Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral Henry B. Wilson, Commander, United States Patrol Squadrons Operating in European Waters, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters

[Brest, France]

            9 May, 1918.

From:     Commander U.S. Naval Forces in France.

To:       Force Commander.

Subject:  Control of American Shipping in French Ports.

Reference: (a) Force Commander’s despatch  No. 1913.

                (b) Force Commander’s despatch  No. 1874.1

     1.  During the month of April, 1918, there arrived in ports on the west coast of France from the United States 73 vessels including U.S. Naval transports, Army chartered store ships, Naval Overseas Transport vessels, U.S. Shipping Board vessels, and U.S. merchant ships. In the future a much larger number of arrivals may be expected, particularly of the 75 vessels of the Naval Overseas Transport Service recently organized. These figures do not include the 40 vessels carrying coal and supplies between England and France for the U.S. Army.

     2.  For the conduct of this shipping there is required in France an organization which will, first: Afford protection from mine and torpedo, second: Furnish necessary facilities for repairing, fueling, supplying, and in problems of maintenance, and third: Insure a turn-around in the case of each vessel in the least possible time. At present the first of these is the most important requirement. When, as now seems likely to occur in the not distant future, the submarine menace shall have been overcome, the expeditious handling of shipping will have become our most important function.

     3.  The facilities of the ports of France for berthing, discharging, repairing, fueling, and ballasting vessels are, as a rule, inadequate with the demands being made upon them and such facilities as exist are largely those which have been established by, or are controlled by the U.S. Navy in cooperation with the U.S. Army. A vessel requiring these facilities in a French port cannot obtain them except with great delay except through the agency of the U.S. Naval Port Officials. Therefore, it has become necessary for us to interest ourselves in the handling of all American vessels in French ports and of foreign vessels on American service, and to assume control of these vessels irrespective of their classification in order that a maximum efficiency of the facilities of the port may be obtained. Thus, though without formal authority, all of the facilities of the Navy are <utilized> in the case of all these vessels to secure as prompt a turn-around as possible. The repair ship PROMETHEUS at Brest, for example, executes repairs for the U.S. Naval vessels, Army chartered transports, vessels of the Naval Overseas Transport Service, American Shipping Board Vessels, or American merchant vessels indiscriminately, for the reason that were this not done these vessels would be greatly delayed due to their inability to have their work performed with the facilities available elsewhere.2

     4.  There appears to be a strong tendency toward separation of the control of vessels of these various classifications. From previous correspondence and from the daily press, it seems to be intended that there shall be in each port separate representatives to control each of these classes of vessels. This will lead to confusion of effort and to considerable delay in the handling of vessels whose port representatives have not a control of the port facilities. What is required is an organization to insure that each vessel, regardless of classification, shall be boarded at its first anchorage on the coast of France by an English speaking official competent to give the captain or master full information as to his further movements, and information as to the berthing of the ship, repairing, fueling, hospital and ballasting facilities of the port, pilotage, etc. The organization must keep the vessel under constant scrutiny while in port to insure that no time is unnecessarily lost in discharging the vessel or in dispatching from the port. Charts and hydrographic information must be available. Such an organization can be handled only by the Navy, and there has been established for this purpose a system of Naval Port Officers. For the futter <further> development of this system there is now required in the office of the commander U.S. Naval forces in France in <an> officer of experience and rank whose function will be to direct and coordinate the activities of the Naval Port Officers and to control in all respects American merchant shipping except in matters of convoy and escort and matters pertaining to merchant seamen which will be handled through the Operations Officer and by the U.S. consuls as at present. In order that this officer may have the necessary power it seems necessary that the Commander U.S. Naval Forces in France be constituted the representative in France for the United States Shipping Board and for the Naval Overseas Transport Service.3

     5.  In reference (a) Captain Halstead,U.S.N. was recommended for this important duty.4 Should he not be available it is requested that the Force Commander or the Department suggest the names of competent officers who may be considered available.

     6.  Reference (b) asks if there are not civilian representatives of the United States Shipping Board in the French ports. In all the ports on the west coast of France the U.S. consuls have been given this duty.

H.B.Wilson           

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. At the bottom of the first page is stamped “FILE.” Identifier in the top right-hand corner: “W/(O) B.”

Footnote 1: Neither of these cables has been found.

Footnote 2: In his history of his command, Wilson wrote that, after a survey determined that the repair ships were being overwhelmed with repair requests, the Navy decided to erect and operate three repair shops, one each in the ports of Brest, Lorient, and Pauillac. Wilson, American Navy in France: 71.

Footnote 3: No evidence has been found that such a position was created.

Footnote 4: Alexander S. Halstead was named to succeed Wilson, but until that appointment, he served as the senior member of the Navy’s Board of Appraisal in New York, and did not join Wilson’s command as coordinator of the port officers. Arlington National Cemetery, Accessed on 24 April 2018, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/ashalstead.htm.