Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard, President, Naval War Board, to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long
Office of Naval War Board,
Washington, D. C.,
[13 to 30 August 1898]
S i r:
1. The Naval Committee of the Senate having requested of this Board to consider and report to the Department what coaling stations should be acquired by the United States, outside their own territorial limits, the following report is submitted:
2. Such coaling stations, in order to be of any considerable utility to the nation, must be available to the Navy in time of war. During peace, the ordinary commercial coaling facilities of the world will meet all ordinary requirements.
3. The question at once arises whether, if such coaling station be granted during peace by a neutral nation, and coal be there stored, the said neutral during war will, or without violation of its neutrality can, permit unrestricted use of the coal; that is, allow a single ship, or a fleet, to coal at such times, and as frequently, as we may desire; and whether, also, the enemy of the United States would, under such conditions, respect the neutrality of the port and refrain from destroying the coal. This question, although raised by this Board, is evidently beyond its competency to answer positively.
4. It is obvious, however, that the United States does require coaling stations outside its own territory, from which coal can be freely and certainly obtained during war. Such stations therefore should now be obtained, and under such conditions, either of use or cession, as shall enable us to assure their safety and free use in time of war. As conducive to this, and also in order to avoid any possible conflict of municipal or civil jurisdiction with the adjacent territory of the ceding nation, it will be always desirable that the station ceded be an island, whose boundaries are defined by the surrounding water. To this should be added, when possible, the power of unaided self-defense, uncommanded by adjacent points of the mainland, or of other islands.
Such stations divide naturally with two classes:
5. A. Those which will be useful to our navy merely in process of transit from one point of the globe to another, passing through regions which are not then the scene of hostilities. The recent voyage of the “Oregon” is an instance in point; that ship having skirted nearly the entire coast of South America, a territory which was not then, and is extremely unlikely at any time to be, involved in war with the United States. If, on the other hand, we were at war in that region, as the ally of any one of those states, its ports would be open for our coal supply. Under this first class fall also all coaling stations on the route to the far East by the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, for it also passes through regions in which the United States is very unlikely to engage in war.
6. B. The second class of coaling stations, outside of our own territory, would be those situated in regions, which, owing to unsettled political conditions, and our having great political and commercial interests in them, are liable to become scenes of war, in which we may be engaged, directly or indirectly.
7. The two principal regions answering to this description are the Pacific Ocean - notably the northern Pacific - and the Caribbean Sea. It is true that the continent of Africa is largely in a formless state of political development; but its territory has been so preempted by European countries, and our own indisposition to meddle in its political development has been so clearly manifested, that it may be considered to belong wholly to the European system of polity. We are not likely to be drawn into hostilities concerning it, nor, in case of war, to carry our operations there.
8. For the reasons advanced, the Board is of the opinion that the United States does not need to acquire permanent coaling stations, except in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It is also of the opinion that, if at all possible, any stations that may be acquired should become wholly the property of the United States, with so much of the surrounding land and water as may be needed to establish adequate protection against an enemy.
9. In the Pacific Ocean, the notorious changes that are taking place in the political relations of China, the intrusion of European control upon her territory, and the consequent effect upon her trade relations, make the future of China the most interesting commercial question of the Pacific to us at the present moment.
10. The port of Manila is very centrally situated, as regards the whole sweep of the eastern coast of Asia. From it as a centre, with a radius of 2,000 miles,-very easy steaming distance - there is embraced Pekin [i.e., Beijing] on the north, the Islands of Sumatra and Java on the south, and that of Guaj or Guam, on the east. Hong Kong and Canton [i.e., Guangzhou] are but 600 miles distant, and Shanghai but 1,000. The bay and port are suitable to the purpose, and although the dimensions of the former make it rather difficult of defense, it is realized that in case our ultimate retention of the place, the position must in any event [be] adequately defended on account of the political and commercial importance of Manila, and therefore the naval station might as well be situated there and share in the defence provided. It must however be admitted that Manila Bay is not nearly so strong naturally as Subic Bay, Port Matalvi, Port Masinglock, Dazol Bay and many others. These last are really very fine positions in a military sense.
11. The island of Guam, before mentioned, one of the Ladrone Islands, is comparatively small, being about thirty miles in length, with an excellent harbor, a little less than 1,500 miles from Manila, and 3,500 from Hawaii. The latter distance is somewhat greater than is desirable; but it may be observed that the use of Guam would not primarily be to serve as a base of operations, as Manila, and, in a less degree, Hawaii, would be, but to facilitate transit from America to Asia. As it is observed that by the protocol lately signed between the United States and Spain, the former is to “select” one of the Ladrones, and as the Board is not fully informed as to the precise character of the harbors in the other islands of the Group, it is recommended that before a “selection” is made, one of our cruisers should be sent to the Ladrones to examine the different harbors and to recommend the most suitable one.
12. The ports above mentioned have been Spanish possessions up to the present war. In the opinion of the Board, they would, as regards position and other advantages, be satisfactory as coaling or naval stations, and the cession of one on Luzon and one in the Ladrones for that object might be considered in the treaty of peace. In the Board's opinion, they, with Hawaii, would largely meet the needs of the United States for naval stations, both for transit to China, and for operations of war, if need be, in Eastern Asiatic waters; for naval stations, being points for attack and defence, should not be multiplied beyond the strictly necessary. Notwithstanding the foregoing remark, the Board is impressed with the advisability of acquiring a coaling station nearer to central China than is Manila, and for this purpose recommends one of the harbors embraced among the Islands of the Chusan Archipelago, near the mouth of the Yang tze Kiang, for example Chang Tau harbor or that of Tai Shei Shan. These are about 1,000 miles north of Manila and 1,600 miles northwesterly of the Ladrones.
13. The advantages of Hawaii have been so widely discussed of late, that it is unnecessary here to recapitulate them. In the opinion of the Board, possession of these islands, which happily we now own, is militarily essential, both to our transit to Asia, and to the defence of our Pacific coast.
14. In the Southern Pacific, the station of Pago-Pago, in the Samoa group, already at the disposal of the United States as a coaling station, is so central, and otherwise so suitable in case of operations in that quarter, that it is recommended to be retained. If possible, political possession of the whole island in which the port is, or at least of ground sufficient for fortifications, is desirable. Pago-Pago is about 2,100 miles from Honolulu and from the east coast of Australia, and therefore a convenient half-way station between the two.
15. Between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, lies the Isthmus of Panama, the interest of which to the United States is admitted.
16. In the Pacific, San Francisco, which is the nearest United States port suitable for naval purposes, is distanced from Panama about 3,200 miles, and from Brito, Nicaragua, about 2,700 miles. The former distance though long is not too great for modern men-of-war, but in the distribution of coaling stations should not be excluded, and both distances are longer than desirable. It would seem desirable, therefore that a coaling station should be secured, if practicable, near the entrance of the proposed Nicaragua Canal, and preferably a little north (towards the United States); for the military significance of the Canal, to us, is rapid communication between our Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
17. In the Pacific Ocean, two such ports seem to have many advantages viz: Port Culebra, and the southern part of Port La Union just off the west shore of Punta Sacate Island, in the Gulf of Fonseca. The former [i.e., Port Culebra] belongs to Costa Rica, and is about sixty miles south of Brito, the proposed terminus of the Nicaragua Canal. The latter [i.e., Port La Union] is about one hundred and fifty miles north of Brito, and belongs to Salvador. Both these places are north of Panama, and distant from it, Culebra, a little over five hundred miles, and Sacate Island seven hundred miles. It may be probably remarked that Port Elena, one hundred and twenty-seven miles south of Brito, or Salinas Bay within a few miles of Elena, are either of them suitable for the particular purpose in view, being more land locked then Culebra and quite susceptible of defense. With reference to the distances of all these harbors, it may be observed, (if thought too far from a possible Panama Canal, though very favorably situated for a Nicaragua Canal,) that the positions recommended by the Board in the Caribbean will, if accepted, insure a station as near as can possibly be desired to the Atlantic terminus of either canal.
18. The Caribbean Sea is one of the most interesting and vital regions in the world to the United States, considered from the point of view of commerce and of war; not that most of our commerce passes there, or ever will pass there, but because there our interests may be most seriously interrupted, by hostile navies, in time of war. The land-girt character of that sea, and the fact that there are in it, and in the Gulf of Mexico, only two or three positions of surpassing commercial and naval importance, give particular facilities for enforcing control or inflicting injury.
19. The Board is of the opinion that two kinds of positions are needed in the Caribbean, viz: 1. Upon the circumference or entrance to the sea: 2. In the neighborhood of the Isthmian Canal.
20. For the former Porto Rico is advantageously situated and the harbor of San Juan would be the one apparently best adapted for the purposes of a coaling station. As regards San Juan, it appears that at the entrance to the harbor, there is a bar, exposed to the sea, and the water on it is not more than sufficient for our present large ships. Within the bar the water is rather scant, but it is presumed that a reasonable amount of dredging would improve the harbor sufficiently. It is perhaps doubtful whether much dredging could be done on the bar. The position does not lend itself very readily to defence against modern naval ordnance. The base of the peninsula upon which the city stands consists of comparatively low land, and the inner harbor would therefore be exposed to the fire of hostile ships lying to the eastward of the town. Furthermore the danger range for hostile ships cannot be made much more formidable by the use of stationary mines, for 200 fathoms of water are found only three miles from the city. This condition of affairs must be met by the erection of shore batteries at the proper points; along the coast to the eastward and westward; as San Juan is commercially the most important and most populous city on the island, and probably the best port regarded simply as an anchorage, no doubt our government will expect to give its harbor adequate gun and mine protection, in which the naval coaling station, if placed there, would share.
21. With reference to the position of the United States in the Caribbean Sea, assuming the Island of Porto Rico to belong to us, it is the opinion of the Board that the further acquisition of a strong neighboring position would substantially strengthen the general military control conferred by Porto Rico, for the following reasons:
It is a general truth that any base of military, and still more of naval, operations is decisively stronger with two strong positions than it is with one; the reason being that when there is but one the enemy can interpose before it, without dividing his force. That which is true of any coast line which serves as a base of naval operations, is very especially true when such base is essentially an advanced and somewhat isolated post, as Porto Rico must be; for it is 1,200 miles from the Capes of the Chesapeake, and 1,400 from New York, a line of communication that can only be maintained by a superior navy. Porto Rico in fact, occupies a position analogous to that of Key West, communication with both being entirely by water. It is recognized by sound naval opinion, in which the Board concurs, that the value of Key West would be greatly enhanced by a fortified coaling station at Dry Tortugas. In a precisely similar way a second and near strong position would add to the value of Porto Rico. Our ships operating in those waters would have two fortified bases, upon which to fall back by various routes, from both of which the enemy could not exclude them, unless so greatly superior as to appear before both in as great force as our total fleet. This reason may be called the strategic, having reference to the general plan of Campaign. There are, however, certain specific reasons of a local character which dictate that the principal station should not be San Juan, Porto Rico, on account of its commercial primacy, and its comparatively weak position in a military sense, as set forth in paragraph 20. Therefore, in looking for the second port above mentioned, we should endeavor to choose a naturally strong position, though not too far from San Juan.
22. There are a couple of points in the vicinity, either of which would appear to answer as the second and stronger of the fortified positions referred to above; they are the Island of St. Thomas and the Bay of Samana, and it is to be observed that owing, as before remarked, to the commercial importance and military weakness of San Juan, it would be desirable to draw the enemy's principal attention to the second strong point rather than to San Juan itself, because in the latter, did we fix our chief naval station, we should be much more vulnerable commercially and militarily.
23. St. Thomas - or rather Charlotte Amalia, its chief harbor - is of much less importance commercially than San Juan, and at the same time much more susceptible of defence; the projection of Water Island, terminating in a hill 230 feet high, called Flamingo Point, of steep but not precipitous incline, enables the outer defences of the harbor to be pushed two miles to seaward, and adds thereby that distance to the range at which hostile ships could otherwise be kept by the inner defences permitted by the contour of the land near the harbor's mouth. Nor is this projecting point liable to the weakness commonly to be noted in salients; for the batteries on the main island could be so located that any attempt to surround Flamingo Point, by a converging fire, would bring the hostile ships under as close or closer range of some of the defences on the main island as they would be of Flamingo Point itself. Assuming that a hostile fleet would be willing to lie within 3 miles of batteries, they must retire to five (5) miles from the anchorage at St. Thomas. It may be added that Flamingo Point appears to offer reasonable facilities for guns at the sea level, as well as on the hill-top; giving thus the double advantage of horizontal and of plunging fire. This question is of course, technically, primarily one of engineering; but it is believed that the foregoing remarks will be borne out by examination.
24. The harbor of St. Thomas has the disadvantage of being open to the south, so that ships lying within would be in sight of hostile vessels outside, and therefore, if, the enemy were willing to lie within five miles of the batteries on Flamingo Point, he could throw shells into the harbor or town of St. Thomas, at a range of not over six (6) miles. He would, however, then be a little over three miles from the batteries of Long Point. Our ships could, however, if too much exposed in St. Thomas harbor, steam round Colwell point and anchor north of and near to Water Island where behind Banana Point they would apparently be better sheltered from hostile fire.
25. With regard to defence by torpedo mines the Island of St. Thomas rises from a bank of soundings, upon which more or less practicable torpedo ground extends between five and ten miles from the principal anchorage, and, for a sweep of five miles, could be under cover of the guns of the place, but exposed to the sea.
26. Without Porto Rico, St. Thomas is too small and too distant from United States territory, but with Porto Rico, the group of islands would form a territory susceptible of defence and valuable for military and commercial control.
27. It is supposed that St. Thomas could not probably be acquired without purchasing the rest of the Danish Islands. One of the important advantages of acquiring these islands would be to prevent some foreign power from purchasing them and thus acquiring a strong position near our new possessions in the West Indies. This of course is an important consideration, and if Congress thinks that such foreign ownership would be disadvantageous to us, it will depend upon that body to determine whether the disadvantages would be sufficiently great to induce the purchase of St. Thomas, rather than Samana.
28. The other port that might be considered, alternatively to St. Thomas, as the strong place from which San Juan, Porto Rico should derive support, is the Bay of Samana in the Island of San Domingo. It is about 180 miles west from San Juan, a very suitable distance, and as it is very much larger in area than the harbor of St. Thomas, our ships could lie where they would not be seen by an enemy from outside, and the bay could probably be made nearly as secure against an enemy's attack as could St. Thomas though doubtless with greater expense for fortifications. It is true that the entrance is considerably wider than desirable, but about three-quarters of its area is most seriously obstructed with very dangerous shoals, and while there are channels between these shoals that might be navigated by the use of proper running marks, in time of peace, they would be so difficult to traverse in war, under the fire of our shore batteries, obstructed with mines, and threatened by our ships and torpedo boats, that an enemy would be very unlikely to attempt such an adventure. There is also an area of soundings less than 25 fathoms with a radius of five miles from Point Balandra, but like that off St. Thomas it is exposed to the sea. Furthermore, Samana Bay ought to cost very much less money than would the Danish Islands. If, then, the Bay of Samana would answer properly as the second fortified port, afore mentioned, it would seem that the only remaining reason inducing the acquisition of the Danish Islands instead, would be to prevent some foreign power from purchasing them as before remarked. Prior to arriving at a conclusion on the relative merits of St. Thomas and Samana Bay, it would be well for Congress to have the opinion of the proper authorities of the War Department as to the relative natural strength of the two positions and the cost of adequately fortifying each. The best position for the coaling station in Samana Bay would seem to be St. Lorenzo Point.
29. The Board has just heard of another position that might perhaps be useful as the second strong place instead of St. Thomas or Samana Bay. It is called “Great Harbor,” in the island of Culebra, 55 miles easterly from San Juan, Porto Rico and 23 miles to the westward of St. Thomas. The harbor is not large, but it appears to be defensible and runs in such a way as probable to conceal ships, lying well within the port, from the view of a hostile fleet outside. A vessel of the North Atlantic Squadron has been directed to examine this place and report upon its capabilities. If found suitable it might be used, as it probably belongs to Spain, and if so will be ceded to us. Such an arrangement however does not dispose of the question of the possible acquisition of the Danish Islands by a foreign power.
30. To sum up therefore, any naturally strong position, not too far removed, would, in relation to Proto Rico, supply when properly fortified, a defensible anchorage stronger than any in Porto Rico, and based upon which a smaller fleet, or even a few swift cruisers, were we brought so low, could operate with embarrassing effect upon the communications of a fleet carrying on extensive operations against Porto Rico. In itself, apart from Porto Rico, either of the stations aforementioned is too isolated to be held independent of control of the sea; but, resting upon Porto Rico, the two together present elements of strength which would materially protract, and perhaps determine the issue, in a struggle where the opposing fleets approached equality. No positions can confer control where great naval inferiority is a permanent condition.
31. But, besides these places, it must be remembered that the Windward Passage, between Cuba and Haiti, is the great direct commercial route between the whole North Atlantic coast and the Isthmus. No solution of the problem of coaling and naval stations can be considered satisfactory, which does not provide for military safety upon that route. The two most available ports for that purpose are Santiago and Guantanamo on the south shore of Cuba; to those may be added the bay of Nipe on the north. When Cuba becomes independent, the United States should acquire, as a naval measure, one of these ports, with a portion of adjacent territory; following, for example, the line traced in the treaty of surrender negotiated between General Shafter and General Toral. Santiago or Guantanamo is preferable in strategic position to Nipe; but investigation may develop sanitary or other reasons for preferring the northern port. As between the two places on the south side Santiago is the more landlocked and defensible harbor, but the entrance is narrow, the least width between 30-foot depths on each side of the channel being 330 feet, whereas similar width at Guantanamo is about 2,557 feet. This greater width, however, has the disadvantage of not leaving the harbor so well sheltered as is Santiago from storms or from the view of an enemy outside, or for the purposes of defense by mines; therefore Santiago would appear preferable were it not that the narrow entrance seems to make it not so accessible in all weathers for very long ships. Furthermore, it has the reputation of being a rather unhealthy location. As the Board finds it very difficult to choose between these two ports, it suggests that before a decision is reached the advice of officers experienced in entering and using both harbors be taken.
32. At or near the Isthmus, the surpassing hydrographic advantages presented by the Chiriqui Lagoon have long been recognized. It lies midway between the Caribbean outlets of the proposed Panama and Nicaragua Canals, being about 120 miles from each. The Board considers that it would be desirable to acquire from the Columbian Government, Almirante Bay, together with the islands it contains, and those within which it is embraced, together with a strip of the mainland skirting the bay. This fine sheet of water contains a number of very excellent harbors, of which Shepherd's Harbor, Palos Lagoon and Poorras Lagoon are the chief. Either of them would be suitable, with Shepherd Harbor preferred, but it must be borne in mind that whichever is taken, the surrounding islands and sufficient of the main to meet the needs of military defence must also be acquired, and these would seem to include Christobal Island, Columbus Island, and Careenage Cay and Provision Island,# <# also Popa Island and the peninsula containing Saddle Hill> in order to control the various entrances to Almirante Bay. If a strip of the mainland skirting the bay could not be attained, it should be stipulated that Colombia should not grant any other nation any rights, of erecting fortifications, &c., at least commanding that divisions of the Lagoon known as Almirante Bay. For, if the right so to fortify were granted to another maritime Power, our use of either of the harbors could be checkmated, by works erected even in time of peace, and by a nation from whose naval strength we might otherwise have nothing to fear.
33. Further than this, the United States does not, in the opinion of the Board, need naval war or coaling stations in the Caribbean. As before observed, every such station, while affording facilities for naval operations, on the other hand imposes upon the fleet a burden of support and communication. The just balance, between too few and too many, should therefore be carefully struck.
34. And for this latter reason, the Board doubts the expediency of acquiring coaling stations in the Mediterranean, or on the route by the Cape of Good Hope to the East. The true alternative to any such plan is to recognize the implicit obligation of the Monroe Doctrine, to keep our hands off Europe and all regions fairly included within the exclusively European polity, as we require European hands kept off the two Americas. Consequent upon these reciprocal obligations, there follows directly the national necessity to dig the Nicaragua Canal. The accomplishment of this work, under due guarantees of its use to us, in peace and in war, and the providing of a navy of suitable strength, will take the place of, and wholly obviate, the necessity for coaling stations in the Mediterranean or in Africa. The usefulness – nay, necessity - of the Nicaragua Canal, has been painfully enforced upon the Navy Department during the current war, by the difficulties encountered in organizing a reinforcement of battle ships for Admiral Dewey, to proceed by the Suez Canal. The need of providing coal, which neutral ports would not supply, and the exposure of a small detachment to attack at the two points, the Straits of Gibraltar and the neighborhood of the Suez Canal, by which it was certain that it would have to pass, constituted a military – or naval - problem of a very difficult character. It is not necessary here to enter into all the intricacies of detail and danger offered by that problem. It will suffice to say that, with the nominal force of the two navies, had that of our enemy been efficient, the problem might have been well nigh insoluble, even after Cervera's defeat. Had the Nicaragua Canal existed, there would have been no problem.
35. Before any harbors that may be selected as naval stations are permanently acquired as naval stations, each should be visited, carefully examined and reported upon fully by competent naval officers sent for this purpose in one of our cruisers.
36. As a final summing up: the Board recommends the following stations, outside of the present territory of the United States to be acquired, if possible, and to be occupied as coaling or naval stations; and the Board sees no necessity for recommending any others. The stations are eight in number, and divide into three principal groups, as follows: The stations are not arranged in the order of relative merit.
Group A. In the Pacific Ocean, 4 stations.
Group B. Near the Isthmus of Central America, 2 stations.
Group C. In the Caribbean Sea, 2 stations.
A. In the Pacific Ocean -
1. One of the Ladrone Islands - probably Guam.
2. The city and bay of Manila, or Subic Bay# <#or one of the bays mentioned at close of tenth paragraph>; if all Luzon Island be not ceded.
3. One of the Chusan group of islands, belonging to China, near the mouth of Yang-tze-Kiang.
4. The island of Pago-Pago, Samoan group.
B. Near the Isthmus of Central America -
5. On the west coast; either (a) the Island called Punta Sacate, in the Gulf of Fonseca, belonging to the Republic of Salvador; or (b) Port Elena, or Salinas coast of Costa Rica; or (c) Port Culebra also on the coast of Costa Rica.
6. On the east coast of the Isthmus: Almirante Bay and the islands that embrace it or are contained in it, also if practicable, a strip of the main-shore skirting the bay. With this position especially, but generally with all, the right of fortification should be acquired, upon cession or purchase.
C. In the Caribbean Sea –
7. The east end of Cuba, embracing Santiago or Guantanamo Bays, and preferably including the Bay of Nipe (on north coast.)
8. Either (a) the Island of St. Thomas or, (b) Samana Bay, or (c) possible Culebra Island.
37. Beyond these eight positions the Board is not prepared to recommend acquisitions.
38. Where alternates are mentioned, as they are in several cases, the Board recommends a speedy examination by naval vessels, in order to determine which possesses the most decided local advantages as a naval or coaling station; for charts cannot be considered to give sufficient data for such determination. In fact, as before remarked all stations should be examined before being acquired; also the War Department should report upon the relative military strength of alternate positions and the cost of fortifying them.
Rear Adml., U.S.N., President,
Captain, U.S.N., (retired), Member,
A. S. Crowninshield
Captain, U.S.N., Member.