Captain William V. Pratt, Planning Section, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Destroyers Operating from British Bases
OFFICE OF NAVAL
Sunday, May 27, 1917.
Owing to the rush of things here, this is about the first opportunity I have had to drop you a line to let you know how things are going at this end of the line.
First of all let me congratulate you on the Vice Admiral commission. It was a most fitting appointment.1 You have a good friend in Benson here,2 and the entire staff, so far as I Know, comprising at least Chase, McKean3 and myself have tried to keep in touch with the European situation. Chase and I some time ago discussed that question, and went over all the pros and cons? We looked down the list of Admirals trying to pick out any timber that might consider itself available for duty over on the other side. It settled down to two men who havent veru big jobs now who might want something bigger in case the European part of our naval work increased in importance as it is bound to do in the not distant future--Fletcher--Winterhalter.4 Of course either one of them would take Bensons job in two seconds if he got the chance. We all feel that. From the conversations I have had with Chase and the others, I think I can safely say that the policy of Operations, is that you are the best man to handle the situation over there--not only the destroyers, but the big problem involving not only the questions in England but France as well if the ocassion arises, and when the bill went up making the change in the distribution of the Vice Admirals billets possible5 I know your name was the first one mentioned here as being not only a desirable but a necessary appointment, in order to stave off any future complications, and have the European policy carried, to a ceratinty [i.e., certainty] as it should be, by a man thoroughly in touch and thoroughly staisfactory to the Allies.
There is to be a big detachment of yachts sent to France, to act as patrol craft.6 Alot of names were mentioned--I firmly believed that it was not wise to go too far down the list to pick the job. However it was the consensus of opinion that he should be junior to you for the reasons mentioned above. The result was the Admiral Selected little Fletcher--you know the chap at the war college--He will be over very soon.7
There has been another big problem over which I have had considerable work to do--viz the question of the transportation of troops to Europe--Gleaves has been appointed Convoy Comdr. for he felt pretty blue at having his entire command taken from him.8 With all his personalities he is a strong man and above all the Navy must pull together in a pinch like this, and if people can be made to work willingly together so much the better. He will, I think go over entirely to the other side and then return. You will get the entire details later when it is pulled off.
Things are not too rosy over here--getting better, but not too smooth. There has been a great deal of disgruntled feeling in the Fleet over the way they think Operations has ripped hell out of the Organization. Plunkett9 came in yesterday and gave me personal Hell. H e has a great deal of right on his side, but the solution is not for him to growl, but to get busy put it down in black and white, show exactly where the faults are –hold a conference of all parties concerned--and get busy on the job. The entire trouble dates from what we consider a faulty estimate of the JOB at hand, on the part of the C)in)C,10 and his unwillingness to let his fighting ships go to the Pacific, just at the other end of the Canal, where they could drill intensively at target practice, releasing the Destroyers and mine layers for their present fighting task, on the Atlantic side.11 ABig Fleet thus trained to the minute, away from the shore distractions of Chesapeake bay, would be a far fitter unit than it is at present.--Then too I fell that Navigation has not entirely co-operated. Say what you please there is a lack of get together between Navigation and Operations which should not exist. Operations says Palmer12 is jealous of his perogatives, Palmer I think imagines we buttin on his job. There is a hitch somewhere which a clear and frank understanding would do much to clear up. That is the principal difficulty the Fleet suffers from--change of men, and the feeling of being tied up and in ignorance of what is going on. The answer to that is to have so much going on of interest that the Fleet doesn’t have time to think.
If you will pardon my suggesting it ,it seems to me you have a twofold job, which of course you have long realized. The most interesting and active is the handling of the destroyers but the biggest, and the one which will help the whole thing along most--is to get in the closest touch with the Admiralty. Without question, to an extent not applicable to the war on land English naval policy dominates the policy of the entire Allied nations. That is bound to be so on account of precedent and account of the power England wields. Just at present our numbers over there are small, but our interest is big anf growing. In the future, if the war does not end soon the U.S.interest is going to be a big one. It deals with the present tavtical problems but it also has a very vital interest in the problems of the future. I have always thought ,now that we are in it, we should not be content to calmly accept their policy without a look in ourselves.13 I do not in the least criticize it, and undoubtedly it is as sound as a button, but our position ,and our weight in this war if it lasts, will be such that our views of policy etc., in naval matters will have to be listened to, and not necessarily that we should accept theirs unless we too have a voice in the matter. Therefore it has been in my mind that there should be a seat on the Admiralty Board, for one of our N[a]val men of high rank and unquestioned ability. Aman not only of judgement, but who has the confidence and the policies of his own Dept. at his fingers ends, with the power to make definite decisions. Such firs[t] hand cooperation is vital and essential. To that end there should be one of their first class men siitting in this office, and you ought to have a voice in their councils and a seat at the Board.14 How can that be brought about. It means for the future the basis of a naval establishment joined together for the good of the two nations and incidentally it means the peace of the world and its joint policing. The first step is getting closer together and having a definite understanding and voice. This seems a bit radical and probably the average Englishman would gasp at the suggestion, but stop and think what is going to happen after this war is over, and I think you will get me. I try to push the good word along, and get a man over here with a desk in this office. I dont care how small it is, at first, a good man will make it grow. And I wish some way could be found without making the effort too pronounced ,to get you a seat on the Admiralty Board and make the major problems Joint problems. That has been one of my dreams for a long time, but so much in the matter of success depends upon first impressions.---Naval attaches cant do the work I mean. For a good many reasons it would be a mistake to allow any man senior to you get over there--I am firmly convinced that the good future of both England and the United States lie along the same paths. Not only that but I feel that a successful conclusion to this war will put the quietus to the Far Eastern Question, at least so long as we live.15--if we two pull together, Japan sees it ,you bet, and therefore her efforts to cooperate. I have always felt there was another solution than war so far as she is concerned, and I have always felt Vogel to the contrary notwithstanding, that the so called menace could be met--and that the rulers of Japan did not want war with us.16
There was a suggestion somewhere I have seen, I am not sure Babcock17 did not make it ,that it was thought the Germans could clear a mine field with their submarines, by cutting the mine away from its mooring. Now I dont know how feasible this is, The people on the job ought to know.18 However if it were so, it seems as though this ought to be met. I put the problem up to one of these brain trust artists on the Council of National Defense with which I am associated in a monor [i.e., minor] way.19 He suggested something like this--Take a mine which explodes on contact, suppose you put in in addition an electric firing device consisting of a battery, with two insulated wires running down through the mine mooring., and ending in a strongly insulated plate, or insulated by rubber caps or something on each wire. Ordinarilly there would be no short circuit through your electric connections and the mine would only fire on contact. But suppose a submarine were to come along and try to cut the mooring, the instant the cutter or the sea water came in contact with the second insulated wire a short circuit is made which fires the mine. This would have a tendency to discourage cuttind of mine cables, if it were a common practice.
Jake Robison20 submitted an idea the other day( I am the head of the Board on crank ideas and devices)21 which seems to have much merit. The main idea is to fight subs., with subs. He wants to anchor a line of them across the line decided to defend, submerge them. Have them equipped with michrophone detectors, and keep station under water. They come up to breathe at night, and are regularly releived. If enough could be anchored on the line he thinks it would be impossible for the hostile to cross that line without either being seen or heard by the watching submarine. Then it would either be a matter of attack by the watching subs., or a matter of informing the patrol craft lying to the rear to come to the attack. Of course there are several buts--one is efficient detectors—another is the position of the friendly subs, which must be in areas where the friendly patrol craft will not for a certainty attack their own submarines, that is a matter of designated areas--another is the location of the friendly subs., in positions where they can distinctly hinder any raids of surface craft on the patrol craft, the drifters, and the friendly mine fields. Practically this means an advance position for our submarines fairly near the enemy ports, or at least well in advance of our patrol lines on the surface.22
I am a crank on the heavily armed non sinkable drifter or tug if it can be done as a backer up of the fixed mine field. A combination of such craft aided with the submarine (if de)tectors will come through all right)--will help a lot. And the destroyer chaser for the outside work, equipped with detectors and bombs ought to make ti [i.e., it] uncomfortable. By the way I hope the Fessenden sets23 on the last bunch of destroyers prove a success.
As far as my own little troubles are concerned. They show me the various cables you have sent for me.24 I cant thank you enough and over there with you is where I want to be. But they wont let me go. Chase is really the man who thinks I can be more useful right here than any where else, and he advises the Admiral to that effect. I think from talking over things with him he feels that a group of men having the same general ideas, the same War College training are necessary here to back up a situation which at any time may need the united efforts of such a band--in McKean—Schofield--Chase--and myself there is a very united effort especially as we have the confidence of the Admiral.25 I think he feels there is a strong effort in certain directions to discredit operations, and that certain people would gladly see the downfall of this office with the power it wields. It is at present the one compact body of men in positions where they can influence policy, who think alike, are indoctrinate with the War College principle,26 and who are trying as far as power will let them to carry on this war playing no favorites but sending men and forces where we think they can best do the work. I really feel for that reason and for what might turn up at any time he is holding me, for he knows I think along the same lines that he does himself. There are strong influences at work I think to discredit the work of this office, and I do not think that Palmer or the Bu. Y & D27 wants to pull with us. The Fleet cusses us out every body does it . They say Operations is trying to run the whole shooting match and is making a mess of it. There is a great fault. It is the lack of being able to drive out definite decisions. Personally I think Chase wants to do exactly what you have asked for let me go, as I know he wants to do and give me what I really want, viz:-get over with you, but he says every man has got to put his wishes in his pocket and play the game. I dont altogether agree for my personal wishes are so strong, but I do admit the justice of his reasoning. I am getti[ng] to hate it here. Sitting at a desk all day--every mans hand against you, but, I am learning something of the game and I AM SURE that the only thing for a CHIEF of operations to do is to lay the LAW down and to fight for it to THE LIMIT. You have a big job a peach, and it is my most earnest wish to be able to get over and help in some little way. But whether they let me go or not I intend to keep you posted to the limit on this end of the line. They cant offer me another sea job for the present, there is nothing I want except what you have offered me---Best of wishes to you and to the entire bunch. It is a mighty disagreeable feeling to realize that the bunch you had a small part in making what it is, is playing the real game for which they have trained, and you are out of it, but if it is the game, it is and there isnt anything more to say about it.
Dont say anything about any of the stuff I have told you for as far as Fletcher ctc [i.e., etc.], and the policy and the troubles are concerned they are largely a matter of surmise--that is anything concerning the Dept. My own particular woes of course I know. I am sending this by Pringle personally.28
Cheer up --Yours
Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, William S. Sims Papers, Box 78. The letter is written on Navy Department stationery. Every page has printed on it “NAVY DEPARTMENT/WASHINGTON.” Only the first page has “OFFICE OF NAVAL AERONAUTICS OPERATIONS.” In this letter, Pratt consistently did not leave a space after typing a comma or a period. To improve the readability, the editors have silently added a space.
Footnote 1: On the appointment of Sims as Vice Admiral, see: Volney O. Chase to Sims, 26 May 1917.
Footnote 2: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations.
Footnote 3: Benson’s aides, Capt. Volney O. Chase and Cmdr. Josiah S. McKean.
Footnote 4: Both Adms. Frank F. Fletcher and Albert G. Winterhalter were then serving on the General Board of the Navy.
Footnote 5: On the act of Congress expanding the number of flag officers in the Navy, see: House Resolution 3330, Harris Laning to William F. Fulham, 25 May 1917, and Chase to Sims, 26 May 1917.
Footnote 6: On the dispatch of the armed yachts to France, see: William R. Sayles to Josephus Daniels, 23 May 1917.
Footnote 7: Adm. William B. Fletcher.
Footnote 8: RAdm. Albert Gleaves relieved Sims as commander of the Torpedo Flotilla in the Atlantic Fleet, but saw his command steadily dwindle as destroyers were sent to Sims in Great Britain. Gleaves was senior to Sims and should have probably been sent to command at Queenstown. Being made Commander, Convoy Operations on 29 May 1917 was an attempt to placate him. Wheeler, Pratt: 116.
Footnote 9: RAdm. Charles P. Plunkett was then Director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Performances and Director of Target Practice. Naval Investigation, 1: 516.
Footnote 10: Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.
Footnote 11: The “Canal” was the Panama Canal. The pre-war plan of the Navy, which Mayo seems to have been following, called for concentrating the American fleet on the eastern seaboard of the United States and preparing to meet the German fleet somewhere in the western Atlantic or the Caribbean. See: George Dewey to Daniels, February 1915.
Footnote 12: RAdm. Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.
Footnote 13: There was a feeling among some in Navy leadership that Sims was too accepting of the British point of view and would never challenge them. Still, Crisis at Sea: 69-71, 73.
Footnote 14: Sims was later invited to become an honorary member of the British Admiralty but President Woodrow Wilson blocked it. See, Diary of Josephus Daniels, 26 November 1917, DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Diary, Roll 1. The British, however, continued to allow their naval attaché in Washington, Commo. Guy R. Gaunt, represent them at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
Footnote 15: On concern in the United States about the possibility of conflict with Japan, see: Arthur J. Balfour to A. Robert Cecil, 14 May 1917.
Footnote 16: The image of menacing, aggressive Japan was a popular one in America in 1917. See, for example, Frederick McCormick, The Menace of Japan (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1917). “Vogel” may refer to Capt. Carl T. Vogelgesang, who was at the Naval War College with Sims.
Footnote 17: Sims’ aide, Cmdr. John V. Babcock.
Footnote 18: German submarines did not have that capability.
Footnote 19: Pratt represented the Office of Naval Operations on a “variety of study, coordinating, and operating committees.” Wheeler, Pratt: 100.
Footnote 20: Capt. John K. Robison, who was in charge of the Navy Torpedo Station, Newport. Robison has been called an “ex officio member of Sims’ ‘band of brothers,’” which is the name given to the group of officers, including Pratt, that were in the Torpedo Squadron commanded by Sims in 1913. Ibid., 100.
Footnote 21: Pratt was chairman of a “Board on Devices and Plans Connected with Submarine Warfare.” As such he was responsible for sifting through the thousands of ideas and suggestions that poured into the Navy Department concerning submarine warfare and sort out those worthy of follow-up. Ibid., 100.
Footnote 22: Robison’s scheme was never attempted.
Footnote 23: The set, invented by Reginald Fessenden, was an early form of sonar but its low operating frequency gave it a broad beam that made it unsuitable for detecting and localizing small targets, such as submarines. Gary L. Frost, “Inventing Schemes and Strategies: The Making and Selling of the Fessenden Oscillator,” Technology and Culture, 42, (July, 2001), 462-88.
Footnote 24: Sims repeatedly asked that Pratt be sent over to join him to be his chief of staff. For example, see: Sims to Daniels, 24 May 1917.
Footnote 25: Pratt, Chase, McKean and Frank H. Schofield were all members of Benson's staff.
Footnote 26: According to Pratt’s biographer these principles were an emphasis on “analysis and logical conclusions drawn from reliable data,” war gaming, integration between theories discussed in the classroom and practical application of those theories in the fleet, and open-ended discussion and argument until consensus was achieved and then complete loyalty to the “operating plan and guiding doctrine.” Wheeler, Pratt, 68, 74.
Footnote 27: That is, Bureau of Yard and Docks. The chief of that bureau was Civil Engineer Homer R. Stanford.
Footnote 28: Comdr. Joel R. Poinsett Pringle. Pringle replaced Sims as commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s destroyer flotilla. Still, Crisis at Sea: 66.