Sims-Daniels Controversy Reignited at U.K. Great War Conference
A strong contingent of U.S. naval historians was on hand to present perspectives from the “other side of the pond” as the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, held a conference titled “The First World War at Sea, 1914–19” in June.
“The conference featured an extraordinary blend of seasoned and up-and-coming scholars, bringing new perspectives to a conflict marked by staggering human loss on the battlefield,” said paper-presenter David F. Winkler of the Naval Historical Foundation. “The diverse series of presentations only served to reinforce the notion that the outcome on land was determined at sea.”
Given the location of the conference, it was no surprise that British scholars made up the majority of those in attendance, and British World War I topics such as Jutland and Gallipoli were prevalent throughout. But it was the subject of U.S. naval leadership—the focus of papers presented by a trio of Yank scholars—that really stirred the historical-debate pot, with a revival of the notorious William Sims–Josephus Daniels controversy.
With his paper “Were They Really So Unprepared: Josephus Daniels and the U.S. Navy Entry into World War I,” Dennis Conrad of the Naval History and Heritage Command addressed assertions made by Rear Admiral William S. Sims following the war that accused Secretary of the Navy Daniels of dereliction of duty and incompetence that led to the loss of 2.5 million tons of Allied shipping. In coming to Daniels’ defense, Conrad explained the career motivations of the U.S. officer corps of that era, rebuking an assertion made in the opening keynote address by acclaimed British historian Nicholas Rodger of All Souls College, Oxford, that American officers saw the Prussians as role models, becoming militaristic and intolerant of civilian leadership. Conrad called Rodger out, asserting that U.S. naval officers were much like those in other fields (doctors, engineers) during the Progressive era who sought to professionalize and become more efficient and effective.
In defending Daniels, Conrad made a convincing case that, given the political constraints the Secretary faced in a Wilson administration that had been determined to keep America out of the war, Daniels’ oft-vilified performance was actually “commendable,” and that “the U.S. Navy’s performance at the beginning of the war was strong and timely.”
Concluding his presentation, Conrad anticipated being challenged by the two American Sims scholars in the audience, David Kohnen of the Naval War College and Chuck Steele of the U.S. Air Force Academy. During discussions that evening over a few pints, however, both scholars concurred that Sims, who had returned to Newport, Rhode Island, following the war to again serve as the president of the Naval War College, displayed insubordinate behavior.
Reflecting after the conference, Steele observed, “I thought Conrad’s presentation was outstanding.”
New Details Surface on Lost Indianapolis
A historian has uncovered information that sheds new light on a dark episode in U.S. Navy history: the loss of the World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35).
In the final days of the war, the Indianapolis completed a top-secret mission to deliver components of the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima to U.S. forces on Tinian Island in the Marianas. After making her delivery, the Indianapolis was heading to Leyte in the Philippines when she was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine just after midnight on 30 July 1945. About 900 of the ship’s 1,196 sailors and Marines survived the sinking, but after four or five harrowing days in the water, suffering exposure, dehydration, drowning, and shark attacks, only 316 remained alive.
While reviewing the Navy’s holdings and other information related to the Indianapolis, historian Richard Hulver found a blog post and photo online that recounted the story of a World War II sailor whose ship passed the cruiser less than a day before she was sunk. This corroborated an account by Indianapolis Captain Charles McVay III that his ship passed an unspecified LST approximately 11 hours prior to the sinking.
Hulver located the sailor’s service record from the National Personnel Records Center, which identified the sailor as being on board the landing ship, tank LST-779 during the period when the Indianapolis sank. That sent Hulver to the National Archives, where LST-779’s deck logs confirmed the story.
The meeting between the ill-fated cruiser and LST-779 seemingly has been overlooked in previous studies of the Indianapolis tragedy.
“It’s obviously gratifying to find a part of the story that hasn’t been told—to discover a new part of an important episode in U.S. naval history,” said Hulver. “But more important, the Navy has an obligation to honor the sacrifice of those who serve.”
The LST-779 clue sheds new light on where the Indianapolis was attacked and sunk. “This brings us closer to discovering the final resting place of the ship and many of her crew,” said Hulver. Meanwhile, a National Geographic Society expedition to locate the wreck site currently is in the planning stages.
The sinking of the Indianapolis was dramatically recounted by actor Robert Shaw in the 1975 blockbuster motion picture Jaws. There also have been a number of documentary productions and screen adaptations of the story, some more accurate than others. (See “The Tragic Indy’s Enduring Fascination,” June 2016, pp. 30–37.)
Photo Treasure Trove Reveals Navy-Tinseltown Connection
A massive picture album filled with images chronicling the U.S. Navy’s Hollywood-production involvement during World War II was recently donated to the photo archives of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).
“This album came into the collection as a donation, with only a brief description of it by mail,” said Dave Colamaria, photo archivist for the NHHC. “When it came in, we were surprised to see its size as it’s nearly five feet in length when opened.”
“Lights, camera . . . action!” is something one would expect to hear emanating from a major film studio, but in the middle of World War II, such sounds were the norm at a Navy-run operation just blocks from the famous Los Angeles entertainment-industry intersection of Hollywood and Vine.
The photo album methodically details all aspects of the Navy studio—from its beginnings as a vacant building to its heyday as a fully renovated filming and production facility. It highlights areas such as the darkroom with its PA-KO film washer, animation and screening rooms, and the stage floor, shown in one image being converted to a foggy ocean scene.
After establishing the U.S. Naval Photographic Services Depot on 23 June 1943, the Navy converted what was once a run-down automobile garage at the corner of Vine Street and De Longpre Avenue into a bustling hub of movie production. The depot was charged with handling all of the Navy’s motion-picture business on the West Coast, with an emphasis on the Hollywood area. Prior to the depot’s creation, the Navy’s limited Hollywood activities had been conducted from offices at Walt Disney Studios.
The new facility—replete with shooting stage, stowage and shipping quarters, two projection rooms, a stills laboratory, Moviola film-editing room, art department, special effects department, and the inevitable coffee mess—was led by Commander Fanning M. Hearon, former director of the Division of Motion Pictures at the Department of the Interior. With World War II under way, the depot’s mission was essential to training naval forces.
Commanding 27 officers plus 42 enlisted men and personnel recruited from the film industry, Hearon oversaw production on all of the Navy’s motion pictures—everything from theatrical features to training films on new weapons or doctrines of modern warfare.
Local labor groups at the studios of Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, MGM, Columbia, and Disney worked side by side with Navy cameramen to film everything from rocket tests to aircraft landings at sea and mock battles. Modelers created miniature sets. William Bendix and other Hollywood stars provided voice-over work for such training films as Indoctrination for Ammunition Handlers. Animators such as Walter Lantz, creator of the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, helped editors intertwine various portions of film to follow storyboards—all in order to bring the most informative and entertaining productions to the fleet.
The evidence for all of this could have been lost to the sands of time had it not been for the donation of the album by L. Clark Willey, Hearon’s grandson, to the NHHC.
“This album is a great addition to preserving the rich history of the Navy,” said Colamaria. “The subject is interesting, all of the photographs were professionally done, it’s well captioned, and it showcases the effort sailors went to in creating these films.”
While the NHHC photo archives include thousands of images documenting personnel, ships, aircraft, and battles, this particular photo album stands out because of its uniqueness—telling a different part of the overall Navy story and how sailors were visually trained in the everyday tasks they had to perform during World War II.
The NHHC has scanned many of the images in the collection, and they can be viewed online at www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/alphabetical---donations0/w/2015-22-l--clark-willey-collection.html.
—Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class
Clifford L. H. Davis, NHHC