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It was, perhaps, a conscious measurement of value that caused Admiral Pratt to devote six pages in his "Autobiography" to the two years he spent at the Naval War College and then follow them with twenty-nine pages concerning his work in the fleet after leaving Newport.1 One might assume that he considered those two years as merely preparation for high command at sea; thus it was natural to emphasize the latter. It is even possible that his tour at the War College was dull enough that he remembered little of it fourteen years later. To this biographer, however, another interpretation comes to mind about Pratt's duty from 1923 to 1930, when he climbed the fleet ladder from a battleship division commander to Commander in Chief, United States Fleet. These years might be seen as a continuous period with a brief interruption ashore to catch his breath. He never really left the fleet; his heart and mind were always with it. He brought his practical experience from the Battle Fleet to the War College; and he carried the school's theories, many of which he helped develop, back to sea. This was, in short, what Luce, Mahan, or Sims might have considered the ideal career pattern.
The change-of‑command ceremony, again in the manner that the admiral preferred, was quite simple. In the forenoon of 5 September 1925, Pratt read his orders to Rear Admiral C. S. Williams and the assemble staff, and his two‑starred flag replaced his predecessor's atop Luce Hall.2 Lieutenant Campbell, as usual, was at hand to be the admiral's Aide. The rest of the War College staff had already begun their work for the year. The news that there had been a change occupied little space in the local papers. Gripping the reading public's attention was the tragic loss of the dirigible Shenandoah ("Daughter of the Stars") the day before and uncertainty as to whether Commander p242 John Rodgers, who was attempting a flight from California to Hawaii in a PN‑9, was lost.a Pratt shared the public's concern because old shipmates had perished in Shenandoah, and Commander Rodgers had been a close friend of the Pratts since his youngster days at the Naval Academy.
As he took command on Coaster's Island, there is little doubt that Bill Pratt must have wondered whether he was preparing for a step upward or whether his career was over and he was now starting a round of shore duty assignments, each of less importance than the previous one. In a few months — on 16 November 1925, to be precise — he would enter the upper half of the rear admirals, but this was no guarantee that a fleet command and a vice admiral's or admiral's billet would be his. War College presidencies often led nowhere. Admiral Williams was going to the Far East to become Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet, but this was distinctly recognized in the Navy as a consolation prize. As Destroyer Force commander, Pratt commanded a much more impressive array of vessels. Raymond Rodgers and Sims had both retired from Newport, though Sims had moved ahead following his first tour as War College president. Austin Knight and William L. Rodgers had received the same token recognition given Williams. Either fortunately or unfortunately, there was little that Pratt could do in Newport to influence his future career, unless he were to do an outrageously bad job of managing the school. His service reputation was well established; future assignment would depend on those making decisions in the spring of 1927. While everything about his record of achievement to date should have caused the admiral to sit back and enjoy his two years on Narragansett Bay, he recognized that fate can deal some unusual cards — particularly if your seat is very far removed from the dealer.
As President of the War College, Pratt found that there had not been a great deal of change since his previous duty there. The student body was larger and divided into two classes. The "senior course" was comprised of captains and commanders, around forty in 1925, who were spending the year studying strategy, tactics, international law, and problems of high command. The "junior course," a bit smaller than the senior group, consisted of lieutenant commanders and senior lieutenants. Their year was largely devoted to mastering the complexities p243 of staff duty and working out problems of minor tactics.3 Classrooms, student offices, the library, and administrative offices were all housed within the pink granite of Luce Hall. The president's house was nearby and the view, unlike today, was unimpeded in all directions from the top of the knoll on the island. The naval base, training station, and torpedo station were in full view and the movement of vessels was constant. It takes no flight of imagination to understand Pratt's preference for the clean crisp New England air to the fetid climate of Washington, D. C.
While in Newport, Rear Admiral Pratt had two main channels open to him for making whatever contribution he desired. The War College itself would require his constant attention, and from his viewpoint there was much to be done. Like many presidents before and after him, he chose to tinker with the administrative structure and the curriculum. This was natural and, given his temperament, it would have been most unusual had he not exercised this prerogative of command. During the same two years, by virtue of his assignment, Pratt was a member of the General Board. Here too, though on a more limited basis, he was to help solve some interesting problems that were confronting the Navy.
From the very beginning the admiral set out to raise the intellectual level of education at the War College. While he appreciated and deeply respected the emphasis placed on strategic study, highlighted by gameboard activity, Pratt's personal interest in international relations quickly intruded itself. Weekly lecturers were brought in from New England universities and the State Department to present the latest interpretations of current affairs at home and abroad. Academic luminaries such as S. E. Morison, A. L. P. Dennis, G. H. Blakeslee, and J. T. Shotwell were liberally mixed with officials such as A. N. Young, R. F. Kelly, J. T. Marriner and N. T. Johnson from the State and Commerce Departments. The admiral often personally introduced these speakers and hosted them at his quarters later. The goal of such a speakers program, of course, was to familiarize the senior naval officers with the foreign policies their strategies were to serve. To make the arrangement mutually beneficial to the State Department, Pratt p244 invited foreign service officials to take the War College correspondence course in international law. This scholarly program was ably directed by Captain Roy Campbell Smith, a retired officer who served at the college for many years.4
In order that graduates might find the transition to the fleet or duty in the Office of CNO a bit easier, Pratt restructured the administration of the college. In place of the traditional teaching divisions devoted to the study of tactics, strategy, international law, etc., he created functional divisions as they occurred in fleet staffs and gave their chiefs such titles as: Director of War Plans (Division D), Aide for Logistics (Division A), Aide for Movement (Division C), Aide for Information (Division B). In 1926 the Director of War Plans was Pratt's old friend, Captain Harry Yarnell. The three officers in his division taught war planning, joint operations, international law, and "functions of command." Of almost equal importance with the teaching function was the liaison relationship with the War Plans Division in CNO's Office. Once drafted, almost all war plans were tried on the game board at the War College. This was a relationship that Admiral Sims had tried, somewhat in vain, to establish with the Department during his years in Newport. Unfortunately, for the doughty admiral, the War College was more advanced in its development than the Office of Naval Operations under Admiral Benson. Pratt definitely helped to establish the War College as a place where the Department's plans could be legitimized.
The admiral was proud that he had introduced the formal study of logistics during his War College tour. With a logistics division for the curriculum, led by the brilliant naval constructor Captain A. H. Van Keuren, the students received a rigorous introduction to this vital subject. From his wartime service in Naval Operations, where he dealt constantly with the intricacies of procurement, distribution, and planning, Pratt developed a strong interest in this field. Now others were going to share it — if they expected to graduate from the College.
Again reflecting his personal concept of leadership, Pratt modified the teaching approach of the institution. The division of the students into study committees was continued, but the writing of individual theses was de‑emphasized. Pratt preferred that students work together on a major problem of strategy and that they present a full study of it as a committee paper. In keeping with this approach, the class of p245 1927b in the spring presented a series of studies dealing with various aspects of an "Orange-Blue War in the Pacific." Almost all of the reports, some running over 100 typewritten pages, paid heavy attention to the logistics questions involved in Pacific Ocean warfare.5 Captain Rufus Zogbaum, who directed the junior course in 1927, summarized the admiral's contribution in this area:
The Admiral encouraged members of his staff to study strategic problems, particularly in the Pacific, and then periodically to lecture on their findings. I remember particularly the research done and the presentation of the prescriptive problem by (then) Captain Kalbfus, conclusions that were of inestimable value to those who later had to conduct the War in the Pacific. Realistic strategic problems were played on the game-board so that we were all more familiar with the Pacific and the possible enemy strongholds than we had been hitherto. Led by so forward-looking a man, everyone, staff and students alike, were [sic] engaged in useful thinking along professional lines.6
Another innovation in the college's curriculum involved a new stress on the study of joint operations with the Army. Pratt's previous duty in the Canal Zone forced him into a joint planning situation, and after his tour at the Army War College, he had developed a continuing appreciation of the Army's role in national defense. To develop a fuller understanding of joint planning and national warfare, the admiral established liaison with the Army War College so that joint problems could be worked on together and lecturers could be exchanged. Pratt believed that the new administrative organization of the college made it easier for the students to recognize the mutual interests of Army and Navy officers.7
In the years since his first tour at the War College, Admiral Pratt had shared with Sims and many others the positive conviction that the Navy's leadership had to be drawn from war college graduates. Those two years of intellectual growth in Newport, followed by duty in the Torpedo Flotilla, left both men accustomed to solving all problems, whether strategical, tactical, or administrative, within the formalized framework of the "Estimate of the Situation." Neither man, nor associates like Harry Yarnell, Royal Ingersoll, Dudley Knox, or Arthur Hepburn, would have begun serious study of any question without first drafting some form of an "estimate." p246 To them it was a way of forcing even the dullest officer to look at contingencies before deciding on an answer. From this foundation emerged the steady pressure to increase the size of War College classes so that all officers, once they were in the promotion zone for selection to flag rank, would have this common background. In February of 1927 Pratt recommended officially to CNO that the junior course be made prerequisite to assignment to the senior course, and that completion of the correspondence course be required before undertaking the junior course. To this end, he called for replacement of the current general order dealing with selection for higher ranks with a new general order entitled "Training for Higher Command." To give the War College diploma greater status, the admiral suggested that it substitute for the professional examination in tactics and strategy required for advancement to captain and rear admiral.8 As might be expected, such a change in regulations, and the expected increase in the classes, would necessitate an enlargement of the physical facilities of the War College.
Few in the Bureau of Navigation or CNO's Office were willing to reject Pratt's ideas out of hand, but he did not get full endorsement of them. The basic resistance came from Rear Admiral R. H. ("Reddy") Leigh, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. With the steady growth in the number of vessels, the demand for officers in aviation, and the fact that the officer corps was stable in size due to the reduction of Congressional appointments, it was practically impossible to enlarge the War College classes to the extent necessary to meet Pratt's plans. Thus the Bureau endorsed the concept "in principle," but recommended that it not be implemented — an approach that often meant nothing would occur in the lifetime of the proposer.9 On 21 September 1927 Secretary Wilbur introduce General Order 168, "Training for Higher Command." In three pages it established the Navy's interest in seeing that all officers be graduated from the War College before advancement to flag rank, but it did not make this a formal requirement. While not categorically allowing the diploma to substitute for professional exams, the order did permit the Naval Examining Board to waive formal examination if it wished to do so. It wasn't everything p247 that Pratt or Sims might have desired, but it was a step in the right direction.
Rear Admiral Richard H. Leigh,
As War College President, Admiral Pratt also had two years of ex officio membership on the General Board. Two topics were constantly before the group: characteristics of new naval vessels, particularly cruisers; and questions associated with further naval limitation activities. Though his own personal participation was minimal, the admiral did receive a full education concerning the Navy's plans for future development. He was much better informed on the views of the service, on almost any topic, than he would have been had he been at p248 sea during these two years. When later he took positions at variance with most of the flag officers, he did so from personal conviction rather than ignorance.
Pratt quickly discovered that the General Board was still operating as it had during his earlier period of service. During most of the two years, between September 1925 and September 1927, Admiral E. W. Eberle was CNO and President of the Board, and Rear Admiral H. P. Jones, formerly CINCUS, was Chairman of the Executive Committee. As usual the Executive Committee performed the routine work of the General Board between the monthly meetings of the whole group which normally occurred on the last Tuesday. Not being on the Executive Committee, Pratt attended very few hearings and received most of his information from the supporting document (brown papers) and committee proposals (yellow papers). Most of his own contributions came through discussions concerning improvements to the defenses of the aircraft carriers, characteristics of light cruisers, and the position the United States should take at the naval limitation conference scheduled for the summer of 1927 in Geneva.
During this same period of time, Pratt expressed himself publicly on such subjects as a single department of defense, a united air service, and the usefulness of strategic air power. In testimony before Congressional committees, the admiral held to a consistent position. The creation of an independent air force would mean acceptance of the "strategic air power" mission of that force. From his reading of Colonel Billy Mitchell's views, the experience of the independent air force in the last months of the World War, and current practice of the British Royal Air Force, Pratt interpreted the mission of such a force as direct action against civilian populations. This meant cleaving to the unlimited warfare theories at a time when nations were trying to limit armies, navies, and air forces. He summarized his views in a letter to the New York Times:
These, let us hope, are the days of progress, when a real attempt is being made to limit the ruthlessness and barbarism of war by constructive statesmanship. Every sane nation is attempt to limit [both] the extent of war activities and to limit armies and navies in a practical way. The air army likewise must be limited. . . .10
In the spring of 1927, when it had been decided that there would be another attempt at naval limitation, the General Board undertook p249 to write a series of papers to guide the naval section of the American delegation. Such an action normally would not have been judged unusual except that the move was made without guidance from the Secretary of the Navy. Under the leadership of Rear Admiral H. A. Wiley (Rear Admiral Jones was in Geneva), the Executive Committee spelled out the principles that should guide the Navy's delegation, and then proceeded to develop a dozen position papers on such topics as further limitation of capital ships, the extension of the ratios to naval auxiliaries, limitation of aircraft carriers, abolition of submarines, and extension of naval base disarmament. The Board also analyzed, in a military-political sense, the national policies and naval policies of each of the signatories to the 1922 Five-Power Treaty. While all of the work was done by the Executive Committee, heavily augmented by officers from the War Plans Division and the Office of Naval Intelligence, Admiral Pratt did participate in a full discussion of the first paper to be drafted; "General Political Study of the World Situation as Relates to the Question of Limitation of Naval Armaments; and a General Study of the Acceptable Ratios of Limitation." Except for this meeting, which took place on 31 March 1927, there is no evidence that Pratt's views were specifically sought or heeded. There is a small amount of evidence that Admirals Wiley and McVay did not trust Pratt's judgment, perhaps thinking him too ready to accept further reduction in the Navy; therefore they moved directly ahead by means of the Executive Committee's authority. In January of 1927 Pratt had testified before a Senate subcommittee, and stated that as long as the ratios were adhered to, he could see no objection to further reduction of the world's navies. This conclusion was specifically rejected by the General Board in its paper on capital ships. Concerning further battleship reductions, it noted; "Any agreement for premature scrapping . . . would operate to reduce the temporary military advantage which the United States now enjoys with respect to Japan."11
In private letters to Admiral Jones and Admiral Coontz, written during 1926 and 1927, Pratt expressed his usual views about the desirability of the Anglo-Saxon powers keeping the world at peace. He always insisted that America must have absolute naval parity with Britain, and that American trade routes were just as important as p250 those of the British. Despite these disclaimers, there is little doubt that he left the impression with many flag officers, senior and junior to him, that he trusted the English more than they did. As a deliberative body the General Board showed, in its series of position papers, that it expected the British to follow policies at variance with Pratt's Anglophilic views.12
From the glimpses we get in the Newport Daily News, occasional references in the Army and Navy Journal, and correspondence that survives in the collections of Pratt's papers, it is evident that the admiral's life at the War College was little different from that of presidents before or after him. Though the War College lacked the open quality of most naval bases, Pratt was quite conscious of the need to foster good relations with Newport's city fathers. He accepted memberships in local organizations, such as the Newport Reading Room, and deliberately attempted to acquaint the public with the work of the school. As might be expected, Navy Day was the one "open house" occurrence each year. Tours of the college's facilities, including the game-board room in Luce Hall, were made available for all and particularly the press. Important speakers, and there were many, were invited during the year to stay in the President's quarters. Louise and the admiral usually took the opportunity to invite a small group of War College staff and students to meet such dignitaries and spend the evening in earnest conversation. Most would have agreed with Captain Zogbaum's enthusiasm for Louise's handling of these affairs:
Mrs. Pratt was a true complement to her brilliant husband and made the social life in the President's House dignified and agreeable for naval families as well as Newporters. Her receptions were never a bore — as are so many large gatherings — and she had the faculty of bringing congenial people together.13
As War College President, Pratt regularly was asked to speak at civic functions, other colleges, and particularly before gatherings of citizens interested in international relations or naval affairs. He took these chores seriously and was an excellent speaker. In October 1925 Pratt spoke at the inauguration of his old friend Rear Admiral Ralph Earle (retired) who became president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His theme was simple: the training of young men at Worcester, p251 as at Annapolis, had its greatest value from the "spiritual development and self-discipline which comes to all men, young and old, who seek, by their thoughts and by their acts, to better the cause of humanity through service. It is the mental and moral training which is of the highest value. . . ."14 In the summer of 1926 Professor George Hubbard Blakeslee invited the admiral to address the Institute of Politics, a series of seminars and lectures held annually in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Here Pratt stressed the interest of America in the Pacific and the nation's desire to keep peace throughout the region. His object was to quiet the controversy that had been stirred the previous year by the great fleet maneuvers in the Hawaiian area. Many public figures had considered the Navy Department's actions provocative in the light of Japan's 1924 protests over the immigration act. Pratt told the conference that were war to come, and America to become a primary belligerent, it would "be due to blundering."15
During these two years of duty in New England, it was almost inevitable that the Pratts would be deeply involved in family affairs. Ralph Johnson worked in New York City and Alfred Johnson was in Belfast or the Boston area, depending on the season. Both of Louise's brothers regularly visited Newport and normally stayed with the Pratts. Alfred was deeply committed to genealogical study and local history, interests Louise shared, which led to several valuable publications, including a history of the Johnson family. The rest of the family worried that Alfred's health was not particularly good. Ralph and Posey Johnson kept an apartment in New York, but in 1926 they were travelling around the world. In October the Pratts were stunned by a cable from Peking. Posey had died suddenly of pneumonia and attendant complications. The death of this lively woman, so unlike but so attractive to Louise, cast a pall over the balance of Louise and Bill's stay in Newport.
The year before, another death had brought the Pratts a little closer together. Edgar Pratt's son "Nick," then living with Edgar's estranged wife, had died in an accident. Because his brother was in Los Angeles, Bill attended the funeral and Edgar was deeply grateful. Where previously he and Louise had not been particularly close, their bond of family friendship became more secure. In time Louise was to recognize p252 and treasure the tie of affection between the brothers that was only severed with Edgar's death in 1940.
As we can see, Pratt's duty in Newport, and its collateral assignment to the General Board, permitted him to stay in touch with naval affairs in Washington. During his monthly visits to Washington he dropped in on CNO Eberle, Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur, and various friends about the Department. Because he was due for relief in the summer of 1927, the admiral exercised a prerogative he was never bashful about using: he always let his seniors know what he preferred for a next assignment. In February he wrote to the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation (Rear Admiral W. R. Shoemaker), via Admiral Eberle, and requested duty in the Battle Fleet. He spelled out his qualifications: "The greater part of my sea service has been spent with the Fleet. I have commanded a dreadnought, have commanded the Destroyer Force Pacific Fleet and the Fourth Division, Battle Fleet."16 Unsaid in this brief formal letter was the fact that he would have to be given a vice admiral or admiral billet. He was too senior and experienced to command a battleship division or serve as a chief of staff. By specially requesting the Battle Fleet, he was ruling out the vice admiral's slot as commander of the Scouting Fleet. This duty, while attractive in 1923, clearly would have been a dead end for his career in 1927. Another possibility that Pratt had to face was that he would be sent to relieve Admiral C. S. Williams as Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet. This would mean four stars for two or three years and then a slow slide into retirement as a naval district commander or member of the General Board. At this point in time, Bill Pratt was working up steam for the top commands in the Navy and therefore "went for broke" — Battle Fleet or bust!
During the spring of 1927, aside from the monthly visits to Washington, the admiral took other actions to assist his cause. In letters to several officers, but particularly in writing to Rear Admiral Coontz who was Commandant of the Fifth Naval District in Norfolk, Pratt carefully spelled out his views on naval disarmament, relations with Great Britain, and naval bases in the Pacific.17 One gets the picture in reading these letters that he wanted to inform the Navy's senior officers about his views on the subjects most on their minds. Should he be selected for Battle Fleet Commander and then U. S. Fleet Commander, he would be in a position to speak for the Navy on these p253 subjects. Because of Coontz's previous duties, Pratt was reasonably sure that he would be consulted when the next command "slate" was drafted. In this same spring, as we have noted before, Pratt had had the opportunity to express his ideas to the General Board's Executive Committee. Here Rear Admiral Wiley, then due to return to high command, was able to decide whether the War College President possessed views sufficiently in conformity with those of the fleet to be trusted with a major position of influence. Behind these considerations, of course, was Pratt's record as BATDIV 4 Commander and President of the War College. Vice Admiral Wiley had rated him quite highly in the fitness reports describing his work as a battleship division commander in these words:
Rear Admiral Pratt is an able, energetic, industrious and hard working Division Commander. He is an able seaman and handles his division with skill and judgment. His performance of duty has been thoroughly satisfactory in every respect. He is qualified for higher command. (3/31/25)
I regret to lose so competent and skillful a division commander. (6/5/25)
Admiral Eberle's fitness reports were quite honest in noting that as CNO he had been unable to observe Pratt's work at the war college. On the other hand, he did comment that "from the results accomplished at the War College, under his command, he had performed his duties in a very efficient and highly satisfactory manner."18
In late May 1927, when fleet maneuvers concluded with a visit by major units to New York and New England, Secretary of the Navy Wilbur and the U. S. Fleet's top officers took the occasion to visit the Naval War College, address the graduating class, and be hosted by the Pratts. The Secretary, to the obvious delight of Admiral Pratt, surprised the latter by awarding him a War College diploma along with those given to the Class of 1927. The Secretary had quietly polled senior fleet commanders to see if they would consider this award appropriate, and upon their recommendation he made it. A few weeks later the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, now Pratt's old friend R. H. Leigh, wrote that an entry had been made in the Navy Register to reflect this new qualification.19 To writers for the Army and Navy Journal, the visit of the Secretary of the Navy to Newport and the award to Pratt p254 helped to confirm rumors that had been adrift for a few months. Admiral Hughes would be relieved as CINCUS by Wiley and he would become CNO. In this game of musical billets, it was obvious to the Journal writer that Pratt would become Commander in Chief of the Battle Fleet.20
In early June the Secretary of the Navy finally released the "slate" for 1927‑1928. As predicted, Admiral C. F. Hughes would move into the Main Navy building and relieve Eberle as CNO; Admiral H. A. Wiley would return to sea and relieve Hughes as CINCUS; Vice Admiral L. R. de Steiguer would "fleet up" to relieve Admiral R. H. Jackson as COMBATFLT; and Rear Admiral Pratt would relieve Vice Admiral de Steiguer as COMBATDIVS.21 On 11 July 1927 President Coolidge ordered Pratt to relieve de Steiguer by 17 September 1927, and "In accordance with this designation as Commander Battleship Divisions, Battle Fleet you will assume the rank and hoist the flag of a vice admiral."
Pratt should have been delighted with this command, but he wasn't. Upon graduation from the Naval Academy, and now thirty-eight years later, he stood above Louis R. de Steiguer on the rear admiral list, but he would be outranked by him in the Battle Fleet. Always conscious of his position in relation to his classmates and those senior to him, Pratt could see the possibility of trailing de Steiguer on up the fleet ladder as he became CINCUS. Should this occur, it was equally possible that Pratt would never reach the top sea command, because CINCUS often kept his billet for two years and COMBATFLT was normally a one‑year tour. This had happened to Admiral R. H. Jackson. It should be noted that de Steiguer reached his position above Pratt by the luck of assignment. He relieved Pratt as COMBATDIV 4 and in the summer of 1926 moved up to COMBATDIVS. With just two years at sea in 1927, and plenty of shore duty in grade, he was in a position to move to COMBATFLT when Pratt returned to sea as COMBATDIVS. To those making up the "slate" it seemed logical to let Pratt come in as a vice admiral and let de Steiguer move ahead. The key to future movement, unknown to both of them, did not lie with Pratt or de Steiguer. In taking over as CINCUS, Admiral Wiley extracted a promise from Secretary Wilbur that he should hold the billet for at least two years. There were changes he wanted to make in the U. S. Fleet and they could not be effected in a one‑year tour of p255 showing his four-star flag.22 This "promise" to Wiley made it possible for Bill Pratt to reach the top. But in the summer of 1927, once he was finished grousing about de Steiguer, he had to begin planning for his return to sea.
As one of the top‑ranking officers in the Navy, Admiral Pratt would now rate a staff of at least ten officers to assist him. He could also expect the Bureau of Navigation to honor his requests for specific individuals to be ordered to his staff. In keeping with the customs of the day, the prospective commanders and captains would be informally consulted to see if they wanted duty with Pratt. Since he was a rising vice admiral, and few doubted that he would be CINCUS, there was plenty of talent available from which to choose. The tradition of riding the coattails of an admiral moving up, as a means of attaining higher rank for themselves, was already well established among the middle-grade officers of the 1920s. Pratt knew the game, though he never admitted to being a participant. As in the past, he wanted talented men, who were independent thinkers, but who would be loyal to his ideas and plans. He also preferred men who had served with him previously and whom he knew could be trusted to exercise initiative and sound judgment.
For chief of staff, Pratt secured the services of Captain Arthur J. Hepburn. This talented officer, later to become CINCUS, was a much sought-after individual. No one doubted that he would be a flag officer and Pratt knew he could be trusted to manage the staff and handle BATDIV 5 in the name of his boss. The admiral had observed Hepburn's work as Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence and on the General Board; he was sure he had a first-class leader. The Class of 1927 at the War College had several men in it who had served with Pratt before and were to join his staff. Commander Hollis M. Cooley had served as Pacific Destroyer Force Engineering Officer in 1920‑1921 and now came on board as Engineering Officer for the Battleship Divisions. A year later Captain Royal E. Ingersoll and Captain Edward T. Hoopes (SC) would join the staff. For Gunnery Aide, the admiral selected Commander William W. Wilson and as Communications Officer, Lieutenant Commander W. I. Causey, Jr. "Jimmy" Campbell, of course, was ordered to accompany Pratt as Flag Lieutenant and Aide. Finally, of those the admiral knew and definitely wanted for his staff, none had higher priority (except, perhaps, Hepburn) than Lieutenant Commander Russell S. Berkey, "Berk," as previously described, had p256 served in New York, on the Destroyer Force staff, and had helped break Pratt's two stars in Pennsylvania. He had done a tour at the Naval Academy and in 1925‑1926 had served with Rear Admiral de Steiguer, again in BATDIV 4. In 1926‑1927 he was in the ship's company of Concord, one of the newer cruisers of the Omaha class. Now he would be Aide and Flag Secretary. Pratt remembered Berkey well when he wrote his "Autobiography": "My flag secretary, Berkey, had always served with me at sea. He, too, had been with me since New York days, and he also went with me to the end. One of the most efficient officers I have known, he will go far and I wish him luck."23 (Lieutenant Commander Berkey eventually became Admiral Berkey before his retirement in 1950.)
With his staff selections completed, Pratt had a relaxing summer in Newport plus a few weeks of leave in Belfast. Almost two years to the day since taking command, on 7 September 1927, Rear Admiral J. R. P. Pringle relieved Pratt. They were old friends; both had served with Sims. The ceremonies concluded, Pratt and Campbell took the train to Washington for final briefings and a General Board meeting before starting the transcontinental trip to San Pedro, California. Louise had given serious thought to living on the West Coast during Pratt's sea duty, but prudence and their traditional thrift won out. The admiral had reasonable assurance, or believed he had, that he would relieve Admiral Wiley in one year and become CINCUS. As such, his home port would be on the East Coast; therefore it seemed wasteful to move his family west for only a year. Pratt knew he would be busy, probably at sea a good part of his first year, and he hated to see Louise in an area where she would have few friends and little to do. In Belfast, as they both knew, there would be much to occupy her, with reconstructing the old Johnson family home, "Primrose Hill," which they had just taken into full possession.
Vice Admiral Pratt took command of the Battleship Divisions, Battle Fleet in a brief ceremony on 24 September 1927. Because Admiral Louis de Steiguer already had taken command of the Battle Fleet, Pratt simply reported to him on board California in San Pedro Bay. A half-hour later he returned to West Virginia and ordered a seventeen‑gun salute to COMBATFLT. California acknowledged with a fifteen‑gun salute honoring Pratt, the new COMBATDIVS.24 Across the continent, p257 Admiral H. A. Wiley would relieve Admiral C. F. Hughes as CINCUS on 7 November and the latter then relieved Admiral E. W. Eberle as CNO. These changes normally occurred in the late spring, but Pratt's duties at the War College had forced the delay.
Pratt's return to the Battle Fleet in the fall of 1927 coincided with a new spirit of assertiveness at the top levels of the Navy that was traceable to the collapse of the Geneva Naval Conference in August. To many in Congress, and among the public, naval domination of this ill‑starred meeting had been the cause of its failure. Others blamed the political leaders for not negotiating more fully in advance of the conference so that there were more points of agreement, rather than disagreement, when the formal discussions began. Those who took the time to read the record and follow the new reports were led to conclude that the United States simply was in no position to exert pressure for naval reductions or even limitation. The conference met to stop the burgeoning naval race in combatant auxiliaries (cruisers, destroyers, submarines, etc.) that had developed among the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. All of the nations, except America, had large numbers of cruisers under construction and plans for even more. The United States, on the other hand, in 1924 had legislated for the construction of eight 10,000‑ton 8‑inch gun cruisers, but in June 1927 only the keels of two of these, Pensacola (CA‑24) and Salt Lake City (CA‑25), had been laid. The Coolidge Administration, and its Congressional supporters, had really hoped that the rest of the naval powers would reduce their cruiser fleets down to American levels. The United States had scrapped its battleship power in 1922 to make agreement possible; similar sacrifices were expected of the British and Japanese at Geneva. American expectations hardly squared with international realities and so the conference collapsed.25
From an American naval viewpoint it was evident that the country should get on with the business of "rounding out the fleet." The ten light cruisers of the Omaha class were the only modern cruisers the Navy had. The old light cruisers and armored cruisers (or heavy cruisers) lacked the speed, endurance, firepower, and protection to work with the newer battleships in the Battle Fleet. They had been retained in commission because there was nothing to replace them with. The new light cruisers were too few for the necessary assignments and they were not particularly good vessels for a Navy oriented towards the Pacific p258 Ocean. The heavy cruisers legislated in 1924 were needed immediately; and the construction of more of them, of improved design, was the General Board's first priority after modernizing the older battleships. Ironically the Navy Department found allies in Congress. Many legislators now recognized that a future naval limitation conference could never hope to succeed unless the United States built up to the ratios allowed in the 1922 Five-Power Treaty.
At the same time that the General Board was deciding to press for more cruisers, for reasons quite different from those of President Coolidge and the Congress, it was also absolutely committed to seeing a full modernization of the battleship fleet. Technological advances were already overtaking the battle line that seemed so satisfactory in 1922. Reliable aircraft, gunpowder catapults, and lightweight aircraft radios made it possible to scout far in advance of the battle line and allow battleship divisions to move into battle formations more easily. The same aviation capability, devoted to spotting aircraft, also permitted battleships to fire at extreme long ranges against targets not even visible to spotters in the fighting tops and straddles on a second salvo were expected. Such long-range fire then created a pressing need for thicker armored decks to protect against plunging projectiles. Complicating the problem, and making battleship modernization even more critical, was the fact that torpedo damage could be inflicted from long-ranging, fleet-type submarines, or aircraft flying off carriers or battleships, or from the enemy's destroyers and cruisers. To meet this new threat of underwater damage, it was vitally necessary to add "blisters" or bulges to the exterior of the older battleships. Those same additions would be useful for oil bunkers when the battleship boilers were converted from coal to oil‑burners.
While the lack of cruisers and the necessity to modernize the battleships was quite evident to those who cared to examine the Navy very closely, the critical shortage of officer personnel was not as easily recognized. The 1922 cutback to three appointments to the Naval Academy for each senator and representative was beginning to be felt in the late 1920s. Smaller graduating classes, plus higher rates of resignation among junior officers, were occurring at the same time that the need for officers was rising sharply. The cruisers and battleships now demanded more officers because of modernized fire-control and propulsion systems. The steady expansion of fleet aviation already had created an almost insatiable demand for pilots and observers. And at the end of 1927 the two giant aircraft carriers would be commissioned; each ship's p259 company was double that of a battleship and each would carry five squadrons of aircraft and their officers. It was evident that unless officers were brought in from sources other than the Naval Academy, and few would advocate this, the whole Battle Fleet would be severely pressed to remain operational. The training concept that newly commissioned ensigns should first serve in the battleships or cruisers in order to be rotated through a variety of duties, was being strained by the necessity to man the destroyers. There simply was not an adequate supply of officers. Congress's answer was to mandate that 30 percent of the pilot trainees should be enlisted men, but this had not proven satisfactory. The Bureau of Aeronautics provided a second answer. Recently trained and designated Reserve naval aviators were brought on active duty for a year or two as contract "flight ensigns." But these measures were little more than palliatives. Finally, in 1928, Congress relented and allowed four Naval Academy appointments per legislator; but, by then, the Navy's efficiency been sorely tested.
There were two other developments under study in the summer of 1927 that were to affect vitally the work of the Navy and Pratt's leadership. As a subordinate commander in the fleet, the Commander of Aircraft Squadrons, Rear Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves, was working hard to prepare for the day when the carriers Lexington and Saratoga would be commissioned. Flying from Langley and bases ashore, the Battle Fleet's squadrons were developing attack and defense doctrines that could be utilized once the new carriers were at hand. Aviation units had participated in fleet exercises since the 1923 Caribbean maneuvers and the aviators were anxious to put their ideas to the test. Leaders like Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Reeves, and a group of aviator commanders and captains (Mustin, Whiting, Mitscher, Towers) had insisted that naval aviation belonged with the fleet and should not, as General Billy Mitchell insisted, be separated into a unified air service. Now these naval aviators were about ready to prove why this was so.
The second development that was to change the Navy's thinking in the late 1920s was indirectly traceable to Pratt. From the years of his first duty at the Naval War College, he had been an advocate of planning. He pressed to have a planning section created in the Office of Naval Operations and he saw this accomplished during his tour as Assistant CNO. Later this section was to become the War Plans Division of CNO's Office. With Sims, Pratt also believed that the War College should be a place where the Navy's war plans were tested for feasibility p260 and practicability. Finally, as we have seen, Pratt had insisted that considerable time be spent at the War College in the study of international relations. The flowering of these trends took place in the summer of 1927 when the General Board prepared its position papers in preparation for the Geneva Conference.26 Though filled with stereotypes, and some misunderstanding of national behavior, these papers did attempt to present a clear picture of national interests, goals, policies, and the naval power available to the countries analyzed. The officer who directed these studies was Pratt's close friend, Rear Admiral Frank H. Schofield. Here he displayed again why he had the reputation of being the Navy's best planner. What emerged from these studies of 1927, also to be reflected in the war plans written during 1926 and 1927, was the firm conviction that Japan was the nation the United States most likely would have to fight in any future war. Once the premise was accepted, then operations, naval base planning, and ship construction would be guided by it. The Battle Fleet's principal task would always be to prepare for the inevitable war with Japan. This premise, while seldom stated explicitly, been a part of Navy thinking since 1905. It was the reason why the Battle Fleet was in the Pacific, why Pearl Harbor was slowly being developed as a major base, why many boards had called for a new operating base in San Francisco Bay, why long-ranging 10,000‑ton cruisers were necessary, and why it was so important to increase the Battle Fleet radius by changing from coal to oil‑fired boilers.27 For Vice Admiral Pratt the premise was to pose a major problem; it was to stand between him and those officers in the Navy who accepted it as an article of faith. Once this premise was accepted, it was very difficult to agree to future naval limitation.
Pratt took command of the battleship divisions with the expectation that he would stay less than a year in the billet and would then "fleet up" to CINCUS. The training schedule had been set the year before by COMBATFLT; therefore his principal duty was to see that the battleship training was accomplished. He found that the Battle Fleet routine of 1923‑1925 had not changed during his absence; if anything, it had become even more stultified. The summer operations and overhauls in the Puget Sound area had been completed when he took over and there was to be no U. S. Fleet concentration in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico in the winter of 1927‑1928. Money was in short supply and Admiral Wiley was saving what he could for a large fleet exercise in p262 Hawaiian waters during the late spring. So Pratt's first six months were spent operating in the San Pedro‑San Diego region with concentration on formation steaming, division and force exercises, and preparation for the long-range battle-practice competitions of the late spring.
Vice Admiral Pratt
During this period of routine training exercises Pratt was able to put some of his ideas concerning battleship operations into effect. He began the practice of keeping the battleship divisions at sea for five days each week and permitting a return to San Pedro only on weekends. Normally the battleships anchored south of Santa Rosa Island each evening and returned to their exercises with sunrise. He described the results to Louise in one of his daily letters to Belfast:
The officers and men are beginning to know each other and to feel that the ship is a home and not just an office. We are taking it easy and the atmosphere is not strained as it always is when you are trying to pull off a practice and at the same time get home every night.28
The results, at least in terms of efficiency, pleased the admiral. On 1 February the battleship divisions fired a full long-range battle practice more quickly than had ever been accomplished under a previous commander. It is not known how the fleet's wives liked the routine. We do know that the residents of Avalon and Palos Verdes complained vehemently that gun concussions were disturbing their tranquility when practice firing was held. Pratt accommodated the natives by ordering the battleships to fire no closer than •thirty miles from the nearest land.
Both Admiral Wiley and Pratt were dissatisfied with the budgetary limits on long voyages by the Battle Fleet. The two admirals wanted a winter cruise down the South American coast to Valparaiso, as a "warm‑up" for the Hawaiian maneuvers, but the CNO said no. There weren't enough funds to take care of the necessary fuel and the inevitable rise in overhaul and material costs that would result from the cruise. Wiley, in particular, felt that the Navy owed it to the enlisted men to see more of the world than Point Loma, Catalina, and the San Pedro breakwater. He argued his case in language that Pratt easily endorsed:
Man-of‑warsmen must be seamen. Both officers and men can best be trained at sea. . . . Much of the necessary training of the Fleet can be carried out when making passage between ports on foreign cruises, as was demonstrated by the world cruise of the battleships during President Roosevelt's administration, p263 and by the more recent (1925) cruise of the Fleet to Australia and New Zealand.29
CNO Hughes didn't disagree with these sentiments either; but Congress obviously did not see the matter in the same light.
The variety of training exercises off the California coast did permit Pratt to continue another practice that he firmly believed in. He seldom exercised command of BATDIV 5 and instead left this to Captain Hepburn. This gave the latter the command experience he was losing by serving as a chief of staff, and such practice left Pratt free to concern himself with planning. He also encouraged the other battleship division commanders to give their captains a chance to maneuver the divisions. The end result of this approach was to give all of the captains the training necessary for them to take command should casualties occur on the flag bridge during battle. It also meant that all senior officers in the battleship divisions developed a deeper sense of loyalty to the plans and operating doctrines of COMBATDIVS. Fourteen years later the spirit of Sims was still very much alive in the Battle Fleet.
By these training devices, Pratt felt he was making an impression on the Battle Fleet. He told Louise that he wasn't making much noise about his methods of operation, he just pushed his ideas steadily and quietly. In his usual modest manner, he said he didn't have much time for faultfinding. "I have so many failings myself that most of my time has to be spent looking out for myself: It doesn't leave much time to be finding fault in others." If there was any general principle that appeared to guide Pratt's conduct as a commander, it seemed to be the simple rule to never make excuses. After a particularly trying episode in San Pedro, the admiral spelled out this principle:
I have one rule, "never make excuses, and do not accept them." It is a hard rule. I don't say it is just always, but it stiffens character to have something like that to cling to. . . . It may be pride, it may be principle, but I think it is just self-reliance and the feeling that I can't ask favors, and that to be a man I must shoulder the responsibility be I right or wrong. No man . . . can be a leader who hasn't that willingness. He will always follow others.30
In the midst of planning for the Hawaiian maneuvers, to commence in mid‑April 1928, notices began to appear in the service journals that Vice Admiral Pratt probably would be moving up the fleet ladder to COMBATFLT or CINCUS. At the same time he received unverified rumors from Louise that he was being considered as a relief for Vice p264 Admiral Ashley Robertson who was commanding the Scouting Fleet. The purpose of such a move would be to straighten out a poor command, but more importantly to remove him from competition for COMBATFLT or CINCUS. Pratt ignored these rumors and reminded his wife, with supreme confidence, that he was preferred by the younger officers of the fleet and that both Admiral Hughes and Secretary Wilbur had intimated that they wanted him as CINCUS.31 The question was resolved on 14 March when Rear Admiral Leigh, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, wrote a confidential letter to his old friend:
The Secretary has definitely decided to continue Admiral Wiley in command of the U. S. Fleet until after the maneuvers in Panama next winter, which means that he will probably remain there until the end of May or early June, 1929.
The Secretary has also decided to give you command of the Battle Fleet, and I sincerely hope that this will be pleasing to you, and I believe that it will.32
This news really wasn't pleasing to the vice admiral. On the day he received "Reddy" Leigh's letter, he wrote to CNO Hughes and then to his wife:
I also wrote to Hughes, Chief of Naval Operations. Said of course I was proud to get the billet. It is really the working part of the line, but I said I was surprised in view of what Mr. Wilbur said a year ago, and in view of that I felt I must be considered a candidate for C‑in‑C U. S. Fleet when Wiley left next spring. That struck me as being fair.
As irritating to Pratt as anything about the new command was the fact that he had been hard at work drafting a reorganization for the U. S. Fleet. He would now have to try it out on the Battle Fleet, if Admiral Wiley approved. And there was the "rub."33
A theme that ran through Admiral Pratt's correspondence with his wife during his first Battle Fleet tour, and appeared again when he returned to the fleet, was his conflict with Admiral Wiley. Senior to Pratt by a year at the Naval Academy, Wiley had been a step ahead of his junior throughout most of their careers. The gap widened in 1918 when Wiley became a rear admiral; Pratt had to wait until 1921. While still a captain, Pratt relieved Wiley of the Pacific Destroyer Force command; and during 1923‑1925 Wiley was COMBATDIVS while Pratt commanded Battleship Division Four. In that first Battle Fleet tour the p265 two came into conflict regularly. Wiley stressed force evolutions and division steaming exercises; his junior preferred to emphasize operations with destroyers and gunnery practice. In 1927‑1928 there was disagreement again. As CINCUS, Wiley asked COMBATFLT de Steiguer to rewrite his training schedules to place less emphasis on gunnery and more on tactical maneuvering.34 While Pratt did not disagree with the concept that battleship captains needed shiphandling experience, he did feel that too much emphasis on signals and tactical evolutions accomplished little and simply ran the division staffs ragged. Above all, he conceived the battleship's primary role to be gunnery and he wanted improvements there. Again, he was a true acolyte of Sims.
Probably Pratt would not have been human had he not drawn comparisons between himself and Wiley when writing to Louise:
As far as work and accomplishment is concerned (as COMBATDIVS), I suppose I have done more than Wiley has. If there is a difference between us, it might be that Wiley thinks more about himself than I think about myself. I imagine they know this in Washington at the Department.35
Pratt, of course, was not being completely candid. He thought a great deal about himself; but, more importantly, he thought more about others and showed it in his relations with his juniors.
The spring maneuvers of 1928 were a pleasant interlude as Pratt worked on his plans for the Battle Fleet. After ten days of operations in Hawaiian waters, the Battle Fleet enjoyed a round of parties during shore leave. Many of the Battle Fleet wives sailed to Honolulu for a spring vacation with their husbands, but Vice Admiral Pratt, as usual, lived the bachelor's life. He and Campbell toured the golf links and went to all of the formal receptions. It was also a time for ship and division competitions in athletics, and Pratt enjoyed as many games as he could attend. With Wiley, he believed that the Fleet's athletic program was vital for both the morale and the morals of the crews.
In notifying Pratt that he would become COMBATFLT at the termination of the Hawaiian cruise, Admiral Leigh also advised him that he should select his staff. Except for a chief of staff, this was no problem; Pratt asked that his current staff simply move with him to his new command. He did hit a snag with Hepburn. As COMBATFLT, Pratt was required to have a rear admiral to head his staff and he would rate a captain for assistant chief of staff. He therefore accepted Rear p266 Admiral Harris Laning, Admiral de Steiguer's chief of staff, and left Hepburn to serve Vice Admiral Louis Nulton when he relieved Pratt as COMBATDIVS. Laning and Pratt were old friends who had worked together in the Torpedo Flotilla and again in the Navy Department during the war. But, as might be expected, Pratt preferred those who previously had served on his staffs.36 The problem was solved quite pleasantly when Hepburn was selected for rear admiral in the late spring of 1928. Though still wearing his four stripes, he reported to Pratt's staff on 4 August 1928 and relieved Laning. The latter moved to the Scouting Fleet and command of BATDIV 2. Pratt was equally lucky with his assistant chief of staff. He requested the services of Captain Royal E. Ingersoll who was just completing his tour on the Naval War College staff. The captain had a genius for organization and planning, which he had demonstrated in Newport, and Pratt knew he would require these talents in managing the Battle Fleet. Pratt's staff would be rounded out by an informal addition, Lieutenant Commander Calvin ("Cal") T. Durgin, a naval aviator and commander of the battleship divisions' observation squadrons.37 "Cal" Durgin had been based on board West Virginia, as Commanding Officer of Squadron VO‑1B, when she was the flagship for COMBATDIVS. Pratt had known Durgin across the bridge table and on the golf links and began using this very likable officer as an unofficial aide for aviation. As COMBATDIVS, the admiral did not rate such a staff member and still would not have an aviation aide as COMBATFLT. But "Cal" would be handy in West Virginia and he often provided the admiral with air taxi service when he wished to move around a bit.
The change-of‑command ceremony took place on 26 June 1928 on board California, the flagship of COMBATFLT, lying off San Pedro. When Pratt's four stars were saluted with seventeen guns, he had reached the point in a naval career that almost every naval officer must dream about when he leaves the Naval Academy.38 Only two men in the Navy were truly senior to him that day — Admiral Henry A. Wiley as CINCUS and Admiral Charles F. Hughes, the CNO. There was a fourth admiral, Mark L. Bristol, who was in command of the Asiatic Fleet, but except for the formality of his two years seniority, which made him senior to Hughes and Wiley, he was considered to be out of p268 the main channel of the Navy's high command. Despite his position on that day in June, we know that Bill Pratt was not satisfied. He had expected to be CINCUS that summer, but he was COMBATFLT instead. He had put his "chit" in for the top sea job and he was in a good position to achieve it. Admiral Wiley had had a year as CINCUS and would serve another. At the end of that year Pratt would be the logical candidate for the billet unless the fates intervened.
USS California, the flagship of Commander Battle Fleet, in San Diego Harbor, December 1928.
Admiral Pratt's year as COMBATFLT can be characterized as a period of frustration and "marking time" until he was sure that he would be CINCUS. It did have one high point of great future significance for the Navy. This occurred during Fleet Exercise IX in the Panama-Pacific area. With the exception of this period, he found that he had inherited the traditional "hollow crown" of intermediate high command. The Battle Fleet was a powerful group of vessels, spread from Hawaii to Puget Sound to San Diego, but incapable of being assembled into a single fighting fleet except under special conditions. At those times when a U. S. Fleet concentration occurred, the Battle Fleet commander became the Battleship Divisions' commander while CINCUS managed the combined fleets. When the fleets were not combined, the Battle Fleet was dispersed and its commander spent his time writing administrative memoranda, devising training schedules, and inspecting divisions and units in the fleet. On the few occasions when the Battle Fleet concentrated and carried out maneuvers, as in April 1928 in Hawaii, CINCUS was normally present, a factor which reduced the authority of COMBATFLT.
Finally, the traditional game of "musical billets" played at the highest levels of command in the Navy tended to undermine the authority of the Battle Fleet commander and seriously to affect the efficiency of his command. As COMBATFLT, Pratt devised a one‑year training schedule, for fiscal year 1930, but he would be relieved before the schedule could be put into operation. Likewise, he carried out plans devised by de Steiguer and modified by Wiley. If he was expected to learn anything from experience in high command, it would have to come from carrying out and evaluating the plans made by others. He could hardly be held accountable, or evaluated intelligently by his superiors, when operating within such a milieu. About the only time in his flag career when his talents for organization, planning, and exercising command had been fully observed had been when he commanded BATDIV 4 (1923‑1925) or when he had held flag-level billets as a captain. In sum, it seems evident that Admiral Pratt was going to be measured for the CINCUS p269 billet with meaningful data from the years when he was Assistant CNO (1917‑1919), COMDESFORPACFLT (1920‑1921), and COMBATDIV 4 (1923‑1925). The rest of the years, when he held less important commands or was assigned to administrative duties, were valuable to those making decisions to the extent that they helped to create a firm image of his "service reputation."
During his year as COMBATFLT, Admiral Pratt again came into conflict with Admiral Wiley. The latter had a plan for reorganization of the U. S. Fleet that he had considered for several years and now wished to implement. He sent copies to Pratt and the other fleet commanders for their criticism and also sent a preliminary version to CNO Hughes. Wiley's plan called for the elimination of the currently existing fleets, with the exception of the Asiatic Fleet, and proposed to create "force" or "type" commands. There would be a "battleship force" with an admiral in command and with a vice admiral deputy, a "carrier force" command with a vice admiral and a rear admiral, a "cruiser force" with a vice admiral and a rear admiral, and similar structures for submarines, destroyers, and base forces. Having just one commander in chief, Wiley hoped, would lead to "unity of command, concentration of forces, and uniformity and continuity of training and doctrine."39 He assumed that the type commanders would develop such uniformity of training and operational doctrine that destroyer or cruiser divisions could be shifted from coast to coast, or out to the Asiatic command, and there would be no loss of efficiency. More importantly, he could visualize the creation of task groups, made up of selected divisions and squadrons from the various forces, and the task group commander would be able to move rapidly to action.
Pratt had held similar ideas in 1920‑1921, but he now saw things differently. In the earlier years he had been concerned that demands for loyalty to a fleet commander's plans would interfere with the benefits of type training. Now, as a fleet commander, he was forced to defend his interests. While he still believed in the efficacy of type training, he was concerned that Wiley's plan would rob his own command of any vitality it possessed. Quite logically, he argued that until there were adequate fleet bases on the West Coast that could handle the battleships and carriers, there would have to be an Atlantic-based fleet with a mixture of types, whatever its name might be. He also pressed a personal view of his concerning high command. Under Wiley's plan the p270 CINCUS would have so much to do that he would become a mere paper shuffler. The continuance of subordinate fleets, such as his own command, at least would assure that a few people would actually get command experience.40
Pratt's demurrer, while possibly irritating to Wiley, was not important. Admiral Hughes had already decided that he preferred the current arrangement of the Navy. Pratt was to resurrect Wiley's plan, modify it considerably, and reorganize the U. S. Fleet. But this was three years in the future.
In the fall of 1928 Pratt tried to rewrite the Battle Fleet's "Fighting Instructions" and was given the same treatment that Wiley had received with his reorganization plan. The proposal that Pratt submitted outlined in great detail a large number of battle formations to be controlled on signal from COMBATFLT or his division commanders. It also modified accepted battle doctrine in several instances, particularly where destroyers and cruisers were used to support a general battleship engagement. Wiley rejected Pratt's approach on two accounts: CNO had removed his authority to approve such plans; and he personally doubted the wisdom of implementing them. CINCUS believed the proposed battle instructions were too complicated for any commander and his staff to manage in an engagement. He also disagreed with Pratt's ideas about using combatant auxiliaries in battle.41 It now became painfully obvious to Admiral Pratt that he would have to be CINCUS or CNO if his ideas were to become part of the Navy's doctrine.
Admiral Pratt, Commander Battle Fleet.
As Battle Fleet commander, the admiral devoted a fair amount of time to matters of morale and general administration. Admiral Wiley, as we have noted, was a stickler when it came to smartness in the men and matters of protocol. Quite early he pressed his subordinate commanders to identify the men in their commands who did not measure up to high standards of performance and appearance. They were expected to weed these men out before the fleets sailed into foreign ports.42 Pratt himself issued his own memorandum to the Battle Fleet which spelled out his views about a "Code of Service." In many ways it epitomized the ethic by which the admiral had lived his life and is worth quoting:
|p271 1.||There is only one thing for which officers and men, high and low, should enter the Navy. It is to give service.|
|2.||In time of war it means to give your life if necessary.|
|3.||In time of peace it means to give the best you have in you that the Navy may be a credit to the Country and the people may be proud of the personnel that composes the Navy.|
|4.||It is for these reasons that the Navy has imposed upon itself a code of conduct and prescribed rules which are for the purpose of developing character. These rules and standards which the Navy has set for itself are p272 more lofty and exacting than those which apply to civilians as a whole. Naval character shows itself in the manner, bearing and appearance of all officers and men.|
|5.||The Commander-in‑Chief, Battle Fleet, is confident that a high spirit animates this command and that each man will ask himself "What must I do to make myself, my division, my ship and the Fleet, a happier, smarter and more efficient Force?"43|
Pratt's "pastoral letters" took up other matters besides morale. He issued several memoranda reminding division commanders and ship captains of their own personal responsibility for the safe navigation of their vessels or divisions under their command. In preparation for entering San Francisco Bay by way of the Bonita Channel, he wanted no ghosts from Point Honda to mar his fleet's performance. Another memorandum, seemingly a bit detailed for his level, dealt with seamanship and watertight integrity in the Battle Fleet. But Pratt was a seaman and he knew the unforgiving ways of the Pacific Ocean when her minions treated her with carelessness or indifference.
About midway through his year as COMBATFLT, Admiral Pratt was by chance thrown into close contact with President-elect Herbert Hoover. Following his smashing victory over Al Smith, Mr. Hoover decided to make a good-will and information-gathering trip to South America. President Coolidge put the battleship Maryland at his service to carry him to Valparaiso and Utah to return him northward from Buenos Aires. Pratt knew the President-elect from occasional meetings during the war and from contacts in the years that Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce. He undoubtedly wished to make a good impression on the man who would sign his next orders were he selected to be CINCUS. From the newspaper accounts that detailed his trip on an hourly basis, we know that Hoover and his party took the train from Palo Alto to San Pedro and directly out to pier five. Pratt met the party, took them in to his personal barge, and saw them out to Maryland. The rails were manned on the ships in the harbor, a twenty‑one-gun salute was fired; even the Presidential ruffles and flourishes were given and the national anthem played. Scrupulous about protocol, Pratt had determined that as a Presidential envoy, Hoover could be given every honor in the book, with the exception of the President's official blue flag, which was not flown. Across the country, almost every major newspaper carried the Associated Press photograph of Admiral Pratt p273 standing by as Mr. Hoover entered the barge; even "Jimmy" Campbell's broad grin was evident as he waited on board to receive the group.44 If he was annoyed as being identified as rear admiral or vice admiral, and titled as COMBATDIVS or simply "the Admiral," Pratt didn't show it. His personal collection had dozens of photographs and clippings to immortalize this day. The biographer is tempted to note that this is another case of the pure luck that seemed occasionally to guide the career of Admiral Pratt. In a few months, when his name was mentioned for the job of CINCUS, he would be no stranger to President Hoover. And a few months after that, when he would be considered for a vital international mission, it would be important to the President that he know something about this sailorman.
The visit of President-elect Herbert Hoover of the Battle Fleet, 19 November 1928. Left road right, unidentified seaman, Admiral Pratt, Commander A. T. Beauregard, Former Under Secretary of State Henry P. Fletcher, President-elect Hoover, and Lieutenant C. W. A. Campbell.
p274 It is possible that Admiral Pratt's year as COMBATFLT might have passed without ever attracting the Department's attention had there not been a U. S. Fleet concentration off Panama and the working out of Fleet Problem IX. During 1928 the new aircraft carriers, Lexington (CV‑2) and Saratoga (CV‑3), were commissioned and joined the Battle Fleet. The Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet (COMAIRONS), Rear Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, was sure that the fleet's power had been enormously enhanced; but no one in the upper levels of command could guess by what "factor" this was so — or even if it were so. Earlier Caribbean and Panama maneuvers had seen use of the experimental carrier Langley (CV‑1) and "constructive carriers" (ships designated to represent a carrier, usually a tender), but it now was time to see what the aviators could do with genuine carriers. These maneuvers also gave Admiral Pratt ample opportunity to demonstrate his command abilities. Admiral Wiley had set up the January 1929 problem by having "Blue" defend the Canal Zone against an attack by p275 hostile nation "Black" in the Pacific and an anticipated follow‑up attack by "Brown" from the Atlantic. Pratt was to command the "Black" forces which would include Saratoga and Langley. Lexington would be defending with the "Blue" units led by the Scouting Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Montgomery M. Taylor.
Admiral Pratt and Rear Admiral Joseph M. Reeves inspecting aerial photographic equipment at Naval Air Station, North Island, San Diego Harbor, California, 27 December 1928.
The story of Fleet Problem IX has been told often and need not be repeated in detail here.45 Admiral Pratt agreed to a plan, conceived by "Bull" Reeves' staff, that called for a long swing south by Saratoga and cruiser Omaha (acting as plane guard in case of accidents) and then a long-range carrier air strike against the Canal at daybreak. The attack went off with gameboard precision; the "Blue" fleet defenders and the Army were found asleep. Pratt flew his flag in Saratoga on the return to San Pedro to show his personal pride in the accomplishment of the Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet. From this demonstration in the crucible of a war game, came the Navy's acceptance of the tactical innovation of using carrier task groups for offensive purposes. As early as 1922‑1923, when Pratt was on the General Board, Commanders Mitscher and Whiting had pressed to have battleship divisions carry fighting planes on their catapults. The battleship admirals had recognized this need, in a theoretical sense; now they knew what the Bureau of Aeronautics' boys meant. Pratt learned a lot from this exercise. Task groups, built around carriers and cruisers, became standard in the 1930 maneuvers.
Aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV‑3).
Pratt showed that he had a full appreciation of the value of fleet aviation in another important way during his tour as COMBATFLT. "Reddy" Leigh in BUNAV and "Bull" Reeves were troubled by the shortage of candidates for naval aviator training. Reeves in particular was having trouble keeping his carrier squadrons filled and the battleship and cruisers supplied with aviators for their observation and scouting units. Unless more pilots were trained, a good deal of the development in aviation doctrine would be negated. Ideally, Reeves wanted two pilots in every plane catapulted from a battleship; but he now conceded that an observer need not be a qualified naval aviator.46 In p277 memoranda to the Battle Fleet Pratt urged that qualified enlisted men be encouraged to apply for flight training. He suggested that the battleship pilots give potential trainees an indoctrination flight or two to promote any latent interest. He also authorized the training of line officers from the battleships and cruisers in the duties of observers. Both he and Reeves promised that officers would be returned to their ships once they had been checked out as observers. Through these measures, plus the promotion of flight training at the Naval Academy, the fleet's needs for pilots were gradually met. In time, as the number of midshipmen at the Academy was increased, and more Naval Reserve aviators were brought on active duty for one and two‑year tours, the Navy began to meet its overall needs for aviators. But progress was slow and very costly.
From all of the evidence we have, Admiral Pratt appeared to have enjoyed thoroughly his year as COMBATFLT. An early 1929 report of a physical examination found him in good health. At •162 pounds he was perhaps a little heavy, but he had always been on the stocky side. The nasal polyps had not returned and his sciatica pains were not in evidence. He took a two‑week leave and occasional weekend trips with his brother Edgar and Campbell, and this practice probably kept him from becoming "stale." Whenever possible he played golf, but it is doubtful that he ever managed to score below 90.
During the spring and summer of 1928, with Bill on the West Coast, Louise Pratt was very busy overseeing the reconstruction of Primrose Hill. By agreement with her brother Ralph, made in September 1927, Louise took possession of the old Johnson home in Belfast. It was a large thirteen-room house located on •1⅔ acres at the corner of High and Waldo. The original structure had been put up around 1812 and had been enlarged through the years. In their letters, she and Bill clucked disapprovingly of the high cost of labor ($1.00 per hour for a stone mason!) and the shoddy craftsmanship of most of those they employed. Yet, in the end, both were delighted that the work turned out so well. Central heating, with a thermostat-controlled oil furnace, would now make it easier to survive the long Maine winters. Both were also pleased that their regular gardener and maintenance man, Wallace, would be putting in the rose garden and other landscaping at the big house. Ralph Johnson had advised his sister to do everything in a first-class manner, and by the fall of 1928 she could see the wisdom of his suggestion. Primrose Hill and its garden soon became one of the important landmarks in Belfast.c
p278 To break up the two‑year period of separation, Pratt managed to put together a family reunion in early 1929. He invited Ralph to travel with him to the fleet maneuvers off Panama. He had always enjoyed the company of Louise's brother and had visited him and Posey regularly in the years before her death. Bill also recognized that relations were getting a bit strained in the family due to Alfred Johnson's illness and the burden that was falling on Louise and Ralph. To make Ralph's visit and his own existence even more enjoyable, Pratt convinced his wife that she should take a winter Caribbean cruise and arrive in Panama when the fleet was there. For a change, all plans worked to perfection. Ralph enjoyed the Battle Fleet cruise, the thunder of the big guns, and the hurried maneuvers, as Pratt's "Black" forces demolished the Canal's defenses. Louise and Bill were able again to visit spots they had enjoyed in 1915‑1916. In their traditionally thrifty manner, the Pratts used the occasion to stock up on good china dishware that sold at prices much more reasonable than those in Boston or New York.
Though reasonably sure that he was going to command the U. S. Fleet, Pratt in his usual way did some contingency planning. Both in Washington and to his wife the admiral indicated that were he to come ashore, he would prefer another tour at the War College.47 He liked the area and its society, as did Louise, and they had even considered building a home there. The costs of construction had turned their minds to Belfast; it was considerably less expensive to reconstruct Primrose Hill than to build in Newport. But such ideas were just that; fortunately for everyone's peace of mind, the new high command slate was announced earlier than had been done in 1928.
Among the earliest decisions made by the new Secretary of the Navy, Charles Francis Adams III, were those concerned with reliefs for Admiral Wiley as CINCUS and for the other fleet commands. The Navy got the word on 8 March and it was in the news the next day.48 Pratt was to relieve Admiral Wiley as CINCUS on 21 May 1929. He would be relieved as COMBATFLT by Vice Admiral Louis M. Nulton, then serving as COMBATDIVS. Rear Admiral Lucius A. Bostwick would move up from COMBATDIV 3 to relieve Nulton.
Admiral Pratt's orders to serve as Commander in Chief, U. S. Fleet.
As was customary, letters of congratulation poured in on Bill Pratt. He was finally to attain the greatest honor any seagoing officer could hope to attain. While the Chief of Naval Operations ranked all officers p280 in terms of authority, CINCUS commanded the Fleet — and that is what counted. President F. H. Arosemena of Panama, whom Pratt had visited recently, congratulated him (in Spanish) and wished him "many more triumphs in your noble career." From "Main Navy" came the most prescient note of all. Rear Admiral Moffett, still Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, scribbled:
I never had any doubt that the office would seek you and that you would be Commander-in‑chief. Everybody is most pleased to have you reach this most exalted position and we all feel that the service and the country are to be congratulated on your appointment. There is only one billet left for you now, and I am placing my bets on you and I have for many years past.49
That "one billet," of course, was Chief of Naval Operations. At this moment in his life, there is little doubt that Admiral Pratt must have begun wondering if that job were really within his grasp. Perhaps he even wondered whether he wanted it, especially since his memories of Washington were not the richest or most satisfying in his very full life.
1 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp285‑90.
2 Newport Daily News, 5 September 1925.
3 U. S., Naval War College, "Outline History of the United States Naval War College, 1884 to Date," Unpublished MS, Naval War College Archives, Newport, R. I., pp189‑93; W. V. Pratt, "The Naval War College: An Outline of the Past and Description of the Present," United States Naval Institute Proceedings (September 1927), pp937‑47; Thomas B. Buell, "Preparing for World War II," Part I of "Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and the Naval War College," Naval War College Review (March 1971), pp30‑51.
4 Zogbaum, op. cit., p399; Pratt, "The Naval War College," pp943‑45.
5 U. S., Naval War College, Class of 1927 Committee No. 1, "Class of 1927 Report of Committee on 'A Logistic Study of the Pacific Area as a Theater of Operations in an Orange-Blue War. . . .' " Unpublished report, Naval War College Archives, Newport, R. I.
6 Zogbaum, op. cit., p400.
7 Pratt, "The Naval War College," pp941‑42.
8 President of Naval War College to CNO, Newport, 3 February 1927, File NC3/A3‑1(3), box 3158, RG80/NA.
9 Chief of the Bureau of Navigation to CNO, Washington, 2 March 1927, File NC3/A3‑1(3), box 3158, RG80/NA.
10 New York Times, 13 February 1926, p12:7.
11 U. S., Congress, Senate, Subcommittee of Committee on Appropriations, Hearings on Navy Department Appropriation Bill for 1928, H. R. 15641 (69th Cong., 2nd sess., 12 January 1927) (Washington: GPO, 1927); General Board No. 438, Serial 1347‑12(b), Washington, 13 May 1927, G. B. Records, NHD.
12 RADM H. P. Jones to WVP, Washington, 1 February 1926, Pratt MSS/NHD. WVP to ADM R. E. Coontz, Newport, R. I., 10 March 1927, Pratt MSS/NHD; General Board No. 438, Serial 1347‑1(a), Washington, 21 April 1927, G. B. Records, NHD.
13 Zogbaum, op. cit., p400.
15 New York Times, 24 August 1926, p23:8.
16 RADM W. V. Pratt to CNO, Newport, R. I., 10 February 1927, Pratt MSS/NHD.
17 WVP to ADM R. E. Coontz, Newport, R. I., 10 February 1927, Pratt MSS/NHD.
18 "Report on the Fitness of Officers," 31 March 1925, 5 June 1925, 31 March 1927, Pratt MSS/NHD.
19 CAPT R. Z. Johnson to Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Newport, R. I., 2 June 1927, Pratt MSS/NHD; RADM R. H. Leigh to WVP, Washington, 14 June 1927, Pratt MSS/NHD.
20 Army and Navy Journal, 28 May 1927.
21 Ibid., 11 June 1927.
22 Wiley, op. cit., pp271‑72.
23 Pratt, "Autobiography," pp292‑93; Army and Navy Journal, 23 July 1927.
24 U. S. S. West Virginia, Log, 24 September 1927, RG24/NA; U. S. S. Maryland, Log, 24 September 1927, RG24/NA.
26 These 12 papers make up General Board No. 438, Serial 1347, G. B. Records, NHD.
28 WVP to Louise Pratt, at sea, 10 January 1928, Pratt MSS/NWC; WVP to Louise Pratt, at sea, 30 January 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
29 CINCUS to CNO, 26 March 1928, File FF1/A4‑3(3) (280326), box 2141, RG80/NA.
30 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Pedro, 20 March 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
31 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Pedro, 2 March 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
32 RADM R. H. Leigh to WVP, Washington, 14 March 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
33 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Pedro, 23 March 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
34 CINCUS to COMBATFLT, 27 April 1928, File FF2/A4‑3(3) (280427), box 2155, RG80/NA.
35 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Pedro, 17 March 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
36 WVP to Louise Pratt, San Pedro, 23 March 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
37 ADM Pratt's full staff is listed in Battle Fleet Letters 36‑28 and 44‑28, File FF2/A2‑11(1) (280626) and (280708), box 2152, RG80/NA.
38 U. S. S. California, Log, 26 June 1928, RG24/NA.
39 CINCUS, "Proposed Organization for the United States Fleet," 27 May 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
40 COMBATFLT to CINCUS, San Diego, 20 September 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
41 COMBATFLT to CINCUS, 26 September 1928, "Doctrine and Tactical Plans, 1928," File A2‑12/A16‑3/FF2(6471) (Confidential), RG80/NA; CINCUS to COMBATFLT, 19 October 1928, File A16‑3(S‑66(c)), RG80/NA.
42 Battle Fleet Letter No. 41‑28, 23 July 1928, File FF2/A2‑11(1) (280723), box 2152, RG80/NA.
43 Battle Fleet Memorandum 81‑28, 27 August 1928, File FF2/A2‑11(1) (280827), box 2152, RG80/NA.
44 New York Times-Herald, 20 November 1928; WVP to Louise Pratt, Monterey, Calif., 12 November 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
45 Scot MacDonald, "Flattops in the War Games," Evolution of Aircraft Carriers (Washington: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, GPO, 1964), pp28‑33; Archibald D. Turnbull and Clifford L. Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949), pp270‑72; and a bit inaccurately in Eugene E. Wilson, Slipstream: The Autobiography of an Air Craftsman (New York: McGraw-Hill Company, 1950), pp135‑48.
46 RADM J. M. Reeves to ADM W. V. Pratt, San Diego, 1 August 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
47 WVP to Louise Pratt, at sea, 18 October 1928, Pratt MSS/NHD.
48 New York Times, 9 March 1929, p8:2.
49 RADM W. A. Moffett to WVP, Washington, 16 April 1929, Pratt MSS/NHD.
a Details are given in George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, p516; with my further note there.
b Not in the book, but found on the Naval War College Museum website, this photo of the Naval War College Class of 1927:
[A much larger version (3.1 MB) opens in a separate window
c Although High Street and Waldo Avenue no longer meet, if they ever did, the house has survived (2014); it is often called the Pratt House.
In its most recent incarnation, the house is now used as a pre‑school, over the vociferous objections of a sizable group of neighborhood residents. According to an article in the Penobscot Bay Pilot (Nov. 15, 2013), there have been structural reinforcements, a new furnace, alarm and sprinkler systems, a revamped kitchen, and "construction" of a large playground on the lawn; porches and access ramps have been added, closets have been converted to bathrooms, and interior walls have been knocked down. In addition, as can be seen on the map above, much of the rest of the garden has been plowed under in favor of a parking lot and its access; and more recently, a fence with a large sign has also been added.
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William V. Pratt,
U. S. Navy
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Page updated: 26 Oct 18