A few later official photos
of that era show row upon row of destroyers tied up in navy yards, deserted,
idle, useless, unwanted, and rusting. Over time, a few were given updates
and recommissioned. Some were sold off to foreign nations. Older ones and
those partly built were mostly sold for scrap. A few were turned over to
the Coast Guard for renumbering, removal of torpedo, mine,
and depth-charge apparatus, and the addition of boats, the better to utilise them in the effort to suppress the rapidly increasing smuggling of alcoholic beverages from afar, in violation of the new Volstead Act -- the Constitution's new 19th Amendment, better remembered as Prohibition. Decades later, fifty of these old backwatered Great War destroyers would be hurriedly revived, as a Lend-Lease gift to the hard-pressed Royal Navy in the early years of WWII.
The battleships of the USN's
Sixth Battle Squadron left the cold gray waters of Scapa Flow and steamed
home from their long wait for an Imperial German Navy that never came,
except to surrender. For the officers of those heavy ships, except for
a small strip of spectrum-like ribbon called the Victory Medal, their only
memento of the war was a breast-pocket handkerchief, worn in emulation
of their erstwhile joint commander, the jaunty, publicity-fond, and lauded
British Admiral David Beatty. Left behind to begin with, their
deskbound Navy Department seniors hated that reminding handkerchief, issued sharply worded orders against them, and in the end -- paradoxically, a very junior officer who was a fervent Anglophobe -- was the only one of them who persisted all his life in wearing that affrontive jacket pocket hankie memento. He is better known as Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, Chief of Naval Operations for most of WWII.
As readers may begin to grasp,
the reaction to war's end by the Navy was matter-of-fact at best, boring
and tiresome at worst. In the Fleet itself, the great international Washington
Naval Disarmament Conference of 1922 that followed on the heels of the
Versailles Peace Conference was downright demoralising. The long line of
powerful battleships, already set for vast expansion under a variety of
schemes since 1916, was to be reduced not only in existing number, but
also in planning and improvements. Two partially built
battlecruisers were saved only by quick juggling of meanings, and a dramatic revision of their plans gradually produced two entirely different large warships out of their heavy hulls -- the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga, eked past the Treaty limits by their new nature.
As an overall organisation, the U.S. Navy was itself "in ordinary", its busiest duties being the likes of its gunboats on the Yangtze Patrol (YANGPAT) in China. It simply had almost nothing to do -- except sit, think, and worry.
With the demise of the German Empire and loss of its navy, there was no further need to be concerned with Europe at all. Britain was especially friendly; the French and Italians too weak and far-off to bother with; tough but small, the Dutch had never given trouble and would not, and nobody else in that part of the globe could or would pose any problem whatever.
But there was one possible
-- and very likely -- future opponent: Japan. That naval disarmament setup
called for the famed "5-5-3" ratio, with the U.S. and Britain considered
equal, and the Imperial Japanese Navy on the short end of that statistical
stick. In theory, no problem. In practice, the USN's elders knew better.
They knew that their fleet -- their "5" -- had to be somehow split between
two oceans. That factor put the Japanese, whose powerful navy could operate
from close to home and now, with the handover arrangements of Versailles,
also had a plethora of potential IJN bases all over the former Imperial
German colonial island chains of the Carolines and Marshalls, in a serious
challenging position. The USN elders also knew that the Japanese had long
entertained notions of taking over the entire Pacific region, chiefly by
destroying the USN -- an "if" possibility that wishful diplomats had just
That "if" could be heavily revised toward American balance, if not favour, and long foresight had the process already underway -- at the relatively new, large, and intentionally all-encompassing Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, where opening the huge new drydock in May of 1919 had been quickly followed up. July saw arrival of six new R-type submarines at Kuahua Island, where their crews, finding nothing and sent to live ashore in tents, began improving their site for what would become the permanent sub base. On 18 December proper naval aviators arrived on the cruiser USS Chicago, put temporarily at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station with four seaplanes and 49 officers and men commanded by Lt. Cdr. Robert D. Kirkpatrick. They began seeking a permanent setup of their own.
One-third the way across the wide Pacific, Pearl Harbor was already America's farthest western U.S. naval base -- a fact noted by Japanese naval thinkers. They realised that this relative closeness required careful upgrades of their strategic and tactical schemes, even as U.S. naval theorists realised that thanks to Versailles and the 5-5-3, they had to push improvements there even harder and further, despite the peace-for-all assurances of even Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and increasing isolationist feeling in Congress.
Paradoxically, the varied treaties' restrictions served to enlarge and toughen Pearl Harbor. All area aircraft now had to be repaired there, requiring large stockpiles of parts. As warships rapidly came to rely on oil instead of coal, fuel oil storage became increasingly important, and what began as a Navy effort to improve that led directly to the infamous Teapot Dome scandal. It and Elk Hill, both held by the Navy Dept. for naval oil drilling use, were handed over by the Navy Dept. to the Dept. of the Interior, which then arranged to lease them off privately. The key to this backroom political magic was that the Pan-American Petroleum & Transport Co. agreed to construct those big new Pearl Harbor storage tanks, with a capacity of 4,130,000 barrels, inclusive of providing the fuel, at no cost to the government. But Pan-Am would receive a per-barrel royalty from Elk Hill's production. In preparation for what at first appeared to be a done deal, arrangements were made for construction of the tanks and service wharves.
All went smoothly -- until
the wheeling and dealing were exposed. By then the Hawaiian Dredging Company
had completed the oil storage and wharves, but there was no oil. Around
this time, In 1923, President Warren G. Harding, who had promised America
a "return to normalcy", took a trip up to almost-vacant Alaska, where no
one important had ever gone before, and while there learned
that his Administration, especially his Interior and Treasury Cabinet appointees, both close friends who had secretly concocted the whole financial fiddle, was in deep trouble. En route home, in San Francisco he took ill and died -- allegedly of food poisoning -- and thus missed the calamitous uproar that followed, which then went on for years as lawyers got hold of it. Not until February of 1928 did the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously cancel the Elk Hill deal and award the $300,000 privately spent on Pearl Harbor fuel storage improvements to the government. One result was that the tanks did not get full until the 1930s, but by that time the USN had wholly converted to oil, which extended its Pacific range right up to Japan. Thus the notorious Teapot Dome scandal, synonymous with any mention of the ill-regarded Harding, nonetheless served to markedly strengthen America's Pacific bastion.
The period was busy in other
ways as well. In 1925 a visiting committee of Congress agreed that the
submarine facilities needed improvement. The same year, joint Army-Navy
manoeuvers were held to test shore defences, one feature of which was naval
aviation -- which so impressed Congress that it increased that arm's funding
for the next five years. Two years later the Army and Navy
staged a test attack that brought still more money.
Meantime, there had been
other improvements going on. Over time numerous vessels had gone aground,
and when completed in 1929, considerable dredging had been done to deepen
and widen channels and eliminate a hated S turn, at a then-huge cost of
$6 million. Then the stock market crash late that year began to grind smaller;
and by election time in 1932, former stockbrokers were
selling apples on streetcorners, and the rosy promise of the Roaring Twenties was totally faded, like the thousands of old overalls worn by weary Oklahoma farmers trekking to California in attempts to get out of the "dust bowl" drought that hit the Plains region even as their already small savings dried up and vanished in farm and bank failures. The Navy's people at Pearl Harbor were deeply worried, and had good reason to be: their future seemed dismal.
The fall election of Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, whose proposed programme was the "New Deal", radically
brightened that dim outlook. FDR, as he soon became known, was, to begin
with, a fervent Navy enthusiast. Secondly, he understood the coming needs
far better than even his associates knew. Thirdly, he had a Congress that
was fully ready and willing to do whatever he wanted. What he wanted was
a wholesale effort at putting the American population back to work -- and
though the overall Navy appropriations remained static, his National Industrial
Recovery Act of 1933 earmarked funds for both military and naval construction,
about $10 million of which went to Hawaii. That brought better roads, a
new naval radio station, ten more airfields, more channel dredging,
and improved naval facilities generally. The annual war games of 1935 saw 163 warships, not including aircraft carriers, anchored at Pearl Harbor. After that ships were frequently sent there for maintenance and repair simply to compel shipyard men to learn to work under pressure. Three years later the channel was deeper and wider and carriers could enter, though the old drydock was already too small for them.
And aircraft defences there had grown considerably. In 1928 the Army Air Corps began work on a bomber base that became Hickam Field -- later named after a pilot killed in 1934 in Texas. Wheeler Field, named for a pilot killed in 1921, was reserved for smaller attack and pursuit aircraft. By 1936, the Navy was fully into entire carrier squadrons, and a senior airman argued that Pearl Harbor needed room for 90 planes of its own plus space for visitors. That Navy elder was then a little-known but bright and very ambitious Rear Admiral -- Ernest J. King.
In 1938, the Pearl Harbor
installations were impressive. A Bureau of Yards & Docks report cited,
among other things, a navy yard of 498 acres, a battleship drydock, a marine
railway, offices, two tank farms for fuel, a supply depot, and housing
totalling 190 buildings; an 1,100-bed naval hospital on 41 acres;
a 330-acre fleet air base on Ford Island, 32 acres and 28 buildings for
submarine base, a Marine barracks setup of 29 buildings on 55 acres, two ammunition depots, one large and another small radio station, a mooring mast for blimps, reserved land for water lines, and a 10-mile highway to Honolulu. Plus those airfields. And the international scene, nervous in Europe and already bloody in the Far East, inspired yet more, plus revival of an old Great War action: Pearl Harbor was closed to foreign shipping in May, especially to Japanese aliens who might be fishing there. June of that year
saw a full board review on Navy shore bases, and in December their report, with cost estimates, was duly sent to FDR and Congress. One month before the European war broke out in 1939, contracts were let for Navy shore improvements
throughout the Pacific, with special emphasis on Pearl Harbor.
Those improvements included two new drydocks, one large, one medium, for everything from battleships to submarines. The base saw its last pre-war improvements in 1941, with the start of a fourth drydock, a new power plant, and mooring facilities for what would rapidly become not only the eyes, but the backbone and teeth of the U.S. Pacific Fleet -- aircraft carriers.
At 0800 hours on 7 December
1941, the soft, easy Hawaiian air of that quiet Sunday morning was first
broken by the clarion sounds of bugles signalling the hoisting of the Stars
and Stripes on every flagpole ashore, and every ship of the Fleet in harbor.
And then they were shudderingly overpowered by the roar of hundreds of
carrier aircraft wearing the sharp red dot of the Rising Sun of
the Empire of Japan, as they began their dives to rip and tear America's Pacific navy apart with bombs and torpedoes.
In a rare moment of offering his thoughts to others, Japanese Admiral Yamomoto Isoroku, the man responsible for planning and organising that attack, soon afterward made an oft-quoted remark to his staff officers: "I fear that we have awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible resolve."
Japanese myths and legends are replete with spirits, and their Yamomoto was prophetic. His attack had awakened none other than the sleeping and terrible Shark God -- and his great gray kin would soon begin to multiply out of Pearl Harbor, and bite, and finally eat their offenders.