Saturday, January 2, 2010

Fighting for a better Navy - Persistently, Consistently - Admiral William Sowden Sims

Well in advance of the Admiral James Stavridis model of "Think, Read, Write, Publish", Admiral William Sowden Sims did all these things - and he did them extraordinarily well - winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1920 while serving as a Naval officer.

For 30 years the great voice of public self-analysis in the Navy, Admiral William Sowden Sims was highly vocal and knew it. But "never did he discover the difference between rapping for attention and knocking his audience cold." An 1880 United States Naval Academy graduate, Sims spent his first six years at sea quietly, then settled down to improving the Navy. His main theme was a continuous assault on the Navy's uncoordinated bureau system (which it still has), a demand for a general staff (which still did not exist in 1942).

Although Sims never won his main objective, his vocal technique (through persuasive oral and written arguments) did achieve many smaller ones—enough to assure his place in naval history even though he was never under fire. He began by criticizing battleships. In 1900 the U.S. Navy, in Sims's opinion, was far behind European navies, even Japan's ("and, God help our souls," Russia's).

Meanwhile the public thought the Navy was "hot stuff" and the Navy was "inordinately flattered by a boastful press."

The bureaus of the Navy shelved the Sims reports on recommendations for improving the Navy and her ships. Sims fumed that a man who would have to fight a ship could have no say in its design or the functioning of the Navy - not even as a Navy Captain.

He had better luck on his second project, teaching the Navy to shoot. In face of opposition, he introduced a real target instead of an imaginary one, longer practice ranges, continuous aim firing, improved telescopic sights, new methods of fire control. He developed a spirit of competition in a fleet that used to shoot off its year's ammunition as an unpleasant chore. The Navy's marksmanship became legend.

By the time the U.S. entered World War I, he had fought for adoption of all-big-gun ships (dreadnoughts), commanded the newest, finest battleship of all, the Nevada (still in service). Most important, he had commanded a destroyer flotilla and developed doctrines for handling destroyers that proved invaluable.

But outside the Navy Sims was not famous until he was suddenly (March 31, 1917) exported incognito to London as Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces operating in European waters. Again he had to combat the bureaus and a Navy leadership sluggish in action. Though the British Admiralty confessed that if U-boat sinkings kept on at their top rate (nearly 90,000 tons in April 1917) Britain was done for by October, the men in Washington were slow to approve the convoy system. Sims prodded in cable after cable. Once convoys became routine, sub successes dwindled.

Congress refused to restore Sims's rank to full admiral after the war. Sims was disappointed. When Congress ordered blanket restoration of World War I temporary ranks to retired officers in 1930 a Newport lady congratulated the 71-year-old Admiral. Said he: "Admiral, hell!"

In retirement (1922-36) he still fought. Admiral Sims argued saltily for:

  • a better system of promotion in the Navy,
  • for recognition of the powers of aircraft,
  • for Prohibition (though no teetotaler),
  • for adequate bases in the Pacific,
  • for a larger Navy.

Says Author Morison: "He remembered Pearl Harbor before it happened."

Lessons from Admiral Sims:

  • Be vocal (verbally and in writing).
  • Develop a Navy spirit in your subordinates.
  • Be persistent.
  • Keep up your fight - even in your retirement.

From TIME magazine - September 1942

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