Jinx or Jeopardy?


DISPATCHES from Guantánamo Bay, late in October, giving the details of a gun explosion on the U. S. Scout Cruiser Trenton, the second accident of the kind on that ship in two years, both resulting in fatalities, brought in review the subject of accidents in the Navy, of which, since the World War, there has been a long and decidedly harrowing list. It is not surprising that the nation at large is distressed and much concerned because of these disasters. The public is asking whether the accidents in question are preventable or are to be endured as a necessary evil, and if it may not be true that ‘our ships and personnel are being jeopardized by official inefficiency, bureaucratic stupidity, and, perhaps, political expediency.’

Including the loss of the Shenandoah, but excluding other accidents in the Naval Air Service and the post-war mine-sweeping operations of 1919 in the North Sea, the Navy has sustained forty-six major accidents since World War demobilization. Sixteen of these have been destroyer accidents, nineteen have been submarine accidents; the others include turret and gun explosions, the disappearance of a naval tug en route to the Far East, damage to two cruisers, and the shore-station disaster at Lake Denmark Magazine. Two hundred and fifty-nine lives were lost in these accidents; forty-three when the tug Conestoga vanished, one hundred and thirty-five by the explosions and fires, twenty-eight by destroyer losses, thirty-nine by submarine collisions and sinkings, and fourteen when the Shenandoah broke up and crashed.

In the Naval Air Service since the World War, including flight training, the hazards of experimental flying, the dangers of intricate evolutions involved in squadron flying in day and night manœuvres, the development of catapult launching, and the new science of taking off and landing on plunging and rolling carrier decks, accidents have resulted in one hundred and seventyseven fatalities.

As a matter of justice to all concerned, it should be remembered that naval aviation is an extrahazardous service; no other activity in the entire Navy is quite comparable with it from the standpoint of potential and actual danger to personnel. It has been computed from records in the Navy Department that officer deaths in the air service are as forty-nine to one compared with those of officers in general service, submarine duty included. It is obvious that by its peculiar status aviation should have separate treatment at greater length than can be accommodated in this discussion; suffice to say that improvements in planes and engines and added facilities for control and navigation are making the service less hazardous as time goes on. Recent statistics, covering the period from 1919 to the present, show that fatalities in relation to hours in the air and to miles flown are decreasing in constantly diminishing ratios.

Through personal contact one recognizes that in connection with these disasters there is a certain amount of naive resignation if not vicarious professional martyrdom among naval officers. One is not aware that the Navy as a whole feels that it is on the defensive. Honest, constructive criticism is apparently welcomed as a stimulating goad to progress and achievement. But the silent, dogged application on the part of its personnel, to the outsider a seeming indifference to critical opinion, bewilders the public and leads to the conclusion that ‘there’s something in this naval woodpile besides wood.’

Perhaps one of the chief glories of this nation is the ability of its people to face fact and fight it, to grasp unpleasant truth and wring from it the essence of ultimate success. This being granted, let us test the somewhat brutal facts surrounding these naval tragedies, to determine, if possible, remedies for their minimization if not for their final eradication.

Because they are most familiar to the public, let us select these disasters: the Honda accident, when seven destroyers rammed the rocky shore of California, with the loss of the vessels and twenty-two lives; the turret explosion on the battleship Mississippi, resulting in the deaths of forty-eight men; the wrecking of the rigid airship Shenandoah in a storm over the Ohio Valley, at a cost of fourteen lives; the sinking of the submarine S-51 by the steamship City of Rome, with a toll of thirty-four lives; and the explosion and fire at Lake Denmark, which snuffed out twenty-two lives and destroyed forty millions in property.


Trite but true is the statement that ships alone do not constitute navies. Ships are merely tools; the character of its personnel is the index of a navy’s efficiency. I am aware that ‘efficiency’ is a relative word, like ‘ power’ or ‘size,’ and that the unremitting efforts of skilled and loyal men may be most seriously handicapped by insufficient appropriations for matériel maintenance, by high administrative incompetence, and by outside political influence; but personnel characterized by high morale will go far to offset other handicaps. Consequently our first consideration is the present morale status of our Navy.

When the destroyers went ashore on Honda Point, the lives of eight hundred men were in jeopardy. The heroism of these men, caught between grinding rock and relentless pounding wave, saved all but twenty-two. When the powder charge exploded in the Mississippi’s turret, killing nearly all the men in it, the men in the powder-handling room remained at their posts, closed the doors to the magazines to keep out the flames, and made every effort to extinguish the burning powder grains falling into the room. One man in the turret reached up his dying hand and pulled the lever operating the sprinkler device, an act which prevented the burning of several hundred pounds of powder that, once ignited, would have sent the ship to the bottom and her twelve hundred men into eternity.

Facing destruction, Commander Lansdowne, from the control car of the Shenandoah, in quiet conversational tones gave his orders for the management of the doomed ship; and, after the car had broken away and the ship had split into storm-tossed sections, the men in those sections calmly manœuvred them to earth. Most of the loss of life in this accident occurred when the control car fell, breaking the ship to pieces as it tore loose. Again, the opening of the hull of the S-51 after her recovery from the bottom of Block Island Channel revealed that her officers and men died at their posts, with hands on control levers and radio keys; while the men killed at Lake Denmark were all hurrying toward the points of greatest danger.

It is not too much to say that the conduct of these men points to the fact that the morale of the United States Navy may well serve as an inspiration to the country’s manhood. Such high morale is not gamed by accident, nor is it maintained without constant vigilance; even allowing for outside influences, its worst enemies are probably within the service itself.

An example is the case of the admiral who, without warning or explanation to the loyal men affected, so coaxed and cajoled a newly appointed Secretary, intent on a policy of ‘economy,’ that that functionary disenrolled thousands of naval reserves and put out of commission an organization which, through years of hard and patriotic work, had grown to worth-while efficiency and had proved to be one of the mainstays of the war-expanded Navy. Although the Secretary made what belated amends he could, this admiral has never been called to account; indeed, his act has been officially excused on the mere plea of economic necessity. The pen stroke that disenrolled these men, on whom had been spent millions in training, could have been better employed in transferring them to Class VI in the Reserve, a class volunteering to serve without retainer pay. Efforts on the part of sympathetic and able officers through several trying years have partly repaired the damage, and a new Naval Reserve is gradually rising upon the ruins of the old.

Such deeds place almost unbearable burdens on loyalty. What derogatory effect they may have on general morale, and what indirect contribution to accidents they may make, are difficult to determine, but it is plainly evident that they are pernicious handicaps to administrative success.


Instant obedience, fortitude, courage, heroic devotion, the outstanding attributes of morale, cannot in themselves always stop or forestall disaster; to such characteristics must be added knowledge, skill, aptitude, and experience. This suggests an appraisal of the professional fitness of the officers and the techno-mechanical skill of the enlisted force now manning the Navy.

From the time that men enter the Naval Academy at Annapolis until they leave the service, life is one round of competition. Academic standards at Annapolis are established by the mental capacity of the leader in each class and subject. This system forces out of the Academy the majority of each entering class. Once graduated, the young officer is subjected to the competition of his fellows, a competition increasing in keenness as the years go by and he approaches the charmed circle of ' high rank.’ Few may enter that circle, for a ship needs but one commander at a time, the fleet but one commander-inchief at a time; the staff cannot absorb many ‘brass hats,’ and there is no royal road or short cut to the admiral’s bridge. Of an average class at graduation, numbering some two hundred and eighty ensigns, only one per cent will reach the grade of rear admiral, only four per cent that of captain.

Laggards drop by the wayside; physical disabilities bring retirement. The mere navigator, with his colleague the sailing master, has been sunk without trace, for now that specialization, demanded by mechanical developments put to maritime use, has arrived, naval officers must needs become engineers and technicists of the highest attainments. Success in these channels is evidenced not only by the fact that the foremost industrial leaders of the country are constantly turning to the Navy for their chief executives, but also by the fact that most of the industries contributing to the public wealth and welfare have been greatly aided by developments in the fleet and at the Navy’s yards and plants, where naval officers have solved electrical, mechanical, and metallurgical problems incident to the service but adaptable to civil industry.

Except in actual battle, there can be no greater test of the tactical knowledge, both theoretical and practical, of the officer personnel than during the evolutions of the fleet in the vast and complicated yearly war games at sea. To watch the majestic weaving columns of turreted dreadnoughts, the wide flanking rushes of the cruisers, the crisscross dashes of lance-prowed destroyers, the mysterious appearance and disappearance of crash-diving submarines, the wary steaming of the train, and the spectacular stunts of darting aircraft high aloft, leads to but one conclusion, that naval officers are particularly competent tacticians.

Perhaps the strategical knowledge of our naval officers lies outside an inquiry into the causes of naval accidents. Strategy is that phase of an officer’s professional quest having to do with war plans, matters of guarded secrecy, to disclose which is akin to, if not actually, treason.

I have been unable to find a more striking peace-time recognition of superior tactical and strategical competence than that accorded to our naval leaders at the Washington Conference of 1921-1922, a recognition broadly patent in the haste with which the invited Powers accepted the Hughes proposal to limit the number and tonnage of American capital ships to a ratio within their own industrial and economic reach; a recognition which, at Geneva last summer, was further accentuated by the refusal of those same Powers to reduce their strength in cruisers and submarines to a ratio parity with our voluntarily reduced strength.

As for administrative experience and ability in the fleet, that is the foundation upon which the naval officer builds his whole professional career. Our officers have to give daily exhibitions of their qualifications in that field, for they have between eighty and eightyfive thousand boys from the wheat fields and asphalt to educate and train, indoctrinate, and eventually turn back to civil life equipped to win success in industrial pursuits and to take their places in the community councils of the nation. That naval officers are eminently successful in these tasks is, of course, partly due to the excellent quality of the enlisted personnel recruited for the service.

In this latter connection I recall a conversation with Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, R. N., the one-time commander of the famous Dover Patrol controlling the troop movement between the British Isles and the Continent during the World War. Observing our enlisted men detailed to ships, aircraft, and shore stations as units in the Patrol, Admiral Bacon asked me how long we could keep sending him such remarkably competent sailors. I assured him that the standard would not be lowered, and that the men were representative of the entire American Navy.

‘Well,’ he declared, ‘in all my naval experience I have never seen anything like your enlisted men. Their courage is undoubted, but it is their skill in mechanical lines that impresses me. No task is too difficult or complicated for them to solve; their knowledge is astonishing, but their ingenuity and resourcefulness are amazing. In these qualities they outshine the British sailor. It must be due to the fact that British lads enter the navy because they have to, — there’s nothing for them ashore, — while your lads desert the factories because they want to, because they love the sea. In this respect you officers are lucky chaps.’

There is much truth in what Admiral Bacon said. Our men willingly accept discipline, cheerfully attack hard work, and require little urging from the officers. They know that discipline and hard work win trophies in gunnery and engineering, the goals of a year’s incessant training, and they know that teamwork with their officers as well as among themselves is the prime factor in ‘playing the game.’ The survivors, officers and men, of such an exacting régime prove their professional fitness by the mere fact of survival.

But perfection is not a human attribute, and naval officers are human. There are some who do not measure up to the standard that the service has set for itself. These men are generally ‘passed over’ by the promotion selection boards and are then retired for age in grade. Some few, because of past meritorious service, are given berths within their rated qualifications until they are automatically retired for age. Happily, officers within these categories are becoming rare birds, and, through a careful appraisal of each individual by the detailing authorities, these men are relegated to perfunctory duties of pure routine, having little to do with operations afloat. Thus these officers cannot be made the scapegoats in fixing responsibility for naval accidents. Strange as it may appear, such disasters are almost invariably found in the wake of officers who previous to the accident have had unblemished records and brilliant reputations.


Hence it may be taken as almost axiomatic that accidents in our Navy, aside from minor mishaps resulting in scratched paint, a bent rail stanchion now and then, a few skinned shins and smashed thumbs, are traceable to abnormalities, either of judgment or of policy, or else come under the somewhat indefinite classification, ‘acts of God.’

Abnormalities of judgment constitute one infrequent cause of serious accidents. An example is that of the officer who, as a result of the constant professional grind, develops a mental quirk, generally unconsciously, in one direction or another until some day he astounds his associates by committing an error in judgment that, coldly analyzed, appears to be nothing less than the act of a downright blockhead. Fortunately these victims of a relentless competitive system are few, and so numerous are the checks and balances against individual judgment in the Navy that their errors have seldom caused serious damage. The single instance in recent years where abnormal zeal in one direction led to erratic judgment of a costly character is furnished by the man who piled the destroyers on the rocks at Honda Point.

Though quite unforgivable, this accident is understandable. There was a heavy fog that day; certain radio compass bearings given the navigator did not check with his dead-reckoning position, and unusual ocean currents prevailed. These conditions called for pronounced caution; but the commanding officer, whose zeal for punctuality in carrying out orders had become a fetish, and who had been directed to bring his division to anchor with the fleet at a specified hour, threw caution overboard, cracked on speed, and led his ships to destruction on the rocks. He and his navigator were heavily punished, although he gallantly assumed all the blame; but punishment does not hide the fact that here is a potential cause of disaster directly chargeable to personnel faults, which, while it may be more closely controlled, can never be wholly eradicated, because it is a human frailty common to men in all walks of life.

Coming under the classification, ‘acts of God,’ are those accidents which may be ascribed to the hazards of the sea, where the natural phenomena of wind and wave in combination outweigh all that men may do and that the stoutest ship may stand. There are times when Nature, speaking through the typhoon, the hurricane, the tidal wave, and even the prolonged gale, is not to be denied. Naval vessels, although generally more fully manned and under better discipline than commercial ships, thus having a better fighting chance than the liner or freighter, are not immune from maritime disaster. The baffling and mysterious disappearance of the collier Cyclops in the Caribbean Sea and that of the tug Conestoga in the broad Pacific are cases in point.

Another abnormality responsible for too frequent naval accidents is the marine road hog, the ‘hit and run’ mariner, the merchant-ship commander who laughs at the international rules of the road and sideswipes or rams anything and everything afloat in his erratic path. In this category comes the S-51 tragedy. We have a submarine on the surface, observing the rules of the road as it proceeds on its way, its course and progress visible for miles by the aid of its brightly burning running lights. The City of Rome, eastward bound, bears down on the submarine. But there is no cause for alarm; the rules of the road take care of such situations. Under those rules the S-51 has the right of way; she holds her course. But right of way and rules of the road are somehow quite neglected, and the heavy stem of the City of Rome sends the S-51 and her law-abiding crew to the bottom. When raised, the wreck of the S-51 proved, by the position of her rudder and steering gear, that her helmsman kept a legal course until it was realized that the City of Rome would ram; then he shifted his helm to escape, but too late to avoid the crash.

Once in a while the tables are turned — it is the road hog that gets rammed and the naval ship that does the ramming. But the cause of this type of accident, in the majority of cases, can be traced to the neglect or ignorance of the rules of the road of some party or parties outside of and not an agency within the service. The Navy is not always blameless, but this kind of accident points to a serious situation demanding harsh corrective measures, at least something more harsh than a few months’ license suspension, the penalty usually meted out to offending merchant officers.


We have bared some of the relatively infrequent causes of naval accidents. Undoubtedly the most frequent cause of such accidents, directly and indirectly, is the present abnormal administrative policy.

None more clearly than naval officers themselves understand the fact that the Navy does not exist for itself alone. It is an agency of the Federal Government, fed or starved by the Congress, moved at the beck and call of the State Department, shackled by the treaty-making authorities, subject to the political whims of the party in power, and exploited by the press. Naval administrative policy does not originate within the Navy itself. The policy of the times has for its very essence the political slogan, ’Economy in governmental expenditures.’ The chief agency for enforcing this ‘economy’ policy is the Bureau of the Budget; but so potent has the slogan become that it has been adopted by the Congress, which, despite its claims of liberality toward the Navy, and to the discomfort and chagrin of a truly sympathetic and well-informed Naval Affairs Committee in each Chamber, not only refuses appropriations to bring the fleet up to the strength provided for by the Washington Conference treaty ratio and to provide sufficient personnel to man and operate what ships we have, but further refuses to appropriate the funds necessary to keep in repair the undermanned ships that the Navy Department is directed to keep in commission. To require the Navy Department to accomplish the tasks for which the Navy is maintained with the meagre sums appropriated is demanding that the Department make bricks without clay.

For example, take the appropriation for matériel maintenance. Before the Washington Conference left us with a treaty-bound Navy, a number of new ships were built each year to replace obsolete, obsolescent, or worn-out craft. This policy served to maintain an average age in vessels; thus an average yearly expenditure for repairs could be readily controlled. But since the Conference there have been few replacements through shipbuilding, the average age of craft is constantly increasing, and the necessity for repairs is growing by leaps and bounds.

This state of affairs is well known, yet when the Navy’s budget is under consideration by the Administration, the Bureau of the Budget, and the Naval Affairs Committees of the Congress, the first declaration on the part of those authorities is that there shall be no increase in appropriations beyond those of the previous fiscal year. This fixation of appropriation does not take into account the increasing deterioration of ships, so that where, in the fiscal year of 1925, needed repairs to motive machinery and its adjuncts were two and a half million dollars in excess of available funds, for the year 1926 the excess was nearly five millions and for 1927 will reach about seven millions. Nor can money be spent and a deficiency appropriation be asked for; instead, the work accumulates and the repairs are not made.

The Navy Department bureaus allocate the funds available to the various navy yards to be apportioned among the ships scheduled for repair and overhaul as far as the amount will go toward keeping the ships seaworthy and safeguarding the lives of their crews. Almost superhuman efforts on the part of the personnel make up for many deficiencies, but no ship in the Navy, with the possible exception of some of the ten new light cruisers, is actually in complete repair and ready for war. If war were forced upon us, so many ships would have to be rushed to the yards for refitting and reconditioning, at a time when the yards would be needed to arm and condition merchant auxiliaries, that congestion would reach the stage of actual calamity. The ships in commission are seaworthy — witness the overseas mission of the fleet to Australasia a year ago, and the annual grand manœuvres. Seaworthiness and battle condition, however, are two separate and distinct things; a ship may be seaworthy without a single gun on board.

Ships that are never in quite complete repair, that always have some patched-up equipment, are more liable to accident than even naval officers themselves are wont to admit. Disaster may result from seemingly trifling causes — a stripped screw thread, a short circuit in a steering device, a worn-out boiler. Under such conditions only the most minute and constant attention and vigilance spell safety, and even the personnel cannot tell at what moment some vital but overpatched apparatus may fall to pieces.

Notwithstanding the abnormally dangerous conditions imposed by this policy, the Navy Department must carry on. Ships must be moved in fogs, in storms, in dangerous waters at night, and in complex tactical formations in time of peace if they are to be so moved in time of war. And if guns and torpedo tubes are to be effective in battle, target practice during peace must be a constant activity. Nor can aircraft be utilized to advantage in battle unless they have been made to fly in peace-time evolutions under conditions similar to those of war.

The more prolonged and intensive these battle drills are made, the greater the risks to ships and personnel, and it is not too much to say that the hazards are compounded out of all reason by the abnormal financial policy now visited upon the service, for its blanketing limitations practically wipe out the factor of safety in operations gained by tempering tactical boldness with caution.

This statement is not conjectural on my part. To make up for deficiencies due to reduced personnel, the lack of submarines for fleet duty, and a shortage of scouting and screening cruisers, and yet weld the fleet into a fighting unit trained for battle, despite its general condition of inadequate repair, it has been found necessary to put in force an operating schedule which has no respite other than the short intervals when favored ships are docked for overhaul. Speed and yet more speed in gun practice, ever-increasing use of submarines submerged in the midst of dashing squadrons, closer and closer ranges in night attacks by destroyers, faster and faster aircraft for shotspotting in night battle practice — these are the activities which make up the inescapable abnormal operating schedule, a schedule responsible for serious accidents, such as the turret explosion on the Mississippi and the gun-house explosions on the Trenton, and promoting the possibility of submarine collisions, destroyer collisions, and aircraft crashes. Behind that schedule is the ‘economy’ policy, the real responsible factor in naval disasters, the continuance of which is the surest if not the quickest means of sweeping our Navy off the seas — or under them.

Under this régime, responsible for dangerous shore-station improvisation and neglect, we find the old magazine at Lake Denmark, built many years ago, greatly enlarged and expanded to meet the demands of the World War, overstocked with explosives, and right in the track of electrical storms drifting westerly from the lower Hudson Valley — a huge mark inviting what it got when lightning struck it. Although accustomed to living over floating powder mines aboard ship, the naval authorities realized that there was an added danger at this enormous cache of explosives and took what steps the circumstances permitted to reduce the hazard. The proper step, the building of other magazines in less exposed locations, was never taken. What representations were made to the appropriating authorities in this connection I do not know, but when it is impossible to secure funds to keep the fleet in repair it is a forlorn hope to expect the Congress to build new magazines, no matter how great the need.

Five years before the Shenandoah accident, four years before that ship and the Los Angeles were placed in commission, and in anticipation of those events. Commander Lansdowne and I, on duty together, reported the need of additional weather-reporting facilities in the area between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes. The Weather Bureau went before the proper Congressional committee with a request for forty thousand dollars to supplement the existing service. This request was repeated each year without success. The same policy which, in the face of the fact that the Navy was acquiring two rigid airships, had refused the funds to extract helium gas for more than one would not permit the installation of this vital aid.

There being no facilities for reporting sudden local storms, Commander Lansdowne timed his trip to a void the season when such storms are most prevalent. The fateful voyage of the Shenandoah may be likened to that of the Titanic, the latter ship starting her tragic voyage before facilities for reporting the location of icebergs had been established. The Titanic dashed to her doom against an uncharted iceberg. The Shenandoah went to her destruction in the grasp of an unreported windstorm. It required the loss of the Titanic and the sacrifice of many lives to bring international iceberg patrols to the aid of ocean navigation. It required the loss of the Shenandoah and fourteen of her crew to break down the barriers of ‘economy’ and assure the establishment of twenty-one weather-reporting stations in the area where the disaster took place.


Before suggesting a remedy for this situation, it is necessary to trace the policy behind it to the source of ultimate responsibility. The press has repeatedly placed this responsibility, first, upon the Secretary of the Navy, secondly, upon the editorially christened ‘ bureaucrats’ in high administrative position in the Navy Department. Not even the reckless sensationalism with which these indictments were broadcast to the four winds could add to their ridiculousness. General Herbert M. Lord, the man at the head of the Bureau of the Budget, has more to say about how many ships shall be kept in commission, how many enlisted men may be retained to man them, how much shall be spent on matériel alterations and how much for maintenance, than Secretary Wilbur and his entire council of bureau chiefs. As far as the Navy is concerned, General Lord is a dictator.

But the genial and efficient Director of the Bureau of the Budget is not a usurper; he is a dictator by appointment, and as an appointee he carries out, perhaps too faithfully, the commands and admonitions of the appointing power, the Administration. Thus it is the Administration, supported by the Congress, that must be held responsible for the policy of the day, and therefore responsible for the disasters that such a policy promotes. The cock-and-bull theory that the people, the voters, are ultimately responsible for the acts of an elective Government fails miserably in this case, for the people have not hitherto been in command of the facts.

Nor is it proposed by the Administration that the facts shall be broadly known. When certain naval officers undertook to inform the public of conditions in the Navy, through the medium of press releases, the White House ‘ Spokesman ’ declared that the releases were nothing less than ‘propaganda’ from ‘big navy’ advocates intent on raiding the Treasury, and that further ‘propaganda’ from such a source would not be tolerated. And the public has been subjected to the confusing platitudes of the ‘Spokesman,’ who juggles with the phrases, ‘limiting armaments as a means of reducing taxation and preventing wars,’ ‘an eye single to the defense needs of the United States,’ if the number of ships ‘falls below the treaty ratio the country is not to be concerned,’ and so on, until the whole issue is befogged beyond intelligent comprehension.

To what further lengths this political naval policy will be carried in the name of ‘economy’ is hard to foretell, and whether or not enlightened public opinion, alive to the actual needs of the Navy and aware of the pernicious effects of the policy, will force its moderation or abandonment is just as difficult to foresee; but it is not difficult to observe in the collective group mind sponsoring this fetish an abnormal mental tangency, no less apparent and infinitely more destructive than that of the tragic figure at Honda Point.

Obviously the remedy for the nasty situation lies in the hands of the public. The voters may well demand that the Navy — and all the agencies of the national defense — be removed from politics; that appropriations be made to maintain a Navy in accordance with the 5-5-3-1.67 treaty ratios; that adequate repairs and replacements be made and complete modernization be effected to safeguard the personnel; and that in the future the policy of fleet maintenance be placed on a financial basis that will forever make it impossible for political expediency to ‘save’ money at the expense of life and limb.