By Rob Doane, Curator, Naval War College Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command
In 1902, a young lieutenant in the United States Navy told a friend about his struggle to convince his superiors to adopt new gunnery methods: “I am playing this game to win or lose all. If I win (and success is assured), I will only claim as my reward the privilege of being left alone. I am not looking for anything; and I will not get in anybody’s way.” The steady determination expressed in his letter would have come as no surprise to anyone who knew William S. Sims. Indeed, those who expected a junior officer to quietly obey orders often found themselves at odds with him. Beginning in 1900 when he exposed flaws in the design of America’s newest battleships, Sims established himself as a reformer who worked patiently but tirelessly to fix shortcomings in the way the Navy conducted its business. That fighting spirit served him well throughout his career, but never more so than during the war years of 1917-1918 when he commanded U.S. naval forces in Europe.
I loved Sims’s quote when I first read it – so much so that I decided to make it part of the title for the Naval War College Museum’s newest exhibit. To Win or Lose All explores the Navy’s role in securing victory for the Allies during the First World War. Under Admiral Sims’s leadership, American warships escorted convoys to France, laid mines in the North Sea, and hunted German submarines. On land, naval aviators flew scouting and bombing missions while Marines fought in the trenches east of Paris. While the sweeping naval campaigns of 1942-1945 may attract more scholarly attention, the foundation for their success was established twenty-five years earlier when the Navy operated for the first time as part of a coalition. Indeed, many officers whose names became famous during the Second World War – Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and Harold R. Stark, to name a few – gained valuable experience in planning combined operations while serving on Sims’s staff in London.
Visitors to the museum will be treated to a display of 63 historic artifacts from the World War I era, including some that were donated by the descendants of Admiral Sims and have never been seen before in public. One of the most poignant sections in the exhibit includes a selection of items recovered from the wreck of USS San Diego (ACR-6), the only major warship to be lost by the U.S. Navy during the war. These artifacts are on loan from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of Naval History & Heritage Command and provide a stark reminder of the dangers that American sailors faced while trying to keep Germany’s U-boats at bay.
With the passing of the last veteran, the First World War has transitioned from living memory to recorded history. Sadly, the reality of historic events fades over time. Wars become stories we read in a book or watch on TV – interesting to learn about, but divorced from the reality of day to day life. Museums have the power to bring visitors face to face with historic artifacts that restore the immediacy of the past and remind us of the human cost of war. It is my hope that this exhibit will encourage visitors to understand Admiral Sims and the sailors who served under him as real people who worked under difficult circumstances to meet the enormous challenges of wartime service.
For those interested in visiting the exhibit, the NWC Museum is open to the public year round Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. During the summer from June through September the museum is also open on Saturdays from noon to 4:30 p.m. It is closed on holidays. Facilities for the handicapped are available. U.S. citizens over the age of 16 who wish to visit the museum must submit information for a background check at least seven working days prior to arrival. Please email email@example.com or call 401-841-4052 to arrange your visit. Any visitor who is escorted by personnel with U.S. military identification does not need advanced reservations. All visitors must also produce two forms of identification for entry onto the Naval Station. Visitors arriving by vehicle are required to have photo identification, proof of vehicle insurance and vehicle registration to access the base.