and was on the defensive at once. The attitude of the Bureaus toward me recalled the words of Captain Little at the War College. He was fond of asking the riddle: "Why is a Bureau of the Navy Department like a woman?"

The answer is: "Because it always has the last word."

The next thing I knew I was ordered to Washington to appear before the House Naval Committee of Congress to give testimony on submarines. The submarines at this time, late in 1914, were in everybody's hair, and although I had been in the flotilla only a half-dozen months, I found myself classed as an expert. I was not unwilling to accept the role if I could thereby benefit submarine efficiency.

After receiving orders to Washington, I received also a telegram directing me to report to the office of the Secretary of the Navy before going before the Naval Affairs Committee. I went first to the Department and was shown into the office of the Aide for Material, Admiral A. G. Winterhalter. I thought he gazed at me very ferociously with his only eye. I imagined he was none too friendly, but I hardly expected what was coming. I had criticized his organization, so how could I have expected him to look upon me with a friendly eye? He handed me a sealed envelop  p157 addressed to me. I opened it, and glancing down saw the familiar signature of Josephus Daniels. I started to put the letter in my pocket and take my departure. Admiral Winterhalter said: "Read it." I did. When I had read it, my righteous indignation was evident in my eyes.

"Well, what have you to say?" the Admiral asked.

"It's a reprimand for speaking my mind, I suppose," I said, holding myself in, "and if you want my opinion, I think it a most unfair and uncalled‑for letter. I haven't been in command long enough to be blamed for all the failures I enumerated in my letter. Most of the defects are years old and have accumulated because of bad management, ignorance, and neglect in the Navy Department itself. The Department," I added maliciously, "did not believe the submarine was of any use until this war in Europe woke it up."

The Admiral showed his surprise. He had forgotten I was red‑headed. He was finding I was more difficult to handle than he had thought. Of course I knew at once that he had written the letter himself and that his aim was pure and simple intimidation.

As I got up to go, I gave a parting shot so there would be no misunderstanding between us:

"If you think this letter of reprimand to me will close my mouth when I'm before the Naval Affairs Committee, you are quite mistaken. It will have just the opposite effect."

Mr. Daniels was before the Committee when I arrived in the room at the Capitol. His testimony continued all day, and I remained to listen. I had lunch with Mr. Daniels and several of the committee. Congressman Butler, father of Smedley Butler were one. I was still resentful with Mr. Daniels' letter in my pocket. Having heard his testimony, I realized how diametrically opposed to his mine would be.

When my turn before the Committee came, hundreds of questions, sometimes two and three at once, were hurled at me to answer. I could see that politics entered largely. The Democrats were endeavoring by their questions to make it appear that all was well with the submarines of our Navy, and the Republicans that all was not well. I was the football. My testimony lasted for two whole days and in print was a fair-sized book. I could not agree with Mr. Daniels' belief that our submarines were as good as any in the world. But I conceded that they should be and would be if we could be aroused to the necessity for it. I saw from  p158 Mr. Daniels' testimony that he had been well coached (for a civilian could not be expected to know everything about the Navy) by those who thought they must shield their personal reputations at the expense of the efficiency of the submarine arm of the Navy.

The opposition, the Republicans, found out that I had received a reprimand from the Secretary just before coming before the Committee. It was this way. Admiral Bradley Fiske was Aide for Operations. He and Winterhalter were in competition for the favor of the Secretary. Operations should have held precedence over material, but at that time and even yet, it is a case of who is the stronger character or has more stubbornness in his makeup. Winterhalter had won. Bill Cronin, Fiske's aide, knew of my letter and naturally saw that the Republicans on the Committee learned of it. Anything to embarrass the Aide for Material.

Upon questioning, I acknowledged having received such a letter. I had the letter in my pocket and told the Committee so, but said I preferred the Committee obtain it from the Department's files. There was no copy of the letter in the files, so instead, and intentionally, I feel sure, the letter from Admiral Badger to me, spoken about earlier when I was in Tampico, was given the Committee. The letter was published in the newspapers and gave the false impression that I had blamed Admiral Badger for submarine shortcomings. I did not recognize the extent of the trickery, otherwise I would have given the other letter to the press. I was young and thought I could fight the world single handed.

Nearly five years later when I was slated to be Captain of the Yard at the Philadelphia Navy Yard under Admiral C. F. Hughes, he told me in no uncertain terms that he did not want me as his assistant. I was surprised and asked him why. He was brutally honest and told me that I had been disloyal to Admiral Badger in giving publicity to his letter to me, thereby making people believe that Badger was to blame for submarine shortcomings. Fortunately he told me, and it did not take long for me to show up the trickery of the Department at that time. Hughes, I remember smiled and said: "Are you telling me." He too had suffered from it. I wrote Admiral Badger at once and received a marvelous letter from him in return. For five years I had been under a cloud in both Badger's and Hughes's estimation.

 p159  My testimony before the Naval Affairs Committee was used as ammunition by the opposition to fight Mr. Daniels politically, and I soon found myself ground between the upper and the lower millstone. But I was hard to crush for I remember now that I rather enjoyed the sensation of being important enough to be singled out for publicity.

My friends all told me that my days in command of the flotilla were numbered, but the blow did not fall for some time. Meanwhile I enjoyed nearly a year's experience in submarine work in command of the most earnest bunch of officers and men of any in the Navy. The entire flotilla was coming up rapidly in efficiency. Being in the public eye increased their morale tremendously. Previously they had been kicked around from pilot to post. Now we were being asked what they could do for us.

In my idle time, I enjoyed finding fault with Navy Department methods that were sources of annoyance and delay. One case was that of the purchase of air compressors. Several of the submarines that I had reported unfit to submerge needed new air compressors. I wrote and emphasized the importance of obtaining these compressors as soon as possible. The bids were awarded by the Bureau of Supplies. I learned that a firm out west had been given the contract with an eight-months time of delivery. This bid was $500 less than a bid by an eastern firm which offered to supply the machines in two months. In fact some were in stock and could be installed at once. My letter to Admiral Samuel McGowan, an old shipmate, possibly was a bit facetious, but I felt very strongly about this bad policy. I stated that a submarine stood the government about $250 a day. When a submarine could not submerge that money was a loss. In eight months waiting for the new compressors there would be a loss for each submarine of $60,000. Waiting two months, the loss would be $15,000. In order to save $500, therefore, the Navy stood a loss of $45,000. I ended my letter by saying that the time of delivery of such important machinery for a submarine was far more vital to the Navy than the relative cost. I have an idea that Sam did not enjoy my letter, but I noticed thereafter in ordering submarine equipment the time element was put at the top and many times the low bids were rejected because time of delivery was longer. The Bureaus do not like to be criticized.

Early in 1915, using my flagship, the Prairie, as tender for the  p160 K‑boats, we cruised to Pensacola, Florida. This was an excellent winter training grounds. The smaller vessels joined us later.

While at Pensacola I saw at first hand the nucleus and struggling beginning of our Naval air power. Pensacola Naval Station had been given to Commander H. C. Mustin as a base and school for our aviation. There was no landing field at that time; the planes were all flying boats. I went up often with Mustin and other aviators to test out how far under water a submarine must go to be invisible from the air.​a Mustin's complaints of the stupidity in the Navy Department on matters concerning his work so completely paralleled my own in submarines that it gave us a common interest. We had great times lambasting the nitwits in Washington, whom we felt were strangling the development of both airplanes and submarines.

The Mine Force, under Commander R. R. Belknap, a former shipmate, was also wintering at Pensacola, and we all worked together in useful experiments. The Mine Force, I fear, was also a thorn in the side of the Navy Department. It took several years of war in Europe to convince the doubters in Washington that mines were really dangerous. When we went into the war over two years later, this Mine Force under Belknap, consisting of the San Francisco and a tug, was expanded, still under Belknap, who alone was responsible for its evolution, to a size large enough to lay the most ambitious mine barrage in our history, across the North Sea to hem in German submarines.​b

After our return north the Navy Department bragged considerably of our cruise with the submarines, all the way to Pensacola and return without casualty. It failed to mention that the Department was none too favorable to the project before we started, fearing that material defects would develop for which it would be blamed, and was much relieved to have it come through with success. I do not give any credit for its success to the Department. Our success can be attributed alone to the hard, intelligent, and continuous labor of the submarine personnel in overcoming many difficulties.

I read in my newspaper one morning that Admiral A. W. Grant had been selected by the Secretary of the Navy to be the new Commander of the Submarine Flotilla with full authority over all submarines in commission or building. It was almost exactly what I had advocated in the letter for which I had been  p161 reprimanded by Mr. Daniels. Then that same day I received a wire from Grant saying in substance:

"I have agreed to accept detail to command submarine flotilla provided you be ordered to remain in the flotilla as my chief of staff."

Grant was a true friend. With all his brusqueness, he had a heart of gold and bent over backwards in honesty and uprightness. I was delighted to serve with him and wired my acceptance immediately thanking him for his confidence.

During the next two years we worked together. They never succeeded in driving a wedge between us. Grant brought to the struggling submarine service an added prestige because of his strong personality, his high rank, and his wide naval experience. He was a man of great mental and physical power, and when he knew he was right, he would go to the Navy Department and stay there until he had won his case. He was a tower of strength for the submarine service. He early advocated larger vessels, and, in his testimony before the Naval Affairs Committee, he made the greatest impression. What Grant thought went with that body of legislators. He knew how to speak their language.

In the next two years many important things were accomplished by the Admiral. A vital one was the establishment of the submarine base and school at New London, where submarine personnel, officers and men, are trained. He convinced the Naval Affairs Committee that larger submarines were what the nation needed, against some opposition in the Department, who yet thought in the purely defense type. Grant at that time set the mark for vessels of 800 tons, nearly twice the tonnage of the latest we then had, the K‑ and L‑types. The 800‑ton boats are called the S‑type, of which we built a large number during the time we were at war and after. I consider Grant is the father of our modern submarine navy.

In order to take care of a large staff, which was badly needed to administer the growing service, Grant looked around for a flagship, capable of providing office space and accommodations. The Columbia was an obsolete fast cruiser that had been out of commission at the Navy Yard at Philadelphia. It was designated as Grant's flagship. Grant then asked for 100 enlisted men, mostly artificers, and made the necessary alterations and repairs using them. We finally made the ship seaworthy and sailed as far as Newport; then, after a month's stay there with the submarines,  p162 the Columbia returned to the Navy Yard. The old statutory limit of funds no longer held, and the Yard made all necessary changes to fit the ship for her work.

When a ship goes out of commission at a Navy Yard, a statutory limit of funds that can be expended on her is fixed. In the case of the Columbia the limit was $250,000 and practically that amount had been charged to the ship. If this money actually had been spent on the vessel, it would not have been necessary to use enlisted men to make the ship seaworthy, but it had not. There was no real graft involved, but emergency work on ships at the Navy Yard during the time that the Columbia had been there had been charged to the Columbia instead of to the ships involved. I recall that a sister ship, the Minneapolis, was put in commission hurriedly for some diplomatic mission, and after the money on the latter ship ran out, the Columbia's money was used. Simply a juggling of Uncle Sam's funds. Taking it out of one pocket and putting it in another. It was an old Navy game at Navy Yards, that had been known and condoned by authority. Today, with the system of accounting used, it would not be possible.

In addition to being on Grant's staff, I was also the captain of the Columbia. We sailed as far as the Canal Zone, and Grant, Hutch Cone, and I were on a board there to select a site for a submarine base. We selected Coco Solo on the Atlantic side. Today there is a fine submarine base there. During the winter of 1915‑16 the Columbia with the entire available flotilla went to Pensacola for operations. That year the New London Naval Station was assigned to the flotilla. Grant sent me to New London to start and administer the new submarine school. We used the old building and had assigned a division of submarines for training purposes. The school filled a long-felt want. Grant dropped in often in his flagship, with his excellently equipped staff about him, to watch progress. His staff was nearer to my conception of what a General Staff would be than anything I had seen in the Navy. Between Grant, the staff, and myself we worked up a plan for a modern submarine base at New London, which base was built from our plans during the war. From this humble beginning have sprung submarine bases at Coco Solo, Pearl Harbor, Cavite, San Diego, and the submarine Navy Yard and base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Grant had indoctrinated all of us in just how he wished to administer his force. All could act within our area freely enough,  p163 but when it came to policies and major decisions, he retained full control. I am sure that any of us at any time would have acted singly in an emergency just as Grant himself would have. That is the true essence of the General Staff idea.

In Grant's campaign to put across the large submarine idea, there were many difficulties to overcome. Not the least were the shipbuilders themselves. The builders of our submarines naturally would have liked to continue building only small types because in these they could make the greater profits, having already all the jigs and patterns. Increasing the size, almost double, required experiments, which are costly, new machinery, and an extension of plant facilities. However, Grant worked amiably with the designers and builders, the most important being Lawrence Y. Spear, the Vice President of the Electric Boat Company at New London. Spear had been a Naval Constructor in the service and had graduated from the Naval Academy two years ahead of me. He and I were old friends.

Spear's professional knowledge of the submarine shipbuilding art or science was and is today pre‑eminent in this country. Spear believed in the bigger boats but at the same time had to consider the directors of his company and his stockholders. Submarines as large as 2700 tons surface displacement have been built in this country. The accepted size today is just under 1500 tons, quite large enough for all the duties required for distant service and not so large as to cause difficulty in handling while submerged and avoiding attacks from destroyers armed with depth charges. Spear has worked not only for our Navy but for foreign governments, notably Great Britain during the war, and several South American governments.

When the United States entered the World War in 1917, Grant was told by the Navy Department to get all available submarines of the K and L classes ready to go across at once. There were many things to be done on all the boats to make them fit for war service. The engines of the K‑type were two‑cycle Diesels and had not proven reliable in operation. Grant told the Staff to make an estimate of what should be done before they started. We all knew that the repair yards on the other side were up to their ears in work, and we wanted our boats in such shape that on their arrival their commander could say, as Joe Taussig had said to Bayly, when the British Admiral at Queenstown had asked  p164 him what repairs his destroyers needed after steaming across the Atlantic: "We are ready now."​c

Unfortunately that idea did not please the Department. What seemed to be wanted by the authorities higher up was favorable press notices about the incredibly short time that so many submarines had started for the war zone. Having once signed the letter recommending overhaul and refit, Grant refused to go back on it. If the work recommended was properly done, the submarines could not start until November or December, 1917. Someone high in Washington had promised them in August or earlier.

The next thing that happened was that Grant was promoted to Vice Admiral and given command of a battle­ship squadron of the Fleet under Admiral H. T. Mayo, the Commander in Chief, and I received telegraphic orders to command the ex‑German merchant ship President Lincoln, then being converted to a troop transport at the Robins Dry Docks in Brooklyn. Grant asked for me as Chief of Staff. I suspected then and have been convinced since that at that time there were sinister influences working against me in Washington, because of my testimony before the Naval Affairs Committee. I did not want to hamper him by accepting his offer. I felt he would go much further under the circumstances without me. I wired him my refusal. He would have insisted, but I was not to be persuaded. After three years in administration and operation of submarines, even being classed by many authorities as an expert, there I was, serving during a major war as a captain of a transport. Is it any wonder, with such a background, that I am in deadly earnest about destroying the rule of personal whims in the Navy Department and substituting an impersonal General Staff?

Thayer's Notes:

a Ralph Paine, The First Yale Unit, I.56.

[decorative delimiter]

b G. R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, p506 f.

[decorative delimiter]

c C. S. Alden and Ralph Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, p300.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 29 Oct 14