Commander Charles R. Belknap Jr., Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters
OFFICE OF NAVAL OPERATIONS
In reply refer to initials
March 11, 1918.
My dear Admiral:
Many thanks for your letter of the 18th of February which has just reached me.1
Since writing my last letter to you Babcock has no doubt reached London and has been able to spill some of the information that he gathered on this side. I told him before he went that I thought he could do a great deal more work on this side if he did not criticize the organization and workings of the office as much as he did. I thought that his attitude rather antagonized people at the start and therefore was a mistake which I think he corrected.2
You spoke of not being able to get assistance necessary to carry on the great amount of work which you are doing. I assure you that the same condition exists here. There is no doubt in my mind that there are no where near enough officers to carry on the work in a proper manner in the Department.3 There is barely a sufficient amount to keep the game moving and no surplus, who can shut themselves up and really get down to business and prepare for eventualities. That condition exists and must be faced. It is undoubtedly a very serious one and I should like to see the Admiral vitalize the General Board4 and utilize it as a nucleus for the consideration of the plans for the present and the plans for the future. Naturally it would have to have a great amount of cleaning out and disinfection, but I do think through it there is a chance to really obtain what might be called a deliberative general
satisfaction <STaFF> for the Navy. The gang in Operations is really only large enough to handle the immediate end of the game and have no chance to look into the future whatsoever.
Captain Bill Pratt5 is the head of the Planning Section and I want to assure you that his time is so actively engaged in the daily operations of the office that there practically is no Planning Section in existence. I am sure that you will agree with me that this is a mistake.
The Admiral is so tied down to his desk, partly through the conditions under which he works and partly due to his own desires that he has not a chance to really go into and consider the broad questions which concern us. Pressure is being brought to bear all the time upon him to shake off the details of this office, and we are able from time to time to report considerable success, expecially just yesterday when he signed the enclosed Order,6 that rightly handled and watched most carefully will do more good to work towards the end which we all desire than anything that I know of. I am not in any way criticizing the Admiral because I know the conditions under which he works and which cannot be put down in black and white.
The experiment of permitting a section of the office to run itself was more or less tried out on me and it was for that reason that my time was so much occupied with details that I was unable to get a moment to myself to talk with Babcock when he was here. I knew that this other Order was pending and was being brought forward most urgently and I did not want any possibility of a slip up on my part. There were a great many things that I should have liked to have had the opportunity to talk over with Babcock, but it was a pleasure which I had to forego.7
I am at present very much interested in the building up of the Naval Overseas Transportation Service, and I hope to be able to complete its organization and see it well founded and then be able to get away. As these ships came into the service the intention was to run them under the Train Commander of the Fleet, but as the Train Commander was never within reach of the various ports to which these vessels were plying it began to be a very hopeless mess. The Commandants of the Navy Yards treated them more and more like step children. No one was interested in the welfare of their personnel, their source of supply and their material condition. The Commandants were run to death by trying to get the fighting ships out and let the merchant class shift for itself. Then the Army began to request us to man their ships and the number was materially increased. It was up to us to more or less drop our Navy ways of handling affairs and to get into the middle of it and try to reach an equalizing position where the red tape of the Navy was satisfied and the traditions and customs of the merchant marine reduced as little as possible. This we have attempted to do by establishing shipping offices in each of the big ports. In this office there is a man to whom the skipper can go with all of his troubles, find where his supplies are to be had, and where repairs are to be gotten. The vessels are boarded immediately upon arrival by officers of the Supply, Administration, and Material Divisions of this office, and directions are given as to the proper place to obtain their supplies and what repairs will be permitted and where they should be done. The ships are inspected for their cleanliness and efficiency, and tug boats run to take the crews from the vessels lying in the stream of liberty and return them the next day. I have tried my best to inject a certain amount of human interest into these people and to get the proper healthy publicity for them. I am particularly careful whenever I hear of a good stunt being pulled off by a merchant skipper belonging to this service that he gets a letter from the Department relative thereto. Just how great or how large this service will eventually be is at present a hard guess to make. The Shipping Control Committee in New York of which Mr. P. A. S. Franklin is Chairman, has requested that the Navy man all vessels carrying troops into the war zone, and have stated that it is their desire for the Navy to man every vessel assigned to a regular run through the war zone, that will probably include all tankers, animal transports, and the largest of the cargo carrying fleet. In order to placate the sailor’s union a certain portion of this shipping will be manned by them and this portion will be liable to diversion to other routes at a moments notice. The Bureau of Navigation is working on the principle that the entire merchant marine of the United States will be eventually manned by the Navy. This is undoubtedly a safe principle to work upon and will in no way interfere should the game turn the other way. You can well imagine with what jealous eyes the ship owners and the Shipping Board watch the vessels now manned by the Navy, and it is for that reason that we are so anxious to see a quick turn around of the vessels on the other side. It seems to me that it would be wise to start an office in each of the ports with a representative of the Navy <under you> to have charge of the Naval vessels entering the port, in order that the Commanding Officers would have some haven of refuge to which they could go to tell their troubles. I can get in this country excellent men of known merchant <ship> experience who would be willing to join the Navy and take these places. However I do not want to make any move until I hear from you. These chaps would according to my idea occupy the same position that our representatives do in the ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk, at the present time. Their staffs could be as large or as small as the circumstances would warrant, and they would become a part of the district organization as it is over here.
Babcock will tell you of the recent developments regarding the C-in-C.8 I think at the present time that should such a step be decided upon that you would be made the representative of the Office of Operations in England, and through you the C-in-C would receive his directions. I do not think that at the present there is any danger of the C-in-C being sent to European Waters, but should it be done the above is I think the way the problem would be solved. My solution of the whole thing seems to me is the most logical one you could have, and that is to make you Commander-in-Chief in Europe. Then the forces would simply be transferred from one command to another as they are now done from the Pacific to the Atlantic or from the Asiatic to the Pacific. I know that Admiral Strauss9 asked the Admiral as to his relations to you upon arrival in European Waters and he was told most frankly and strongly that he would be given orders to report to you to be under your entire control. These remarks to Admiral Strauss were
cabled <coupled> with a great many most complimentary things about you, all of which I think goes to show a far better understanding between your office and this, and may I add that it pleases me greatly as it is a thing on which I have spent much time and much labor.
There is a great deal of gossip flying about here as to changes to be made among the government officials, but I think it all to be a mere waste of time to repeat it to you as I do not think there is any foundation for it. There is only one thing to my mind which I think would bring about any change in the present organization, and that is calamity. The old game of politics is still on and still working just as hard as ever. It is even at times a greater enemy than the Hun, most difficult to overcome because it has been uppermost in the minds of the directing heads of this nation. The seriousness of the situation has not yet really been realized, or if it has there is no attention being paid to it, that is to say, no immediate steps are being made to assist.
General Goethals10 is working wonders in the War Department, and I think is rapidly practically assuming the reins of the directorship of the entire Department. He has jumped into the game fearlessly and has kicked both ways, chopping off heads here and there, and wherever it is needed. Rumor has gone even so far as to state that he would be made the Secretary of War.11 However true this may be time alone can only tell. I do think his powers are equal to those of the Secretary, and in many cases greater.
Captain Pratt tells me to say to you that his feelings are not hurt, but his time is taken up on the ends of a cable, and that he has not had a moment to himself. He has not written any personal letters for a long time.
Since the Admiral’s visit to Europe Captain Pratt has not been at all well. I think the combined strain of carrying on his own job and that of the Admiral’s coupled with a reduction of his force by the detachment of Scofield and Knox,12 was a little toomuch for him. He is not the same person and should in my opinion go away for a complete rest.
With best wishes to you and all the gang, especially to Captain Twining, Long, Babcock, Stark, and Ancrum.13
Yours as ever,
Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 48. Addressed below close: “Vice Admiral W. S. Sims, U.S.N.,/Commander, U. S. Naval Forces/Operating in European Waters.” The letter is on Office of Naval Operations stationery.
Footnote 1: See: Sims to Belknap, 18 February, 1918.
Footnote 2: Cmdr. John V. Babcock, Sims' aide, commented in the margin: “Not true. Belknap & [William V.] Pratt the only men I talked to along such lines. Thought they belonged to Family. Evidently Belknap is not.”
Footnote 3: Babcock commented in the margin, “Why Not JVB.”
Footnote 4: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations.
Footnote 5: Capt. William V. Pratt, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations.
Footnote 6: See: Benson, Inter-Office Order, 7 March 1918. The referenced order was not enclosed.
Footnote 7: Babcock wrote in the margin, “He showed me the order. He talked my arm off. JVB.”
Footnote 8: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.
Footnote 9: RAdm. Joseph Strauss, Commander, Mine Force, Atlantic Fleet.
Footnote 10: Gen. George W. Goethals, Quartermaster General of the United States Army.
Footnote 11: Secretary of War Newton D. Baker.
Footnote 12: Capt. Frank A. Scofield and Cmdr. Dudley M. Knox, who had gone to London to join Sims’ staff.
Footnote 13: Capt. Nathan C. Twining, Cmdr. Joseph V. Long, Lt. Cmdr. Harold R. Stark, and Lt. Cmdr. William Ancrum.