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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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.
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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p122  Chapter IX

At the War College

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After having served one year as navigator, I was most anxious to command one of the new destroyers then building. Luck was with me. I was given the Hiram Paulding, building at the Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, and went to Bath before the ship was finished and was on board during her trials. The secretary of the trial board was Commander C. F. Hughes, afterwards admiral. He carried the entire business of the inspection on his shoulders. I have never seen a man who could retain more details in his head. On the trials the Paulding attained a speed for four hours of 32.8 knots an hour, a record for that time in America. The ship was placed in commission at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in October, 1910.

The Paulding was our first oil burning destroyer. In order to burn oil the firerooms were kept under an air pressure of from two to four inches on the gauge by means of a large centrifugal air pump in the fireroom. It was cold weather, and the ship required steam for heating and flushing. But when we raised steam in one boiler we found we could not control the smoke from the stacks. Black, oily smoke came from the funnel and covered the entire navy yard with a heavy pall of smoke. A large armored cruiser was at the dock near us. It was Monday and that ship had a big wash on its clothes lines. Our smoke ruined the wash, necessitating that the clothes all be scrubbed over again. The captain of the cruiser was John Quinby. He was a picturesque  p123 swearer. He came over to the Paulding and bawled us out for fair. He received no satisfaction from us. The only thing we could do would be to stop making steam. The commandant sent for me. I explained the trouble. The Department of Steam Engineering in Washington had failed to provide us with an oil burner for port use. In using the regular method for raising steam we could not control the smoke. A port burner was the only answer.

I had wired Norfolk for an Ingram burner to be shipped to us by express immediately. The Ingram burner was a simple affair using steam to atomize the oil to be burned. The burner came promptly, and we installed it. The smoke ceased, and everyone was happy. I submitted a re­quisition to the Department for five Ingram burners, costing twenty-five dollars apiece; one burner for each of the destroyers that was about to be commissioned and of which I was to be the division commander. I knew that each of the ships would find itself in the same predicament in which we had been. In a few days my re­quisition was returned from Washington disapproved. A letter signed by the Chief of Bureau, Admiral Hutch Cone, said the Department did not approve of the Ingram burner because it was a steam atomizing burner and used too much fresh water, besides being a proprietary article. The letter gave the encouraging information that the Department was fully aware of the need of a burner for port use and was designing an air atomizing burner that would be available within six months. Having failed to get the five burners, I considered it only right that the Department should pay for the one burner I had ordered and the ship was using, so I sent in a re­quisition for one Ingram burner. This too came back disapproved. I was mad clear through. I sat down and made a calculation. By this time, the Ingram burner had been in use for over a month. It used less than three-quarters of a ton of oil a day. If we had used the big 150‑horse-power blower to maintain steam, we would have used nearly five tons of oil a day. The burner over which the controversy was raging had been saving the government nearly four tons of oil a day and besides had made it possible to stop the smoke nuisance. Every day then this saving was enough to buy two Ingram burners. The total saving so far had been over $1500. Then I wrote a letter to the Bureau giving all this data and said I did not know through whose stupidity the re­quisitions had been disapproved, but whoever  p124 it was seemed to consider that wasting government money was a legitimate occupation.

The re­quisition for five burners was approved, and Cone wrote me a very humorous letter suggesting I drop the bone. It was just one of those things that red tape and an ignorant clerk are responsible for. About six months later we received the department's designed burner. Cone is one of our most progressive and brilliant officers, and to have a trick like that pulled on him by a stupid clerk in his office must have made his red hair stand on end.

My division was finally brought together in Key West. It consisted of the Paulding, Drayton, Terry, Roe, and McCall. All were new oil burning destroyers. The commanding officers of these vessels were like a band of brothers. We all vied with each other to have the smartest ship, but when assembled as a unit I could always depend upon perfect co‑operation. These ships were about 750 tons displacement and all faster than 31 knots. They carried a crew of four junior officers and about seventy men. The gun battery was of three-inch guns and the torpedo tubes were triple with eighteen-inch torpedoes. Rear Admiral Clark Woodward is the only remaining officer on the active list of the five commanding officers. Henry C. Dinger, a very capable engineer, retired some years later as a captain. M. E. Trench and Arthur MacArthur died as captains. At that time the rank of all of us was that of Lieutenant Commander. I believe Woodward was only a lieutenant.

The Department was anxious to have these new ships demonstrate their worthiness, and as division commander I mapped out a plan for a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico which would give us ample opportunity and would offer pleasant relaxation and recreation for the personnel. Our first voyage was to Galveston, where we spent a few days, and then back to Key West. This fairly long cruise gave us a chance to obtain data on the fuel consumptions at different speeds of the several vessels. Then we visited Havana. To give one an idea of their liveliness in a seaway: I invited Captain Whitton, the master of one of our oil tankers, to take the trip to Havana with me. He had been at sea all his life. I remember as we shoved off he sat on a stool on the bridge smoking a big black cigar. The ninety-mile stretch of water between Key West and Havana is most always rough, very much like the  p125 English Channel, only worse. This day it was even more than usual. Whitton stood it as long as he could; then he sought a transom in the cabin and was spread out on it for the rest of the trip. He confessed that it was the first time he had been seasick in years. The motion of a destroyer usually gets the big ship men.

The next stop on our itinerary was New Orleans. I had notified the authorities there that we were coming in order to obtain dock space. The mayor of New Orleans wired asking us to arrive before a certain time of day, so that the people along the river could see us steaming up the father of waters in formation. As bad luck would have it, on reaching the mouth of the river we encountered a dense fog. We anchored on soundings and waited for the fog to clear. It cleared sufficiently, several hours after our arrival, to give us a glimpse of an entrance. There are three entrances to the Mississippi, and according to our latest sailing directions the middle and southwestern entrances were closed to navigation. We all got underway and started for the entrance in sight, not knowing which it was. When it cleared enough so we could recognize landmarks, I found I was leading the division up a channel that was supposed to be closed, the southwest channel. We sighted a dredger ahead and slowed to inquire. I asked if the channel was open to us. The answer came back: "How much water are you drawing?" I replied: "Ten feet," and the man waved us on with the remark: "Oh hell yes." In the fog we loomed up much bigger than we were. In fact a Coast Guard cutter mistook us for armored cruisers and so reported us by radio.

To reach the city at the time desired by the mayor, I saw we would have to make almost thirty knots. I set the speed at twenty-five. I stopped at quarantine to pick up a friend, Jim Stuart, of the big New York contracting firm of that name. He had been duck shooting and had wired me in Havana. We had met him in Havana and he was anxious to show us the sights of the great river city which he did. He came aboard with a fine lot of ducks which he presented to the mess. At twenty-five knots we raced the one hundred miles to the city. Our wash was terrifying to the small boats along the river bank and frequently we had to slow and even stop to prevent damage ashore. On arrival we found we had lowered the record in passage from the mouth of the river to the city by over an hour, as I remember. The President  p126 of the United States, W. H. Taft, in the cruiser Chester, had held the record before.

New Orleans was most gracious and entertained us with proverbial southern hospitality. I had contemplated a stay of only a few days, but a week soon slipped by, when I received a wire from the Department in Washington to proceed immediately to Key West. My request to the Department when contemplating these cruises had contained the mention of speed runs and touching at gulf ports. Had the Department believed that we were making this touch too long?

When we arrived back in Key West all was explained. A young Canadian named McCurdy was intending to fly his Curtis airplane from Key West to Havana, a distance over water of ninety miles. If successful it would be the longest oversea flight up to that time, 1911. The Navy Department was interested in this attempt and had put the safeguarding of the flight in our hands. I received a letter authorizing me to help McCurdy in every way possible; especially as to his safety.

McCurdy was a part of the Curtis flying circus visiting Havana. The other planes and fliers were already there, having gone by steamer. McCurdy's plane had been landed in Key West and was out at the aviation field, merely a level sandy stretch outside the town. McCurdy came on board to see me at once. His brother was with him. Both were very attractive looking young men and were most grateful for our interest. The prize offered for a successful flight by a big Havana newspaper was five thousand dollars; a small enough sum, I thought, for which to risk one's life in such a dangerous undertaking.

We went out to the field, taking along a small boat compass, for I felt sure he would have to depend upon compass direction for part of the way. We lashed the compass to the frame of his plane so that the pilot could read it from his seat. We found by swinging the plane that the compass would point true in all positions.

I laid down certain instructions for the young aviator which I considered were needed if we were to safeguard him. For instance a time must be selected to fly when the weather was such that if he crashed we could rescue him. "How about the plane?" the brother asked. "That's all we've got in the world with which to make a living." I explained that would require an even milder sea than just to save the aviator.

 p127  McCurdy and his brother had a room at Key West's swankiest hotel, the Jefferson, owned by a cousin of mine, Judge Jeff Brown, who afterwards became a judge of the supreme court of Florida. Jeff was good company but a bit difficult to handle, as I soon found out. McCurdy and his plane were ready. All now watched the weather. For several days the wind was high, and we could well imagine what the channel would be like. Then when the wind was down in Key West, four destroyers sailed during the night to be on station at daylight in the morning. The plan was simple: a destroyer every twenty miles on the direct line from Key West to Havana, the Paulding being nearest Havana. For communication we used radio, called wireless in those days.

The day before I left Key West, McCurdy came to me much agitated. It seemed that there was a notice in McCurdy's bathroom that the upper bathtub drain was faulty and warned the occupant that for each overflow a charge of five dollars extra for allowing the bathtub to overflow and damage the apartment beneath, which was being newly decorated for Jeff's wife. McCurdy refused to pay this on principle but offered the full amount of his bill otherwise. Jeff would not accept it. He wanted all or nothing. We were all concerned over the possibility that Jeff at the last minute might attach McCurdy's plane. I heard from a reliable source that Jeff had so threatened. I went to see Jeff Brown and appealed to him to be reasonable and accept the net bill and waive the penalty; but he was obdurate, and I felt there was too much at stake to put ourselves in a position where the whim of a man could spoil all our careful preparations. McCurdy and I decided that I must own the plane. We went to the courthouse and registered the sale. McCurdy's brother made out a check of five hundred dollars to me and I endorsed the check over to the aviator. The plane became legally my property. Of course the story went the rounds, and Jeff never forgave me.

When the destroyers were on station the first day we soon saw that the sea was none too gentle. The wind in the early morning had freshened. It was doubtful that the aviator could be rescued if he were forced to land in the water. To rescue the plane would be impossible. The flight was called off for that day. The destroyers divided up, two returned to Key West and two  p128 went to Havana. I got in touch with the observatory at Havana maintained by Jesuit priests and learned from them that after the present high barometer had passed there would be an interval of calm that might last only a day and that they would keep me informed. They advised me to take advantage of the calm spell coming. It came on the day following but one after our arrival in Havana. At daylight all vessels were on station, and McCurdy and he was ready. I radioed: "Fly."

When the plane passed over the first destroyer, all vessels steamed toward Havana at a speed of twenty-five knots. The plane's speed was about twice that. We had word of his passing the first, second, and third destroyers. The Paulding was at the entrance to the harbor of Havana, when we sighted him in the air. Then we lost him. He was down. We raced back. The Terry had reached him and lowered a boat. McCurdy was seated quietly in his plane. The plane was a land plane but carried enough air tanks to keep it afloat. The Paulding took the plane on board and also the aviator. McCurdy looked at the wrecked plane as it was skidded up the side of the Paulding. "Sorry about your plane," he said to me with a sad smile. It was a great disappointment to us all and we felt for the daring young man. However, we paraded into Havana, all four of us and the people gave us a great welcome. The Malacon drive was packed with people. The cause of the casualty was insufficient lubricating oil. The lack of a few quarts which he thought he would not need brought him down when his bearings froze at a distance of less than ten miles from his goal. The distance he had traveled in the air, circling the field in Key West for the "Conch" to admire him, if put on the other end of the flight would have brought him to the Havana flying field. As far as I know, I still own that plane.​a I flew several times with McCurdy after his plane was repaired. The stunt flier Beachy, killed later, was one of the Curtis aviators there, and I saw him one day go aloft with a passenger before the field was properly cleared by the military. When he landed after running out of gas, the field was still crowded with an excited milling mob of Latins; he just missed killing several people and collided with a car parked on the field. Beachy was not hurt but his passenger was. The Cubans are the most volatile of any people of the world. By their temperament they are mere children. I was motoring one day out to the aviation field with the captain of the Port, an Army man, I think, for his title was that of major. The  p129 road was very crowded both with cars and pedestrians. He was driving furiously. I will say he was an excellent driver. I said: "Major, have you a speed limit here in Havana?" His answer was: "Oh yes, but no one has ever reached it."

After our destroyers were well shaken down, we joined the Fleet. From that time until I was detached about a year later, our division, with one other consisting of the last coal burners, operated with the battle­ships. Other destroyers were being added as completed.

The Navy at that time had little conception of how destroyers should be used. They are high-speed, frailly constructed ships, and on account of the speed, they were used in ways which were very irritating to the officers of these vessels. Destroyers found themselves being used as market boats, carrying provisions and laundry between the large ships at target practice on the Southern Drill Grounds and the base at Hampton Roads. They had to lie in a rough sea, rolling their gunwales under, while heavy duty launches came alongside them, putting dents in their thin steel plating.

The Fleet in time learned how inappropriate was this work for destroyers, and when strategical problems and tactical exercises were begun, the true role of the destroyer came to be appreciated. The legitimate duty of these swift vessels was to form defensive screens around the battle­ships and also to attack through the screens of like vessels of opponents in order to arrive within torpedo range of the big ships of an opponent. The duty was most exacting and exciting for the personnel of the destroyers. We always ran at high speed, night and day, and at night without the safety of running lights. I can recall where collisions were narrowly averted because of our constant vigilance. This service in destroyers was most instructive and taught ship handling with a vengeance at high speeds.

While in command of the Paulding I had navigated all waters of the Atlantic coast from Maine to Galveston. I was not at all willing to leave the Paulding but was promoted out of her. I had been nearing my promotion to commander and now that I had made my number, the command of a destroyer was considered inappropriate. That rank entitled me to the honor of commanding a thousand‑ton gunboat! And the department really was serious! Since that time the "King" brains of the Navy have acquired a better understanding of the value of destroyers; and commanders  p130 are frequently given command of them, and for a division command there is always a commander and often a captain.

I was delighted, upon being relieved of the Paulding, in the fall of 1911, to receive orders to the Naval War College at Newport. There had just been established a "long course" of eighteen months to instruct officers in strategy, tactics, and policy. This course was a radical departure and was the start in giving the War College its deserved place in our naval educational system. Heretofore there had been only a summer course of about four months with a class of from forty to fifty officer students. Newport was a pleasant summer resort, and for officers and their wives a summer in that fashionable place was not distasteful. The married officers of serious bent, who took the course because they wanted to learn the higher precepts of their profession, did not relish the many social interruptions to their studies. But wives had to be kept amused and in consequence those officers were forced to burn much midnight oil to keep abreast of the difficult work prescribed for them by the College Staff.

One of the stanchest advocates of War College education was a retired captain, McCarthy Little. He was a resident of Newport and had given his services for years as a member of the College Staff. He had been a loyal disciple of Admiral Stephen B. Luce, the founder of the War College, and had been there when Admiral Mahan, as a captain, was writing his great book on the Influence of Sea Power on History, actually compiled from lectures that Mahan had given to the students at the College. Captain Little, as an emissary of the President of the War College, made the Bureau of Navigation, handling the policy of the disposition of the officer personnel, to provide officer students for a long course. I heard him tell, in his droll, witty way, of his conversation with the chief, who at that time was Admiral R. F. Nicholson, a character in the Navy and most popular with everyone who knew him.

Little and Nicholson were intimate friends and called each other by their first names.

"When I told Reggie of my mission," Little told us, "he asked me how many officers I wanted and of what ranks."

Little said he told him about twenty to start on and all of or above the rank of commander, when officers' minds readily turn to more serious subjects.

 p131  "Reggie threw up his hands," Little said. " 'Look at this list and see how short we are of officers to man the ships and the many shore details. It just can't be done.' "

Little said he took the list from Reggie's hand and glanced over it. At the top were ships of the Fleet, then Navy Yards, and many other naval activities. At the very bottom, in fact the last on the list, was the Naval War College. Little handed back the list and the chief said:

"You can see the War College is so far down the list that it is quite impossible to send even a quarter of the number you ask for your long course." Nicholson did not have to be convinced of the importance of the War College, but he was just up against it to provide all the officers the Navy was asking for, to fill what it considered were the most important positions in the Fleet and ashore. The Navy, as always, was most short of officer personnel.

"Reggie, I know of only one way for us to obtain the officers, you know and I know, we need to put in training now for high commands in the future Navy," Little said.

"What is it?" Reggie asked innocently.

"Turn the list upside down, and the War College will be at the top where it belongs," Little replied.

Nicholson could not do anything so radical as that, but he did manage to send four officers to initiate the long course. Among the four were W. S. Sims and myself. The next year the number was increased to six. Today the course is for twelve months and the classes aggregate from forty to fifty. Many admirals have been sent to take the course.

During these busy eighteen months we all worked hard. I had never been a real student, and it was not easy to acquire the habit. Our reading course was a very long one; there was a list of over a hundred books to read. I have lost count of the many books on serious scientific naval and political subjects that I managed to finish. I kept a card index of quotations from authors that impressed me, and today I have a fairly large box of these cards with words of gold written thereon. I still take them out often and mull them over. Principles never change, except in their application.

During the summer at the College, the Fleet, under Admiral C. J. Badger, came to Newport. I was told by the President of the College to prepare a paper or essay on the Strategy of the Pacific to read to the officers of the Fleet assembled in our lecture  p132 room. I was scared stiff, for I had never in my life delivered a lecture to so many officers of the Navy as would be there, many of them of very high rank, even the Commander in Chief of the Fleet himself.

I conscientiously prepared the essay. My title was: "A Military Road Across the Pacific." My theme was that our war Fleet, in order to be capable of steaming across the Pacific for the purpose of protecting American interests and being able to strike an effective blow against an enemy fleet based in the Far East, figuratively, must travel on a sea road constructed by this country. At that time the naval base at Pearl Harbor hardly had been started. Our Fleet then could steam from the Pacific coast to Hawaii and return without refueling. Therefore the road ended then in Hawaii. Even a well-defended and adequately fitted naval base and protected anchorage for the Fleet in the Islands, when completed, did not extend the road to Guam. Guam is nearly 3400 miles from Hawaii and the steaming radius of the Fleet at that time was not over 4000 miles. The Fleet could not go from Hawaii to Guam and return without refueling. A first‑class naval base and anchorage in Guam would extend the road to Manila, 1500 miles away, but if the Fleet was to be given mobility to operate in the Orient a naval base in Manila or some other suitable locality was necessary. A naval base in the Philippines therefore was necessary in order to complete the military road across the Pacific. The military road today, after the lapse of twenty-seven years, never has been built the entire way. It ends about 2000 miles from Hawaii. The Fleet still cannot go from Hawaii to Guam and return without refueling.

Upon the completion of the long course at the War College, I was much gratified to be invited to join the staff by the President of the College, Captain W. L. Rodgers. However I soon found that being an instructor was not so pleasant and independent as being a student. Now much of my time was taken up in reading essays and criticizing the solutions of problems in Naval Strategy and Tactics prepared by the students. Also, I had to write up problems for solution and for chart maneuvers. I found it much more difficult to construct a problem than to solve it. The problems were imaginary conditions for naval wars, and the chart maneuvers were in effect naval wars without the actual ships. Ships were represented merely as dots on the chart. The students were designated as officers of the opposing fleets, while the staff  p133 carried out the mechanics of the maneuver and acted as umpires. It was a cheap war. Ships costing many millions could be blown up and brought back to life by the say‑so of an umpire. Rules for the game or chart maneuver were made as realistic as possible. In these maneuvers on the chart all officers received valuable training in making quick strategical and tactical decisions, that has helped them in their duties at sea with the Fleet in peacetime. Happily, so far there has been no actual war, with engagements on the sea with an enemy's fleet.

While on the important subject of the War College, it seems an appropriate place to stop my narrative and dwell for a time on what I consider is the most vital fault in our naval administration. It is the absence in the organization of the Navy of a legalized Naval General Staff, such as the Army has, and practically all the great navies of the world.

After his studies at the Naval War College, Sims was always a stanch advocate of such a body of selected officers. At his headquarters in London during the war he organized there what was, in effect, a General Staff. After the war, when he returned to this country, he attempted to convince the Navy Department to adopt the principle, but he met such violent opposition from all sides: the Secretary of the Navy, the Chiefs of the Department Bureaus, many of the high-ranking officers of the Navy, and even Congress, that no headway was possible.

I have not the slightest hesitancy in affirming my belief, or to be even stronger, my conviction, that, when we do get into a big war, the very first thing that the Navy will do will be to organize and utilize a General Staff. Then, however, it will be too late to indoctrinate such a body of officers and give it sufficient prestige in order to make it wholly effective. A General Staff should be given the Navy now and allowed to acquire for itself the prestige and importance to enable it to direct without untutored hindrance the conduct of the naval operations in our next war.

Indoctrination, that most important conception, in the naval sense is to teach and train subordinates to think and act co‑ordinately on any vital naval subject, with the mind of their leader. Perfect indoctrination might be said to result, figuratively speaking, in a leader being everywhere that an indoctrinated subordinate is acting. Make no mistake, subordinates are not to be "yes" men, but if they are trained in a full knowledge of the principles of naval war and in the conceptions of the fleet battle under their  p134 leader, then their thoughts will be along the same line as their leader, and their actions will be therefore in full accord with the plan and the ideas of the leader. Subordinates should act just as their leader would act if he were in their place.

A democracy like ours always fears that the two military services, the Army and the Navy, might usurp too great power, and this fear is the basic reason why it has been impossible, so far, to convince Congress that a Naval General Staff is vitally needed. The opponents of a General Staff use this fear as a weapon against it. They have told Congress that it would set up a power that could not be controlled.

The Army, at the insistence of Elihu Root, then Secretary of War, succeeded, in 1903, in acquiring this organ of control; and it was most fortunate that by the time we went into the war, the Army General Staff had made itself sufficiently competent and had acquired sufficient prestige and power to direct the huge expansion of our Army. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing organized his own General Staff in France and established a school to train his General Staff officers. A war today cannot be successfully fought against a first-class military nation without the benefit of a General Staff.

If one speaks on this subject to the average naval man, he will stoutly declare that our naval organization comprises all the elements and performs all the functions of a General Staff, without the name. He will maintain that naval officers, mostly graduates of the Naval War College, are performing duties analogous to those being done by the legally constituted General Staff of the Army. All that appears lacking in the Navy's setup, he will claim, is permanency and perhaps adequate numbers to carry on the work.

But anyone who has studied General Staff literature of those nations that have had General Staffs for years will also recognize in our naval setup a lack of cohesion and mutual understanding of General Staff functions.

The development, maintenance, and operation of modern naval power, with all its intricate ramifications is a task of the first magnitude, requiring the most expert leader­ship and staff work. It seems as clear as crystal to me that, at a time when we are building up our Navy and air force to a strength never before achieved, we are due to cast off our ancient methods of naval control, adequate only when the Navy was small, and remedy this  p135 weakest link in our naval organization and administration for the preparation of our Navy for war and its conduct in war.

Basically the gamut of the duties of a General Staff can be summed up in the saying of a famous French general of years ago. It is that a leader must: Savoir, Vouloir, Pouvoir. These three things are the groundwork of all military and naval plans of operation.

Savoir: to know. Naval intelligence, information of enemy forces and our own forces to meet them.

Vouloir: to wish. The plan of operations. The mission to be accomplished.

Pouvoir: to be able. The means available to carry out the plan and the details of doing it.

There is nothing basically new in this conception. Even in business the General Staff idea fits business management: information of competitors and the home products, the plan to bring profits, and the resources available to attain the success of the plan.

The conception of a General Staff Corps under a Chief of Staff is that it will be a collective mind, indoctrinated and co‑ordinated by the mind of the chief. The preparations needed and the plan for war would be made by this collective mind in accordance with the will of the leader. Then the execution of the plan should rest in the same hands that prepared the plan. It has been proved historically fatal to confide the carrying out of a plan to others who have had no part in its shaping. These others would see in the plan the ideas of men with whom they may not be in sympathy. Human jealousies would arise to cause the plan to be wrecked and at the last moment abandoned; their own hastily prepared plan put in its place.

In my opinion the great benefit in having a General Staff Corps for the Navy would be to be able to place the operations of the Navy securely under the control of naval men trained during a lifetime in the naval art. Now there exist too many influences, political and otherwise, that ignorantly interfere in the purely naval duties of preparing and fighting the Navy in war, Naval Committees of the Congress, for instance; after long service on these committees, members believe they have become competent to judge naval needs even better than naval men. This illogical  p136 situation has often been detrimental in the extreme and could not occur if the Navy was given a General Staff. A General Staff would grow in time to command such prestige that its say on naval matters would become the last word to the American people. Civilian interference then in purely naval things would be eliminated.

I believe the Navy is ready for a General Staff, but the personnel of the Navy are so accustomed to work through the handicap of civilian interference that, true to its traditions of subordination to civilian and Congressional authority, it has succeeded in organizing to perform most of the General Staff duties without going to Congress to give this controlling power legality under the law. The Navy is efficient in the operations of its forces afloat, where the precepts learned at Naval War College are used and held in high honor. The Navy suffers most because of this lack of a legalized General Staff through divided control at the Navy Department itself.

The most important duties of a General Staff are in the preparation of war plans and the readiness of all naval functions to carry them out. War plans for a great naval war, together with the provision of materials in sufficient quantities to be able to follow out the general plan of a naval campaign, are all most complicated, involving many persons and things and in their preparation require high scientific knowledge in the value of all instruments of war and a full understanding of naval strategy and tactics. The Fleet is efficient. The Navy suffers most today through divided control at the Navy Department itself. A war plan might be likened to a great reservoir of impounded water. It is an instrument potentially ready on the outbreak of war to delineate authorities and controls of all naval activities. When war comes, the plan is put in operation. According to our simile, the water impounded, millions of tons, is suddenly released. Where does it go? Unless there are General Staff officers, fully indoctrinated, who have had the shaping of the plan and know it to the minutest detail and are loyal to it, to act like prepared channels, intelligently to direct the mighty flow of instructions in suitable directions to accomplish the purpose of the plan, then this impounded water, representing the detailed ramifications of the plan, will inundate the naval organization, flood it hopelessly and bring chaos and indecision to the Navy instead of order and decision.

 p137  Even at the risk of repetition, I should like to emphasize again that the officers of the General Staff, the collective brain that prepared the war plan, must be existent, numerous, and available to carry the plan into execution in all its details. The Navy today as organized would be flooded by the war plan. Under the present system the plan could not be intelligently carried through. No one at the moment in authority would have confidence in a plan that had been made by others and for which they felt no loyalty. There would be confusion worse confounded, as happened when this country went to war in 1917.

A leader's most important duty is to accept the responsibility of making decisions. Greatness in the art of command is embodied in this act. The leader's professional knowledge, his character, moral fineness, and willingness to accept responsibility are brought into play in this supreme act of making decisions. The lion's share of credit for any action taken is given the man who commands. Historians may quarrel over suggestions from others and other influences affecting the decision, but the signature to the order will be sought and censure or praise will fall to him who signed.

At the start of the battle of Santiago, Admiral Sampson's flagship, the New York, was at Daiquiri, some distance from the entrance of the harbor when Cervera's ships came out. Friends of Commodore Schley endeavored to give him the full credit for the success of the battle because his flagship, the Brooklyn, was in the thick of the battle, while Sampson's ship was actually out of gun range when the battle began. Admiral Sampson had prepared the plan of blockade. Each ship had been given orders and directions as to its duties in the event of Cervera's attempted escape. These orders and instructions bore the signature of Admiral Sampson. When Cervera's ships were almost simultaneously sighted debouching from the harbor by all the ships on blockade, Sampson's plan of attack was carried out without the need of further instructions. Schley made one signal: "Engage the Enemy." He loyally supported Sampson's plan of attack as did all other ships. Each closed in, firing on the enemy, and endeavoring to sink the enemy ships or cripple them before they could use their supposed superior speed to escape. If the battle had been lost, even if one or more had escaped, the failure would have been Sampson's, not Schley's. Therefore victory belonged to Sampson.

I have noted during my association with many naval leaders that each gave the larger share of his attention to one or the other  p138 of two important functions, depending upon his training and predilection. Seldom both. It might be said that naval activities in general divide between these two functions. Most important are the policies and decisions, and then there are the material services or details to carry out the policies and decisions. A General Staff deals most with the former, an administrative staff with the latter.

In order that both of these functions will be continuously studied and plans made, it is evident that a leader must be surrounded by officers in whom he has the greatest trust and who will be more or less permanent in his service: those who have acquired the art of trained initiative to aid their leader.

The Navy, even today, thinks too much as a whole in production, supply, and the handling of material. The War College teaches that there is a higher and more important goal than the mastery of material things. That goal is the mastery of the art of naval war and the creation of an organization to give the art of war effective expression through intelligent and logical action.

In time of peace, material holds the scepter of power in the Navy. Material seems more immediate and concrete. Thinking and planning for naval war seems stuff of which dreams are made.

According to both law and custom in our democracy, the Secretary of the Navy represents the hand by which the President, the Commander in Chief, directs and controls the Navy. As he is a civilian, his personal knowledge of naval needs cannot be great; yet there is a high responsibility placed upon his shoulders, and, if the Navy were given a General Staff, the Secretary's duties and responsibilities could be met successfully.

Organization is lifeless. It is merely a skeleton. It must be vivified by the personalities that inhabit it. Men are not all equal, in ambition, intellect, or loyalty. A faulty organization may achieve successful results because of a great leader who controls it. It is far wiser not to place too great faith in genius but to perfect the organization in order to give effective results.

The Navy in its evolution has created within itself the majority of the functions needed for both administration and the preparation of the Navy for war. The grouping is none too scientific, nor is it permanent. There exists lost motion and duplication. The material side is overemphasized, and often too independent of the organ that will be held responsible for the correct use of the Fleet  p139 in war. It would be far more scientific and effective to give the Navy a General Staff, to have cognizance of the higher functions, that of the use of our naval weapons. In this capacity it should be given precedence over those activities that will serve it.

Naval organization as existing does not give adequate prestige to the higher functions that deal with the art of war. What is needed is full and absolute authority to be reposed in the higher functions to guide those services which form for the Fleet that vast area which the French call the "Area of the Rear"; the sources of supply and refit, and even the construction and the proving of new weapons, upon which the Fleet depends for success.

The General Staff would form the crown piece of our naval structure, and upon its efficiency and infallibility, the destiny of the nation on the seas well may depend.

Thayer's Note:

a For a few more details, including Comdr. Stirling's official opinion of the flight at the time, see Turnbull and Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation, pp13‑14, where the flight is also set in its context of pioneering naval aviation.

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