Friday, October 13, 2017, marks the Two Hundred Forty-Second birthday of the United States Navy. I have compiled a history of the Navy from its inception through the present. The entire document comprises over eleven thousand words and twenty pages. This is the third of four installments culminating in the final posting on October 13.
U.S. Navy III
Compiled and Authored by: Garland Davis
Spanish–American War (1898)
The United States was interested in purchasing colonies from Spain, specifically Cuba, but Spain refused. Newspapers wrote stories, many which were fabricated, about atrocities committed in Spanish colonies which raised tensions between the two countries. A riot gave the United States an excuse to send USS Maine to Cuba, and the subsequent explosion of Maine in Havana increased popular support for war with Spain. The cause of the explosion was investigated by a board of inquiry, which in March 1898 came to the conclusion the explosion was caused by a sea mine, and there was pressure from the public to blame Spain for sinking the ship. However, later investigations pointed to an internal explosion in one of the magazines caused by heat from a fire in the adjacent coal bunker
Assistant Navy secretary Theodore Roosevelt quietly positioned the Navy for attack before the Spanish–American War was declared in April 1898. The Asiatic Squadron, under the command of George Dewey, immediately left Hong Kong for the Philippines, attacking and decisively defeating the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay. A few weeks later, the North Atlantic Squadron destroyed the majority of heavy Spanish naval units in the Caribbean in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.
The Navy’s experience in this war was both encouraging, in that it had won, and cautionary, in that the enemy had one of the weakest of the worlds’ modern fleets, and that the Manila Bay attack was extremely risky; if the American ships had been severely damaged or had run out of supplies, they were 7,000 miles from the nearest American harbor. This realization would have a profound effect on Navy strategy, and, indeed, American foreign policy, in the next several decades.
Rise of the Modern Navy (1898–1914)
Fortunately for the New Navy, its most ardent political supporter, Theodore Roosevelt, became President in 1901. Under his administration, the Navy went from the sixth largest in the world to second only to the Royal Navy. Theodore Roosevelt’s administration became involved in the politics of the Caribbean and Central America, with interventions in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1906. At a speech in 1901, Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far”, which was a cornerstone of diplomacy during his presidency.
Roosevelt believed that a U.S.-controlled canal across Central America was a vital strategic interest to the U.S. Navy because it would significantly shorten travel times for ships between the two coasts. Roosevelt was able to reverse a decision in favor of a Nicaraguan Canal and instead moved to purchase the failed French effort across the Isthmus of Panama. The isthmus was controlled by Columbia, and in early 1903, the Hay-Herran Treaty was signed by both nations to give control of the canal to the United States. After the Colombian Senate failed to ratify the treaty, Roosevelt implied to Panamanian rebels that if they revolted, the US Navy would assist their cause for independence. Panama proceeded to proclaim its independence on 3 November 1903, and USS Nashville impeded any interference from Colombia. The victorious Panamanians allowed the United States control of the Panama Canal Zone on 23 February 1904, for ten million dollars. The naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was built in 1905 to protect the canal.
The latest technological innovation of the time, submarines, were developed in the state of New Jersey by an Irish-American inventor, John Philip Holland. His submarine, USS Holland was officially commissioned into U.S. Navy service in the fall of 1900. The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the launching of HMS Dreadnaught in the following year lent impetus to the construction program. At the end of 1907, Roosevelt had sixteen new battleships to make up his “Great White Fleet”, which he sent on a cruise around the world. While nominally peaceful, and a valuable training exercise for the rapidly expanding Navy, it was also useful politically as a demonstration of United States power and capabilities; at every port, the politicians and naval officers of both potential allies and enemies were welcomed on board and given tours. The cruise had the desired effect, and American power was subsequently taken more seriously.
The voyage taught the Navy more fueling stations were needed around the world, and the strategic potential of the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914. The Great White Fleet required almost 50 coaling ships, and during the cruise, most of the fleet’s coal was purchased from the British, who could deny access to fuel during a military crisis as they did with Russia during the Russo-Japanese War.
World War I (1914–1918)
When United States agents discovered that the German merchant ship Ypiranga was carrying illegal arms to Mexico, President Wilson ordered the Navy to stop the ship from docking at the port of Veracruz. On 21 April 1914, a naval brigade of Marines and Sailors occupied Veracruz. A total of 55 Medals of Honor were awarded for acts of heroism at Veracruz, the largest number ever granted for a single action.
Preparing for war 1914-1917]
Despite U.S. declarations of neutrality and German accountability for its unrestricted submarine warfare, in 1915 the British passenger liner Lusitania was sunk, leading to calls for war. President Wilson forced the Germans to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare and after long debate Congress passes the Naval act of 19116 that authorized a $500 million construction program over three years for 10 battleships, 6 battlecruisers, 10 scout cruisers, 50 destroyers and 67 submarines. The idea was a balanced fleet, but in the event, destroyers were much more important, because they had to handle U-boats and convoys. By the end of the war 273 destroyers had been ordered; most were finished after World War I ended but many served in World War II. There were few war plans beyond the defense of the main American harbors.
Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, a pacifistic journalist, had built up the educational resources of the Navy and made its Naval War College an essential experience for would-be admirals. However, he alienated the officer corps with his moralistic reforms, (no wine in the officers’ mess, no hazing at Annapolis, more chaplains, and YMCAs). Ignoring the nation’s strategic needs, and disdaining the advice of its experts, Daniels suspended meetings of the Joint Army and Navy Board for two years because it was giving unwelcome advice. He chopped in half the General Board’s recommendations for new ships, reduced the authority of officers in the Navy yards where ships were built and repaired, and ignored the administrative chaos in his department. Bradley Fiske, one of the most innovative admirals in American naval history, in 1914 was Daniels’ top aide; he recommended a reorganization that would prepare for war, but Daniels refused. Instead, he replaced Fiske in 1915 and brought in for the new post of Chief of Naval Operations an unknown captain, William S. Benson. Chosen for his compliance, Benson proved a wily bureaucrat who was more interested in preparing for an eventual showdown with Britain than an immediate one with Germany.
In 1915 Daniels set up the Naval Consulting Board headed by Thomas Edison to obtain the advice and expertise of leading scientists, engineers, and industrialists. It popularized technology, naval expansion, and military preparedness, and was well covered in the media. Daniels and Benson rejected proposals to send observers to Europe, leaving the Navy in the dark about the success of the German submarine campaign. Admiral William Sims charged after the war that in April 1917, only ten percent of the Navy’s warships were fully manned; the rest lacked 43% of their seamen. Only a third of the ships were fully ready. Light antisubmarine ships were few in number as if no one had noticed the U-boat factor that had been the focus of foreign policy for two years. The Navy’s only warfighting plan, the “Black Plan” assumed the Royal Navy did not exist and that German battleships were moving freely about the Atlantic and the Caribbean and threatening the Panama Canal. His most recent biographer concludes that “it is true that Daniels had not prepared the navy for the war it would have to fight.”
Fighting a world war, 1917–1918
America entered the war in April 1917 and the Navy’s role was mostly limited to convoy escort and troop transport and the laying of a minefield across the North Sea. The United States Navy sent a battleship group to Scapa Flow to join with the British Grand Fleet, destroyers to Queenstown, Ireland, and submarines to help guard convoys. Several regiments of Marines were also dispatched to France. The first victory for the Navy in the war occurred on 17 November 1917 when USS Fanning and USS Nicholson sank the German U-boat U-58. During World War I, the Navy was the first branch of the United States armed forces to allow enlistment by women in a non-nursing capacity, as Yeoman(F). The first woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy was Loretta P. Walsh on 17 March 1917.
The Navy’s vast wartime expansion was overseen by civilian officials, especially Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt. In peacetime, the Navy confined all munitions that lacked civilian uses, including warships, naval guns, and shells to Navy yards. The Navy yards expanded enormously and subcontracted the shells and explosives to chemical companies like DuPont and Hercules. Items available on the civilian market, such as food and uniforms were always purchased from civilian contractors. Armor plate and airplanes were purchased on the market.]
Inter-war entrenchment and expansion (1918–1941)
At the end of World War I, the United States Navy had almost 500,000 officers and enlisted men and women and in terms of personnel was the largest in the world. Younger officers were enthusiastic about the potential of land-based naval aviation as well as the potential roles of aircraft carriers. Chief of Naval Operations Benson was not among them. He tried to abolish aviation in 1919 because he could not “conceive of any use the fleet will ever have for aviation.” However, Roosevelt listened to the visionaries and reversed Benson’s decision.
After a short period of demobilization, the major naval nations of the globe began programs for increasing the size and number of their capital ships. Wilson’s plan for a world-leading set of capital ships led to a Japanese counter-program, and a plan by the British to build sufficient ships to maintain a navy superior to either. American isolationist feeling and the economic concerns of the others led to the Washington Naval Conference of 1921. The outcome of the conference included the Washington Naval Treaty (also known as the Five-Power treaty), and limitations on the use of submarines The treaty recognized the U.S. Navy as being equal to the Royal Navy with 525,000 tons of capital ships and 135,000 tons of aircraft carriers, and the Japanese as the third power. Many older ships were scrapped by the five nations to meet the treaty limitations, and new building of capital ships was limited.
One consequence was to encourage the development of light cruisers and aircraft carriers. The United States’ first carrier, a converted collier named USS Langley was commissioned in 1922, and soon joined by USS Lexington and USS Saratoga, which had been designed as battlecruisers until the treaty forbade it. Organizationally, the Bureau of Aeronautics was formed in 1921; naval aviators would become referred to as members of the United States Naval Air Corps.
Army airman Billy Mitchell challenged the Navy by trying to demonstrate that warships could be destroyed by land-based bombers. He destroyed his career in 1925 by publicly attacking senior leaders in the Army and Navy for incompetence for their “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.”
The Vinson-Trammell Act of 1934 set up a regular program of shipbuilding and modernization to bring the Navy to the maximum size allowed by treaty. The Navy’s preparation was helped along by another Navy assistant secretary turned president, Franklin D Roosevelt. The naval limitation treaties also applied to bases, but Congress only approved building seaplane bases on Wake Island, Midway Island, and Dutch Harbor and rejected any additional funds for bases on Guam and in the Philippines. Navy ships were designed with greater endurance and range which allowed them to operate further from bases and between refits.
The Navy had a presence in the Far East with a naval base in the US-owned Philippines and river gunboats in China on the Yangtze River. The gunboat USS Panay was bombed and machine-gunned by Japanese airplanes. Washington quickly accepted Japan’s apologies and compensation.
African-Americans were enlisted during World War I, but this was halted in 1919 and they were mustered out of the Navy. Starting in the 1930s a few were recruited to serve as stewards in the officers’ mess. African-Americans were recruited in larger numbers only after Roosevelt insisted in 1942.
The Naval Act of 1936 authorized the first new battleship since 1921, and USS North Carolina was laid down in October 1937. The Second Vinson Act authorized a 20% increase in the size of the Navy, and in June 1940 the Two Ocean Navy Act authorized an 11% expansion in the Navy. Chief of Naval Operations, Harold Rainsford Stark asked for another 70% increase, amounting to about 200 additional ships, which was authorized by Congress in less than a month. In September 1940, the Destroyers for Bases Agreement gave Britain much-needed destroyers—of WWI vintage—in exchange for United States use of British bases.
In 1941, the Atlantic Fleet was reactivated. The Navy’s first shot in anger came on 9 April when the destroyer USS Niblack dropped depth charges on a U-boat detected while Niblack was rescuing survivors from a torpedoed Dutch freighter. In October, the destroyers Kearny and Reuben James were torpedoed, and Reuben James was lost.
Submarines were the “silent service”—in terms of operating characteristics and the closed-mouth preferences of the submariners. Strategists had, however, been looking into this new type of warship, influenced in large part by Germany’s nearly successful U-boat campaign. As early as 1912, Lieutenant Chester Nimitz had argued for long-range submarines to accompany the fleet to scout the enemy’s location. The new head of the Submarine Section in 1919 was Captain Thomas Hart, who argued that submarines could win the next war: “There is no quicker or more effective method of defeating Japan than the cutting of her sea communications.” However Hart was astonished to discover how backward American submarines were compared to captured German U-boats, and how unready they were for their mission. The public supported submarines for their coastal protection mission; they would presumably intercept enemy fleets approaching San Francisco or New York. The Navy realized it was a mission that isolationists in Congress would fund, but it was not actually serious. Old-line admirals said the mission of the subs ought to be as eyes of the battle fleet, and as assistants in battle. That was unfeasible since even on the surface submarines could not move faster than 20 knots, far slower than the 30 knot main warships. The young commanders were organized into a “Submarine Officers’ Conference” in 1926. They argued they were best suited for the commerce raiding that had been the forte of the U-boats. They, therefore, redesigned their new boats along German lines and added the new requirement that they be capable of sailing alone for 7,500 miles on a 75-day mission. Unrestricted submarine warfare had led to war with Germany in 1917 and was still vigorously condemned both by public opinion and by treaties, including the London Treaty of 1930. Nevertheless, the submariners planned a role in unrestricted warfare against Japanese merchant ships, transports, and oil tankers. The Navy kept its plans secret from civilians. It was an admiral, not President Roosevelt, who within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack, ordered unrestricted warfare against any enemy ship anywhere in the Pacific.
The submariners had won over Navy strategists, but their equipment was not yet capable of handling their secret mission. The challenge of designing appropriate new boats became a high priority by 1934 and was solved in 1936 as the first new long-range, all welded submarines were launched. Even better were the S-class Salmon class (launched in 1937), and its successors the T-class or Tambor submarines of 1939 and the Gato class of 1940. The new models cost about $5–6 million each. At 300 feet in length and 1500 tons, they were twice as big as the German U-boats, but still highly maneuverable. In only 35 seconds they could crash dive to 60 feet. The superb Mark 3 TDC Torpedo Data Computer (an analog computer) took data from periscope or sonar readings on the target’s bearing, range and angle on the bow, and continuously set the course and proper gyroscope angle for a salvo of torpedoes until the moment of firing. Six forward tubes and 4 aft were ready for the 24 Mk-14 “fish” the subs carried. Cruising on the surface at 20 knots (using 4 diesel engines) or maneuvering underwater at 8-10 knots (using battery-powered electric motors) they could circle around slow-moving merchant ships. New steels and welding techniques strengthened the hull, enabling the subs to dive as deep as 400 feet in order to avoid depth charges. Expecting long cruises the 65 crewmen enjoyed good living conditions, complete with frozen steaks and air conditioning to handle the hot waters of the Pacific. The new subs could remain at sea for 75 days, and cover 10,000 miles, without resupply. The submariners thought they were ready—but they had two hidden flaws. The penny-pinching atmosphere of the 1930s produced hyper-cautious commanders and defective torpedoes. Both would have to be replaced in World War II.