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Captain William V. Pratt, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations



June 7, 1917.


From: Captain W. V. Pratt, U. S. Navy.

To:- Chief of Naval Operations.

SUBJECT:  Cooperation of the Navy with the Emergency Fleet Corporation1 in the matter of propositions submitted by General G. W. Goethals, General Manager of the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

Reference:     (a)  Letter of May 28th, 1917, from U.S.Shipping Board to Secretary of the Navy.2

1.   The importance and seriousness of this subject, together with the necessity of arriving first of all at a correct naval policy which shall coordinate its with the efforts of those engaged in supplying the tremendous wastage in cargo tonnage caused by the submarine campaign, leads me to submit this letter. Were all views thoroughly in accord there could be no discussion. There is, however, a decided difference of opinions in the matter of the naval policy to be pursued. This letter is not in accord with the general view of the office; but it is submitted as one view of what the policy should be.

2.   Owing to the present emergency, the Navy Department recognizes the building of cargo vessels is a measure of importance commensurate with the building of war ships itself. Since in the Department’s opinion the building of a wooden fleet is not an adequate or permanent way of meeting the situation, which must be met by steel construction, the Navy Department is glad to cooperate with the Emergency Fleet Corporation in every way possible, in enabling it to put its building program into operation.

3.   A statement of the Department’s policy as regards the order of importance of war ships to be laid down is as follows:

(1)  Submarine chasers.       (8)  Submarine tenders.

(2)  Destroyers.              (9)  Hospital Ships.

(3)  Scout Cruisers.         (10)  Ammunition Ships.

(4)  Submarine – Large and   (11)  Repair Ships.

                 Small.      (12)  Transports.

(5)  Battleships.            (13)  Gunboats.

(6)  Fuel Ships.              (14) Battle Cruisers.

(7)  Destroyer Tenders.

     4.   The first five types, with the exception of (3) Scout Cruisers (of which only a limited number to serve as destroyer flotilla leader should be laid down), are types of ships which are needed at present and the naval heads are such that all vessels of these types authorized should be begun at once.

     5.   Of equal importance to the above ships come the heavy merchant cargo carriers contemplated by the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

     6.   Naval ships coming under heads (6) to (12), inclusive, could if necessity arose be supplied out of the very types of ships to be built by the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

     7.   It, therefore, becomes evident that any cooperation of the Navy with the Emergency Fleet Corporation, must be along lines represented by classes (3) and (14).

     8.   It is therefore believed that the first proposition submitted by General Goethals is sound and that the Navy Department should cooperate to this extent. No new ships for the Navy of classes (6) to (12), inclusive, will be laid down on ways outside of Navy Yard ways without an adjustment first with the Emergency Fleet Corporation, so long as the present emergency exists. If, however, due to this policy the shortages in such types of naval auxiliaries severely handicap the Navy, it is agreed that the Emergency Fleet Corporation will meet these needs out of its own vessels building.

     9.   It is also believed that the second proposition is sound, and that the Navy Department should cooperate to the extent of releasing any or all of the four building ways (not in a Navy Yard on the Atlantic Coast) now under construction for the battle cruisers, in order that said ways may be used by the Emergency Fleet Corporation. This arrangement to hold good during the present emergency, or unless a new military necessity demands a new arrangement.

     10.  It is not the Department’s policy to allow cargo carrying merchant ships to be laid down on any ways in the existing Navy Yards. Such construction cramps the Yard facilities and handicaps the purpose for which these yards were originally established, viz: the repairs of naval ships already in service. But in view of the present emergency, it is believed that any battle cruisers’ ways laid down in a Navy Yard on the Pacific Coast could be temporarily loaned to the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

     11.  The above view are held because it is believed:

(a)  A successful termination of this war will preclude the chance of another for some term of years.

(b)  For the allied purposes, merchant ships are as essential to the successful termination of this war as battleships, and that their construction is even more important at present.

(c)  The counter for the United States, in case of an unsuccessful termination of this war lies in:

(1)    In our naval submarine.

(2)  In conscription.

(d)  Of new future possible opponents other than the  present opponents:

(1) The chances are remote, owing to present Alliances;

 (2) We are already stronger than any other possible opponents;

 (3) It would be better to buy our battle cruisers from our present Allies (in case they were needed than to lay them down now in the present emergency, an emergency which must be met NOW.

(e)  In case this war terminates successfully, the merchant ships laid down by us will be the most useful types in existence in furthering the ultimate good of the Country.

     12.  Finally, we did not enter this war alone. We have allies, and their efforts against the now common enemy, have stood between us and possible aggressions for over two years. The have needs. Their needs are immediate and imperative. Their cause is our cause now. The decision to the estimate4 of the situation as made in this office was as follows:


       “To render the maximum possible support now to the enemies of the Central Powers.”

          And a second import<ant> but future mission was:

       “Develop the Full Military and Naval strength of the  United States as far as possible.”

     In a paper of April 5, 1917, the General Board writing on the subject “Assistance that United States can give Allies upon Declaration of War”3 makes several pertinent suggestions of which one is as follows: “Keep constantly in view the possibility of the United States being in the not distant future compelled to conduct a war single-handed against some of the present belligerents and steadily increase the strength of the fighting line,” etc., etc.

     That remark is pertinent and sound, but it does not mean that one fraction of the strength of effort we should put into the successful accomplishment of the immediate mission should be sacrificed to any possible future contingency. Moreover, the day that the conscription law passed,4 and universal training was assured to the people of our country, its future security was guaranteed in a manner past every future building program the Navy might attempt.

     13.  A hasty review of the international situation leads me to the conclusions, that England’s Fleet will never be allowed to pass into German hands, nor can it be quiescent while Germany works her will on any of the present Allies. It is the death of England to allow it. If at the end of this war strained relations should arise with England (a propositions which seems to me untenable) no amount of feverish building of dreadnoughts or battle cruisers could hope to put us in a position to cope with her Fleet on the high seas. In such a contingency our efforts should now be directed towards augmenting our submarine Fleet, in both the offensive and planting <information> types.

     14.  It must have been noted that upon our entry into this war, a certain tension existing between this country and Japan was immediately relaxed. They immediately in certain press articles suggested a close cooperation with the United States. This close cooperation now with Japan, is to my mind the key to the solution of what might have been a future problem.

     15. Therefore, if we concentrate our present naval building efforts to:-

   (1) A standard type of destroyer to meet present needs;

   (2) Submarines, large and small, to meet future needs;

   (3) Battleships laid down and now on the ways

   (4) Certain types of small craft, such as tugs and sweepers;

   (5) Cooperate with the Shipping Board to produce cargo carriers, we will have put forth the Navy’s best efforts, not for the Navy alone, but for the country, and especially for the Allies, whose war is now our own.

     16.  For the above reasons I am obliged to differ with the consensus of opinion expressed in the Office of Operations, and implied in the General Board’s recommendations, and do concur in the opinion and propositions expressed in General Goethals’ letter of May 28, 1917. With the modification set forth in paragraphs 8, 9 and 10.

Source Note: TD, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 78.

Footnote 1: The Emergency Fleet Corporation was established by the United States Shipping Board on 16 April 1917 to acquire, maintain, and operate merchant ships to meet the needs of national defense and foreign and domestic commerce during World War I. The Shipping Board had been established while the United States was at peace with intent to restore the nation's Merchant Marine. That changed, however, with the declaration of war. In the words of Edward N. Hurley, a later Chairman of the Board of Shipping, “When the United States declared war against Germany the whole purpose and policy of the Shipping Board and the Fleet Corporation suffered a radical change overnight. From a body established to restore the American Merchant Marine to its old glory, the Shipping Board was transformed into a military agency to bridge the ocean with ships and to maintain the line of communication between America and Europe.” Ten days after the declaration of war the Emergency Fleet Corporation was established in response to those wartime requirements. At the time this document was written, William Denman served as the Chairman of the Shipping Board and Major General George W. Goethals served as the General Manager of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. Early controversy led to the resignation of both men on 27 July 1917. Hurley replaced Denman and RAdm. Washington L. Capps replaced Goethals. Edward N. Hurley, The Bridge to France (Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1927).

Footnote 2: The referenced letter has not been located.

Footnote 3: See, Charles J. Badger to Josephus Daniels. 5 April 1917, DNA, RG 80, Entry 420.

Footnote 4: The Selective Service Act of 1917 (Pub.L. 65-12, 40 Stat. 76), was enacted 18 May 1917.

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