Wednesday, April 5, 2017

One Century Ago: Execute War Plan Black

President Woodrow Wilson. (Harris & Ewing 
Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and 
Photographs Division)

On the morning of April 6, 1917, the United States House of Representatives voted for war with Germany by a margin of 373 to 50.  Just after noon, the war resolution was sent back to the Senate, which had passed it 82 to 6, two days before.  The Senate then forwarded it to the White House, where at 1:13 pm, President Woodrow Wilson signed it. 

Five minutes later, the following message was transmitted from the communication office of the Navy Department building to every ship and station:

Sixteen Alnav. The President has signed act of Congress which declares a state of war exists between the United States and Germany. 131106                                                      SECNAV

Launched from Newport News Shipbuilding on March 16, 1915, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) is shown in this photograph signed by Raymond A. Spruance, who was serving aboard her when war was declared against Germany in 1917.  He would later achieve worldwide fame for his leadership against the Japanese during the Battle of Midway in 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command Image
The Navy's five flagships, including the Atlantic Fleet's USS Pennsylvania (BB- 38), then received an additional message:
Flag Sigcode. Mobilize for war in accordance Department's confidential mobilization plan of March 21.   Particular attention invited paragraphs six and eight.  Acknowledge.

Josephus Daniels

Henry T. Mayo, seen here before his promotion to vice admiral in 1916 (Navsource/ Bill Gonyo)
Aboard Pennsylvania, which had returned on April 6 to Hampton Roads from the Carribean, Admiral Henry T. Mayo knew exactly what to do.  

Weeks before President Wilson's war message to the Congress on April 2 that percipitated the vote, it was clear that war would be declared against Germany.  Two months had passed since the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans, followed swiftly by the breaking of diplomatic relations, and it had been a month since the contents of the Zimmermann Telegram had become public knowledge across the country.  Nevertheless, Wilson had been sworn in for his second term as president on March 5, in part because of the success of the slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War."

"I can't keep the country out of war," he confided to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels during the campaign. "They talk of me as though I were a god.  Any little German lieutenant can put us into the war at any time by some calculated outrage."  Yet Wilson publically appeared to adhere to the idea that he could avoid all-out war by pursuing "armed neutrality;" putting defensive weapons upon American merchant vessels.  Behind the scenes, however, Daniels surmised that "it was evident that 'armed neutrality' in itself was insufficient, valuable as it was."
President Woodrow Wilson (left) meets with his cabinet in this undated photograph probably taken during World War I.  Josephus Daniels is seated three places to Wilson's left on the far side of the table. (Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress,  Prints and Photographs Division)
Daniels would later recall March 20, "the Day of Decision," as "the most important cabinet meeting of the Wilson administration, in fact without a doubt the most important of our generation."  During that meeting, Daniels had become the last of President Wilson's 10 cabinet members to vote for war. After the meeting he recalled the Atlantic Fleet to Hampton Roads from training in the Caribbean and convened the General Board, along with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William S. Benson, soliciting every measure that needed to be taken to protect American shipping bound for Europe. Daniels incorporated their recommendations into an amended version of War Plan Black, the official war plan against Germany originally adopted in 1913, and disseminated it to the fleet the following day.  

Officers of the Wadsworth crew, shown here after Joseph Taussig's promotion to commander in May 1917.  The officers in the front row are (from left), Assistant Surgeon Chester O. Tanner, Lt. John H. Falge, Cmdr. Joseph K. Tausig, and Lt.j.g. Ernest W. Broadbent. The officers standing behind Taussig on either side are unidentified. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
On April 6, 39-year-old Lieutenant Commander Joseph Taussig, commander of the six destroyers of Division Eight, Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, awaited orders at one of the locations specified on Daniels' mobilization plan of March 21, known as "Base Two." 

Taussig had been in command of the Destroyer Wadsworth since her commissioning in Boston on July 23, 1915, and had transferred from Division Six to his present command in Hampton Roads a year later.  

In his diary, Taussig recorded that he had received the mobilization message from USS Pennsylvania at 7:00 pm on April 6, and pondered its meaning:
We are now wondering what the future has in store for us- how will we operate- and how will the fleet take any real active part in the war? It is the general impression that the fleet will remain at home and that the cruisers and destroyers will patrol the coast.  
Only one week later, Taussig would receive a late-night phone call at his home in Norfolk. "Captain, this is [Lieutenant Junior Grade John] Falge. I have bad news for you. We have received orders to leave at daylight for New York to fit out for long and distant service. I think we are going abroad"

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