Apr 6

The Navy and the Declaration of War in 1917

Wednesday, April 6, 2011 12:01 AM


6 April is the anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I. How that declaration was transmitted throughout the Navy is an interesting story. Ordinarily when a President signs an important measure, the signing is attended by members of Congress who shepherded the measure through the legislative process and members of the press who are there to record the event. Not so on 6 April 1917.

The declaration of war, already signed by the Vice President in his role as President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, arrived at the desk of President Woodrow Wilson while the President was eating lunch with only his wife and a handful of staffers present. In fact, Wilson borrowed his wife’s pen to sign the resolution.

Immediately after Wilson inked the declaration, the White House usher, I.H. Hoover, buzzed the Presidential Naval Aide, Lt. Cmdr. Byron McCandless, who, by prearrangement, was waiting in an outer office. McCandless, eschewing the telephone, rushed outside and used signal flags to wigwag a message that the resolution of war had been signed to the Navy Department, the offices of which then were located across the street from the White House.

The message was received by Lt. Cmdr. Royal Ingersoll who literally ran down the corridors to the Communications office and ordered the operators to draft an ALLNAV dispatch. Five minutes later the message was being broadcast by radio from towers in Alexandria, Va. Within a few hours and by radio, telegraph, and cable, naval commands throughout the world were notified that the country was now at war with Germany. 

In the fleet, the news was almost anti-climatic. In his diary, Cmdr. Joseph K. Taussig wrote that the fleet had been “on a war footing, more or less,” since diplomatic relations had been severed with Germany the previous February.

Fleet Commander Henry T. Mayo later informed Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels: “I did not have to give a signal of any kind or description to pass the Fleet from a peace to a war basis. The Navy was ready and on its toes.”

It may have been a case of much ado about very little, but that urgent semaphore message signaled dramatic and profound changes for the Navy and the nation.