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Captain Josiah S. McKean, Staff, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations






August 4, 1917.


SUBJECT:  Sea transportation During War.

     1. It is the general professional opinion that the winning of the present war will ultimately depend, as has every other great war in history upon “Sea Power”. “Sea Power” in this war has the same meaning as previously but includes new factors brought in by new implements of warfare – (1) the Submarine (2) Sea Aircraft. Today “Sea Power”to be entirely superior must include control of the surface,underneath the surface and above the surface(in the air). Control of the surface is still of the greatest importance; sub-surface control is important but secondary; the control of the air over the sea is of value but of very minor importance as yet in comparison with the other two.

     2. The problem of success at sea for ourselves and our allies is complicated by the necessity of (1) transporting a large number of troops (2) Transporting the supplies, munitions etc. for our Army in France and for our Naval forces operating in European waters, (3) Transporting large amounts of food, fuel, munitions etc. for the Allies Armies, fleets and people.

     3. The limited available tonnage which is being decreased by Submarines faster than it is being rebuilt makes the meeting of the difficulties in paragraph two impossible unless every available ton is put to its most efficient use.

     4. The available tonnage consists of:

          (a) Allied Tonnage.

          (b) Neutral Tonnage.

          (c) U. S. Tonnage.1

Allied Tonnage is all practically controlled by the respective governments and its operation is under their commissioners in this country. This tonnage should be utilized in so far as possible to meet the demands of the nation to which it belongs. The amount of this tonnage, its loading, routing etc. should be cared for by the national representative who should be a member of a joint International Transportation Board who will distribute, route, arrange for escorts, etc.

Neutral Tonnage. There is a large amount of neutral tonnage that, if the Embargo is strictly enforced, will not have available cargo on the return trips to their home ports. Neutrals are absolutely dependent upon us for fuel etc. and there are two ways of compelling them to devote a part of their tonnage to the Allies demands or failing this to deny them fuel, enforce the embargo to the limit or requisition neutral tonnage remaining in our ports over two weeks.2

U.S. Tonnage. To date we have taken over:

     (a) Certain German vessels for colliers, cargo ships, etc.

     (b) Certain German vessels for Troop Transports.

(c) The Army has under charter certain vessels for transporting troops, animals, munitions, forage, etc. to supply and maintain our forces in Europe.

(d) The Navy has chartered certain tankers, colliers, etc. to supply our Naval forces.

5. As to the above there is I believe no longer any question in3 anyone’s mind that for efficiency in supplying our own fleet and outlaying bases naval crews on naval vessels are absolutely necessary: nor do I believe that anyone in the Army or Navy has any doubts left that for the safety of Troop Transports it is absolutely essential that they should be officered and manned by the Navy. My own opinion is that then it is of almost equal importance that all Army Animal and Freight transports be officered and manned by the Navy to reduce the losses of these essentials for the support of our troops in France to an absolute minimum. Insurance, if we could get it, would not replace either the animals, guns, ammunation or food.

6. As to the remaining available tonnage it is now free to go when it pleases, where it pleases, carrying what it pleases and controlled by only one motive--the highest profit to the owners or charterers. If lost the loss is repaid by War Insurance. When the urgent demands of ourselves and our allies, beyond the capacity of all the now available tonnage is considered, it is apparent to the most casual observer that every ton should not only be routed when needed but loaded with what is needed most.

7. All these vessels are now manned by such Officers and Crews as can be picked up on the water fronts of their sailing ports; the crews change continually, the officers frequently; the wages are unreasonably high, the freight rates beyond reason. They pick up their cargoes when they can and what pays best. Our Armed Guard Officers’ reports support the experience of the Allies that they do not follow the routes assigned, do not follow their instructions as to zigzagging, as to lights, etc. etc. and that therefore many of them are lost unnecessarily. They all waste time in getting cargoes and unloading them, and from the data at hand it is believed that if the present U.S. free tonnage was properly officered, manned and routed and if their loading, unloading, fueling, etc. were properly systematized, that they could make three trips for every two they now make or increase their efficiency 50%. The increased speed due to trained permanent crews would reduce the danger of being hit when fired at and reduce the time exposed in the Danger Zone, thus decreasing their danger of being sunk by at least one-third.

8. The time has come when we must control the cargoes of all outbound ships, not only as to what must not be shipped (the Export Council is looking out for this), but as to what must be shipped and when it must go, and what per cent of each cargo shall be utilized for munitions, food, fuel and general merchandise.

9. We are now trying to provide Armed Guards for all ships crossing the Atlantic. To be at all useful, as has been and is being proved daily, the Armed Guards must be trained men under trained officers. To make these Guards fully efficient and reduce losses to a minimum the ships should also be handled by trained officers to give the guns and gunners their best chance. This also limits the Guard to a pure Defensive--can only shoot when attacked, thus giving the enemy all the advantage of the initiative and the time to select the most favorable conditions. this is not fair to the ships, cargoes or crews.

10. To overcome the numerous defects cited above and to bring about the greatest efficiency in our sea transportation, the following methods are suggested:-

1. Have a joint Transportation Board,4 consisting of a representative from each of the Allied Powers opposing Germany. Each representative will furnish the Board the following information:-

(a) Their total National Tonnage.5

(b) Its employment in detail.

(c) The amount available for Transatlantic transportation.

(d) Their own needs in detail as to amounts, classes, sources of supply, points of delivery, facilities for unloading, etc. etc. in sufficient detail to enable the Board to check it up and see that the demands are just, that the facilities are adequate, etc. etc.

     From the above the Board can determine what additional tonnage must be assigned to meet each demand or if not able to fully meet all demands to provide according to the relative importance.

     This Board should also consider the demands of neutrals and determine the amount of such neutrals tonnage that is absolutely necessary for his needs and then take over the surplus and place it in the Allied Pool.6

     2. The Chairman of the above Board should also be Chairman of the U.S. Sea Transportation Board, which should take over the absolute control of every ton of U.S. Shipping built or building and should allot this tonnage to the following trades:

          (1) Pacific Trade.

          (2) Coastal Trade.

          (3) South American Trade.

          (4) Atlantic.

After such allotment all vessels allotted to the Atlantic should be commissioned as Naval Auxiliaries, officered, Armed and Manned by the Navy and operate on routes determined by the several Admiralties and carrying cargoes assigned by the Pool Committee. Vessels allotted to the other trades might for the present be operated by merchant officers and crews but freight rates and wages should be assigned by a Government Board and the U.S. Sea Transportation Board should provide the necessary terminals with warehouses, loading and unloading facilities in each U.S. Port selected for use; should assign these various terminals to vessels running on certain routes; should provide through the Land Transportation Committee for the necessary shipments to and from the terminal; should provide fuel of the highest grade; should provide repair and docking facilities etc. etc.

     They should also keep in direct touch with the Naval Officer in each port having charge of the making up of convoys, routing them, etc. so that there would be no delay either for the Escort or Convoy. The arrangements should be such that immediately on a ship’s arrival she would be assigned to a peir [i.e., pier] and placed there without delay; that she should be unloaded, loaded and fueled at the same pier, have her port overhaul and be sailing again for her European port in the shortest possible time with a full cargo made up of the things most needed at her port of destination, with a full complement of officers and men to assure her highest speed and equipped with the proper battery to secure her own safety and to make her a menace to the enemy wherever met.

     By carrying out this plan we can add more tonnage quicker than by any possible speed either in repairing damaged ships or building new ones either of wood or steel, and by handling any new tonnage of our own or our Allies along the same lines we can make it more efficient in a shorter time than by any system or better, lack of system, when Private Profit, not National Need controls.7

(signed) CAPTAIN J.S. McKEAN.

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. Identifying numbers “1/3/J” appear in a column on the upper-right side of the first page. This copy of McKean's letter is from the personal file of VAdm. William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters. McKean apparently forwarded him a copy.

Footnote 1: In the margins here, Sims has written a note in pencil “Take three ships for floating bases.”

Footnote 2: For more American relations with neutral states, see: Frank Polk to Walter Hines Page, 31 July 1917.

Footnote 3: In the margin, Sims added “not necessarily naval.”

Footnote 4: The Board that McKean envisioned apparently never came to fruition. As one historian notes, “cooperation between the Allies always sounded much better at the numerous conferences than it proved to be in practice.” Halpern, A Naval History of World War I: 395.

Footnote 5: Sims added “Board must have Power How get it?”

Footnote 6: For additional information, see: Polk to Page, 31 July 1917.

Footnote 7: Sims wrote back to McKean expressing his complete agreement. McKean, in Sims’ view, had “Hit the nail on the head.” “I am a hearty advocate of Government control of our entire shipping,” Sims added, along with the hope that “Admiral Benson will see his way clear to strongly endorse the plan.” Sims to McKean, 10 August 1917, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 49.

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