A WWI Naval Officer’s Story


Tom Hone examines the life of an iconic American naval officer, and seeks lessons to apply in today’s age of military transformation.

Elting E. Morrison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942).


This hefty book (almost 550 pages) is a biography of ADM William S. Sims (1858-1936), a Navy reformer and Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters during World War I.  Sims was an aggressive and often successful “change agent” as the U.S. Navy went from being a very minor naval force when he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1880 to being one of the world’s two strongest naval forces when he retired in 1922.  I believe that his career is worth looking at now, when the U.S. Navy is again in the middle of some very major changes.

Any good military biography will do three things: be truthful about its subject, place its subject in the life of that individual’s military institution, and put the individual and his institution in the context of a society’s history.  Morison’s biography does the first very well.  If you read this book, you get to know ADM Sims, like him or not.  Morison does the second a little less well, and the reason for this is because he didn’t quite capture all the technological, tactical, and organizational changes that affected the Navy of Sims and his contemporaries—though he tried hard to do it.  Finally, Morison’s biggest weakness isin putting Sims and the Navy against the sweep of changes that affected and comprised the history of modern America.

Sims as a Person and as a Navy Officer

If you’ve served in, or worked for, the modern American military, you’ve bumped into officers like William Sims.  Sims was intelligent, extremely energetic, intolerant of personal and professional sloppiness, a good writer and a gifted off-the-cuff speaker, and had proved to be “an unusually happy and successful teacher” while a young officer. After he left the Naval Academy, he realized that he still had a lot to learn, and so he pursued opportunities to expand his personal and professional knowledge and experience.  In 1888, for example, he was able to persuade the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation to fund a year in France, and while in Paris Sims learned the French language well enough to use it effectively for the rest of his life.

Two years later, serving on the protected cruiser Charleston, he was appointed the ship’s intelligence officer.  He had no idea what a good intelligence officer should do, and so he energetically created a new job for himself.  He learned whatever he could about the 1894-95 war between Japan and China and visited the ships of other navies whenever he had the chance.  He gathered so much material that he was able to produce 400 hand-written pages reporting on the battles between the Chinese and Japanese.  It was the beginning of a writing career that would gain him an appreciative and often admiring audience.

As a lieutenant, Sims served as the American naval attaché in Paris in 1897-98, and he used his post to organize a web of contacts that provided him with information that he reported back to Washington, where his detailed and thorough reports and assessments were read and much appreciated by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1900, Sims left Paris and joined the new battleship Kentucky, which was steaming from Gibraltar to China.  The Kentucky’s officers were proud of their ship.  Sims was appalled.  As he explained,

Our Navy Department was so organized that the people who built the turrets were not the same people who built the guns.  …  [Kentucky] had a pyramidal [gun] mount that sat back so far from the front face of the turret that in order that the gun might be elevated and depressed they had to cut a hole in the front face of the turret that was big enough for four 12-inch shells to come into her without touching anything.  You could stand on the quarter deck and look into that turret, and you could spit right down into the powder magazine.  …  A little girl was being shown about the ship.  She was eleven years old, and she walked over this gun deck where one gaping port after another was located, and she said, ‘I thought you told me these guns were protected by armor—[but] the armor is where the guns ain’t.’

Sims criticized Kentucky’s turrets to his fellow officers, but “the executive and the other officers became pale with rage in denouncing them—and me.”  However, Sims persisted in his explanations.  He knew what the comparable ships in European navies were like, and he bolstered his criticisms with pertinent facts.  As he noted, “after much discussion they were sadly obliged to acknowledge the justice of my criticisms.”

This episode set a pattern for the rest of Sims’ career.  He would highlight and criticize inefficiency and inadequate equipment wherever he found them, and he would also promote change and reform.  He backed his proposed reforms with facts, and had the patience to stay with his audiences and ignore the personal attacks made against him as an “agitator” and trouble-maker.  He also had a good sense of timing, regarding it as the “essential secret of most success.” He could also be diplomatic.  As he noted later in his career, “I’m no spring chicken in this business and I am not putting my head into a noose unnecessarily.”

Sims and the U.S. Navy

An observer of Sims once said that the Admiral was “passionately devoted to the Navy.” In 1911, Charles Nagel, then President Taft’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor, observed that this passion had a good side and a bad side, with the result that Sims “was a valuable officer as well as the most indiscreet man in the Navy.” Yet, Sims also admitted in 1918 that “I have never liked it [the Navy].  I would rather have been in a productive occupation.  There has never been a time when I have not been uncomfortable in uniform.”  What could lead this dedicated professional to say such a thing?

Sims provided the answer in a letter written in 1902 to a fellow officer:

I am playing this game to win or lose all.  If I win (and success is assured), I will only claim as my reward the privilege of being left alone.  I am not looking for anything; and I will not get in anybody’s way.  …

I am perfectly willing that those honestly holding views differing from mine should continue to live; but with every fibre of my corpse I loathe indirection and shiftiness, and where it occurs in high places, and is used to save a face at the expense of the vital interests of our great service…, I want that man’s blood and I will have it, no matter what it costs me personally.

Sims was, to put it simply, a reformer first and a naval officer second.  While the Navy was his career, his passion was reform.

Yet Sims knew that he could not pursue reform in the Navy without help.  Indeed, he could not survive without mentors, and in his long career he had both mentors and professional allies.  RADM George C. Remey, Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Fleet when Sims was writing reports and letters critical of the design of ships such as the battleship Kentucky, made sure that the young officer’s papers reached the Navy Department in Washington in 1901.  Sims was nonetheless frustrated.  He had watched Captain Percy Scott, an older Royal Navy officer, revolutionize gunnery in British ships stationed in Hong Kong, and he wanted to apply the same techniques in the U.S. Navy, but the Bureau of Ordnance was not responding.  Sims knew that his friend Albert Niblack was about to leave the post of Inspector of Target Practice, and Sims thought that succeeding Niblack might just give him the leverage to do in the U.S. Navy what his mentor and friend Scott was doing in the Royal Navy.  But how to get that job?

The assassination of William McKinley in September 1901 had put Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.  After consulting with Albert L. Key, another colleague and friend, Sims wrote directly to Roosevelt. Roosevelt remembered Sims and acted to publicize Sims’ recommended gunnery reforms.  RADM Henry C. Taylor, the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation, saw to it that Sims was appointed Inspector of Target Practice, and Sims’ career took a major step up.  As Inspector from 1902 to 1905, Sims “possessed a following, enjoyed a reputation, and was fighting for a cause.” More importantly, his reforms and innovations produced results.  Gunnery improved, and the proof of that was in the results of the fleet’s annual gunnery competitions.

But the future of naval gunnery in 1902 was at a “tipping point.”  In the naval war between Russia and Japan (February 1904 to September 1905), it wasn’t clear whether the larger, long-range 12-inch guns had proved their value.  It looked as though the smaller guns (6-inch and 8-inch) had been decisive.  Accordingly, RADM Alfred T. Mahan, the Naval War College’s world renowned author, had argued publicly that the U.S. Navy should not build a fleet of battleships whose main guns fired shells of a diameter of 12-inches or more.  President Roosevelt asked Sims if he agreed with Mahan.  Sims did not.  He told the President that the Navy’s May 1904 gunnery competition “had proved beyond all doubt that big guns were more accurate than smaller ones,” and he won Roosevelt’s support.

Sims had been given an unofficial tour of the Royal Navy’s new type of battleship—the Dreadnought—while she was being built, and he wanted the U.S. Navy to construct ships like her.  But the 12-inch guns of Dreadnought could shoot farther with accuracy than her gunners could see.  For her big guns to be effective, Dreadnought and all battleships like her would need new spotting and ranging devices.  Sims’ contemporary, CAPT Bradley A. Fiske, was busy developing such devices, especially “a central shipboard gunfire control station aloft that would permit continuous-aim salvo fire,” as CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. notes in his introduction to a modern printing of Fiske’s book, The Navy as a Fighting Machine.

At the turn of the century, the naval gun had to contend with the torpedo for mastery; torpedoes had become fast and more reliable—and therefore effective at the range reached by most guns of that time.  The Naval War College, for example, had experimented with a very large, torpedo-armed cruiser in its war games, and game results indicated that the dreadnought-type battleship could destroy this cruiser, but only if the battleship’s guns could be aimed accurately and fired rapidly.  Sims and his allies in the Navy—inventors such as Fiske and advocates of the all-big-gun ship such as Homer Poundstone—believed that accurate, very long range gunfire was possible, and their technical innovations and arguments gave Theodore Roosevelt’s ocean-going “big stick” great strength.  Their “insurgency” was helped along immensely when Roosevelt made Sims his naval aide in 1907.

In that post, Sims was able to persuade Roosevelt—who took a strong and personal interest in the Navy—to ask questions of the Navy Department related to shipbuilding.  In Sims’ view, the Navy was in danger of unnecessarily falling behind the British, who set the world standard for gunnery.  Though the Navy was fresh from the first half of its successful round-the-world cruise of 1907-1909, Sims and the other “insurgents” still felt that most of the Navy’s senior officers were not keeping up with the great changes in naval technology that were taking place.  President Roosevelt seemed to agree, and he convened a special conference at the Naval War College in the summer of 1908 to hash out the claims of the “insurgents.”

By that time, what Sims and colleagues such as Albert Key wanted, which was a thorough reorganization of the Navy Department in Washington, was a very divisive issue.  The “insurgents” wanted a senior admiral to lead operations from Washington and also to have the authority to direct the Navy’s bureaus (such as Ordnance, Navigation, Construction and Repair, and Steam Engineering).  Many fleet officers wanted control of the fleet to remain in the hands of the fleet’s commander.  Many technical specialists in uniform didn’t want to see the authorities of the bureaus reduced.  Civilians feared that a powerful Chief of Naval Operations would encroach on the powers of the Secretary of the Navy.  In the 1908 summer conference, the President was able to bring his senior naval officers to an agreement on how future ships would be designed, but there was no consensus at the meeting—or later within Congress—regarding the proper structure of the Navy’s leadership in Washington.

Before Roosevelt left office in March 1909, he made sure that Sims got command of the new battleship Minnesota.  Sims was going to have to show that he was an operator as well as an agitator for reforms.  Sims did well as Minnesota’s captain, despite creating a major diplomatic flap with public comments he made in December 1910, when his ship was docked in England.  Sims suggested that, if a major European war broke out, the United States would stand with the British.  President William H. Taft was compelled to reprimand Sims.  The always blunt Sims was dispatched to the Naval War College when his tour of duty as Minnesota’s commander was over.

Sims thrived at the Naval War College.  By his own account, his thinking matured there, preparing him for his later duty as the senior Navy officer in Europe in 1917-18.  In July 1913, he was given command of the Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla, a post he held until given command of the new dreadnought battleship Nevada in 1916.  Sims turned the destroyer flotilla into (in his words) “a war college afloat.”   The first thing he did was to call his destroyer captains to his cabin and pose a problem to them: The fleet commander has informed you of the location of the enemy; he has ordered you to attack.  What will you do?  His subordinates could not agree.

They really didn’t know what to do.  Sims told them, “Neither do I.”  He followed up this candid admission by saying, “It is up to us to get busy.  Here is the cabin floor, and here are a dozen or so model ships, and we will work out a scheme.”  Then, after he and they had done that, he added, “I am going to take the fleet outside and try it out.  But I will make you this bet, when you try it out at sea you will find that half of your dope is wrong, because you have not had the experience.”  And they did find exactly that.  But they didn’t quit.  As Sims admitted, “we kept that thing up for a solid year before I was willing to go to the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Badger, and say, ‘If you will give your flotilla a reasonable chance, I believe we will be able to find you any night, you representing the enemy, and attack you in a practical way.’”  ADM Badger readily agreed, and the exercise came off.

After successfully—and with great pleasure—commanding Nevada, Sims was promoted to rear admiral and appointed President of the Naval War College.  In April 1917, he was given responsibility for U.S. naval forces in Europe and the rank of vice admiral.  Because of his intelligence, his energy, his ability to speak French, and his close relations with senior British officers and officials, he was successful. He quickly perceived that the British were losing the U-boat campaign, and he enlisted the aid of American ambassador W. H. Page in pressuring the secretary of the navy and the chief of naval operations to make anti-submarine warfare their first priority.

Sims’ skills as an agitator enabled him to move his superiors in Washington to endorse the use of protected convoys and to place destroyer construction ahead of the large warships that had been at the heart of the 1916 Congressional navy authorization.  Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels and Chief of Naval Operations William S. Benson felt the heat of Sims’ urgent demands, and Morison shows how Sims rubbed the nerves of Daniels raw.  But Sims cared little for Daniels, and he was later proved correct in his major criticism—that the Navy Department was generally unprepared for World War I, and that its wartime command and administration had to be put together on the run.

After World War I, Sims reverted to his permanent rank of rear admiral and resumed his post as President of the Naval War College.  He retained war gaming at the College, and he pressed Navy Secretary Daniels to enlarge the student body and staff.  He wanted rear admirals to head the major departments, and he wanted to make sure that all future admirals first served a year as students at the College. Sims was a progressive.  He was in a breaking wave of professionalism, when physicians, lawyers, and clergy were compelled to study in professional schools (or schools of theology) and engineers were gaining status (and training) as professionals.  Sims was not a populist.  He wasn’t a supporter of political leaders like William Jennings Bryan, and he avoided politics except when it affected the Navy.  But he was a life-long believer in effectiveness and integrity—both personal and organizational.  Sims was a reformer through and through.  Morison said of him, “The cheerful crusader rode off in many directions and if he did not always deliver Jerusalem, he killed a gratifyingly large number of infidels on the way.”

In that sense, Sims was square in the middle of the “progressive movement,” the social, economic and political movement that gave women the votes and shut down saloons—the movement whose supporters believed in education, hard work, integrity, diligence, and the value of reform.  Sims was called an “insurgent,” and he was, but you can see his methods all through his career—no hesitancy to study and teach himself, honesty about what he knew and didn’t know, a faith in competition (whether in gunnery or in the field of ideas), and great confidence that seeking hard evidence was the road to truth.

Over Sims’ professional lifetime, the Navy went from being an overwhelmingly traditional organization to being a modern organization.  Morison is right to link Sims to “the modern American Navy” because, in a modern navy, evidence and experimentation matter more than tradition and rank, and rank itself is given only to those who show their abilities and leadership in a rigorous selection process.  In 1908, Sims had wanted Theodore Roosevelt to support the selection of officers, the rational administration of the Navy Department through an office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and an empirically-based process of ship design.  These were the necessary foundations of a modern force—a force that had to abandon promotion solely by seniority, quit designing ships through bureaus that did not work intelligently together, and cease tolerating a leadership vacuum at the highest levels of the Department.

Sims was not alone.  His close colleagues were essential in making the Navy “modern,” and those younger officers whom he mentored (like William V. Pratt and Mark Bristol) went on to carry the Navy through the interwar years, when the Navy successfully developed submarines and carrier aviation.

If I have a criticism of Elting E. Morison’s account of Sims’ life in the Navy, it is that Morison was too focused on Sims and not enough on Sims’ contemporaries, especially RADM Bradley A. Fiske.  Sims was an agitator; Fiske an inventor and tactician.  I believe that CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., was correct to refer to Fiske as “the U.S. Navy’s renaissance man.”  As Hughes noted in his introduction to Fiske’s book, Fiske “was dedicated to the combat readiness and operating efficiency of the American navy.  Everything he did was measured against that end.”  Between 1878 and 1896, Fiske produced twenty inventions of great value to the Navy.  In 1896, CAPT Henry C. Taylor—who was instrumental in seeing to it that Sims was appointed Inspector of Target Practice in 1902—assigned Fiske to the Naval War College, where Fiske could develop his innovative tactical ideas and continue to write his articles advocating reform.  Fiske did not have Sims’ aggressive personality, but in 1913 he was appointed the first “aid for operations,” serving directly under Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer, and in 1915 Fiske’s ideas inspired the legislation that created the post of Chief of Naval Operations.

Why Does This Book Matter?

Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy matters because we are in another time of change that is like the change that rushed at Sims and his contemporaries.  The future is very uncertain.  The present is taxing.  The Navy’s bureaucracy and its officer corps may be much better educated (in relative terms) now than they were in Sims’ time, but that doesn’t mean reformers have it any easier.  In 1900, there were only 1,683 commissioned officers in the Navy.  Officers knew one another; that could be taken as good news from the perspective of a reformer—the audience to be preached to was small.  But in 1900, officers were spread all over the world.  Reaching them, and getting their attention, wasn’t easy.  Now, email and other digital tricks link people in extraordinary ways, but the Navy is still busy—much more than it was in 1900, and there is great pressure on ambitious officers to show what they can do at an early age.  Sims was appointed naval aide to Theodore Roosevelt at age 49.  He didn’t get a battleship command until he was 51.  He didn’t command the Atlantic Torpedo Flotilla until he was 55.

But by age 49, Morison argued that Sims had already triggered and helped institutionalize a gunnery revolution in the Navy.  More than that, Sims had created a model of the “modern” reformer and had made clear the essential elements of a “modern” navy.  A modern navy was selective, systematically competitive, well trained, and innovative.  The officers in this modern navy had to combine experience with education, operations with experimentation.  Sims never thought he was a technologist, scientist, or inventor.  Instead, he was a modern professional, and his gift to the Navy was a commitment to intense and empirically-based thinking, whether at sea or ashore.  Sims was out to change the attitude Navy officers took toward their own field of endeavor, and the evidence suggests that he was successful.  I suspect that were he alive now he would tell us that it’s time for yet another change of attitude.


Tom Hone is a retired member of the Naval War College faculty and a former senior executive in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  He is the author or co-author of six books and of multiple articles that have appeared in the Naval War College Review and the Naval Institute Proceedings.  His edited anthology on the Battle of Midway is in print, published by the Naval Institute Press

Photo Credit: Donald (Don) Harrison