Accidents in the Navy: Safety First or Efficiency First?

WHEN serious accidents occur in the navy, particularly when they involve considerable loss of life, it is perfectly natural that there should be more or less severe criticism in the press. Many of these criticisms are not deserved. Many people do not understand that one of the primary necessities of preparation for war renders the navy more liable to disastrous accidents than is the case in any of the industries. This lack of understanding of the greater risk in training the naval personnel to handle efficiently the various units of the fleet and its various weapons, under conditions resembling as nearly as possible those of actual warfare, was made apparent during the recent annual convention of the National Safety Council in Cleveland, which I attended.

The subject of safety being foremost in the minds of the delegates, many questions were asked as to the precautions taken in the navy for ‘Safety First,’ and many of the delegates were apparently surprised to learn that neither the navy nor any other military organization can adopt the slogan ‘Safety First’ as the primary consideration of its training. The wholly essential requirement in the training of the personnel of a military force must be the attainment of the maximum possible efficiency of the organization as a whole, of its various subdivisions, and of every one of its weapons and mechanical appliances — and this on penalty of defeats by a more efficiently trained enemy.

This necessity of ‘Efficiency First’ requires the deliberate assumption of grave risks. Even if all available safetydevices have been installed, and even if all possible precautions have been taken in training, these risks occasionally result in very serious accidents. Sometimes they are due to unsuspected mechanical defects, sometimes mistakes of the always fallible human element.

A brief description of the kind of training essential to the efficiency of an important naval weapon should make clear the necessity for the risks assumed.

The public has been shocked from time to time by dreadful accidents in the turrets of our battleships. The first of these occurred on the Massachusetts and the Missouri over twenty years ago. There were similar accidents about the same time on other battleships, and there have been occasional gun accidents since, one of the most destructive being the recent explosion on the Mississippi. All of these involved the death of many valuable officers and men. Very naturally these have been the subject of severe criticism of the Navy Department. Many have asked why the guns of the navy cannot be fired with entire safety; why there were no turret accidents before those on the Massachusetts and Missouri; and why there have been accidents ever since. The explanation is a very simple one.

Before the time indicated the navy was inefficient in marksmanship to a degree that is difficult of belief to-day. Since that time the developments in training have increased our efficiency to such an extent that our navy is at least second to none in rapidity and accuracy of fire. Before the time indicated the navy was trained in marksmanship under what was practically a slogan of ‘Safety First.’ The standard of rapidity of fire of the 12-inch and 13-inch guns of our turrets was one shot every five minutes, and hits were seldom made. The adoption of Admiral Sir Percy Scott’s fundamentally new principle of continuous aim made it possible to aim and fire guns much faster. All guns of all calibres were placed in competition with each other in order to develop the maximum efficiency—the maximum rapidity of hitting. The standard became a progressive one — the hits-por-gun-perminute of the best guns of each calibre in the navy. The competition extended across the sea, to the British and other navies. Any let-up in the effort to increase the rapidity of hitting meant inferiority, and inferiority in this respect means defeat in battle.

This striving for efficiency gradually increased the rapidity of fire about tenfold, from one shot every five minutes to about two shots a minute, and it also greatly increased at the same time the percentage of hits made to shots fired. The increase in efficiency was some thousands of per cent. It was during this effort to increase battle efficiency that the dreadful accidents occurred. The Navy Department became alarmed and proposed to abandon rapidity of fire and base our standard upon percentage of hits alone; but President Roosevelt, who perfectly understood the essentials of efficiency, vetoed this in a very stern order specifying that all risks necessary to increase efficiency must be taken.

It is under these conditions that our gunnery training is now carried on. The crew of a double-gun turret comprises about seventy men and several officers, including those in the magazine and handling room. When the crew enters the turret to fire the guns with the maximum rapidity at competitive target-practice, every officer and every man knows that if a mistake is made it may cause the death of every one of them, and perhaps the blowingup of the ship. One can readily understand the sense of responsibility of the officers who train the crew. One can readily believe that they devote all their faculties to the perfect adjustment of the gunand turret-gear and to supervising in minutest detail the duties of every single member of the crew.

If any explosion occurs under these conditions of training and firing, it is only fair to assume that the cause could not reasonably have been foreseen, whether it was the then unrecognized danger of a flareback, as in the case of the Missouri, the short-circuiting of a supposedly safe switch by a metal tool-handle, as in the Kearsarge, — one chance in millions, — or whatever the cause, even if a human mistake in the heat of firing, as in the case of the Georgia and the Mississippi.

Under such circumstances the attitude of the public should be one of sympathy and not of criticism of men who have willingly accepted these risks in order to attain efficiency. Nor should the Navy Department be criticized for continuing to authorize the risks of rapid fire.

‘The only shots that count are the shots that hit.’ If an enemy could hit our ships twice as fast as we could hit his, we should have no chance in battle. If our people insist upon safety first, they can have it. Our ships could avoid gun accidents by slowing down the fire, but they could not win battles. If the public wants an efficient navy, it should be clearly understood that the necessary risks of training must be accepted.

But there are two classes of risks, justifiable and unjustifiable, according to whether they are occasioned by proper or improper motives. A risk is justifiable when the object for which it is assumed is increased efficiency, whether it be in improving our naval marksmanship, in developing new weapons or appliances, or in handling battleships, destroyers, submarines, and airplanes under simulated war-conditions. Such risks are not only accepted cheerfully, but are actually so much sought after by officers of the right spirit as greatly to increase the morale of the service. As the occasional accidents inseparable from such operations are recognized by naval officers as the price they are willing to pay for efficiency, they should be accepted by the public in sorrow and not in anger. As a matter of fact, the record of turret-gun firing during the last twenty years has shown not only remarkable efficiency but a high degree of safety, considering the many thousands of shots fired and the small number of accidents that have occurred.

Concerning unjustifiable risks, a vastly different effect upon morale is caused when risks are occasioned by wrong motives. A case in point was the ordering of the Shenandoah upon an advertising cruise over the fair grounds of half a dozen states during the season of dangerous storms. As the motive was not preparation for war, the commander naturally protested as far as his self-respect would permit. Moreover, the department violated the primary principle of command in deciding certain details of the equipment and handling of this experimental craft, instead of relying upon the commander and his assistants, who were presumably selected because they were the most competent men in the service for this particular duty. If they were selected for any other reason, their selection was a criminal act.

But the point under consideration is the motive that prompted the fatal order. If the commander of the Shenandoah had been informed that the department wished a cruise made for the purpose of obtaining data for the design of future airships, regarding their radius of action and their ability to avoid storms or safely encounter them, it may be assumed that there would have been no protest made. The motive being purely military, the risk would have been accepted in the same spirit as the risk of firing every turret gun is accepted in the interest of efficiency.

The attempted nonstop flight of airplanes to Hawaii involved a similar risk. It was not necessary in order to ascertain whether the planes could fly 2000 miles without refueling. That could have been accomplished by flying them along the coast any desired distance while always within reach of assistance, though such a trial flight would not have been first-page news. The planes carried gas for only 1900 miles. It was hoped that the trade winds would be of sufficient assistance to enable them to reach their destination. This hope was not fulfilled.

Surely this was risking unjustifiably the lives of valuable officers and men. It was purely incidental that the splendid courage and seamanship of Commander Rodgers and his crew demonstrated that this type of plane was capable of floating for nine days in the weather and waters of the Hawaiian Islands.

In addition to the accidents noted, there have been, and still continue to be, others due to various causes in connection with new weapons in process of development or use. Of these the accidents to the airplane are the most familiar. Its designs have been, and still are, largely experimental. It has been stated that there is hardly a single element of the design — wings, struts, braces, wires, control gear, or engine parts — which has not been responsible for many deaths, and the end is not yet. The training alone of our naval air-forces in Europe during the Great War cost nearly two lives a day. Clearly such risks are justifiable, as are also those involved in air races that are necessary to stimulate the abilities of all concerned in developing and producing planes. The only way to avoid such risks is to give up the use of planes. The same applies also to submarines, automobiles, railroads, steamships, and other modern weapons and appliances. It must, however, be recognized that a certain proportion of casualties occurring during the development of those weapons and appliances is due to faults of the personnel.

In the matter of accidents the navy has probably not been more unfortunate than other great organizations, such as steamship companies and railroads, though those of the former are given much greater publicity than those of the latter. Such disasters as the loss of the Bourgogne and of the Titanic, and certain rear-end collisions between passenger trains, are usually not caused by the ‘act of God’ — to which maritime courts often ascribe disasters at sea. They are more often the result of easily recognized causes — mistakes of the personnel.

The most dramatic of these in our navy was the shipwreck of several destroyers on the Pacific coast — the La Honda disaster. This was due to an error of judgment on the part of the commander of the flotilla in wrongly interpreting the information concerning his position, and also probably to a lack of what may be called navigation discipline. It is a well-established fact that more sailing vessels are dismasted by moderate squalls in comparatively fair weather than in gales. Also that, in the majority of shipwrecks, the captains of the ships, believing that they knew their positions accurately, failed to take measures to make sure of them.

Navigation discipline requires the taking of all possible navigational precautions, no matter how ' sure ‘ you may be of your position. It is understood that the La Honda disaster would probably have been avoided if such precautions had been taken.

The public has, of course, been greatly concerned over the sinking of the submarine S-51, with the loss of over thirty of her officers and men. This accident was in all respects the same in kind as those that occur under similar conditions to surface vessels. Nautically considered, the S-51 was at the time an ordinary vessel in that she was proceeding about her business on the surface. The point is that the accident was in no sense due to one of the vessels involved being a submarine. The finding of the Court of Inquiry was that she was showing all the lights that are required by the Rules of the Road; that the City of Rome was overtaking her; and that therefore the personnel of the submarine was not in any degree to blame for the collision.

Concerning accidents to which submarines are liable when on practice manœuvres, there is always the possibility of something going amiss every time one of these vessels dives. The result is sometimes a very dreadful disaster such as that which has overtaken the British submarine M-l. The unfortunate men entombed in her have lost their lives as truly in the service of their country as if they had met death in the face of the enemy. In this sense training in preparation for war is a part of war itself. Both have their risks that must be borne in the same spirit of loyal devotion if a nation’s military forces are to be capable of fulfilling their function in time of national emergency.

The extent to which accidents are due to fundamental defects in the organization and administration of the Navy Department is a question the discussion of which would require more space than is here available. That the organization of the department is unmilitary was shown by the report of a board, appointed by President Roosevelt, of which Admirals Mahan and Evans were members. That its administration is unsound is shown by its violation of the primary principle of command, as illustrated by the Shenandoah case. That for many years, with few exceptions, officers uneducated and untrained in a military sense have been appointed to the most important positions, both ashore and afloat, is a matter of common knowledge.

All military experience shows that the inevitable result of such conditions, especially the appointment of untrained leaders, is lack of confidence, blighting of personal initiative, and general lowering of morale. That this condition is a contributary cause of some of our naval accidents admits of little doubt.