The Naval Plattsburg

What The Navy Hopes To Obtain From Its First Civilian Training Cruise


By Franklin D. Roosevelt
Assistant Secretary Of The Navy

[The Outlook; June 28, 1916]

Out of the great mass of new military and naval data supplied by the European conflict there stands out prominently the fact that one of the essentials of a nation's war strength is a well-trained and efficient reserve—a secondary line of defense upon land and sea which can be relied upon in the hour of danger to assist the primary defense and, if necessary, to assume some share of its duties.

The Navy Department of the United States realizes the necessity for a reserve of this nature, and it is in order to meet this need that it has planned for an extensive naval-training cruise for civilians, to be held during August and September of the present year. To be perfectly frank, it has taken a leaf out of the note-book of the army and intends to hold a "naval Plattsburg," at which some three thousand civilians will be trained in at least the rudiments of sea fighting.

During the past two years our ideas of military operations on land have undergone a change so startling that it is difficult for the mind of the average citizen, far removed from the field of actual conflict, to grasp the figures, It is probable that most of us think of great battles in the terms of Waterloo and Gettysburg—of armies of fifty or a hundred thousand men and of operations extending over a few hundred miles at the most. Even the Russo Japanese War, with its great battles of Mukden and Liaoyang, wrought but little change in this history-born conception of a modern conflict. Military experts may have realized the changes which have been gradually developing in the science of warfare, but the average citizen is overwhelmed at the thought of armies of millions of men and battlefields extending over thousands of miles.

As a result of this lack of understanding of what modern war means some persons have given careless thought or glib tongue to the "million Americans who would spring to arms overnight." But the majority of people in the Nation have kept silent, and are thinking deeply on the question of the best possible means of having ready at hand a trained force sufficient for the needs of defense. The problem in the case of land forces is so intricate, and requires such a radical departure from the conditions that have heretofore existed, that careful thought and united effort will be necessary to accomplish the actual result, of adequate preparedness.

In the problem of the navy and of naval defense, however, matters are far more simple, both in the light of our needs and in the light of what we have learned from the naval operations of the European war.

The size of our navy in terms of ships depends obviously upon two factors—the strength of the navy of any hostile Power and the amount which the American people are willing to expend on the construction of fighting ships. There is no question but that we have at hand the facilities and the ability to build new ships if Congress and the people authorize their construction. On that score we are comparatively secure; but it is the matter of what is called in the navy "personnel"—that is to say, the officers and men who would be necessary for naval defense in time of war—that I wish particularly to make clear and to show how the Navy Department proposes to meet this problem.

Unlike the army question, the matter of officers and men for naval defense is so simple that any civilian can grasp the needs and the methods of meeting these needs in the shortest time.

Roughly defined, almost any naval war in which the United States might be involved would divide itself into two fairly distinct fields of action. The first would comprise what is best called the "main fleet"—the great fighting aggregation of battle-ships, battle-cruisers (when we get some), destroyers, large submarines, and scouts, together with the "train" of colliers, oil ships, repair ships, etc., necessary to maintain the main fleet wherever it may be. The second group would include all the other instruments of naval warfare: the raiding forces, coast patrols, mine-layers, coast submarines, submarine-catchers, mine-sweepers, etc.

The first group, the main fleet, would be made up of practically what is called to-day the United States Navy, with the addition of the retired officers, former enlisted men, and members of the Naval Militia who could be expected to come forward in time of war. So far, no particular "reserve," in the technical meaning of the word, would be necessary.

But the second group essential to naval defense—the "second line," as it might be called—is also of vital importance to the successful conduct of war at sea. The very existence of a perfect system of patrols and of protection for the coast through a line of mines and submarines, together with a definite organization to check the submarine activities and countermining efforts of the enemy, would not only assist the main fleet in its operations near our coast, but would release it for operations in more distant waters. This would be desirable not only in a war conducted along offensive lines, but in any campaign or plan of action that would bear out the old and thoroughly reliable maxim that it is better to carry the fighting as far away from home as possible.

How this great secondary force shall be manned is the primary naval reserve problem of the United States.

Using the European war as a criterion, the best naval opinion of this country believes that the United States ought to have a minimum naval reserve of one hundred thousand men. Our present reserve is entirely negligible, inasmuch as the two thousand officers and men of the Naval Reserve and the eight thousand men connected with the Naval Militia would, in time of war, be assigned to the main fleet and not to the secondary line of defense. But, although the task appears herculean, the hundred-thousand mark for the secondary reserve cannot be considered either revolutionary or impossible of attainment.

It is in order that the Nation may take at least the first step toward the formation of such an organization that the Navy Department has laid its plans for a naval training cruise for civilians, which will begin on August 15 and will last until September 12.

The men who enroll in this preparatory course in naval training will be taken on nine battle-ships or armored cruisers of the Reserve fleet, and for four weeks will be instructed in the primary duties of modern naval service. The training fleet will leave from various ports along the Atlantic coast—two ships from Boston, one from Narragansett Bay, two from New York, one from Philadelphia, one from Norfolk, and one from Charleston (or New Orleans, depending upon the number of applications received). Each vessel will have room for about three hundred civilians, in addition to its nucleus navy crew of three hundred officers and men.

In planning this short course in seamanship the Navy Department has in mind three distinct objects: To help properly qualified men to act as reserves in time of war or other National emergency by giving them a course of training on war-ships under naval officers and naval discipline; to foster a patriotic spirit and to give to civilians some knowledge of the navy and the naval requirements of the country; and, finally, to interest citizens in naval matters, so that by taking future courses of training and by study many may qualify for acting commissions after taking the necessary examinations.

Naturally, the navy wants to get men to take this cruise who have some special qualifications for the service which they would be called upon to render in the event of war. It will therefore be necessary for each applicant for the cruise to prove to the satisfaction of the Navy Department, through the nearest recruiting officer, that he would be of such use. As a matter of fact, almost any patriotic and intelligent citizen between the ages of nineteen and forty-five and in good physical condition can pass the test. Any one of the following qualifications would entitle him to be enrolled for the cruise:

Undergraduate of a college, university, or technical school.

Graduate of a college,-university, or technical school.

Demonstration to the satisfaction of the recruiting officer of knowledge of maritime affairs or some experience with water-craft.

Pilot or pilot's apprentice.

Service on any merchant vessel (including fishing craft) in any capacity for six months or more.

Six months' experience, or its equivalent, in any one of the following trades: machinist, boilermaker, plumber, shipfitter, coppersmith, carpenter, electrician, engineer, fireman, telegrapher, or radio operator.

A high school education and following a trade or occupation where experience gained would be beneficial to the Government in time of need.

On August 15 every successful applicant will report at the navy-yard at one of the starting-points. He will deposit thirty dollars to cover his outfit of clothing, food, and all other expenses during the four weeks' cruise, change his civilian clothing for a navy uniform, pack his ditty-box, and go on board ship. The nine vessels will then put to sea and rendezvous at some central point, probably near Newport. After a preliminary training, to acquaint the men in some degree with their duties, the training squadron will then participate in the "war game" which is to be held off the coast in conjunction with the entire Atlantic Fleet.

The preliminary training and the work in connection with the annual war game will consume about three weeks, and at the conclusion of this time each ship will return to the port from which it started. The instruction of the final week will be given with the idea of studying problems of local defense.

In time of war the coast would be divided into naval districts, and the last week of the training cruise will be devoted to instructing the men in the duties that will fall to their lot in the defense of these sections. For example, the battle-ship which starts from Philadelphia will during the first week of the cruise be stationed in the Delaware River, and will work out, in conjunction with the Coast Artillery and the various motor-boat organizations of the locality, the problems connected with the defense of Delaware Bay and the vicinity. Mine-laying, mine-sweeping, submarine-chasing, patrolling, pilotage, and the other details of modern naval warfare will be undertaken, and it is probable that the majority of the men on the Philadelphia ship—coming, as they will, from Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the contiguous territory—would in time of war be assigned to the defense of the Delaware. In this manner it is hoped that a reserve will be created which in time of need will not only know something of the work expected of it, but would also be familiar with at least a portion of the territory which it would have to cover.

The life of the "civilian sailor" aboard ship will not be one of ease and luxury, neither will it be one of incessant hard work. Each man will be expected to conform to the rules and regulations which govern life in the navy, and each applicant for the training course will be given a schedule of his hours and duties, in order that there may be no misunderstanding of the nature of the work which he is undertaking.

The regular schedule of naval life, which will of course be greatly modified during the training cruise, is modeled along the following lines:

5 A.M. Call section of watch sleeping in. Coffee.

5:20 A.M. Pipe sweepers; off shoes and socks.

5:30 A.M. Turn to; out smoking lamp; execute morning orders; scrub and wash clothes, scrub decks.

7:15 A.M. Mess gear; light smoking lamp.

7:30 A.M. Breakfast; shift into uniform of day during meal hour.

8:15 A.M. Turn to; out smoking lamp; get ship ready for inspection.

9:15 A.M. Quarters for muster and inspection; physical drill and drill as prescribed.

11:30 A.M. Retreat from drill; light smoking lamp.

12 NOON. Dinner.

1 P.M. Turn to; pipe sweepers; out smoking lamp.

1:15 P.M. Drill call, if ordered.

6 P.M. Supper.

7:30 P.M. Hammocks.

9 P.M. Out smoking lamp; turn out unnecessary light.

It may be mentioned in passing that the details connected with the lighting and extinguishing of the "smoking lamp" merely indicate the periods when the men on board ship are permitted to smoke. In the old days of the navy all pipes (sailors rarely smoked tobacco in any other form) were lighted from a lamp in the forecastle, and the hours when smoking is permitted are still indicated by the use of this lamp, although the modern sailor is permitted to light a match when he desires to smoke.

Ample opportunities will be provided in the course of the day's routine for specialization in certain branches of naval work, each man taking up the subject for which he appears to be the best fitted. There will be instruction in navigation, signaling, radio work, steam and electrical engineering, etc.; boat drills will be held and landings made; and recruits will be taught the manual of arms and military formations. In short, the object of the cruise and the routine incident thereto will be to give the civilian as much instruction as possible in the life and duties of the modern sailor, so that he may be of some use to his country should his country 'need his services at sea.

The training cruise is designed to create a reserve, not for the main fleet, but for the secondary defense. The chief requisite of a successful reserve of this kind is that its members shall have knowledge of seamanship, the use of small arms, signaling, and, above all, general naval requirements. In other words, the navy wants a man who would be of all-round usefulness on, for instance, a mine-sweeper—not a turret captain of a dreadnought. The cruise, therefore, will not aim to produce a thoroughly well drilled and homogeneous battle-ship crew. It will seek to turn out, as far as is possible in four weeks' time, a useful reservist with a general idea of naval discipline and naval requirements. The officers on each ship will not only teach the men how to carry out a particular duty, but the reason for it and its relation to naval defense. To augment these explanations the laymen will be given a series of lectures covering the broader aspects of war at sea.

At the end of the cruise each man will, before going ashore, be asked to state whether he desires to enroll in the Naval Reserve. Such enrollment will not be considered in any manner obligatory, but it is believed that practically all who take the cruise will be glad to avail themselves of the opportunity offered. In addition, every man who completes the cruise will receive a certificate, signed by the commanding officer of the ship, showing the nature of the duties which he has performed, the efficiency which he has displayed, his rating, and the kind of work for which he is best qualified in case of war.

It is true that the cruise as outlined will provide for the training of only three thousand men this summer towards the really necessary one hundred thousand ; but, if the work during August and September proves successful, there is no reason why it cannot be greatly extended in succeeding years—not only along the Atlantic coast, but on the Pacific coast and the Great Lakes.

So far I have made no mention of the question of obtaining officers for this reserve. The actual operations in time of war would, of course, be directed by regular naval officers of experience, but, as shown in the case of our own Civil War and by the events of the present war in Europe, a large number of additional officers would be necessary to fill the less important places in this second line. It is the hope and expectation of the Navy Department that many of those who take the training cruise this summer will, by future courses and by study, qualify for acting commissions. There is no reason, for example, why a graduate of the Naval Academy should be taken away from more important duties to be placed in command of a patrol-boat along the coast. A civilian reservist who had by study and participation in training courses equipped himself sufficiently could perform such duties successfully and to the benefit of the service as a whole.

Americans are coming more and more to the realization of the definite fact that they owe individually, as citizens of the United States, an imperative duty to aid in the safeguarding of the country. I feel quite certain that, if the National Government provides the opportunity by which in time of peace citizens may practice and study the duties which they would be called upon to perform in case of war, there will be an extended realization of the advantages of preparedness, of being ready before the emergency arises. While the naval training cruise for civilians to be held this summer is only a first step, I am quite confident that it will meet with such a response that during the next few years we shall be able to build up a satisfactory and dependable Naval Reserve, at least approximating the one hundred, thousand mark.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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