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Rear Admiral William S. Benson, Chief Naval Officer, to Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commander, Atlantic Fleet





19 April, 1917.

My dear Mayo:-

          The question of providing the proper personnel for armed guards on board merchant vessels and at the same time keeping the fighting ships of the fleet in complete readiness for action has assumed a very serious phase. From present appearances within the next few months, and certainly before the first of January, it is more than probable that we will need about four hundred guns’ crews of about eight men each. In addition to the guns’ crews we will need officers and petty officers to take charge of the guns’ crew on board the ship to which they are assigned. We will need at least one hundred such officers and petty officers.1

     At the same time the fact must not be lost sight of for one moment that the battleships should at all times be ready for fleet action, particularly so far as the main battery and torpedo outfit is concerned. Of course, in order to obtain these men and officers as above stated, it will be absolutely necessary to draw on the men already drilled in the fleet; also a certain number of officers who have had sufficient experience in the fleet to fill the requirements above mentioned.

     An effort will be made to send additional men to the battleships to form surplus guns’ crews to be trained for the purposes for which they will be required. This subject is receiving most serious attention, both in this office, and at the Bureau of Navigation. Palmer2 has done, and is doing, work for the personnel in the Navy that has been unequalled in the past, and I do not believe that the service will ever fully appreciate the splendid work that he is accomplishing. What we want to do is to get together and work out this problem in the best possible way. We all realize that the conditions forced upon us at present time are not what we would like or what should be; nevertheless, it is up to us to take the situation as we find it and make the best of it, and I can assure you that the greatest comfort that I have in my present position is the feeling of hearty co-operation and support that I know I will always receive from the Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet. This is not given you for taffy but because I earnestly feel it.

     If you can make any suggestions along this line or advise me what can be done in the fleet, I shall very gladly accept it, as I am held responsible by the laws which established this office for the proper training of the fleet.

     It is hoped that so far as possible, that in selecting the officers and petty officers for the special duty to which they will be assigned everyone will realize that for the present the best result and the only results to be obtained against the German submarines is going to be from these men and officers sent on board merchant vessels, and it should be remembered that this is probably the very finest training for secondary battery gun crews that could possibly be obtained.

     I regret to say that in the Bureau’s requirements as first laid down that the officers selected should be Lieutenants of the senior grade and in several instances officers were selected who have had no gunnery experience for from six to eight years and complaint has been made of this fact. One Lieutenant whom I questions about the matter yesterday was detailed for one of the American line steamships and he stated that his last experience with batteries was in 1908, I think. I am telling you this not as one finding fault, but to let you know exactly what the situation is and I ask your co-operation.

     I am writing this as a personal letter in order that you may read it at your leisure and act in regard to it in such a way as you will consider best without any official formalities.3

With best wishes,       

very truly yours,  

W. S. Benson  

Admiral, U. S. Navy,    

Chief of Naval operations.

Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, Henry T. Mayo Papers, Box 10. On “NAVY DEPARTMENT/OFFICE OF NAVAL OPERATIONS/WASHINGTON” Stationary. Addressed below close: “Admiral Henry B. Mayo, U.S. Navy,/Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Atlantic Fleet,/U. S. S. PENNSYLVANIA, Flagship./C/O Postmaster New York.”

Footnote 1: The Navy believed as early as March 1917, that the best way to protect merchant vessels from unrestricted submarine warfare was the placement of naval batteries on the vessels themselves. Trained petty and junior officers from the seagoing fleets were transferred from their posts on warship to command batteries on merchant vessels. The resulting manpower shortage created a personnel crisis for Navy’s traditional fleets. For more on the Navy’s placement of Armed Guards on merchant vessels, see: Regulations Governing the Conduct of American Merchant Vessels on which Armed Guards have been Placed, 13 March 1917; and Information for Ship Owners Concerning the Armed Guard Program, 13 March 1917.

Footnote 2: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ordered RAdm. Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation to begin transferring officers to merchant vessels on 11 March 1917. He wrote in his diary, “Benson & Palmer called on at night. Palmer directed to get best men from active fleet as crew to man guns on merchant ships.” Daniels, Cabinet Diaries: 112.

Footnote 3: Mayo was unhappy with the officer situation and made his thoughts known to Benson. He wrote:

. . .we will do the best wecan and loyally endeavor to carry out the Department’s wishes in regard to training gun’s crews, training engineering personnel and carrying on at the same time the training of the ships’ regular crews, I cannot but feel that the net result is bound to be a decrease in the Fleet’s efficiency; certainly for some time to come.

About a month ago I really felt that the Fleet was in a very satisfactory state of efficiency, but I must feel now that this general efficiency cannot be maintained. Regrettable as this is, I recognize that it is a condition which must be faced and, therefore we will try to work out of it as quickly as possible.

The condition in regard to receipt of new recruits is not encouraging. We have had large numbers sent to us repeatedly until the ships are now filled to capacity. This would not be so bad were it not that they come without training, without sanitary detention for observation, without proper clothing or bedding – the result of which is much sickness, many contagious disease cases and, within the last few days, several cases of spinal meningitis – all of which, I think, were among men coming Chicago. . .  Mayo to Benson, 25 April 1917, DLC-MSS, Henry T. Mayo Papers, Box 10.