The U. S. Navy in the Interwar Period


[Excerpted from Admiral Earnest J. King, First Report to the Secretary of the Navy: Covering our Peacetime Navy and our Wartime Navy and including combat operations up to 1 March 1944. April 1944, pp. 4-11]

The Peacetime Navy


THE fundamental United States naval policy is "To maintain the Navy in strength and readiness to uphold national policies and interests, and to guard the United States and its continental and overseas possessions."

In time of peace, when the threats to our national security change with the strength and attitude of other nations in the world who have a motive for making war upon us and who are-or think they are-strong enough to do so, it is frequently difficult to evaluate those threats and translate our requirements into terms of ships and planes and trained men. It is one thing to say that we must have and maintain a Navy adequate to uphold national policies and interests and to protect us against potential enemies, but it is another thing to decide what is and what is not the naval strength adequate for that purpose.

In the years following World War I, our course was clear enough-to make every reasonable effort to preserve world peace by eliminating the causes of war and failing in that effort, to do our best to stay clear of war, while recognizing that we might fail in doing so. For a number of years, the likelihood of our becoming involved in a war in the foreseeable future appeared remote, and our fortunate geographical position gave us an added sense of security. Under those circumstances, and in the interest of national economy, public opinion favored the belief that we could get along with a comparatively small Navy. Stated in terms of personnel this meant an average of about 7,900 commissioned officers, all of whom had chosen the Navy as a career, and 100,000 enlisted men more or less.

This modest concept of an adequate Navy carried with it an increased responsibility on the part of the Navy to maintain itself at the peak of operational and material efficiency, with a nucleus of highly trained personnel as a basis for war time expansion.

For twenty years in its program of readiness, our Navy has worked under schedules of operation, competitive training and inspection, unparalleled in any other Navy of the world. Fleet problems, tactical exercises, amphibious operations with the Marines and Army, aviation, gunnery, engineering, communications were all integrated in a closely packed annual operation schedule. This in turn was supplemented by special activities ashore and afloat calculated to train individuals in the fundamentals of their duties and at the same time give them the background of experience so necessary for sound advances in the various techniques of naval warfare. Ship competitions established for the purpose of stimulating and maintaining interest were officers in the higher commands experience and training in strategy and tactics approximating these responsibilities in time of war.

Our peacetime training operations, which involved hard work and many long hours of constructive thinking, were later to pay us dividends. For example, it would be an understatement to say merely that the Navy recognized the growing importance of air power. By one development after another, not only in the field of design and equipment, but also in carrier and other operational techniques-such as dive bombing-and in strategic and tactical employment, the United States Navy has made its aviation the standard by which all other naval aviation is judged and has contributed its full share to the advances which were to make aviation the sine qua non of modern warfare. It may be stated here, with particular reference to naval aviation, that the uniform success which has characterized our naval air operations is unmistakably the result of an organization which was based on the conviction that air operations should be planned, directed and executed by naval officers who are naval aviators, and that in mixed forces naval aviation should be adequately represented in the command and staff organization.

Size and Composition

The effects of treaty limitations on our Navy are too well known to require more than a brief review. In 1922, under the terms of the Washington Arms Conference, limitations upon capital ships and aircraft carriers were agreed upon, the ratio established being five for the United States, five for Great Britain, and three for Japan. Pursuant to that treaty, the United States scrapped a number of battleships, but was permitted to convert LEXINGTON and SARATOGA, then under construction as battle cruisers, to aircraft carriers. Whatever the other effects of the treaty, that particular provision has worked to our advantage because those two ships, as battle cruisers, would now be obsolescent, and as aircraft carriers they were-and SARATOGA still is-effective units of our fleet.

In 1930, at London, the parties to the 1922 treaty agreed upon further limitations, this time with respect to cruisers, destroyers and submarines. As a result of these two treaties, which reflected world conditions at the time, and also because of our decision to maintain our Navy at considerably less strength than that allowed by the treaties, we experienced a partial building holiday that threw our small construction program out of balance. Except for cruisers, hardly any combatant ships (no battleships or destroyers) were added to our fleet during that period, and few were under construction. In size, therefore, our Navy remained static, with certain types approaching obsolescence. Moreover, advances in the science of naval construction were hampered by the lack of opportunity to prove new designs. As the accompanying chart (Plate 1) indicates, our naval strength was at low ebb during the year 1927.

Our failure to build progressively was a mistake which it is to be hoped will never be repeated. When a total building holiday in any type of ship is prolonged, and there is no opportunity to proceed on a trial and error basis, our designers are placed under handicaps taking years to overcome.

In 1924, and again in 1929, in response to representations to the effect that we were dangerously deficient in cruisers even in a world at peace, the Congress authorized the construction of a number of cruisers. These were appropriated for from time to time, as were ships of certain other types (except battleships), usually one or two at a time.

In 1933 our building program was stepped up materially by the authorization for the construction of two new aircraft carriers, four more cruisers, 20 destroyers and four submarines. The two carriers were considerably different in design from those previously built. The other types were more evolutionary as to new features, with the possible exception of the BROOKLYN class of cruisers, which were to a degree a departure from former light cruisers, both as to ship design and armament. These cruisers were notable for their six-inch guns which combined light but strong construction with rapid loading, giving them a volume of fire far greater than any other light cruisers then-or now-in existence.

In the previous year, eight destroyers of the FARRAGUT class had been laid down. These were the first of a long series of new designs which had been improved in each succeeding class up to the latest type laid down in 1943. The 1933 program, which was considered large at the time, used the FARRAGUT type of armament, not only for destroyers but for the broadside batteries of the larger ships, because of the five-inch 38 caliber dual purpose gun which, because of its power, reliability and extremely rapid loading, proved to be the best naval antiaircraft gun of comparable caliber.

In March 1934, the Congress authorized but did not appropriate for a Navy of treaty strength.

In 1935, in anticipation of making replacements under the terms of the treaties, work was begun on the design of battleships of the NORTH CAROLINA class. Original designs (completed in 1937) included many features which have proved to be of great importance in the war; namely, increased armor protection against bombs and gunfire, heavy fragment protection around important control stations, modern five inch antiaircraft weapons, good torpedo protection, and excellent speed and steering qualities for rapid maneuvering. Contract designs for the SOUTH DAKOTA and IOWA classes were completed in 1938 and 1939, respectively. Most of these ships did not come into service until after the war had been declared.

The 6000-ton ATLANTA class cruisers, featuring powerful antiaircraft batteries, were designed in 1937.

In 1938, foreseeing the submarine menace, an experimental program for patrol vessels was started. At the same time the motor torpedo boat was started through a series of developmental stages.

In 1938, it had become apparent that in spite of all efforts on the part of the United States to reach an agreement covering limitation of armaments, and thus to establish at least the probability of world peace, other nations were increasing their navies at an accelerating rate. At that time, in spite of the fact that there was a general desire on the part of most people everywhere in all countries of the world to remain at peace, about one-fourth of the world's population was engaged in war, and civilians were being driven from their homes and subjected to bombing attacks. In view of the situation, the President, in his message to the Congress, recommended an increase of 20 per cent in our naval strength, exclusive of replacements permitted under the Vinson-

Trammel Act of 1934. In May 1938, the Congress authorized the recommended program, giving us, on paper, what appeared to be reasonably adequate naval strength.

The so-called agreement at Munich was such as to require an upward revision of the defense requirements of this country. Subsequent events in 1939 resulting in the outbreak of the war in Europe not only confirmed those estimates, but made our building up to them a matter of urgency. A great increase in design activity, in preparation for later building programs, began at this time. War had become a distinct possibility.


As a result of Germany's policy of expansion by political, economic and military aggression, culminating in the invasion of Poland, the European war began on 3 September 1939. While our position was for the time being not clearly established, it was nevertheless apparent that this war would affect the United States in a degree which might extend to our becoming involved in a war for our national existence.

The Limited Emergency

The first step taken by the United States was the declaration of the limited emergency by the President on 8 September 1939. The immediate effect of this, so far as the Navy was concerned, was to fix the authorized enlisted personnel strength of the Navy at l91,000 instead of l31,485, and to authorize the recall to active duty of officers and men and nurses on the retired and reserve lists of the Navy and Marine Corps. Other direct effects were that the procurement of materials and equipment, and the taking over of land needed for military purposes, could be accomplished more readily. Also, the Coast Guard could be made a part of the Navy if it appeared desirable, by Presidential order. Indirectly, the limited emergency was responsible for changes in contracting authority which eliminated competitive bidding, and for the suspension of certain labor provisions relating to hours of work on government contracts.


On 2 October 1939, the Congress of American Republics assembled at Panama agreed upon a resolution which established a neutral zone surrounding the Americas, with the exception of Canada, at an average distance of 300 miles. By the terms of the resolution, belligerent raiders and submarines were to be prevented from operating close to the Western Hemisphere, as they had done in World War I, the thought responsible for the resolution being that if belligerent operations took place in that area, the United States and her Latin American neighbors might well become involved in the war. The United States Navy being the only armed force equal to the task of maintaining patrol in this extensive area, the primary responsibility for the implementation of the proclamation was obvious. The patrol was in fact taken by the United States Navy, and at that time a portion of the 111 decommissioned destroyers were recommissioned for the purpose of making it effective.

Preceded by heated debates, during which it was argued that, for insufficient reason, we would be abandoning our traditional policy of freedom of the seas, the Neutrality Act of 1939 became law on 4 November 1939, and American vessels and citizens were thereby prohibited from entering combat zones. The Act also established a so-called cash and carry policy, under which all belligerents were required to do their own transporting of goods purchased in the United States, and pay for them before being granted clearance. In addition, it authorized the President to place restrictions on the use of ports and territorial waters of the United States by submarines or merchant vessels of foreign states (pursuant to which he prohibited their use by foreign submarines of belligerent states, except when there by force majeure) and prohibited the use of United States ports as bases for furnishing men and supplies to ships of belligerent states lying off those ports. Other consequences of the Neutrality Act were to make effective certain laws previously enacted, having for their purpose the maintenance of neutrality. These included prohibitions against sending our armed vessels for delivery to belligerents, and contained provisions for detaining armed vessels or vessels manifestly built for warlike purposes or conversion thereto. Included, also, insofar as detention and permissible length of stay were concerned, were laws covering the use of our ports by foreign vessels.

Naval Expansion

In view of the situation, our requirements as to naval strength were again presented to the Congress, in January 1940. At that time, the part the United States was to play in the war was still not clear, but with due regard for our national safety and with aggressor nations disregarding treaties and pacts without hesitation-the immediate result being rapid changes in the international situation-Congress recognized that our security would be measured by our ability to defend ourselves. Coupled with this uncertainty was the knowledge that the international situation had been very difficult to predict. Many keen observers were certain that no European war would break out in 1939, and there were others who felt that we would be able to stay out of the war.

Pursuant to the recommendation of the Navy Department, and following a careful examination of world conditions, the Congress authorized an expansion of 11 per cent in our combatant ships, and the President signed the bill on 14 June 1940.

Meanwhile, the aggressor nations had succeeded in imposing their will upon numerous European countries. Germany had disposed of France and had overrun the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Poland, and stood on the Channel coast, poised for an all out attack on Britain. In view of that alarming situation, the Congress passed the so-called Two-Ocean Navy Bill, which was signed by the President on 19 July 1940. The increase in our naval strength authorized by this Act was 1,325,000 tons of combatant ships-by far the largest naval expansion ever authorized. This authorization was followed by the necessary appropriations in due course, and, in the making, we had a Navy commensurate with our needs.

The Destroyer-Naval Base Exchange

During the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain was in its initial stages and the German submarine campaign had been prosecuted with telling effect. At the beginning of the war Great Britain had suffered severely from the general attrition of operations at sea, particularly in destroyers in the Norwegian campaign and during the retreat from Dunkirk. Faced with this situation, Great Britain entered into an agreement with the United States, under the terms of which 50 of our older destroyers no longer suited for the type of fleet service for which they had been designed, but still adequately suited for antisubmarine duty, were exchanged for certain rights in various localities suitable for the establishment of naval bases in the Atlantic area, and essential to the national defense. In addition to the bases acquired in return for the 50 destroyers, we were granted "freely and without consideration" similar rights with respect to the leasing of bases in Newfoundland and Bermuda.

This acquisition of bases operated to advance our sea frontier several hundred miles in the direction of our potential enemies in the Atlantic, and as the bases were leased for a term of 99 years, we could profit by their strategic importance to the United States not only immediately, but long after the crisis responsible for the exchange.

The bases thus obtained by the United States were briefly as follows:

Location Facility Established Antigua, B.W.I. Naval Air Station (Sea Plane Base)
British Guiana, S.A. Naval Air Station (Sea Plane Base)
Jamaica, B.W.I. Naval Air Station (Sea Plane Base)
St. Lucia, B.W.I. Naval Air Station (Sea Plane Base)
Bermuda, B.W.I. Naval Air Station (Sea Plane Base)
Great Exuma, Bahamas Naval Air Station (Sea Plane Base)
Newfoundland Naval Operating Base
Naval Air Station (Sea Plane Base, Air Field) Trinidad Naval Operating Base
Naval Air Station (Sea Plane Base)
Lighter-than-Air Base Radio Station

Lend-Lease and its Implementation

On 11 March 1941, the so-called "Lend-Lease" Act was signed by the President. The provisions and effects of that Act are too well known to require comment in this report. Naturally, we were unwilling to see a large part of the material built with our labor and money lost in transit, and our only recourse was to give the British assistance in escorting the convoys carrying that material within North American waters.

Incident to our decision, the United States entered into an agreement with Denmark on 9 April 1941 relative to the defense of Greenland, and on that day our Marines were landed there to prevent its being used by Axis raiders. The Coast Guard cutter CAYUGA had already landed a party there to conduct a survey with respect to airfields, seaplane bases, radio stations, meteorological stations and additions to navigation, and on 1 June, the first of the Greenland patrols was organized, consisting chiefly of Coast Guard vessels and personnel.

On 27 May 1941, an unlimited national emergency was proclaimed by the President.

On 7 July 1941, United States Marines were landed in Iceland and relieved some of the British forces stationed there.

On 11 August 1941, on board the United States cruiser AUGUSTA, the President and Prime Minister of Great Britain agreed upon a joint declaration covering the principles of mutual interest to the two countries.

For some months, for the purpose of ensuring safe passage of goods shipped under the provisions of the Lend-Lease Act, our naval forces had been patrolling waters in the vicinity of the convoy routes, and had been broadcasting information relative to the presence of raiders. On 4 September 1941, GREER, a four-stack United States destroyer was enroute to Iceland, with mail, passengers and freight. When about 175 miles south of Iceland, she detected a submarine ahead. The submarine fired a torpedo at her and missed, whereupon GREER counterattacked with depth charges. Another torpedo was fired at GREER but it also missed, and GREER continued to Iceland. As a result of this incident, our naval forces were ordered by the President to shoot on sight any vessel attempting to interfere with American shipping, or with any shipping under American escort.

On 15 October, KEARNY a new destroyer, one of a number of vessels escorting a convoy from Iceland to North America, was torpedoed amidships. Eleven of her crew were killed and seven were wounded, and the ship was badly damaged but able to make port.

On 30 October, the naval tanker SALINAS was hit by two torpedoes about 700 miles east of Newfoundland. There were no casualties to personnel, and SALINAS reached port safely.

On 31 October in the same vicinity REUBEN JAMES, another old destroyer, was struck amidships by a torpedo. The ship was broken in two; the forward part sank at once, but the after part stayed afloat long enough to enable 45 men to reach the deck and launch life rafts from which they were rescued. About 100 men were lost in this sinking.

Whatever the situation technically, the Navy in the Atlantic was taking a realistic viewpoint of the situation. During the month of November, further steps were taken to enable our naval forces to meet the steadily growing emergency. On 1 November the Coast Guard was made a part of the Navy. Prior to that time ten Coast Guard cutters were transferred to the British. On 17 November sections 2, 3 and 6 of the Neutrality Act of 1939 were repealed by an act of Congress, thereby permitting the arming of Un

ted States merchant vessels and their passage to belligerent ports anywhere.

Another effect of the European war, of major importance to the United States, was the alliance by which on 27 September 1940 Japan became one of the Axis powers.

For many years it had been predicted and expected that eventually Japan's policy of expansion would conflict with our interests in the Pacific. Recognition of that possibility, plus Japan's growing naval strength, were indicated by her being a party to the 1922 treaty on limitation of armaments, and to subsequent treaties dealing with that subject.

At the time of the 1922 treaty Pearl Harbor and Manila were fortified bases, and Guam was being fortified. None of our other Pacific territories and possessions was fortified. When, therefore, the parties to that treaty agreed to maintain the fortification of certain Pacific islands in status quo, the fortification of Guam was halted. Subsequently conforming to the treaty provisions, we maintained the status quo at Guam and Corregidor, and confined our precautionary measures in the Pacific to the strengthening of Pearl Harbor and our west coast bases.

Our foresight in developing Pearl Harbor and our west coast bases has increased, immeasurably, our ability to carry on the war in the Pacific. Whether or not Guam could have been made sufficiently strong to withstand the full force of enemy attack is of course problematical, but we appear to have had an object lesson to the effect that if we are to have outlying possessions we must be prepared to defend them.

When, in the winter of 1935-1936, the Japanese declared themselves no longer willing to abide by existing treaty provisions or be a party to further negotiations, it gave rise to a feeling of uneasiness concerning the trend of Japanese policy and activities. Unfortunately, the full import of that move did not become apparent until later.

In 1931, Japan had embarked on a policy of aggression by the seizure of Manchuria. This was followed by other conquests in China, and as we have since learned, was accompanied by the fortifying of certain islands mandated to Japan by the League of Nations, in direct violation of the treaty provisions. A complete history of our relations with Japan during the period 1931-1941 was issued by the State Department in the so-called "White Paper" dated 2 January 1943.

Continuing her aggression, Japan moved into French-Indo China in 1940. In 1941, the United States was engaged in protesting these and other moves, and while conversations with the Japanese were being held, the German offensive in Russia was being successfully pressed. It seems likely that this influenced the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor.

Whatever the reasons, Japan, while her representatives in Washington were still engaged in discussions, presumably with a view to finding a means of preventing war, on the morning of 7 December 1941 attacked our ships at Pearl Harbor. The attack was essentially an air raid, although there were some 45-ton submarines which participated. The primary objectives of the Japanese were clearly the heavy ships in the harbor and our grounded Army and Navy planes were destroyed in order to prevent them from impeding the attack. Damage done to the light surface forces and the industrial plant was incidental. Of the eight battleships in the harbor, ARIZONA was wrecked, OKLAHOMA capsized and three other battleships were so badly damaged that they were resting on bottom. The damages to the other three were comparatively minor in character. A total of 19 ships was hit, including three light cruisers which were not seriously damaged. Three destroyers were hit and badly damaged. (All three were later restored to service.) Of the 202 Navy planes ready for use on that morning only 52 were able to take the air after the raid.

Personnel casualties were in proportion to the material damage. The Navy and Marine Corps suffered a loss of 2,117 officers and men killed and 960 missing.

The Japanese losses were about 60 planes, attributable mainly to antiaircraft fire, and it is probable that others were unable, on account of lack of fuel, to return to the carriers which composed the striking force.

A few hours later a similar but less damaging attack was made on the Philippines. (The situation in the Far East is described elsewhere in this report.)

On the following day we declared " . . . that a state of war which has thus been thrust upon the United States by the Imperial Government of Japan is hereby formally declared. On 11 December a similar declaration was made concerning Germany and Italy.