Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Rear Admiral Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation

April 29th. 1918.

My dear Palmer,

          I have been somewhat puzzled to know what to do with Commander Berry.1 The Court Martial on the MANLEY disaster found him guilty and sentenced him to the loss of fifteen numbers. As he was recommended to clemency by all but one member of the Court, I reduced this to ten. He of course wants service in the Flotilla and to make good, but as you might imagine, he is not now in a condition to take a command. He was pretty badly shaken by the appalling nature of the disaster, and ought to be allowed off for a while. He thinks heis a good deal better than I believe he is, but experience in such matters has shown us that a man cannot recover immediately after an occurrence of this kind.

          I am therefore sending him home to report to the Department for such duty as it might assign him, but I do this with the understanding that when in the Department’s opinion he is all right again, he will be sent back for duty here.2

          I assume of course he would like to be ordered to one of the new destroyers fitting out, and I would be willing to have him so ordered were it not for the fact that I think it would have a rather bad influence upon those who have served over here so long and who are awaiting their turn to go home for a new boat.

          It is unfortunate that in this affair, the result of a mistake in judgment or seamanship, or whatever it was, was so disastrous. It was manifest that if the collision had not set off the depth charge it would not have amounted to very much. However, one has to consider the influence of an affair like this upon the flotilla as a whole, and though it seems hard on the individual, it seems necessary in military practice that he should bear the responsibility for even bad luck.

          In my opinion Berry is a good man, and I believe he is at least up to the average in seamanship. He has certainly had a very considerable experience in destroyers even before I came into the game. I sympathize with him very strongly in his trouble and would be glad if the Department would do what it can to help him out, keeping in mind, however, the influence of whatever it does upon the flotilla, and upon the personnel who have borne the labor and heat of the day.

          Unfortunately, Berry has gotten an idea that he has been harshly dealt with in this court martial. You have doubtless seen cases like this before. I think it is largely the effect of the shock of the disaster upon his mind. He seems to have an obsession that the Court of Inquiry was packed against him and that the decision of the court martial was wrong in placing the whole responsibility of the accident upon him.

          When I signed the specification for the Court Martial, I wrote him a personal letter in which I expressed my sympathy for him in this trouble and hoped that he would get out of it with the minimum amount of damage, and so forth. I enclose you a copy of this letter.3 You will recognise it as purely an expression of sympathy for a man of my force who was in trouble. Such letters may not be usual but it seems to me that it is only due to a man in his position to let him know that the man at the head of the organization sympathizes with all of his people who get into trouble. I think Berry has the curious idea that this letter justified him in not putting up the defence that he otherwise would have put up. Of course this is a wholly strange idea which I think is largely due to his condition. I think it well for you to know these circumstances.

          Very sincerely yours,

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 77. Following the close, the letter is addressed, “Rear Admiral L.C.Palmer, U.S.N./Chief of Bureau of Navigation,/Navy Dept./Washington. D.C.”

Footnote 1: Cmdr. Robert L. Berry. Berry was the commanding officer of MANLEY on 19 March 1918, when the destroyer collided with the British auxiliary cruiser Montague, causing the accidental detonation of one of MANLEY's depth charges. MANLEY’s stern was practically destroyed, and 33 enlisted men, as well as executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Richard M. Elliot Jr., were killed in the subsequent explosion. Fragments pierced two 50-gallon drums of gasoline and two tanks containing 100 gallons of alcohol. The leaking fluids caught fire as they ran along the deck and enveloped the ship in flames. The sloop Tamarisk unsuccessfully tried to put a towline on board. MANLEY remained adrift until British tugs Blazer and Cartmel took it in tow after daylight on 20 March, reaching Queenstown at dusk the following day with more than 70 feet of its hull awash or completely under water. At a court of inquiry held on 28 March, Berry was convicted for the error that caused the disaster, but was granted clemency in light of the frequency of collisions and the aberrant nature of the explosion. DANFS.

Footnote 2: Sims was more candid about his decision to send Berry to Washington for reassignment in his letter to William V. Pratt of this date. See: Sims to Pratt, 29 April 1918.

Footnote 3: The copy of this letter is no longer with this document, nor has the original letter been located.

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