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In his "Autobiography" Pratt left the impression that his duty at the Naval War College might have been the most important in his naval career and perhaps a "turning point." As seen by a biographer, this assessment is too modest. From 25 January 1911, when he reported to Rear Admiral Raymond P. Rodgers for assignment, till the day he retired, the War College was to be a dominant factor in his steady rise to eminence. It was here that Pratt learned orderly thinking and planning; it was here that he lectured regularly to the senior and junior officers of the North Atlantic Fleet and displayed the vigor of his mind; and, above all, it was at the War College that he met Captain William Sowden Sims. While Newport was just a few hours from the sparkling society of Boston's Back Bay that Louise loved so deeply, and another day to the quiet of their Belfast farm that so appealed to him, Pratt never tried to tie himself into the multiple commands that were available in the New England region. He was to join the Atlantic Torpedo Flotilla in Narragansett Bay at the conclusion of his War College tour, but he eschewed the backwater commands — the torpedo station, the naval station, the Boston Naval Shipyard — in order to move into the vital centers of naval activity represented by the fleet and the Navy Department.
In 1911 the Naval War College was not strikingly different from what it had been in the days of Luce and Mahan. It was now housed in a fine granite building, and no longer had to fear for its existence; but the War College curriculum still had a classical tone to it. Students read the military and naval classics and deduced the principles of war. Mahan, of course, had become one of the "masters" studied and he still visited the college for occasional lectures. International law remained a major requirement to be mastered by the senior officers. Junior officers, during short assignments to the school, studied the details associated with staff duty. Operation orders, when written, now had to emerge in standardized form. What was significantly p68 different from the earlier years was the use of the "conference method" in teaching — the students now learned from one another. There was no "school solution" to most problems; the emphasis was on analysis and logical conclusions drawn from reliable data. War gaming, an intellectual sport in Germany's war colleges, was being used in a primitive form at the direction of Captain William McCarty Little. Another feature of education in 1911 was the stream of lecturers drawn from the North Atlantic Fleet and its subordinate units. This meant constant interaction between the theories of the War College and practical application in the fleet. For senior officers and commanders it meant opportunities occasionally to spot a bright staff officer as he paraded his intellectual wares at the school. Yet one should not think that true dialogue existed between the War College and the fleet. The seniority system of promotion still existed in 1911 and the Navy's top leadership was pretty well set in its ways — "fossilized," Captain Sims was to say.
Commander Pratt, of course, was disadvantaged by not having attended the War College. He now had to struggle mightily to stay an extra step ahead of his students. In some ways, he was back in the "Yard" teaching mathematics to the plebes; but the War College students were often better read and senior to their instructor. Behind the tyro strategist stood two very able thinkers. Captain William McCarty Little had retired as a lieutenant in 1884 and joined the War College faculty a few years later. Because of his achievements, he had been advanced to captain on the retired list by the time Pratt reported on board. Little helped develop the commander's strategic thinking; but more importantly, he gave him the honest criticism he needed concerning his writing skills. From this attention Pratt gained considerable confidence as well as competence in writing, which he was to demonstrate constantly in years ahead. In November 1911 Rear Admiral Rodgers was relieved by Captain William Ledyard Rodgers, a man destined to become one of the Navy's finest historians. Here again Pratt was subjected to scrutiny by an officer who understood strategy and was a sound writer. While appreciating the fact that he was a bit sloppy with detail, and in fact that he really disliked close work, Pratt now had to tighten up his presentations. For him it was useful discipline.1
Upon moving to Newport the Pratts leased a small frame house p69 at 146 Gibbs. The first year's lease, at $1,000, probably appeared a bit high, but it included a stable and pasture land. Because they continued to enjoy riding and the hunt, the extra facilities were necessary to take care of the horses "Bob" and "Joan." The lease was raised to $1,500 in 1912 and 1913, but Pratt offset the extra cost by sub‑leasing the property to his wife's more affluent relatives during the summer of 1913. While he was now quite capable of meeting the expense of his leases, due to his wife's private income and his own salary and allowances, which approached $6,000, his traditional close ways with money would not allow him to incur a deficit when gain was possible.
The social activities of the Pratts were similar to those of most naval officers stationed in Newport in the pre‑World War days. There was the inevitable round of staff parties which lasted late into the weekend evenings. Though not as stimulating intellectually as she might desire, these gatherings gave Louise an opportunity to explore the world of ideas as she had done in earlier years. Bill enjoyed dancing, in fact, he considered himself quite good at it. He and his wife were always willing to learn the newest steps, including the somewhat notorious "tango." It should be noted that they never tangoed publicly at this time — it wasn't considered "proper." Like many Navy families, they never quite made it into the "cottages" of established Newport society; but they were carried in the Newport Society Index, a mark of general social acceptance. Not all commanders in the Newport area, or on the War College staff, got this far. The Pratt's acceptability undoubtedly came from the reputation in Boston of Louise and her family. In the Index Pratt's associations were listed as the New York Yacht Club, the Metropolitan Club of Washington, and the Army and Navy Club of Washington.2 In the tradition of most social aspirants, neither he nor Louise made any use of their memberships in the Yacht Club or Metropolitan Club, but they paid the dues regularly until retirement in 1933. Ironically, Bill and Louise seldom were in Newport for the height of the summer social season; they normally went to their farm in Belfast in order to prepare it for the next winter season. For him this was "home;" for Louise it appears to have been a bore for many years.
During most of the period that Commander Pratt was a War College staff member, Captain William S. Sims was a student in the p70 newly instituted two‑year "long course." Their relationship was close and one might wonder who was the teacher and who was the student. Though nine years senior to Pratt, Sims took him in as a friend and equal. The captain was warm, friendly, articulate and superbly confident. He had challenged the "Naval Establishment" for years and had won most of his battles. He was learned. In fact, ideas flowed from him at rapid-fire rate. To be around Sims was excitement itself. Pratt was not the antithesis of Sims, but he was quite different. While confident of his seamanship, the commander had not really had his leadership tested. He was reasonably articulate, but he still preferred to work from carefully prepared outlines or fully written lectures. He read steadily; yet it was not the heady material that provided quick insights or flashy conversation. Though conversant with the works of the strategists, there is little evidence that their lessons stayed with him except for a few generalizations from Mahan. What Pratt was best at was logical analysis — his thought processes always started with "An Estimate of the Situation." One gets the impression that Sims sensed a solution to most problems and then drafted his "estimate" to match his conclusions. Both men were impatient with detail; they preferred to operate at a broader level. Fortunately for Sims, except for his last command in Minnesota, he was able to move steadily ahead at levels where subordinates handled detail. Though also abhorring the drudgery of routine management, Pratt displayed his real genius by capably handling enormous staff burdens. Because of these attitudes, both men believed firmly in delegating authority and then using their powers of leadership to see that results came upward. Much of their analysis of past military actions only confirmed more deeply their belief that failure in a crisis came from a leader trying to do too much himself. Pratt learned this principle well, but occasionally he was to forget it.
Pratt's two years at the War College brought him into close contact with several other officers who were to be closely associated with him in the years ahead. Commanders Josiah S. McKean and Frank H. Schofield served with him in the faculty and both were marked early for their abilities in planning. McKean was five years senior to Pratt, formal in his relations, but quick to recognize brilliance and diligence in others. Later he was to give way to Pratt in order to allow this more energetic junior to take over as Assistant Chief of Naval Operations. Schofield was a year junior to Pratt and had served with him on several previous occasions. Cold in personality and intensely p71 logical in planning; Schofield was to become one of the Navy's most sought after staff men. Like McKean, he was to have health problems that drove him into retirement. Two students who took regular courses at the War College, and who deeply impressed both Pratt and Sims, were Lieutenant Commander Dudley W. Knox and Lieutenant Royal E. Ingersoll. Both of these officers were brilliant planners and were later to serve on staffs of Sims (Knox) and Pratt (Knox and Ingersoll). What becomes quite evident is that the War College system of instruction through the use of the conference method where ideas, facts, and logic were of greater importance than rank and name, allowed an officer to add a significant increment to his "service reputation." Fools were quickly identified, and the brilliant were marked for later staff and command responsibilities. It is easy to see why both Pratt and Sims believed that no officer should be advanced to flag rank without attendance at a war college. They preferred the Navy's school, but they were willing to grant that attendance at the Army War College would be an almost equally valuable experience.
Looking back from 1939, Pratt admitted that he could remember very little of a factual nature learned at the War College that was of lasting importance to him. On the other hand, he wrote:
. . . I began to learn the intimate connection between the Fleet in being and the War College, the home of thought. Strange perhaps as it may seem, the deeper I became involved in complicated mass movements, the less their inherent value appealed to me, but more and more there appeared as a dominating factor . . . the inherent characteristics of the leader who used the material things which he held power over. And it was in this aspect that I saw Nelson: not the things which he did, but the man himself with all his strength and weakness. And it was in the same light that I saw Wellington as greater than Napolean [sic] and Genges [sic] Khan as perhaps greater than them all.3
With the conclusion of the regular course in May 1913, Pratt took leave to Belfast to put the farm into shape and to ready Louise for a trip to Europe. He had been ordered to the Atlantic Torpedo Flotilla as an aide to its new commander, Captain William S. Sims. Suspecting that her husband would be quite busy getting his "sea legs," Louise had decided to again visit the continent. Her French was getting rusty, her wardrobe needed freshening, and Belfast simply had no attraction when Paris, Munich, and Geneva beckoned. She was still p72 slender and handsome and badly needed to shed the provincial barnacles she had acquired from two years on Narragansett Bay. Bill Pratt, with his traditional tolerance of the spirited Louise, agreed that they would have little time together once Sims got down to work. Ever the optimist, he thought the Torpedo Flotilla would cruise to Europe in the fall, and they finally could have a European honeymoon, albeit eleven years late.
Captain Sims' staff assembled during the month of June. On the 5th, in the New York Navy Yard, the commander relieved Captain Edward W. Eberle and broke his broad pennant in Dixie. Lieutenant Commander Dudley W. Knox, also having been detached recently from the Naval War College, came on board with Sims as a staff aide. On the 9th Pratt arrived from Belfast, was logged in as aide, but soon would serve as chief of staff. A few weeks later, Lieutenant John V. Babcock began his long years of service with Sims. He was the flotilla torpedo officer; but his real duty was closer to that of being a flag lieutenant, flag secretary, and personal aide. Commanding p73 Dixie was Commander John K. Robison who was soon to be an ex officio member of Sims' "band of brothers." In his superb biography of Sims, Professor Elting Morison calls this staff a "splendid group of men" — and so they were.4
USS Dixie, tender and flagship for the Atlantic Torpedo Flotilla.
In 1913 the Torpedo Flotilla of the Atlantic Fleet consisted of destroyer and submarine divisions, but most outside that service gave little thought to the submarines. They had passed beyond the experimental stage. Yet, few were truly capable of fleet operations; thus the undersea craft were almost totally tied to shore bases in a coast defense role. On the other hand the destroyers had been operating with the fleet for a decade, but there was still an enormous amount of work to be done if they were to play a major role in battle. With two years of theoretical study behind them, Sims and Pratt were ready to reorganize and revitalize destroyer operations.
Before accepting command of the Torpedo Flotilla, Sims had insisted on his first innovations. He demanded a flagship that was not a destroyer and he wanted a staff that would free him from the myriad details of administration. He believed that the flotilla was really a flag command and in the course of Sims' tenure, he made it one. Dixie was slow and not too well armed, but her ample spaces gave Sims the room he needed to confer regularly with his destroyer captains and staff. In February 1914 Dixie was replaced by the smaller but more powerfully armed third-class cruiser Birmingham. This gave the flotilla commander a vessel that would not be too badly outdistanced by his destroyers as they engaged in fleet and flotilla maneuvers.
Duty in the Torpedo Flotilla provided Pratt with constant education in those vital naval subjects of tactics and strategy, leadership, and command. In taking charge, Sims had set his staff the innovative task of making the destroyers a major offensive weapon for the North Atlantic Fleet. Previously these craft had operated as scouts, with the mission of penetrating an enemy screen to determine the composition of his force, or operated as a defensive barrier ready to beat off attacking torpedo boats. Because of their torpedo armament, the destroyers also stood ready to sacrifice themselves by what was expected to be near-suicidal attacks against enemy battleships when desperate measures were needed. In 1913 there was no American destroyer doctrine for deliberate division or squadron attacks against an enemy battle line. The assumption was that the secondary quick- p74 firers on the battleships would drive off the speedy but unprotected destroyers. From War College study, and flotilla operations, Sims early concluded that his destroyers had a major offensive contribution to make once a doctrine was created and his captains had been indoctrinated.5
To create a flotilla doctrine, Sims inaugurated the use of the conference method for staff study and work with the destroyermen. The flotilla commander was modest enough to realize that the four stripes on his sleeves had not endowed him with sufficient wisdom to develop a doctrine alone. He also recognized that the Navy's hierarchical system would not permit his subordinates to disagree with him very vigorously or advance their own ideas unless he changed the ground rules. Thus he called for setting aside rank in conference — ideas would be studied on their merits irrespective of origin. Dissent and argument became the rule of the conference until consensus occurred; then all were expected to give complete loyalty to the operating plan and the guiding doctrine.6 Pratt, Knox, and Sims had been accustomed to this method for problem-solving at the War College, but it took a few months before all of the destroyer captains could relax enough to make meaningful contributions to the conferences. As a leadership device this approach had many hidden dividends. Every commanding officer would understand the doctrine and its underlying assumptions because he had helped to create it. With this amount of personal investment in a plan, loyalty to it was not difficult to achieve. Finally, the constant dialogue between Sims and his subordinates resulted in such full understanding among them that communications could be limited to a minimum number of signals. Since blinker and flag hoist were still the principal means of control, this gain was significant. In reading Corbett's and Mahan's studies of Nelson, Sims had learned a great deal about how the hero of the Nile and Trafalgar had created his "band of brothers." Among the officers of the Torpedo Flotilla it was accepted that Bill Sims had the "Nelson touch," even though each might have been hard pressed to define it.
As Sims' chief of staff Pratt learned an enormous amount about leadership, which would emerge in the years ahead, and he was also well positioned to advance his own ideas about flotilla operations. Probably the most important lesson Pratt learned was the absolute necessity for a leader to delegate authority in order to be effective. p75 With Sims this was a fetish. After almost six months of study, experimentation, and operations, the commander inspected the Torpedo Flotilla thoroughly and, in more than forty pages, described what he saw. Pratt did much of the detailed inspecting and wrote a large portion of the report. In general, Sims was delighted with what had been accomplished in improving material conditions and in operations; but he was very critical in the area of command. Too many of his destroyer skippers had missed the central point of the Sims approach. He had delegated to them the right to participate in the decision-making process and all agreed that the results had been professionally sound. Each was being trained to replace Pratt, or even Sims himself; yet many of the captains had been backward about passing authority downward. They were becoming ineffective through burying themselves in administrative details. Even worse, the younger officers were not being trained in the exercise of authority that would prepare them for command.7 To paraphrase Napoleon, Sims believed that every destroyer commander carried an admiral's flag in his sea chest.
Aside from lessons in leadership, Pratt was schooled in the methods of handling multiple units. As a condition of assuming command, Sims insisted that he be permitted to organize the Torpedo Flotilla and exercise it regularly at sea. The decks of his cabins in Dixie and Birmingham became game boards for plotting ship movements. Once his captains decided that a movement was feasible, Sims took the divisions to sea to see if theory was convertible to reality. Operations in all weather, and particularly at night, were stressed. Attack doctrines were constantly studied, refined, and tried. Above all Sims wished to prove that a determined attack by destroyers could not only inflict major damage on an enemy battle line, but that such movements could force an enemy column to turn away and thus face being "capped" by the broadside fire of an opposing column of battleships.8 Lacking data from actual engagements, there was constant disputation between the battleship division admirals and Sims about the survivability of his command when the big guns were roaring. Yet, every battleship and armored-cruiser captain had heard dummy torpedoes from destroyers thump against his ship's hull and they knew that the menace from these bantams was real. In a few more years the "hard data" would be available.
p76 Had Pratt and Sims thought about it, they would have realized that they were developing a genuine tactical theory. Nelson had proved that formalist doctrines did not necessarily win battles and that the melee could prove decisive when the captains were courageous and the gunners well trained. Sims brought a new formalism to his speedy charges and forced full divisions, and even squadrons, to wheel and fire and refire as a unit. While there were not too many numbers in it, the signal book of the flotilla was as rigid in its demands as were the English "Fighting Instructions" of the 17th and 18th centuries.9
Denied a commanding role in the development of flotilla doctrine, because of his staff position, Pratt made his most important contribution in managing the flotilla's reserve forces. Because of budgetary requirements, two of the flotilla's divisions were kept in reserve with half-crews while four (1914), then five (1915), divisions operated with nearly full complements. The usual division had five 740‑ton displacement destroyers in it. There were also many of the earlier destroyer types, principally 420‑tonners, laid up in East Coast navy yards with skeleton crews and controlled by the yard commandants. Pratt's inspection tours took him to the Philadelphia and Charleston yards and from such inspections he concluded that the destroyers there could be put to better use. He recommended, and Sims concurred, that these Reserve Group destroyers be brought under the Torpedo Flotilla's control. He believed that with half-crews these vessels could be steamed regularly and their personnel trained, once the materiel condition of the boats had been brought up to flotilla standards. More importantly, Pratt urged that the reserve divisions periodically be brought to full strength and their place taken by a regular division. In this way all vessels and all personnel would be indoctrinated in flotilla methods and a maximum number of vessels would be instantly ready for sea.10 Sims constantly stressed, once this plan had been accepted, that there was no significant difference in readiness between his active divisions and those in reserve. He made his point, in terms of personnel, by regularly assigning his best destroyer division captains, like Franck Taylor Evans and Harris Laning, to reserve division commands. A bit later Pratt tried to sell this same idea, to be applied to reserve battleships, to the Atlantic Fleet commander. Here he met p77 no success. Battleship captains were deeply ingrained with the view that their ships were too complicated, in organization and level of skills required to fight them, to permit this shuffling of ships and crews between reserve and active status. Pratt was not convinced, but he would have to wait almost twenty years before another budgetary crisis would force his views upon the Navy. On the other hand, the "rotating reserve" approach became regular practice in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Destroyer Forces in the post-World War years.
After the summer exercises of 1913, Sims decided that he needed a different flagship and the Navy Department ordered Birmingham out of reserve to join the fleet for its winter maneuvers in the Caribbean. Pratt received orders to relieve his classmate, Commander Benjamin Franklin Hutchison, who had commanded the vessel during its inactive period in the Philadelphia yard. On 8 January 1914 Pratt read his orders to Birmingham's crew and Hutchison went over the side to command Idaho, then in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet.11 After almost twenty-five years since leaving the Naval Academy, Bill Pratt now had his own ship. He had not severed his ties with the flotilla by any means; his work had now doubled. He was flagship captain and chief of staff in the Sims menage.
Pratt's first command, cruiser Birmingham.
In taking command of Birmingham Pratt was joining his classmates who were serving a critical last command in grade before coming up for promotion to captain. Hutchison had gone to Idaho, Nathan C. Twining commanded Tacoma, the fierya T. P. Magruder had Raleigh, Sumner Kittelle was in Wheeling, Louis Nulton was in Nashville, and William MacDougall commanded Mayflower. There were others with sea commands and a few, like Louis R. de Steiguer, were in charge of navy yards.12 The class was due to move up in 1915 and the Bureau of Navigation was now giving each his chance to prove himself worthy of four stripes. Most of the ships were protected cruisers or gunboats, and a few were maritime relics like Reina Mercedes or Hartford, but in every case the officer was in a position to demonstrate his ability to handle a more important command. Of the 18 naval officers still on active duty, who graduated with Pratt in 1889, 7 were to become captains in 1915 and 7 more made it in 1916. For those 18 who had survived to January 1914, the path ahead was reasonably clear to flag rank and 11 would make it.
Pratt was delighted to have a command, but in the colorful hyperbole p79 of the sailor, Birmingham was stuck fast in its coffee grounds and beef bones. As had been the case with St. Louis, Pratt found it an ordeal to prepare his ship for sea. The reserve crew was moored more tightly to the Philadelphia yard than was their ship. The executive officer, a "mustang" with whom Pratt was to have no end of troubles, was no more eager to get up steam than the crew. To make matters worse, the Navy Department could not scour up a full crew of officers or men; but Sims wanted Birmingham and Pratt was determined to clear the Delaware Capes within a month.13
Despite some minor fires, casualties to materiel, and fireroom breakdowns, Birmingham stood downriver on 2 February and set course for the fleet concentration in Cuban waters. Not long after clearing the Capes the chief engineer reported the engines in such bad shape that return to the yard seemed advisable. Pratt ordered the ship hove to, made an inspection, and ordered the crew to work. Necessary repairs were effected, despite the fog and passing ships, and Birmingham again moved south and experienced no further major problems. In the end, Pratt developed a sense of responsibility in his crew and created a smart ship.
Ironically, Pratt was to have less luck with his officers. The executive officer was too inefficient for his well-organized skipper, and Pratt was to take on many of his duties. The navigator, however, was an even larger cross to bear. Because of his pride in his seamanship, and his excellent training and experience as a navigator, Pratt always took an interest in the navigational work that went on around him on the bridge. In his "Autobiography" he described Birmingham's navigator:
The Navigator was not a good one. It was not lack of experience. I did not mind that, for if he had the right material in him he could learn and improve, but he was always sure he was right, even when very much out in his reckoning. Frequently, I had to take my own sights to verify the position when I knew it to be badly out. As a pilot he did not seem to have that instinctive sense, sometimes born in a man. Once running north, and off Hatteras after days in fresh easterly gales, he reported the ship well to seaward of the Cape.
The wind was westerly at this time. The water was too slick: the scent of pines too strong, and the color of the water was not right for us to be where he said we were. I knew we were inside the lightship. It was smoky at the time, visibility not very good. I thought I might give him a lesson from which he could profit. We were making from 18 to 20 knots at the time. Proceeding on the course, and looking aft until a very slight discoloration of the water p80 showed, due to sand being stirred into the screw wake, the ship was then stopped and a sounding taken. It showed •about forty feet of water. We only drew •17½. Telling him to head about SE, we picked up the lightship later on after running •about 10 miles. It had never occured [sic] to him to take a sounding as he was quite sure in his own mind that we were in the Gulf Stream, instead of having been set well to the westward, due to the fresh easterly gales, striking a ship with high sides, and rather light in the water.
The lesson made no impression, and thus may ships be grounded, unless the old man himself keeps a rather close watch. At another time running north from Hampton Roads, we were due to make Nantucket lightship in the mid watch. It was a clear night. The stars were all out. I had expected a rather strong westerly set of the current, as the weather conditions had made this quite possible, so I asked the Chief Quartermaster (he afterwards served on the Birmingham during the war under another Captain), if the navigator had directed any soundings to be taken. He said no. I directed him then after a certain hour to begin sounding every fifteen minutes and report the results to me. In due time I turned out and went on the bridge. Still no navigator present, but he had left word to be called when Nantucket lightship was sighted.
It might be well to explain here that the lightship is anchored in •about thirty fathoms of water and that the bank runs within one compass point of due east and west for a number of miles each way from the lightship, which makes it a particularly fine land mark to pick up for ships running trans Atlantic. Keeping up the soundings until we struck •twenty-five fathoms, I then ordered the Navigator on the bridge and asked him to tell me where the lightship was. Looking around, with perfect assurance he pointed out a bright star on the horizon about due north, and told me there it was. Then I lost my temper and told him some very nasty things, and also told him to head S and E and pick the lightship up, which we did not long after.
He was the only officer that I ever sailed with, who in the capacity of Navigator, did not seem to have the ability or willingness to learn. Later when I turned the ship over to a new Captain, himself an extremely able officer, one of the finest in the service, I explained to him the vagaries of his navigator, and told him he must keep a sharp watch over his work. Frankly, I accepted all responsibility for not having reported him for inefficiency, but was too lazy to take the trouble. Evidently the Captain placed more faith in this navigator that I did, for not long after the ship struck bottom either entering or leaving Ponce Harbor, Porto [sic] Rico.14
Upon Birmingham's arrival at Guacanayabo Bay, Sims and his staff transferred from Dixie and Pratt was again in the family. He continued to fuss over the ship and to complain to Louise about the executive officer and the navigator. In reply she needled him just a bit:
The thing which impresses me the most is this. I don't see why it is p81 necessary for you to have anyone else on board but yourself — no crew, no first officer, no navigator is any use for as far as I can see you can do the entire work yourself — and it is only an extra expense to Uncle Sam to have all those men on the ship.15
In a more serious vein she did ask her husband to be careful of his health. She knew he was perfectly capable of working himself into a state of exhaustion to prove that he was the best commanding officer in the Atlantic Fleet.
The Caribbean maneuvers in the winter and spring of 1914 coincided with the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico which was to lead to landings at Tampico and Vera Cruz. As the tension deepened in April 1914, the Department ordered Pratt to take Birmingham to Pensacola. Here small arms and field pieces were taken aboard and the men drilled in their use. On 20 April a detachment of naval aviators, Lieutenant John Towers, Ensign Godfrey de C. Chevalier, and Marine 1st Lieutenant Bernard T. Smith, plus three aircraft, were embarked. After a full-power run Birmingham anchored in Tampico Bay on 22 April and took on board refugees that day and the next. For a month Pratt steamed between Tampico and Vera Cruz, handled refugees, and kept an eye on German merchantmen suspected of carrying arms for the Mexicans.16 While other portions of the fleet assaulted Vera Cruz, and officers like Captain William A. Moffett earned Congressional Medals of Honor, Pratt had a dull time of it. Finally, on 25 May, the situation seemed well enough in hand and Birmingham was ordered to the Boston Navy Yard for major overhaul and drydocking.
During this year, while Pratt was in the flotilla and commanding Birmingham, Louise was touring Europe. For a few months her brother Ralph's wife, the gay and somewhat naive "Posey" (Marie Antoinette Davis Johnson), accompanied her. They did London and Paris, but the summer months of 1913 were spent in Germany and Austria. Carlsbad and the Villa Milton struck Louise as a delightful mating of Belfast's summer climate and Newport's grand hotel, the Munchinger-King. These delightful ladies made friends easily and soon they were moving in the haut monde of pre‑war Germany and France. In the fall Louise was alone, but her newly found friends kept her in a social whirl. In Munich she enjoyed the opera, including Richard Strauss conducting his "Ariadne," and the nobility took her p82 in tow. Her French was good enough for those who spoke no English; she found German beyond her. In the winter she returned to Paris. The opera, concerts, parties till early morning, ice skating in the "Bois," and a new circle of friends filled her days. From their letters it is obvious that Bill missed her more than she did her husband. Both laughed at the prying insinuations of her American friends who wondered if she were in Paris because she was dropping her husband. Pratt could be pleased that Louise, in the best "Downeast" tradition, was finding that her Belfast dressmaker had done a fine job of outfitting her inexpensively. She spent her money carefully and Bill saved his. In April she decided she would stay an extra month, since her spouse was "vacationing" in Mexican waters. In June Louise boarded a Holland Line steamer for New York. The Grand Tour was over; she would not return for another decade.
Pratt's work in the Torpedo Flotilla and his command of Birmingham was a source of pride and concern to his family. Mother Pratt and Edgar had continued to live in Redlands, California. The brother, still a bachelor, had developed a reasonably successful law practice and had been able to keep an eye on their mother. Abbie Pratt, like her naval officer son, was a steady and very literate correspondent who kept all in the family, including Louise, well posted on what each was doing. She was immensely proud that Will had a command and regretted only that his father "Nick" and grandfather Veazie were not alive to know of it. She confided that "I am proud of you not only for being a smart man, but you possess qualities of sterling worth, which money cannot buy. I certainly am blessed with three fine sons."
When Birmingham moved to Tampico, Mrs. Pratt and Louise both registered concern. Harold, now a captain, had been ordered from the Mare Island Navy Yard to join the Fourth Marines and the mother went to stay with Marguerite. From the tidbits in the paper she had discerned that Pratt was close to the action. Reflecting the prejudices typical of the times, she wrote to her son: "I can tell you dear Will I don't feel very happy to think of my boys fighting these heathen people . . . . That miserable Huerta, I wish I could have the punishment of him." While equally concerned, Louise found room in her letters to tell of the gay parties in Paris and the gaucheries of the international set. The "Infanta Evlen" was then the scandal of the day as she moved through Parisian society with a covey of paramours in her wake. Louise had much more to say, but she felt that the tales, which she believed would do credit to Balzac, were almost p83 too risque to be committed to letters. Pratt enjoyed a good yarn, but he would have to wait.
On 2 June 1914, Birmingham docked at the Boston Navy Yard where it was to remain for the rest of 1914. Her captain fretted the whole period of time. He disliked having a ship that was not operational; and he disliked even more the personnel problems that developed when vessels spent long periods alongside a pier. His best sailors were assigned to other ships in the flotilla and his less disciplined men found sundry ways to breach Navy Regulations. A good portion of every week was spent at mast, awarding punishments or admonishing his tars to be more circumspect in their behavior ashore. When not at mast, Pratt seemed to expend the balance of his time and patience fighting the yard commandant and the system which could find no reason to work beyond a tortoise pace at overhauling Birmingham. Sims wanted his flagship, but nothing seemed to work when it came to speeding up repairs. Evidently no one thought that a war in Europe should require American warships to be immediately available. Despairing of seeing Birmingham for the fall maneuvers, Sims ordered Pratt to join him in Panther. While not the best vessel from which was to operate a torpedo flotilla, the old tender was commodious and Sims' staff had room to work.17
While fretting in Boston, Pratt performed a service of enormous value to Sims and the flotilla. The Naval War College President asked him to lecture at the school on topics concerning flotilla doctrine and operations. He took his work seriously, prepared his talks carefully, and cleared with Sims most of what he had to say. He consciously underplayed personalities, particularly his controversial chief, and stressed the teamwork that was developing within the fleet. When possible he tied most innovations to the commanders in chief, even when they were obviously the product of the flotilla staff, and in every way possible tried to commit the admirals to flotilla doctrine. Sims deeply appreciated what Pratt was doing and the deftness of his public relations touch. After a lecture by Pratt on flotilla communications, Sims wrote:
I have been talking to a good many people about your recent lecture, and while there are some who disagree with it to some extent in certain minor details, they are all very loud in their praise of the thoroughness of the study you made and of the solidity of the reasoning with which you presented it. There can be no doubt that you have placed a conspicuous and highly colored p84 feather in your cap by this performance, and very considerably enhanced the reputation of the flotilla.18
Because of their previous work at the War College, both Sims and Pratt were regularly urged by Rear Admiral Austin Knight to continue these lectures and they agreed to do so. With the flotilla operating out of Narragansett Bay, and Pratt available in Boston, Knight was able to expand his teaching staff in an informal way. Though preparing lectures took valuable time, Sims appreciated the fact that he was able to get expert evaluation of his tactical innovations and even changes in the war game rules that tended to downgrade the effectiveness of the destroyers. Another benefit, which Sims experienced personally, was the changed attitude toward service in the flotilla that was developing among the fleet's officers. Captain Josiah S. McKean, who had been one of Sims' instructors at the War College, reflected this new view when he wrote: "I have heretofore considered that duty with the Flotilla injured more officers than it improved. In your methods of administration emphasis on delegating authority, I can see where it will not spoil any and may improve a great many."19
In the same ways that Sims and the flotilla gained stature by exposure to the War College, Pratt also enhanced his own reputation. He lacked the commanding figure of Sims, but through his lectures in Newport he steadily built his own following. He could lecture effectively, he was a good analyst, and it was quite evident that he was a first-rate chief of staff. Above all, he was deeply ingrained with a quality that was vital in the flotilla and the fleet — he was loyal to his chief and to the doctrine that guided operations. In a Navy that was small enough for every commander to be known to almost all officers above him, this was a most important aspect of one's service reputation. Sims appreciated all that Pratt had done to make his command a success and demonstrated it in the fitness reports he wrote for him. In his last full evaluation of his chief of staff, Sims wrote:
One of the most competent officers of my acquaintance; of sound and independent judgment and prompt initiative. Particularly efficient in strategy and in the development of tactics. To his knowledge and experience in this respect and to his loyal and efficient cooperation is largely due the progress made by the flotilla in military efficiency.20
p85 With a record of successful staff and ship command duty, there was no reason for Pratt to be apprehensive about promotion to captain. Perhaps a measure of his confidence was displayed when he received orders to report to Washington for the inevitable professional and physical examinations required before the Naval Examining Board could recommend his promotion. The orders came on 19 September 1915, but Birmingham was scheduled for elementary battle torpedo practice. In order to complete these exercises, and give his crew a chance for distinction, Pratt requested a delay in reporting. His orders were modified to the first of November. He was found qualified by the board and was advanced to captain, to rank from 29 September 1915. A giant step had been taken up the slippery slope to flag rank.
Before he left for Washington to take his captain's examinations, Pratt received orders to his next assignment. As in the case of most "fresh caught" captains, the Bureau of Navigation had difficulty finding a suitable billet for him. He was too junior for a battleship command; he was leaving a cruiser command; and he was too senior for a staff billet afloat, yet he needed another year of sea duty. Pratt's friend from the War College, Captain Volney O. Chase, was on duty in the new Office of Naval Operations and arranged for him to be assigned to the Canal Zone. He was to be the senior naval officer in the area, but his major duty was with a Canal Defenses Board which was busily planning improvements to the defenses in that most vital region. It was not an assignment he would have selected for himself, Pratt wrote to his old flotilla comrade Babcock, "but all is fish that comes to the net and it will be interesting."21 This year was to be the only foreign shore duty of his entire career.
Upon reporting on 15 December 1915, Pratt joined the staff of Brigadier General Clarence Edwards, USA, who was charged with defense of the Canal. In view of this assignment, he found it more convenient, and economical, to wear Army khaki and he was normally addressed as "colonel." Possibly this exchange of ranks was done to eliminate confusion with the more junior Army rank of captain. Pratt's friends enjoyed teasing him about his new uniforms and "rank," and Sims hoped he would not join the new service on a permanent basis. Pratt was deeply and positively impressed by General Edwards:
In contrast to Edwards, Pratt found Major General George Goethals, the Governor of the Canal Zone, the epitome of formality. He was able to get along with Goethals and admired him, but much preferred to work with Edwards.
Pratt was there because the military establishment in Washington had become apprehensive that the war in Europe, now more than a year old, might engulf America. While Germany was then contained by the Royal Navy, there was no assurance that a reversal of fortunes might not bring the Kaiser's High Seas Fleet to America's shores. Of even greater concern was the haunting possibility that Japan, with whom America had accumulated years of tension, might switch sides and join the Germans in an attack on the United States. Were such to occur, the Panama Canal would be vital to all concerned.
Both General Edwards and his Navy assistant believed the Canal defenses were premised on questionable assumptions. The coastal fortifications, with their train of fire to seaward, and the Navy's minefields and submarines, were designed to prevent an enemy from destroying the Canal by bombardment from the sea. If one were to assume that either the Germans or Japanese wished to use the canal to join forces with the other, then another type of defense system was necessary. By military reconnaissance and maneuvers in Panamanian territory, Edwards proved that infantry attacks against the Canal defenders were possible and feasible once an amphibious landing had been made outside the Canal Zone. Pratt suggested, by memoranda and in conferences, that the fixed fortifications should consist of 16‑inch guns, in barbettes, and capable of 360‑degree fields of fire. With such weapons any attacker's mobile field pieces could be outranged. He also advocated strengthening the Pacific side by opening a secondary submarine operating base and placing a division of undersea craft on that side.23 To substantiate his own recommendations, Pratt went into the field regularly, either hiking or on horseback, and submitted plans based on personal observation. He kept in touch with Sims, then commanding Nevada, and the latter responded enthusiastically to Pratt's criticism that most of Washington's (the Joint Board's) defense ideas "are office productions, based on p87 the chart and without local knowledge acquired by trained men on the spot."24
While he and his Army colleagues were principally concerned with improving fortifications, Pratt did recommend the development of mobile defenses. He not only urged that more submarines be assigned to the Canal Zone, he pressed to have them equipped with wireless receivers at the minimum. He wanted a command post ashore or afloat to be able to deploy and control the submarines against an enemy. He assumed that a steady flow of intelligence to a command center would put it in a position to direct the submarines effectively.25 The captain also suggested to all who would listen that some of the old battleships, like Oregon or Massachusetts, could prove enormously valuable as a supplement to the fixed fortifications rather than rusting in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
During his year in Panama, Pratt kept up his usual flood of personal and official correspondence. When he completed reports for General Edwards, copies were often sent to Sims or McKean for information. The latter was now an assistant to Rear Admiral William S. Benson, the Chief of Naval Operations, and thus Pratt's ideas entered the upper administrative echelons. In May of 1916 he suggested to Benson that the Office of Naval Operations badly needed a plans division. This was an idea dear to Pratt and Sims. Based on their training at the War College, these two constantly stressed the need to have trained officers, meaning War College graduates, manning a plans division at the heart of the Navy. Basically they were advocating the heresy that the Chief of Naval Operations should have operational control over the whole Navy, and for this purpose he needed a full staff. Fearing the creation of a German-style general staff, Congress had deliberately given CNO only powers of coordination among the bureaus and the fleet. Later, when they were flag officers, Sims and Pratt always made sure they had an adequate plans section, division, or office to help make their commands effective. In May 1916 Pratt was just a little ahead of his times, but not much. It is quite possible that he was thinking of his next duty assignment, when the direction of a plans section for CNO would not be too ambitious an undertaking.
Because his duty was ashore in the Canal Zone, Louise Pratt accompanied p88 her husband there and stayed into the next spring. The Army provided them with good quarters at Quarry Heights and Pratt's rank and position permitted them stewards. Riding was again their form of out-of‑doors exercise. The usual social whirl continued, this time at an Army pace which occasionally seemed "double time." During the early spring General Edwards left for temporary duty in the United States and the Pratts were asked to take over his home. The only obligation was that they offer hospitality to the stream of high ranking Army and Navy officers and distinguished civilians who visited the region. They did this gladly and graciously.
With the return of the hot season, Louise fled north and Bill Pratt sweated out the last three months alone. By August he had finished his work for the Army, but the War Department was slow in releasing him for reassignment. He used his spare time for reading and much of it centered on Japan. He deepened an already considerable expertise he had developed concerning that nation, and from this period he seldom missed an opportunity to read the latest works on the Island Kingdom. Finally, in September 1916, his orders came. As it developed, he would stay with his new‑found comrades in arms. He was detailed as a student to the Army War College in Washington.
A final comment needs to be made about Pratt's duty in Panama. In his "Autobiography" he mentioned his relations with the Army:
I learned to know the Army, formed many lasting friendships, . . . Gradually the barriers which exist always at first between two stiff backed military services were broken down, and I came to recognize Army men as brothers, the only difference between them being that they served on land while we Naval men served at sea. We had however the same common purpose. I was on duty there for a year and the contacts made and lessons learned were of inestimable value to me later on.26
Actually this duty appears to have had a greater impact on him than even he suspected. From this time Pratt became known as a naval officer who could work effectively with the Army. In later years when he was CNO, this ability was to be of great importance to the service and to him personally.
1 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp167‑74; U. S. Naval War College, "Outline History of the United States Naval War College, 1884 to Date," Naval War College Archives, pp53‑61.
2 Newport Social Index, 1912 (Newport, R. I.: Newport Social Index Publishing Co., 1912), p79.
3 Pratt, "Autobiography," p170.
4 U. S. S. Dixie, Log, June 1913, RG24/NA; Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942), pp293‑94.
5 Ibid., pp295‑99.
6 CAPT W. S. Sims to RADM C. J. Badger, Newport, 22 October 1913, Sims MSS/LCMD.
7 CAPT W. S. Sims, "General Comment on the Inspection of the Flotilla," 14 November 1913, Navy File 27364‑131, RG80/NA.
8 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp178‑80.
9 G. J. Marcus, The Formative Centuries, Vol. I of A Naval History of England (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961), p144.
10 CDR W. V. Pratt to Commander Torpedo Flotilla, Atlantic Fleet, New York, 18 December 1913, Navy File 27364‑135, RG80/NA.
11 U. S. S. Birmingham, Log, January 1914, RG24/NA.
12 U. S., Department of the Navy, Register . . . to January 1, 1914, p14.
13 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp182‑83.
14 Ibid., pp185‑87.
15 Louise Pratt to WVP, Paris, 24 February 1914, Pratt MSS/NHD.
16 U. S. S. Birmingham, Log, April‑May 1914, RG24/NA.
17 CAPT W. S. Sims to WVP, Newport, 3 October 1914, Sims MSS/LCMD.
18 Ibid., 11 September 1914.
19 CAPT J. S. McKean to CAPT W. S. Sims, Marseilles, France, 28 November 1913. Sims MSS/LCMD.
20 "Report on the Fitness of Officers," 30 September 1915, Pratt MSS/NHD.
21 WVP to LCDR J. V. Babcock, Belfast, Me., 6 November 1915, Pratt MSS/NHD.
22 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp192‑93.
23 WVP to CAPT W. S. Sims, Ancon, Canal Zone, 30 December 1915, Sims MSS/LCMD.
24 CAPT W. S. Sims to WVP, at Sea, 1 June 1916, Sims MSS/LCMD.
25 CAPT W. V. Pratt to Bureau of Operations, Ancon, Canal Zone, 24 February 1916, Navy File 21498‑146, RG80/NA.
26 Pratt, "Autobiography," p192.
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