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Rebuilding the Fleet

Due to the complex nature of the procurement process in the 1930s, no discussion of naval shipbuilding during this era would be complete without a description of this elaborate procedure. The procurement of ships for the navy during this period involved an intricate series of legislative maneuvers orchestrated by the secretary of the navy and the chief of naval operations with assistance from the bureaus, the fleet commands, and a special advisory body known as the General Board. The administrative procedures devised to implement the design process within the navy generated a great deal of paperwork between the various commands involved as each tried to have its say in determining the number, type, and characteristics of the ships that were scheduled for procurement. Fortunately, much of this documentation has survived in the records of the Navy Department now preserved in the National Archives, Washington, D.C. These files provide a wealth of information concerning specific building programs and the methodology used to establish the design criteria formulated for each ship type.

Ultimately, all recommendations regarding the procurement of new construction had to be approved by the secretary of the navy--a cabinet post held by a civilian appointed by the president of the United States, to whom he was accountable. As chief executive of the Navy Department, the secretary was responsible for administering all aspects of the navy, including the acquisition of ships and weapons. Although the president set naval policy, Congress funds the navy and any new construction or modernization.

Major shipbuilding programs were usually initiated by the chief of naval operations (CNO) who advised the secretary on the needs of the navy during his "Estimate of the Situation," which was prepared on an annual basis. These programs were further refined during the budgeting process, which occurred annually in the spring as the department prepared its expenses for the forthcoming fiscal year. Since


only Congress could authorize an increase in the size of the navy or appropriate the money to build new ships, its approval was necessary before a program of new construction could be initiated. Obtaining congressional approval to increase the navy was a highly political affair that usually involved a great deal of negotiation and discussion between the secretary of the navy, the CNO, and those members of Congress responsible for initiating the legislation required to authorize and fund new construction. All authorization bills had to pass through the Senate and House Naval Affairs Committees before they could be presented to Congress for legislative consideration. The chairmen of these committees, therefore, exerted considerable influence on the navy and were closely courted by those officers within the Navy Department responsible for obtaining the funds necessary to operate the fleet or build new ships.

Guiding the secretary of the navy on matters of ship construction was the General Board, an advisory body of senior flag officers established by General Order No. 544 on 13 March 1900 to "insure [the] efficient preparation of the fleet in case of war."1 One of its main functions during the interwar period was to formulate the design characteristics for all the ships built for the navy. Through a process of hearings, discussions, and exchanges of correspondence with the bureaus and the various fleet commands, the General Board compiled a set of specifications (the characteristics), which defined the size, speed, armament, habitability, survivability, and endurance needed in the different types of warships that were to be added to the navy in any program of new construction. These were submitted to the secretary of the navy for his approval, thereby formulating the military characteristics that would govern the design of new vessels the navy proposed to add to the fleet. Once approved, these were sent to the three technical bureaus--Construction and Repair (BuC&R), Steam Engineering (BuEng), and Ordnance (BuOrd)--which shared responsibility for designing all naval vessels.

Although the Bureau of Construction and Repair was in charge of a ship's overall design, it depended upon the Bureau of Engineering for details of the propulsion system and the Bureau of Ordnance for weapons and armor. By law, each of these highly autonomous bureaus was headed by a rear admiral who reported directly to the secretary of the navy. This arrangement was fraught with problems since each of the bureaus, being fiercely independent, tended to jealously guard the prerogatives of its own organization. Integrating the technical requirements of a particular ship could be extremely difficult under these circumstances, since trade-offs had to be made in optimum weaponry, speed, fuel capacity, habitability, survivability, cost, and size before an acceptable design could be worked up. Once the design was approved, the Bureau of Construction and Repair, with assistance from


the Bureau of Engineering, would prepare contract plans and specifications including the hull lines, general arrangement, and machinery layouts. These would form the basis for any contracts that might be let for construction, provided the navy received authorization to build such ships.

The United States Fleet during this period was organized around two main fighting units: Battle Force and Scouting Force. Most combatants in the fleet were assigned to one or the other of these forces, although a small number were also assigned to the meager Asiatic Fleet stationed in the Far East. "Type" commanders subordinate to the "force commander" were established within each command: all battleships fell under the auspices of the Commander Battleships, Battle Force; cruisers under the Commander Cruisers, Scouting Force; aircraft under the Commander Aircraft, Scouting Force; and so on. In addition to directing the operations of ships (or aircraft) assigned directly within their command, type commanders were also administratively accountable for their particular ship types, including tenders (e.g., seaplane tenders, destroyer tenders) serving throughout the fleet. As administrative commanders, they were responsible for maintaining the material readiness of their forces and were accountable for developing tactics and doctrine to be employed. The type commanders were frequently queried for their recommendations and experience concerning the ships, weapons, and equipment utilized by their forces. Their responses played an important role in determining the characteristics of new ships and improving the material condition of those ships already in commission.

Rebuilding the Fleet

In 1932 the Battle Fleet of the United States Navy was an aging instrument of war constrained by the limits of the Washington Treaty, domestic isolation, and the economic realities of the Great Depression. The vast majority of the navy's senior officers believed that the Washington and London treaties had weakened the navy's ability to protect American interests in the Pacific. Moreover, in its annual "Estimate of the Situation," the navy concluded that War Plan ORANGE could not be executed "due to failure to initiate and carry on a well-balanced program of new construction."2 Except for a few cruisers and the two carriers, no new warships had been added to the fleet since the last of the ships started under the 1916 building program had been completed in 1924.3 During the intervening years, advances in marine engineering had made much of the fleet obsolete in terms of speed and armament. The problem was particularly acute with regard to the large number of destroyers, all of which entered service at the same time. Unlike the older battleships in the fleet, the majority of which


had been rebuilt and modernized, most of the destroyers were rapidly approaching the end of their useful lives--a problem known today as "block obsolescence." To remedy the situation, Congressman Carl Vinson, the new chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, proposed a sweeping authorization bill in early January 1932, which, had it passed, would have appropriated enough money over a ten-year period to build the navy up to full treaty strength.4 Vinson would later point out that the policies of the government could not be maintained or supported with obsolete ships, stating further that "overage ships, with inferior gun power, with slower speed, with deteriorated hulls and machinery, will truly be 'floating coffins' if they are sent into battle against modern ships."5

Unfortunately, Vinson's concerns fell upon deaf ears as the Hoover administration opposed any plan for rebuilding the fleet. This situation changed after Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933. Roosevelt, who had served as assistant secretary of the navy during the First World War, was an enthusiastic supporter of the navy. After the new administration had taken office, Adm. William V. Pratt, chief of naval operations, prepared a lengthy memorandum for Roosevelt's new secretary of the navy, Claude Swanson, entitled "The Navy's Needs."6 In his memorandum, Pratt proposed an eight-year building program, which would fulfill three aims: build the navy to its authorized treaty limit in all categories of vessels, obtain airplanes for these vessels, and build certain non-treaty auxiliaries that were needed by the fleet.7 Included in Pratt's plan was a uniform schedule for laying down vessels, which would prevent a large number of ships from becoming obsolete at the same time. Construction of the first ships would begin in fiscal year 1934, with thirty-two ships planned for the first year, twenty-five the year after, and nineteen to twenty-two ships for each of the next four years. Construction of the last eight ships was to begin in fiscal year 1940 with all vessels scheduled for completion by the year 1942. The plan represented the most ambitious building program proposed for the navy since 1916.

Pratt's memorandum was given to Swanson on 24 March 1933. Shortly thereafter, Rear Adm. Emory S. Land, the new chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, directed his staff to prepare construction estimates for the program.8 Endeavoring the secure funds to finance the program, the navy approached the Naval Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee for informal assistance. By now Roosevelt's New Deal advisors had persuaded him that the depression could be beaten more quickly by spending than by scrimping. Unable to obtain appropriations through the regular channels, Vinson, aided by Admiral Land, convinced President Roosevelt to include


Cuyama (AO-3), shown here in the mid-decade, is beginning to show signs of old age.
Cuyama(AO-3), shown here in the mid-decade, is beginning to show signs of old age. Fleet oilers were the "work horses" of the fleet. Charged with the task of keeping the fleet in black oil, they were constantly on the move. (Naval Historical Center)

naval construction in any program enacted as a cure to the economic crisis gripping the nation.9 According to one source, Swanson instructed Emory Land to accompany Vinson to a meeting with the chief clerk of this committee.10 The three men then drafted a clause to insert in any unemployment relief bill that might be presented to Congress. The wording was such that it would permit the construction of ships within treaty limits "in relief of unemployment."11 Land was also instrumental in amending the Economy Act so that the wording "ships and aircraft" was included as part of the definition of public works, thus establishing the legal definition of warships as "public works."12 Vinson next wrote to Roosevelt recommending the inclusion of Pratt's first year program in the public works bill then being considered by the administration.

By the end of May, the Bureau of the Budget had completed drafting the administration's legislative program for aiding industrial recovery. On the day before this bill was to be introduced in Congress, Cdr. A. B. Court, a member of Pratt's staff and the man who had helped draft the memorandum "The Navy's Need," contacted both Vinson and Park Trammell, chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, in order to make sure that the wording of the bill included provisions


for constructing warships as public works. On the next day, 16 June 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which was immediately signed into law by President Roosevelt. Included in this bill was a large public works program, known as the Public Works Appropriation Bill (PWA), which gave President Roosevelt the power to begin construction of public works projects. Because of the navy's efforts, the wording of this bill had been specifically written to allow the president to undertake "the construction of naval vessels within the terms and/or the limits established by the London Naval Treaty of 1930 and of aircraft required therefor."13 On the day before the NIRA was to be passed, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6174 allocating $238 million for naval construction under the provisions of the PWA. The executive order was signed in advance so that when the NIRA became law, funding for the construction of thirty-two warships was automatically provided. By signing Executive Order 6174, Roosevelt initiated the first of several naval building programs started during the depression, structured to take advantage of the economic relief measures enacted by Congress to stimulate industry.

War Plans Updated

When Adm. William H. Standley succeeded Admiral Pratt as chief of naval operations on 1 July 1933, he was intent on continuing the efforts of his predecessor to promote the construction of new ships by pushing for "an annual building program which would not only provide for replacement of ships as they become obsolete," but would also keep the "Navy modernized and up-to-date."14 Standley, who had earlier served as the navy's top war planner, was also worried about the fleet's preparations for war.15 He was so concerned that one of his first acts as CNO was to request an updated war plan from the commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, a post then held by Adm. David F. Sellers.16 This action was to precipitate a series of events that would culminate in the commissioning of the twelve "fast" tankers of the Cimarron class. Sellers responded at the end of August with a tentative plan "designed for present conditions and for use in case of a sudden declaration of war." According to the operational plan drafted by Sellers, the main element of the fleet would consist of "a small, compact force, composed exclusively of vessels that have been in full commission and have been maintained at the highest degree of readiness." The Train would now be "kept to an absolute minimum."17

Sellers may have been influenced by the war games held earlier that year at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. These revealed the vulnerability of slow convoys to attack by submarine and pointed out the need for a fast Train. Though Sellers's proposal was not favorably received by Standley, it must have raised questions


concerning the fleet's aging auxiliaries' ability to fulfill their role in the new plans. A former director of war plans, Standley was fully cognizant of the Train and its importance to the successful implementation of ORANGE. Troubled by obsolescence within the Train, he immediately recognized the need to procure modern auxiliaries that would be capable of keeping up with Sellers's battle force. As a first step toward this end, it appears that Standley, via the office of the secretary of the navy, directed the General Board to review the military characteristics for the various types of auxiliaries in the navy.18 It is likely that the request was issued by Standley directly. He was in a rather unique position during this period since he was frequently called upon to act as secretary of the navy when Swanson was too ill to perform his normal duties. This led to a situation in which it was not uncommon for Standley to write his own orders or recommendations as secretary of the navy to the chief of naval operations or vice versa. In any case, it is quite evident that Standley was deeply concerned about the deficiency in all types of auxiliaries and began to push any program that would provide these much-needed ships.

On 21 December 1933, the General Board issued a memorandum listing the tentative characteristics for oilers.19 It was directed to the chief of naval operations (Standley) as well as the five bureau chiefs, and concluded with a request for recommendations and comments. As was customary, the characteristics were circulated throughout the bureaus for comments and recommendations before any further action was taken. Though the General Board had no authority over the bureaus, it did have considerable influence over the types of ships built and their characteristics. Composed of the most senior admirals in the navy, the board's opinions carried great weight and were difficult to circumvent.20

Characteristics for Oilers

The design initially proposed by the General Board in its memorandum to the chief of naval operations on 21 December 1933 was clearly intended to define a fleet oiler capable of accompanying the Battle Force, cruising speed being the critical criterion for this activity. The need for such a ship was beginning to emerge as war plans were revised. The requirement to maintain a sustained speed of at least 15 knots with an endurance of 6,000 miles, established by the board, was certainly consistent with the cruising needs of the fleet then anticipated. Other features, such as the rather heavy main battery and the desire to provide deck space for crated aircraft and troop barges, dovetailed perfectly with the strategy for obtaining the advance bases that was beginning to unfold as the new plans for ORANGE were developed.21 The complete list of proposed characteristics for fleet oilers (see table 4) provides considerable insight into the board's thinking


Adm. William H. Standley, taken while serving as chief of naval operations. A former head of war plans, Standley was instrumental in procuring modern auxiliaries during the interwar years. (National Archives)
Adm. William H. Standley, taken while serving as chief of naval operations. A former head of war plans, Standley was instrumental in procuring modern auxiliaries during the interwar years. (National Archives)

as well as the procedures used within the Navy Department for establishing the design criteria of new warships.

The General Board's recommendation for 15-knot oilers must have created quite a problem for those officers in war plans responsible for the logistical planning surrounding the Train, since none of the navy's aging oilers were capable of this feat. Only six of the navy's tankers then in commission, those of the Kanawha class (AO-1 through


TABLE 4 General Characteristics of Oilers
Displacement: Compatible with other characteristics prescribed.
Draft: Maximum deep-load draft not to exceed 28 feet.
Compartmentation: Standard in accordance with best modern naval practice.
Capacity (cargo): 10,000 tons of cargo oil; lubricating oil (in containers) commensurate with fuel oil cargo capacity.
Quarters and berthing spaces: Sufficient to accommodate at least 10 percent in excess of the regular complement of officers and men.
Hull construction: Capable of carrying gasoline in all tanks.
Speed: At least 15 knots sustained, loaded.
Endurance at least 6,000 miles at maximum sustained speed, loaded, on fuel carried in bunkers.
Engines: Of approved modern design and type best suited for mission of ship; special attention to reliability.
Fuel: Oil
Lubricating oil: Sufficient to meet demands at all speeds, within maximum cruising radius.
Main battery: Four 5-inch or 6-inch guns.
Antiaircraft battery: Machine guns, not less than eight (1.1" or .50 caliber).
Ammunition allowance: Standard.
Ship Control: Best available, compatible with mission of ship.
Fire Control: Simplest effective type.
Radio: Sufficient to meet requirements of fleet communication.
Signal: Of standard type sufficient to insure satisfactory visual communications by day or night.
Sound: Latest effective type.
Deck stowage: Designed to provide deck space for crated aircraft (seaplanes) and troop and artillery barges.
Hoisting apparatus: To include one boom of 20 tons capacity.
Towing facilities: Fitted for towing at sea, including towing engine.
The proper ventilation of oil compartments, the warming of oil for delivery purposes, and all other necessary features for safety and loading of oil and its quick delivery on both sides simultaneously, either at sea or in port, to be incorporated and to be not inferior to best commercial practice.
Maneuverability: Designed to maneuver satisfactorily in formation.
Searchlights: Two, for navigational purposes.
PROVISIONS AND STORES: Standard practice.
SOURCE: General Board Serial No. 1629, 21 December 1933, General Board File 420.5, RG 80, NA.

SOURCE: General Board Serial No. 1629, 21 December 1933, General Board File 420.5, RG 80, NA.


AO-6), had been designed for even 14 knots and it is highly doubtful that any of the six could even make 14 knots, let alone cruise at this speed. Machinery deteriorated considerably during the course of a ship's life, substantially reducing available power, and the class was rapidly approaching the twenty-year age mark. The navy could not look to the merchant marine for a solution either, since the average speed of the commercial tanker fleet was in the neighborhood of only 11 knots. Even the fastest tankers then under consideration were being designed for speeds of only about 131/2 knots.22


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