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Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century

July 2024
30min read

An Interview With Edward L. Beach
The captain who first took a submarine around the world underwater looks at the U.S. Navy past and present and tells us what we must learn from the Falklands war

Naval power … is the natural defense of the United States,” said John Adams, who more than any other man deserves to be called the father of the American Navy. For more than two centuries, this force—from the raggle-taggle Continental Navy to the missile submarines of today—has played a vital role in the defense of the nation’s freedom and independence. Ships and weapons, tactics and strategy, have undergone quantum changes over the years, but the mission of the U.S. Navy remains unchanged: to ensure safe passage for all those who do business upon the great waters.


Recent events—among them the Falklands war and the dramatic expansion of Soviet naval capabilities—have focused our attention on the complex problems and challenges facing the U.S. Navy as it comes within range of the twenty-first century. Ever since the aircraft carrier became the dominant weapon of warfare at sea during World War II, arguments have raged over its relevance in an age of missiles and torpedoes of increasingly longer range and deadliness. Should we build smaller carriers? Should we concentrate on submarines? Should all future warships be nuclear-powered? Should there be a mix of nuclear and conventional means of propulsion?

Few men are better qualified to discuss these and other questions than Capt. Edward L. Beach U.S.N. (ret.). Not only a much-decorated submariner, he also is a naval historian and writer whose work is familiar to readers of AMERICAN HERITAGE. Beach slipped easily into these dual careers, for his father was both a naval officer and an author of boys’ books about the Navy. Beach graduated second in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1939 and served almost continuously at sea throughout World War II. Following pre-war service on a cruiser and a destroyer, he was assigned to submarines and served on board the Trigger, Tirante , and Piper . From 1953 to 1957 he was naval aide to President Eisenhower.

In 1958 Captain Beach became commanding officer of the nuclear submarine Triton , and on February 16,1960, he left Groton, Connecticut, on the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe. Eighty-three days later the Triton surfaced off Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, having covered thirty-six thousand nautical miles underwater. Beach’s third book, Around the World Submerged (1962), was based on this voyage.

He is also the author of Submarine! (1952), the best-selling novel Run Silent, Run Deep (1955), The Wreck of the Memphis (1966) and two more novels, Dust on the Sea (1972) and Cold Is the Sea (1978). He is now completing the text for Keepers of the Sea , a book of photographs of today’s Navy taken by world-renowned photographer Fred Maroon, also a former Navy man. The book will be published by the United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland, in the fall of this year.

Among other decorations, he has been awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star (twice), Legion of Merit, and Bronze Star (twice). His ships have received three Presidental Unit Citations.

We talked in the book-lined study of Captain Beach’s home on a quiet street in the Georgetown section of Washington. One section of the shelves was filled with his father’s books. “You know,” he said at one point, “I’ve had many officers senior to me come to me and say, ‘I joined the Navy because of your father’s books.’ And lately I’ve had people junior to me say, ‘I joined the Navy because of your books.’ ”

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Navy since you graduated from the Academy in 1939?

The most obvious are in aviation, nuclear power, and electronics—radar and computers—and in the tremendous increase in the size of the Navy. When I graduated, we had a six-thousand-officer Navy, and now there are about ten times that many. I landed right into the beginning of a revolution.

I think we should also mention something more subtle—the realization that came upon me by degrees that we weren’t always as good as we thought we were.

Our ammunition was inferior. Our ships were, to some extent, inferior. The battle line that we thought was so great was an anachronism. It could have fought its way out of a paper bag if anybody was good enough to put a paper bag around it, but it couldn’t reach the enemy. Those battleships at Pearl Harbor were clearly powerless. They sat there, and the crews cursed and shook their fists but they couldn’t shoot back at the Japanese planes.

I see the Navy of that time as being in a state of unawareness of what the real problems were. It seems to me the only people who understood the problems were essentially the aviators and the submariners. The aviators realized that a carrier with longrange planes could win a battle if it was not opposed by another carrier. The so-called battleship admirals wouldn’t accept that. They still expected war to be solved by the great fleet action.

As at Jutland?

As at Jutland in World War I. And even Jutland never happened. They call it the last great sea fight between battleships, but it was no such thing. That battle actually didn’t take place. Jutland was a battle-cruiser action, a battle of fluid movement. Except for the fast battleship squadron, which included the famous Warspite , the battleships never really got into action. Our Navy has all along thought about and planned for the great fleet battle that has never happened in our history. Not ever. Santiago, in 1898, was the nearest thing to it, but even that was just a long pursuit of fleeing Spanish cruisers that we overhauled and sank one by one.

You’ve written about the torpedo problem at the beginning of World War II [A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December 1980]. Could you talk a little about that?

It was an utter fiasco. The Germans had a similar problem, which they solved in about six weeks. Donitz [Admiral Karl Donitz, chief of the German U-boat command] is supposed to have said he wouldn’t send another submarine out till they got it fixed, and he wanted the hide of the guy who was responsible for the mistake so that he personally could nail it to the nearest tree. But when our submariners kept sending information back that our torpedoes weren’t working, the bureaucrats in Washington refused to believe it. They said it was the operators’ fault, that we weren’t shooting them right.

Yet we knew torpedoes were passing under targets and not going off. Even when we disobeyed orders and set them shallow, they passed under. And sometimes the torpedoes would go off, but the ship wouldn’t even be damaged. We couldn’t understand it. It turned out that the torpedoes didn’t run at any set depth. They wobbled up and down. If one happened to be on the up part of the cycle, it often exploded prematurely—a possibility any designer should have had the sense to consider. The earth’s field in the far Pacific is much stronger than at Newport, Rhode Island, where the weapon was tested, and therefore the inductive magnetic effect was stronger. Strangely enough, late in 1941 when I went through submarine school, we had a very secret session to show us how the exploder worked. They passed an iron rod over it, and the mechanism clicked. They said it would go off under the keel. I remember asking, “Why will it go off just under the keel? What’s to prevent it from going off before it gets there?” They said, “Oh, no, no, no. Don’t be stupid! It goes off when it senses the field beginning to diminish.” I was only an ensign and said no more. It was not fashionable to question one’s superiors. But it’s now obvious that it was a good question; too bad nobody in the torpedo design business had thought of it.

If our submarines had been as effective as the Germans’, the Japanese would never have landed, and we wouldn’t have lost the Philippines.

Well, anyway, we had the exploder fiasco, the depth-running fiasco, and the circular-run fiasco. Since there were two separate, unassociated things wrong with the exploder, altogether there were four things wrong with the torpedoes—and all four of them were design errors. Out of the twenty-eight or so submarine losses of ours that we could not correlate with any action report from the Japanese, I can make a pretty good argument, statistically at least, that onequarter of them may have been sunk by our own torpedoes.

If our submarines had been as effective as the Germans’, the Japanese would never have landed in the Philippines and we wouldn’t have lost the islands. We sank one ship, I think, in that entire campaign. The Germans would have sunk every one.

Can you think of any other case where technical failures prevented the Navy from doing its best?

I’ll tell you one. The Monitor should have sunk the Merrimack . And the reason it didn’t was because they were forced to fire their guns with halfweight powder charges.

The big Dahlgren guns had not been tested fully?

Well, they had been tested but they just hadn’t got the report out. And all this stems, you know, from the famous explosion of the “Peacemaker” gun on the Princeton back in 1844. As a result of that, the Navy ordered that no guns were to be fired with more than half-weight powder charges until further orders. Eighteen years later those orders were still in effect. When the Monitor was about to fight the Merrimack , the exec of the Monitor , a young fellow named Greene, went to the skipper and asked permission to use full powder charges. Lt. John L. Worden, the skipper of the Monitor said, “Nothing doing! The orders are that we use half-weight powder charges until we get further instructions, and that’s the way it will be!” So they fired halfweight powder charges, and their shot banged off the side of the Merrimack . If they had used full-weight powder charges, the Monitor ’s solid shot would have penetrated.

What were some of the areas where you think the Navy’s been technically advanced?

Well, one is in radar. We were way ahead of the Japanese in radar and ahead of the Germans as well. Radar was invented right here in Washington, D. C., at the Naval Research Lab.

I thought it was British.

No, we invented it. Back in the 1930s somebody noticed that when big ships went by on the Potomac River, something happened to the radio. They couldn’t figure out what it was but realized there was a connection. We began working on that and at some point gave it to the British. The British continued to develop it. Of course, they had a real need for it in the Battle of Britain, but it was initially an American invention.

Connecting radar to gun control was a great advance. For antiaircraft fire you have to be able to aim your gun in ways that a human being can’t do. You haye to do it by computer. Radar fire control was invented in World War II. Compared with what we can do now, it would be considered extremely elementary, but it worked.

Now we have Phalanx for very close-in, last-ditch defense. It has two radars: one radar stays on the target coming in and one on the bullets flying out, and there’s a computer in between. The computer makes the target and the bullet radars come together so that the bullets can’t miss; it’s totally automatic. It’s a fantastic thing to see.

What about the proximity fuse?

This was one of the most important developments during World War II, because you didn’t actually have to hit an attacking airplane, you just came within the range and the tiny radar in the nose of the bullet would set it off.

Like buckshot.

That’s right. Furthermore, if you look at a picture of one of our battleships in 1945, you see that the deck topside is just like a porcupine. She has guns all over the place and radar control to assist. An enemy plane would be met with a million bullets, most with proximity fuses, shooting at them from all directions. As a result, during later stages of the war, ships were able to strike back at aircraft. As I said, during the Pearl Harbor attack, there was just no way the ships could shoot back. A ship might have had five or six antiaircraft guns on board and a couple of machine guns. It was pathetic. Now things are very different. I’ve just been on board the Ticonderoga , our first Aegis-equipped cruiser on a trial trip. She’s the most fantastic thing to watch—the ship is a mass of computers, seventeen in all, of some exotic type, the UYK-7. The sailors, of course, call it the “YUK-7. ” It’s fixed up so it can be worked automatically. You can put that ship out in the middle of the ocean and set it on automatic. If a missile is fired at it, it will suddenly spring to life and shoot back before the missile gets there.

It’s the damnedest thing you ever saw. I think this will really change the future of surface ships. You see, there was a time when surface ships were top dog. And then, right after Pearl Harbor, they were downgraded and they have been downgraded throughout our lifetimes, but now they can shoot back, accurately and automatically, in real time. You can put a lot more radar on a ship than you can in an airplane; you can put many more computers on a ship than you can on an airplane. Furthermore, a ship sits in the middle of the ocean, which means there’s a lot of so-called radar clutter interfering with the radar that’s trying to detect it. Therefore, nowadays, it’s easier to shoot at an airplane than it is for an airplane to shoot at a ship. The poor little airplane comes in and whap —he’s knocked out before he can even turn around. So he can’t come in. What he’s got to do is fire a missile. That’s what they’re doing- firing the missiles at long range and high speed—but the ships can knock out the missiles too.

Our World War II subs had about a thousand horsepower submerged. Now you can have thirty thousand. And all of a sudden it’s more like driving an airplane.

Has there been a change in the Navti’s mission since World War II?

The mission of the Navy, initially, was to serve as our first line of defense—to deal with an invader who had to cross the ocean. An invader still has to cross either the Atlantic, Pacific, or Arctic oceans. Of course, you’re not going to have an invading army. If anyone is going to attack the United States, it will be with missiles and airplanes. So the mission of the Navy hasn’t changed at all. What if we had the worst possible case—I guess that would have to be defined as a surprise nuclear attack by Russia—how do their warheads come at us? Will they fly across the ocean or jump out of the ocean? No matter how they get here, they will have to come from, or over, the ocean. Our Navy will be out there and ready. It strikes me that the broadest definition of the Navy’s mission would be to confine the war to the oceans. If we have to fight a nuclear war, it would be better to fight it over the ocean than over the land. So the Navy is again our first line of defense. It’s a totally different context, but still it’s the same mission—to keep the fighting away from our shores.

Wouldn’t this require a totally different type of Navy from the one we have if we’re going to be fighting over the sea, rather than some other type of war?

I would say, yes, it would require a different kind of Navy, and indeed we’re building it at last. Let’s look at Pearl Harbor again. We had built a Navy to fight the Jutland-type battle. By 1941 that was a fleet of old ships. Even the newest ones were twenty years old when the Pearl Harbor attack took place. All through the history of navies there has been this battle line. In fact, that was where the word battleship came from—the line of battle ship. There has always been this concept of having fleets line up opposite each other and operate as a unit, to have two big fleets fight until one side won. But all during World War II we didn’t fight that way. We fought instead with what we called carrier task forces, now known as battle groups. This fleet consists basically of one or two carriers along with escort ships of various kinds armed with missiles. Our objective is to get that carrier and her offensive capability into a position where she can carry out her mission.


This is not a battle line. Those ships with their Aegis computer and electronic capability are able to shoot down attacking missiles in a very, very short time. You have only a few seconds. You don’t see them come over the horizon three, four hours before the battle starts, you know. If you see a missile coming, it’s already passed. It’s that fast. We used to say in the war that the depth charges you hear are not going to hurt you. That’s probably true, because the one that’s going to hurt you has already done it. This is even more the case now. No one visualizes an old-fashioned fleet action. Now a carrier battle group controls the air and sea around it for a radius of, say, about three hundred miles. If some other outfit wants to contest that, they will send their aircraft carriers and their submarines and, indeed, land-based planes, if they can, to attack and sink the carrier. That’s not a battle-line battle.

I think the submarine is probably the greatest threat to the battle group. To help counteract this threat, carriers are being given submarine escorts. The nuclear submarines can go just as fast as the big surface ships, so they can keep up with them. It becomes a very tricky coordination problem, however. You can’t do it as in the old days, where ships steamed in visual contact of each other and kept position. It’s a matter of telling the submarine where to go, when to be where, and what to watch for. The submarine will have to know the location of the carrier but may itself be hundreds of miles away.

We’re still organized into twelve carrier battle groups, aren’t we?

The Navy says it needs fifteen and can prove it because of commitments laid on by Congress and the National Security Council. There have to be fifteen in order to keep four effective. In addition to each carrier deployed, you have a carrier in training, you’ve got one in overhaul, you have one coming back from deployment. So it takes about 4 to 1 on a statistical basis. Actually, keeping four carriers deployed requires sixteen altogether.

Some critics say fifteen is a mystical number to the Navy because it was allowed fifteen battleships under the Washington Treaty of 1921. Is this just a trumped-up charge?

I think it’s just a coincidence in numbers. Besides, the treaty didn’t count ships. It assigned total tonnage, in the ratio of 5:5:3 to England, the U.S., and Japan. The important thing is to count the number of ships you have and what they can do. For example, the Eisenhower recently was 256 days on station in the Indian Ocean. That’s one ship out there for three-quarters of a year. That’s what you wind up doing when you have an insufficient number of ships. The poor damned sailors and officers have to sit there in their ship, and no matter how dedicated they may be, some of them will go a little stir crazy. Some of those guys don’t get topside ever.

Surface ships have been downgraded throughout our lifetime. But nowadays it’s easier to shoot an airplane than it is for an airplane to shoot at a ship.

Some people have said that the military tends to prepare to refight the last war, that back in World War II we were prepared to refight World War I, and now we’re preparing to refight the battle of Midway.

Yes, you could argue that, but on the other hand, you mustn’t forget the lessons you learned in the last war either. At the same time, you also have to be ready to move into the next stage. That’s where our Navy fell down in World War II. Naval aviators tried like mad to put the idea of naval air power across, but not enough people really listened. Naval tradition is one of those things that dies very hard. I’m not saying tradition is bad, mind you. Mostly it’s good. But you could get caught short, and this is true any time if something very new is suddenly developed and you’re not ready for it. For example, suppose somebody invents a way to make radar work underwater. That would be a breakthrough that I don’t expect, because we have pretty well proved it can’t happen. But suppose somebody did and then they kept it secret and sprang it all of a sudden. We’d be in tough shape if we didn’t anticipate it. So it boils down to being prepared to cope with everything you know an enemy can do, and trying to second-guess the future too. Sometimes that can be hard to do. But our aviators were not surprised by Pearl Harbor, and that’s where the problem was. Our top leaders didn’t really listen to them.

The present emphasis is on large fleet carriers. Should there be greater emphasis on escort carriers, smaller carriers?

This is an ongoing argument and it will probably always be with us. We had it with battleships. We are having it with submarines now too. How much is too big? How much is big enough? It’s quite obvious that the two little carriers that the British had in the Falklands were marginal for the job they had to accomplish. One of our big ones would have made a huge difference in the war—probably with greatly reduced loss of life on both sides. You see, the problem with military stuff—and I think it’s a basic philosophic thing—is that you can’t do with half good enough. You always have to do the absolute maximum. For example, suppose you and I are going to have a fight. And we say, okay, we’ll tie one hand behind our backs and just fight with one hand. And so you clobber me. And I say, wait a minute, I don’t accept this. I had my hand tied behind my back. So I untie my other hand. You of course do the same. Then maybe it turns out that I can clobber you, because with my two hands I’m better, maybe, than you are with your two. What I’m saying is that unless you’re able to use all your capabilities, you can’t accept an adverse decision. If you have done everything you can, then you accept the outcome because you must.

In the case of ships, if you build a ship that’s half as good, while the other side builds a better one, they’ve got an advantage. So the only thing you can do is to build it just as good as you possibly can, knowing that unless the other side slips one over on you, they can’t make a better one. Even so, a ship that was top of the fleet ten years ago is now a ten-year-old ship and is probably no longer top of the fleet. By this time there’s a better one, with newer and better equipment. So you keep trying to update the older ships. You put in new radar, new weapons to maintain top effectiveness, everything. Inevitably, however, you’ll be sending somebody out to fight in a ship that is not as good as some newer ship. But if you send them out with one that was not as good in the beginning, you’re already one notch down. So I say if you’re going to have a military operation, it’s got to be first class, otherwise you stand to lose.


So you would go with the larger carriers?


How about the submarines? Do you think the new nuclear submarines of the Los Angeles class are too big?

We are having the same argument over the submarines that we had about the carriers. But there are a couple of different angles to it. Submariners have always argued for small submarines because they are more maneuverable. You can maneuver a small submarine and get a torpedo off from it better than from a big one. During the war we needed bigger submarines than the Germans because of the vast distances to be covered in the Pacific. We needed greater range. Any ship designer can prove that if you want more fuel, more ammunition—more anything—in a ship, you must make it bigger. If you want it to be bigger and still have the same speed, you’ve got to have bigger engines. That makes it still bigger. So the process is like the constant building of a pyramid. The submarine, however, has undergone the biggest revolution in capability of any type ship as a result of nuclear power. In World War II, our subs on diesels had sixty-four hundred horsepower full speed on the surface. Submerged, we had about a thousand horsepower. With a reactor, you can have thirty thousand horsepower surfaced or submerged. If you want to make a bigger reactor, and bigger engines of course, you can have sixty thousand horsepower. That’s not three hundred or a thousand, it’s thirty thousand; it’s a lot of power. And all of a sudden, driving a submarine through the water has become much more like driving an airplane.


We have to accept the fact that ships are getting bigger—that submarines are getting bigger. The argument over the Los Angeles class stems from the fact that they have bigger reactors and bigger engines that make them faster; but a bigger submarine is required to hold it all. And so we’ve got a very fine but big ship where perhaps we could have had a smaller, simpler, cheaper, lighter submarine that might do as good a job. But “might” is the big factor—it also might not. Furthermore, you’re faced with the problem of telling somebody to risk his life in a lessthan-top-rate machine.

What about charges that the carrier battle group would not be able to survive nuclear attack?

Well, in the first place I don’t fully agree. Of course, if a battle group is atom-bombed, ships close to the bomb would be sunk; but they all won’t necessarily be sunk. We have procedures for decontaminating them if they get splashed with radioactive water or hit by radioactive spray or smoke or fumes, or whatever. Even at Bikini, where the bomb was detonated in the water with the ships grouped around it in a very close area, many were damaged but only a few were sunk. The farther away they were, the better they survived. This is one of the reasons we don’t have the close formation we used to have. Ships now are widely dispersed. A carrier task force, or carrier battle group, would have its ships as much as twenty to thirty miles apart. They’d be linked by radar and by computer and by communications of all kinds. But they wouldn’t be so close that one atom bomb would knock them all out. As I said before, the Navy’s purpose in nuclear war is to fight the war over the sea if possible. There’s a lot of fighting that can take place before a war goes nuclear. If it does, though, it’s still better for it to happen at sea than over land.

I understand the Navy has recently had problems keeping trained manpower, particularly officers.

Yes, that’s true. Things are somewhat better now.

Is there any plan that you would suggest for keeping these people?

There are various things that have been tried, and all have had some success. It seems to me that the biggest thing that has to be done is that the country’s got to accept the idea that the military are not somehow low-class. The military guy is a top-grade fellow who is taking a lot of risk to do something that’s important for the country. True, we drafted people and sent them off to Vietnam, and I think the way they were treated was a travesty and an injustice. Everything about it was done wrongly, and it gave the military service a black eye that it doesn’t deserve. Also, it’s been fashionable for columnists and newspapers and people in general to refer to military people in somewhat derogatory terms. This is part of the heritage of our country, and yet, if you look back at our history, some of the most admired men were military people: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor. Even Abraham Lincoln fought; he was a captain in the Black Hawk War. Black Jack Pershing was highly admired, as was Eisenhower, and there’s George Marshall, of course.

No one today has the foggiest idea what electronics really is and what it can do at this point. What do you think it’ll belike in fifteen years?

The military are honorable, strong people who are doing a terrific job, and the country ought to recognize it. If a sailor walks down the street, people should be proud of him. Instead of saying, here comes one of those dummies who joined the Navy because he couldn’t get a job anywhere else, they should tip their hats. And yet somehow it’s ingrained in the American people to always knock down the person in authority. I think it’s terrible. Adequate pay is one thing, and very important. But there’s also this private, personal thing. If men can’t get both private and professional satisfaction, in addition to the financial compensation they must have, they won’t stay around. If this could be changed, I think we’d solve the problem.

How could you go about changing this ingrained outlook?

If I knew the answer, I’d run right up to the White House and tell the President. I’m sure he’d like to know too. We should try to imbue pride in our forefathers. One of the things that makes Japan a strong nation is this tremendous feeling for ancestors. The Japanese don’t worship their ancestors but they have a reverence for them. I believe some of this is slowly coming back in the United States. The Vietnam War, as I said, was the nadir, because for the first time in our history young men were drafted for something other than the defense of the country. On that basis I think the draft was used in an immoral way. It’s not intended for that. Nobody objected to the draft during World War II, because people realized it had to be fought to prevent something even worse from occurring. But this could not be said about the Vietnam War. The whole thing from the very beginning hurt our country terribly. We are getting over it at last, and I hope the wounds continue to heal.

We spoke about the battleship earlier. Do you think the Navy is wise to bring the New Jersey out of mothballs?

Oh, yes. Remember the reason for doing this. She’s not being brought out to refight the battle of Jutland. We wouldn’t build a ship like this today, but if the Falkland Islands war proved anything, it showed that unarmored ships cannot stand up against direct hits. Now what is a battleship? Let me define it. It’s an outgrowth of the Monitor . The Monitor was perhaps the first battleship, a heavily armored ship that (a) could deliver heavy blows and (b) could receive heavy blows and survive and continue to fight. Eventually she was developed into the Jutland-type battleship, with big guns that could shoot twenty miles and armor able to withstand hits from the guns of other battleships. Now we are entering a new era in warfare, where, instead of having a sixteen-inch gun that will shoot twenty miles, you’ve got a sixteen-inch gun that’ll shoot two hundred miles, and each shell—or missile—has its own little radar guiding it. Back in the old days, you could only hope for a good percentage of hits. Today you can fire a missile, and unless it has been deflected by something that the enemy puts up, you know that missile will hit. On that basis, if you have a ship out there that can’t stand being hit by the missiles the enemy is able to shoot, there’s no way that ship’s going to survive. And that’s what happened to the lightly armored Sheffield . She had something like thirty seconds’ warning that a missile was coming at her. If the Missouri or the New Jersey had been sitting out there, that missile would have exploded against the side. It would hardly have scratched the paint. Or if the missile happened to hit a thinly armored area, it might have penetrated and done a little damage but it wouldn’t have hurt the basic armored citadel of the ship. She would have remained fully operational.


Suppose a missile hits a carrier?

Essentially the same thing would have happened. Our carriers are built with two armored decks, so the missile probably would have gone off between the decks, if it penetrated one at all. Secondly, although a carrier has noarmor on her sides, she has a tremendous amount of compartmentalization; so the missile would have gone in and punctured a couple of compartments and that would have been the end of it. Now, if the missile happened to hit a fuel tank, there would probably be a fire. In the case of the Sheffield , that’s what destroyed it. But since World War II, when several carriers were lost—because of fires, not as a result of the actual damage from hits—our carriers are more conscious of this than anything else. Maybe this is stuff from the previous war, but our carriers can deal with fires. Look at the Enterprise ; some years ago six bombs went off on her decks through some horrible mischance, yet she was fully back in commission within roughly half a day. The Nimitz had a terrible fire when a plane crashed on deck and blew up several other planes. People were killed, but nevertheless that ship, too, was soon back in action.

The big question is aftereffect?

Yes. Our whole damage-control concept is to minimize damage and confine it. And I think we’re pretty good at it. For instance, I don’t think the General Belgrano would have sunk if she had been the ship she was at Pearl Harbor. She took six hours to sink as it was.

It seems strange that they would lose so many men when it took six hours for the ship to sink.

Of course, the Argentines have never been in a war, you know, and you have to learn some things about that. I think if we were to go to war tomorrow, we’d find a lot of stuff we had to learn or relearn too. But we learned in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. At the end of World War II, I know I was ten times more effective as a naval officer than I was at the beginning of the war.

One of the more frequent criticisms you hear about the battleship concerns the enormous number of men required to operate these ships, particularly in view of the shortage of manpower. How would you answer that argument?

They’ve had more people volunteer for the New Jersey than they can use. Many are guys who once served aboard such a ship and they’d like to repeat the experience. In a sense it’s like reliving your youth. But the New Jersey originally had a crew of perhaps two thousand men, and they’re planning to bring her back with a reduced complement of about fifteen hundred. The full complement of a big carrier, including her air wing, is sixty-five hundred men, over four times as many. So I don’t think the number of the crew is the problem. It’s training them. She’s an old ship, though a powerful one. A lot of her machinery is old; so we have to learn how to use it all over again.

How can a battleship like the New Jersey best be used?

Some of the guns have to go, with their turrets and all that machinery. I’d replace them with missile batteries. For example, I’d put a whole bunch of Tomahawk missiles all over the ship. Set them everywhere I could find a place to stick ’em in. A ship that big ought to be able to carry maybe a hundred Tomahawk missiles. She’d be a magnificent armored adjunct to any battle group.

How wary should we be of the Russian navy?

They are building a deep-water Navy, which they haven’t had before, but there’s one fundamental difference between their navy and ours. They seem to be preparing for a short war, while we’re traditionally prepared for a long one. Our ships can stay at sea longer because they’re far more habitable. Also, I think we pamper our crews a lot more. They feel they have a right to more emoluments of life, so there are “gedunk” stands on board—soda fountains, barbershops, ship’s stores, chaplains, all sorts of things that make life a little easier. But when it actually comes to fighting SL ship, we really don’t need that. What you need are guns, shells, missiles, radars, computers, dependable engines. You don’t need ice cream parlors to fight. You do need them to live on board.

In a war, a carrier battle group would have its ships as much as thirty miles apart, so that one atom bomb couldn’t knock them all out.

The Russians have cut all that stuff out. Somebody said they don’t even have bunks for their crews, that they curl up in corners. I’d be surprised if that’s true. I understand, however, that they don’t have mess halls. They go in and get their food in a little tray or bucket or something. Nevertheless, they have high morale and are effective. We don’t believe in that kind of hard life. Well, we just might kill ourselves with our self-indulgence. I’m not saying that we should return to the old days of five hundred men cooped up in the Constitution sleeping in hammocks. But if you have to decide which is the better ship, you may find that the more austere ship is the better because it’s got more offensive power.

Don’t you run into a problem here trying to make the Navy look more attractive while also talking about making our ships more rigorous?

Yes, this is indeed a problem. I think our way of doing things is probably better than the Russian way, but I’m concerned about what would happen if we got into a fight with a Russian task force, because they have more missiles and weapons of various kinds on smaller ships than we have. On the other hand, our ships are better and more survivable than theirs. I think our submarines are better. And so far they just don’t have any carriers comparable to ours.

I think we have to recognize that the Russians see themselves as every bit as big as we are, and they’ve got the right to have national ambitions. And I’d like to see us meet them on friendly terms rather than as rivals. Although we fought the British in 1812, we were on very good terms with the English navy both before and after that war. We appreciated them as navy people doing the same thing we were—fighting the elements, fighting pirates and all the rest of it. It’s a shame we can’t do that with the Russians, but I don’t see it for the foreseeable future. And yet I’ve met Russian submariners who start talking engines and submarines and periscope technique, and it was like being with old buddies. We had to be careful in certain areas, but we were talking about the same things. We were telling sea stories about leaking propeller shafts and guys who forgot to shut the hatch and the ocean coming in and things like that.

What have we learned from our naval history that we should keep and what should we throw out?

Well, speaking in a very philosophical sense, I think we’ve learned that you have to be cautious about maintaining tradition for the sake of tradition alone. For example, Pearl Harbor showed us that we had held too long to the tradition of the battle line. I think we’ve learned—or are learning—the tremendous capability of electronics and computers. No one has the foggiest idea what electronics really is and what it can do at this point. It has only been going on for a few years. What do you think it’ll be like in fifteen years?

But I also feel that we’re overcomplicating our lives and overcomplicating the military. Perhaps this means that only Ph.D.’s will be able to fly our airplanes and run our ships. I wonder what the outcome will be. It could be that someday in the future people will look back and say: at the end of the twentieth century the world became overwhelmingly concerned with trying to improve its military technical ability and just got to the point where everything was too complicated and nothing would work. Mankind finally gave up, and we have the blessing of peace bestowed by God simply because He made progress too complicated to handle.

What do you think are the lessons to be learned from the sea battle off the Falklands?

There’s no doubt it will be studied and analyzed for a long, long time for a lot of reasons—among them the facts that England is an ally of long standing and that their ships are much like our ships and their people like ours. And also because Argentina is in our own hemisphere and we found ourselves in the middle of the situation.

On the practical level it was a war that, I think, was a great deal like our Spanish-American War. The similarities are striking. We had two naval battles during the war with Spain, which revealed many deficiencies. As a consequence we did a lot of things to improve our Navy. I think the aftermath of the Falklands battle gives us the same opportunity. We may have to harden our missile ships. One question might be, What would be the ideal missile ship? I think it would be a ship somewhat similar to a battleship—without the guns but with armor so it could withstand the impact of a Cruise missile. I also think the ascendancy of naval aircraft has now reached its high point and it will recede somewhat in importance because missiles make the airplane more vulnerable. Now that we have ships that can shoot back, helplessness of the kind we experienced at Pearl Harbor couldn’t happen again. Suppose the Aegis cruiser Ticonderoga had been sitting in Pearl Harbor that day. She would have shot down all the attacking airplanes if she hadn’t run out of ammunition first. Another lesson of the Falklands is that you can’t go halfway into a situation where you contemplate the use of military force; you go all out or not at all. We’re going to have to professionalize our Navy even more, make the ships harder, concentrate on missiles and make them work.

One last question along this line. Didn’t the Falklands prove that you have to have a strong merchant marine to back up a fighting force? The British were able to convert their ocean liners to troop transports that were almost immediately available to accompany the fighting ships.

I have a radical answer for that question, although nobody’s going to buy it. I believe the merchant marine ought to be made part of the Navy. It seems to me if our merchant marine were run by the Navy, we’d have a merchant marine that could be converted into military service very easily. The British have a better merchant marine than we do. The Russians have a far better one than we do. The Russian merchant marine is indeed a state merchant marine, and their navy can use it any time they want. We could use some of the naval officers who are being retired and some of the good navy men we are pensioning off to man these ships. Believe me, there’d be a great improvement in them!


Under present circumstances, could we mobilize a force of merchant ships to reinforce the fighting fleets as fast as the British did?

No way! We couldn’t even come close. Most of our merchant ships are actually under foreign flags, anyway. We could mobilize some, because we have some good lines that would make their ships available. But by and large we do not have the ships.

What type of fleet do you see for the next century?

I see essentially what we’ve got now but expanded and improved. I see many more computers at sea than before. The Aegis cruiser Ticonderoga , as I said, is a huge computer herself. I see a lot of carefully armored missile ships that can do two things—be offensive in terms of Cruise missiles attacking the enemy or defensive in terms of shooting down attacking missiles. Submarines will be similar to what we’ve got. It used to be easier to answer that question. I used to say the Navy should be all submarines, but I don’t anymore. That was when I was younger. As a submariner I had a right to feel this way, but I’ve learned a few things, I guess.

I’d like to see a Navy that combines itself somehow with the Coast Guard. That’s another item. The Coast Guard comes into the Navy in time of war. Why can’t the Navy also do things the Coast Guard does, such as fight icebergs?

The missile that destroyed the Sheffield in the Falkland Islands war would hardly have scratched the paint on the New Jersey or the Missouri .

And ultimately we all look toward the idea that there won’t be another war. Then the Navy will be out of a job, but the Coast Guard won’t. This is another argument for combining our Navy with the merchant marine. Let us hope we’ve already seen the last big general war, although we had Korea and Vietnam. Almost two hundred small wars have occurred since the end of World War II. It’s hard to believe. We’re having ’em all the time, but they’re not the kind of wars that we’re geared for. Yet we should be geared for little wars as well as big ones, because we are going to run into many more of them.

Finally I’d like to see many more smaller ships too—gunboats or something like a gunboat, which really is a frigate or a destroyer. We don’t need to send a carrier to do everything; we can send a reasonably small ship to show the flag—and perhaps even use force if necessary—because the ship is backed up by the might of the U.S. Navy, which lies just over the horizon.

Our aim, I think, is to make sure we have the ability to keep the sea—which means to stay at sea in all conditions of peace or war, no matter what happens. It also means to keep the sea free for humanity, for everybody, including the Russians. To me, keeping the sea means maintaining the freedom of the sea. If the sea can remain free, the world will stay free too. I don’t know how much sense all of that makes, but it’s my philosophy.



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