Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, to General Chauncey B. Baker, Chief of Embarkation Service, and Edward N. Hurley, Chairman, Shipping Board
March 11, 1918.
From: Chief of Naval Operations.
To: Chief of Embarkation Service, U.S.Army,
Chairman, Shipping Board,
Bureau of Navigation,
Bureau of Ordnance.
SUBJECT:-Arming and manning merchant ships.
Reference:-(a) Letter No. 28754-1:25/229, Op-28, Mar. 6, 1918,1 subject – Merchant vessels in trans-Atlantic service to carry armed guards.
1. In this war the foes of the merchant ship, which it may encounter and which partly through its own efforts it may defeat, if properly equipped and handled, are –
(a) Armed raiders
(b) Cruising submarines, armed with heavy guns
(c) Small[e]r submarines relying on torpedo attack.
The first two classes rely upon gun attack largely. The last depends upon the torpedo and mine for its successes.
2. Broadly speaking, the Navy has two general aims which are, tersely expressed
(A) to win the war.
(B) to safeguard the future,
and of the two (A) naturally is paramount in importance.
3. Apart from the purely naval features which are not the concern of this letter, the Navy is, in its attitude toward merchant shipping, faced with the problem of adjusting its (A) and (B) of the merchant ship problem with the (a) (b) and (c) of paragraph 1, viz: the character of enemy our merchant ships do and may encounter and the localities where such enemies may operate.
4. To meet the situation stated in paragraph 3, the Navy has adopted the following policy:
(C) In these localities where the enemy operates or is liable to operate the merchant vessels to be efficient and do its full quota towards helping win this war, must in zones of danger be
(1) properly handled
(2) properly armed
(3) adequately escorted where escort is needed.
5. Referring to paragraph 4, and confining this letter strictly to the water operations, a strict interpretation of (1) – properly handled – must mean organized, administered, operated. To carry out (2) – properly armed – the Navy has attempted to furnish the guns. To carry out (3) – adequately escorted – the Navy has assigned its cruisers and destroyers.
6. To sum up, the Navy felt that in the zones of danger at sea, as on the firing line on land, military principles and practice should prevail, and to that end believes these three things should be put into effect on merchant ships to make these principles and practice effective.
(1) merchant ships crossing the danger zones, should be commissioned and manned with naval crews,
(2) or else should be provided withan armed guard;
(3) Arm all ships crossing the danger zones.
The Navy did not concern itself with ships outside the zones of enemy operations. This is a general statement of the theoretical policy which it is believed the Navy ought to adopt towards merchant shipping in order to give it the individual protection, apart from escort, to which it is entitled.
7. The practical solution of a theoretical aim is, however, a matter of adjustment, and this statement applies with equal force to both the material and personnel factors.
8. As the matter stands to-day, the Navy does
(a) man all ships turned over for Navy use;
(b) by joint rules, approved by the President, man Army troop transports and cargo ships;2
(c) provide guns for all ships crossing the Atlantic where the guns are available, and where installing guns does not too greatly interfere with the operations of the ship.
9. While reaffirming the principle stated in paragraph 6 the Navy will, in the matter of manning, as a matter of adjustment between the Army and Ship Control Committee, whenever it is satisfactory to the Army, consider that the term transport means
(1) all ships carrying troops;
(2) any ships that regularly carry Army stores across the Atlantic, voyage in the voyage out.
(3) all such ships shall be armed.
10. In the policy of arming ships the Navy provides at present
(a) For guns or more for all troop ships;
(b) Two guns for cargo ships;
(c) It does not provide guns for ships not entering the present danger zones owing to scarcity of guns.
11. While reaffirming the principle that ships operating in the danger zones should be that the danger of submarine operations on our own coast as an ever increasing one, as a matter of adjustment, the Navy will continue to attempt to furnish guns in the following order of importance:
(a) 4 to all troop-carrying ships;
(b) 2 to all regular Army cargo ships eroding the Atlantic;
(c) 2 to all other cargo carriers crossing the Atlantic, where the installation of guns would not so seriously interfere with the carrying of cargo as to greatly handicap the service or said craft as a cargo carrier, and where said armament is desired.
(e)Not to arm merchant ships engaged in coastwise traffic on the Atlantic until the other classes above mentioned are provided for, but to attempt to afford the necessary protection by the aid of escort furnished by the Naval Districts until such time as guns are available and their need is demonstrated.
(f) Not to arm ships engaged in the Pacific trade for the present, until the need is demonstrated.
12. To provide for suitable escort ships of the cruiser type, vessels which combine qualities of troop and cargo carriers with those of escort, the Department is of the opinion that immediate steps should be taken to fit our every tenth ship of the new ships building for the Emergency Fleet Corporation (type 16 to 18 knot, carrying 1200 troops, adopted as standard by the Standard Plans Committee) with not less than eight five-inch guns or better, instead of four, in order that the number of selfcontained escort ships may be increased.
13. It is recommended, however, in all cases of new construction, or when alteration and repair allows the time, that gun emplacements be fitted for all ships, inclusive of the Pacific, except in the cases of ships engaged in the coastwise trade which are structurally unfit to carry guns, and which it would be manifestly uneconomical to attempt to arm.
14. Finally, as to the Navy’s policy toward the merchant marine in the future. While the Navy standard may be high, it is believed that to make the merchant service attractive for American sailors, the former standards must be raised. The question of just compensation to owner, charterer and crew should be one capable of fair adjustment. The Navy has no desire to control merchant shipping after this war is over. Its most earnest wish is to see developed a merchant marine which will be a pride to our country, and which will fly the American flag in every ocean, as did our ships before the Civil War.
W. S. BENSON.
Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B. Document reference: “Op-28/28754/1:23/229/Ops.”
Footnote 1: Document referred to has not been found.
Footnote 2: President Woodrow Wilson; for more on this order, see Crowell and Wilson, The Road to France: 374-78, 448.