The Three Plane Navy – The Story of Rear Admiral Fullam’s Vision

A little bit longer of a post than normal, but I found this to be an interesting story about a visionary man who played a key role in the Navy in the early 1900’s. Twenty years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, many voices were actively trying to warn about the narrow-minded vision of naval and political leaders. One of those voices was a retired navy Rear Admiral named William Fullam. This is his story:

Born in Pittsford, New York, William Freeland Fullam was admitted into the United States Naval Academy, 24 September 1873; graduating No. 1, June 1877- Class of 1877.

His commands through his long and distinguished naval career ranged from the sailing ship USS Chesapeake in 1904 to the battleship USS Mississippi in 1909. On 15 April 1888, Lieutenant (j.g.) William Fullam married Ms. Mariana Winder Robinson; they had two daughters.

During the Spanish–American War, Navy Lieutenant Fullam served aboard USS New Orleans (CL-22) during the Santiago Campaign- the blockading and bombardment of Santiago and San Juan; earning the Spanish Campaign Medal. Chief among his assignments ashore was as acting aide to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, February 1913 – late January 1914, followed by duties as Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy, which he commanded from 7 February 1914 until spring of 1915.

Captain Fullam was assigned to the Naval Academy during a very tumultuous time. Prior to his arrival, there had been hazing and cheating scandals and he was sent to relieve the previous Commandant and clean house. The scandal involved the sons of many prominent political leaders at the time, many of whom were supporting President Wilson in his agenda and coming re-election. Fullam, who was the chief officer in charge of the trials gave severe sentences to many of the guilty. At the completion of the trial, the Midshipmen went on their summer cruise to the Pacific with Fullam as their leader. It would be his last assignment at the Academy.

The order to remove the Admiral was approved by President Wilson. Interestingly enough, several of the key men who were openly involved with the trial were men of influence in Wilson’s party who were working very hard behind the scenes to help him achieve a second term in office. He had pledged before the first to only do one term but quickly found that it would not be enough time to institute all of his progressive reforms. The chief lawyer defending the midshipmen was a congressman from Virginia who took time out of the trial to coordinate Wilson’s ability to put aside his one term pledge and go on to win the next election cycle as President. The man who signed the orders to actually relieve Fullam and put an end to this affair was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

From a contemporary article (See below): The outbreak of the First World War found him in command of the Reserve Force of the Pacific Fleet, about as unimportant a command as could be found for a rear admiral.

Following this assignment at the USNA, Rear Admiral Fullam was ordered to report for sea duty at the San Francisco naval district to become Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet Reserve Force; effective 5 June 1915. He hoisted his flag aboard USS South Dakota (ACR-9), and later aboard USS Milwaukee (C-21). As Commander-in-Chief he was highly critical of the little interest the West coast citizens held in preparing for involvement of the European war. He stated: “It was time they awoke to the necessity for adequate preparedness…In the event of war the United States Navy would need at once 175,000 trained men.”

In April 1917, Rear Admiral Fullam became Commander-in-Chief Patrol Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, and was senior officer in command of the Pacific Fleet during the absence of the Fleet’s Commander-in-Chief in South Atlantic waters. The merit of his service in such responsible positions was recognized with the award of the Navy Cross.

In early 1918 Vice Admiral Kantarō Suzuki (who later became the 42nd Prime Minister of Japan from April 7, 1945 to August 17, 1945) brought his two cruisers Asama and Iwate to San Francisco and “banqueted” with Rear Admiral Fullam after receiving harbor entrance by Rear Admiral Fullam. Continuing his duties as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, throughout the World War until 1 August 1919, he coordinated with the Japanese and British forces all ship movements while patrolling the whole Pacific from Alaska to the Panama Canal Zone. This was in order to check all German activities.

During the summer of 1919, Rear Admiral Fullam, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, was instrumental in arranging with the Navy Department for half of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet battleships to be assigned to the Pacific coast; bringing a total of fifteen battleships to protect our Pacific interests and communication sea lanes. Overall, during his tenure as Commander-in-Chief, Reserve Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (1915–1919), Rear Admiral Fullam had a constant struggle with the Navy Department regarding Pacific force policy and shortages in personnel manning the ships. His communicating in personal letters to many of his fellow senior officers were forceful and were written with a freedom of expression- all wishing to prepare their units for the coming World War.

Rear Admiral Fullam retired (due to age) on Monday, October 20, 1919. At the time of his retirement, he was regarded by young and old alike as an ideal naval officer. Rear Admiral Fullam was a member of the New York Yacht Club, the Army and Navy Club, Navy League of the United States, and the United States Naval Academy alumni. Rear Admiral Fullam died at Washington, D.C., aged 70.

William F. Fullam was a direct descendant of American Revolutionary War veteran Lieutenant Elisha Fullam II of Weston, Massachusetts. William was the son of Nathan Seymour Fullman and Rhoda Ann Stowits. Lieutenant Elisha Fullam II assisted in establishing American Independence while acting as a platoon officer within Captain Jonathan Davis’ Company of Colonel Asa Whitcomb’s 5th Militia of the Massachusetts Line, 23rd Continental Regiment of Foot. This unit marched on the alarm of 19 April 1775- the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Thus, on 20 October 1920 (at the age of 65 years) William F. Fullam, Rear Admiral, USN (Ret.), became a member of “The Empire State Society of the Sons of the American Revolution”.

Rear Admiral Fullam closely followed the progress and reports coming out of the Washington Naval Conference. He praised the Conference for modernizing naval thought (setting it free from the “thralldom of conservatism”) and having decreed the scrapping of 66 battleships and a holiday of ten years in battleship building. He strongly supported bringing the battleship into a lesser fleet role, allowing for increased procurement and utilization of submarines, aeroplane carriers and aeroplanes as offensive weapons- what he referred to as our “Three-Plane-Navy”. Thus, a “balanced fleet” was more critical to the overall naval strength. He coined the term “battleshipitis”.

At the 14th Annual Banquet of the Aero Club of America, Rear Admiral Fullam stated: “The world is facing a new era, an era which will bring aeronautics to the front and give it a proper place in peace and war…The aeroplane will be the dominating factor in future wars on land and sea…It is the duty of every naval officer to study and develop the usefulness of the aeroplane as a weapon. In this we must lead the world, we must not follow.”

Three Plane Navy

Naval Officer Forecast Role of Air Power in the Far East 20 Years Ago

March 15, 1942 Washington Times

By Ben H. Pearse.

“The potential awfulness of air power in its relation to future political and national interest in the Far East has not yet been realized by American statesmen and naval minds. If they will stop and study this subject, it may come to them with a dull sickening thud.”

The sickening thud, of course, has come as predicted, but this is no excerpt from one of the thousands of prognostications offered so freely by air power enthusiasts. It came years ago from the pen of a die-in-the-wool naval line officer who never piloted a plane, the late Rear Admiral William Freeland Fullam, whose one-man campaign for a ‘’three plane’’ navy, unfortunately, has long since been forgotten.

The occasion of Admiral Fullam’s remarks was a vote in the British House of Commons, back in 1923, to authorize expenditure of from $50,000,000 to $100,000,000 for the naval base at Singapore. Read them against the background of the events of the past few weeks, including the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, the fall of Singapore itself and the accounts of the fighting in the Southwest Pacific today.

Strange to say, the Singapore project is strongly opposed by certain prominent English naval officers and strategists either as a useless expense to the Empire, or because they claim it should not be equipped to accommodate battleships simply for the reason that battleships could not safely go there and would be of no use if they did go!

“The vote in the House of Commons and the arguments of Mr. Emery, the First Lord of the Admiralty, were no doubt based on the traditional belief that England’s great battleships could make Singapore a base of operations in case England’s interests in the East were threatened.

Reviewing this subject, Admiral Fullam declared that it was clear that England needed neither expensive forts nor battleships at Singapore or Australia.

“There is but one way a fleet can take the offensive today,” he wrote, “’together with strong submarine and air forces. The air force will dominate.

“England could not attack Japan. China of Russia in the East unless her fleet carried with it a greater number of planes than any one nation or all allied nations could bring against her. This would require many aircraft carriers and big merchant steamers converted into carriers.”

Pointing out that docks at Singapore would be essential for these latter craft, he declared that “battleships would avail nothing”; because “they cannot carry many planes.” Depending upon battleships, he asserted, Japan could not attack a strong air fleet.

“It must be perfectly plain,” Admiral Fullam wrote, “that Japan could easily demolish the English base at Hong Kong unless England maintained an overwhelming air force and strong sub[1]marine fleet in that vicinity.”

England’s predicament in maintaining a long line of communications to the Far East, he said, would be no worse than our own in case, he warned.

“The Philippines and Guam would fall to superior air power from nearby enemies. Battleships and forts would net protect them. Air force and submarines only could hold off an attack.”

With these introductory excerpts to qualify Admiral Fullam as an expert, if not actually a prophet, it might be helpful to fix his place in the Navy’s aeronautical development. Bon in Pittsford, N. Y., October 20, 1855, he was appointed to the Naval Academy In 1873. When he graduated four years later, he was top man in his class and commander of the cadet battalion. About the time the Wright brothers were making their first successful flights at Kitty Hawk, N. C., he was in command of the sailing vessel Chesapeake. By the time the Army had bought its first plane, he was in command of the battleship Mississippi, with the rank of captain. When he was advanced to the rank of rear admiral in December, 1914, 15 pilots and 11 planes made up all there was of naval aviation.

Of medium height, with a very erect military bearing, Admiral Fullam was known as a strict disciplinarian. But for all his strictness, he was also known as a fair and a just man with nothing of the martinet about him. He was a man of decided views, not averse to expressing them and backed water for no one. His plea for more air power stirred no more contention than did his oft maintained thesis that the Marine Corps had no place in the Navy, that sailors should be and actually were well enough trained to perform the duties normally carried out by the marines. He saw no reason why marines should be placed on board men of war as orderlies and guards. He felt that the bluejacket was just as well trained for these duties. He was a great admirer of the Marine Corps, but concluded it should be a separate unit to function with the Navy as “The soldiers of the Sea,’’ as they were called, and not to do guard duty, etc., over the Navy enlisted personnel. It is not difficult to understand how an officer capable of harboring such a thought might run afoul of official disapproval sooner or later, and he did. The outbreak of the First World War found him in command of the Reserve Force of the Pacific Fleet, about as unimportant a command as could be found for a rear admiral.

With characteristic vigor, he set about getting his little fleet of ill-conditioned, undermanned auxiliaries ready for sea. His motto all through his life, and the one he impressed in the minds of all naval officers under him was, “Eternal vigilance is the price of our liberty.” The declaration of war and presence of German raiders In the Pacific finally accomplished what repeated proddings had failed to do. He did get part of his force, all the scouting fleet we had in the Pacific, in shape to perform the functions to which he had been assigned. The Navy Cross he received was “for exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great responsibility as commander of the Reserve Force, United States Pacific Fleet, and senior officer in command of the Pacific Station during the absence of the commander in chief in South Atlantic waters.” But when the armistice was signed, it probably affected him in a way entirely different from what he had expected. He described it at an “Aviators’ Armistice Dinner” given three years later and after his retirement, by the Aero Club of America in New York. Admiral Fullam was toastmaster. Among the speakers that evening were Brig. Gen. William Mitchell, Capt. H. C. Mustin, then assistant chief of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, and Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s leading World War flyer.

At this dinner Admiral Fullam said: “Three years ago, shortly after the armistice in 1918, when your humble servant, as commander of our naval forces in the Pacific, was one day anchored with his flagship and other vessels in the harbor of San Diego, Calif., the commanding officer of Rockwell Field, in celebration of the dose of the World War sent about 220 airplanes aloft at one time.

“It was a thrilling and imposing sight. The sky was fairly obscured by buzzing planes, cruising over the harbor in successive waves. And these machines passed and repassed overhead for an hour or two until they landed without a single mishap.

“Previous to this time I had given to the airplane what I considered to be its maximum role in war—that of a scout and an auxiliary force nothing had been done in the World War that would justify, in my estimation, the belief that it would seriously affect naval construction or naval strategy. But, we could not stand on the deck of a ship that day in San Diego Harbor without being forced, however reluctantly, to realize that a new era had dawned in naval science, that a new weapon had appeared to upset all previously conceived ideas of the forces that would contribute most effectively to the maintenance of sea power in the years to come.

“Sea power, or fighting power, In the future will be largely dependent upon control of the air, and that fleet which secures this control in future battles must win, other things being approximately equal.”

From knowledge of what submarines had accomplished during the First World War, and what airplanes were destined to accomplish in the future, he evolved his phrase. “Three-Plane Navy.” which he described as a “mere voicing of the ideas that had lived in many men’s brains for many years.”

Admiral Fullam was superintendent of the Naval Academy in 1914, and from the date of his retirement upon reaching the statutory age limit of 64 years in October, 1919, until his death in Washington in September, 1926, Admiral Fullam devoted much of his time and his considerable energies toward heralding the new naval era. He was one of the organizers of the National Aeronautic Association and is given credit for its motto. “America First in the Air.” He wrote articles, spoke at countless dinners and testified before congressional committees on the necessity for revamping naval policy.

His Interest brought him into close contact with Gen. Mitchell and, although he did not advocate a separate air force, he gave the highest praise for the bombing demonstrations off the East Coast in 1921-2, during which the former German battleship, Ostfriesland, and obsolete American ships were sunk with air bombs.

“The statement is made in the interest of justice and truth,” he told a congressional committee investigating the results of the demonstrations afterward, “that Gen. Mitchell has done more than any living man to demonstrate the power of air attack against the forces of our possible enemies and more than the General Board of the Navy and all of the admirals of the Navy combined.”

The report of the special Navy board on the bombing demonstrations aroused the ire of the gray-haired admiral to a high pitch. “For four long months,” he told the committee, “a special board of naval officers of high rank have investigated the subject of battleships, submarines and air forces in modem war. Their report covers 80 pages. It begins with the era of the galley and the oar and—In many weary pages—discusses matters that have no relation whatever to the condition that confronts our Navy today. To submarines that nearly won the World War alone against the navies of the world, two pages are devoted. To airplane carriers, two paragraphs are vouchsafed.

“No mention is made of the fact, for it is a fact, that the British fleet of 24 battleships, nine battle cruisers, a score of fast cruisers, 100 destroyers and 5,000 anti-submarine craft, failed to command the sea around the British islands and left a few German submarines to bring Great Britain to the verge of starvation. What sized fleet and how many thousands of anti-submarine craft will be necessary to command the sea along the coasts of the United States in the next war?

“The report of this board, considering its insistence upon the supremacy of the battleship of the present type—cannot be defended by arguments that are based upon the logic of modern war. On the contrary. It fails to remove the menace to our naval progress and fails to guard the safety of the United States as a nation.”

Witnessed Bombing Test.

Because of his Interest in air power, he was invited to witness the bombing demonstrations. With Gen. Mitchell he went aboard some of the vessels during the progress of the demonstrations to inspect the damage caused by the various sized bombs used. The results impressed him deeply and led him up to another issue on which he differed radically with the naval authorities, the Washington disarmament conference. Far from shedding tears over the limitations of the conference, as did many of the naval experts of his day, Admiral Fullam declared it probably saved the Nation hundreds of millions of dollars to build up a navy for the war of the future Instead of a war of the past.

“Had we continued to build 16 more battleships.” he said, “our Navy would be more helpless than it is today because there would have been even less money available at this time to supply it with the air force and submarines without which it would have been quite useless against an up-to-date navy.”

The disarmament conference, of course, gave the Navy the two largest and most powerful aircraft carriers in the world, the Lexington and Saratoga, of about 35.000 tons each and capable of carrying from 80 to 100 aircraft. They were converted from battle cruisers while under construction as a result of the conference limitations.

The proposal to increase the elevation of the battleship guns to obtain longer range he ascribed to the “malady that has afflicted us for the past four years— battleship-phobia and big-gun-itus.”

“Command of the air,” he thundered, “and nothing else can and will decide the issue of the next naval battle. Without it, the gun itself will be harmless. With it, the ranges beyond 20,000 yards will be quite unnecessary. Adding two miles to the range of our 16-inch guns is like increasing the range of a bow and arrow in competition with a Springfield rifle.”

Naval thinking, Admiral Fullam contended back in 1924, was hypnotized by the big ship and big gun which no longer commanded the sea.

“The best naval minds of all countries are agreed,” he asserted, “that a dreadnaught fleet with guns of maximum power cannot approach a hostile coast; it cannot maintain a close blockade; it cannot safely venture more than 200 miles from its protected base; It cannot leave home at all unless it Is guarded night and day from attack by airplanes and submarines. In short, the surface fleet no longer rules the oceans. Air and submarine power have dethroned the battleship. With these incontrovertible facts in mind. It is not difficult to outline a sound and modem naval policy for the United States.

“It is not argued that we should sink the battleships we now have. Not at all. We should retain them and make them efficient. But we must develop the forces above and below the surface fleet. We must have a three-plane Navy, a Navy above the surface, on the surface and below the surface. Otherwise, our fleet is completely useless in modern war. We have been looking back too long. We must look ahead from now on.”

Fullam’s Warning to the Nation in 1921


Admiral Fullam Believes Fleet Should Be Concentrated on Western Coast

Immediate concentration of the American fleet in the Pacific, “where it can be ready for action in case of an emergency,” was urged by Rear Admiral William F. Fullam yesterday before the Senate subcommittee on naval affairs.

“There is no nation in Europe that wants to war with us” Fullam told the committee. ‘The danger is in the Pacific.”

The whole trend of Admiral Fullam’s testimony, as well as that of other high naval officers who appeared with him speaking for a “navy second to none” indicated their serious apprehension of the situation in the east and their anxiety that the navy shall be in a position to strike swiftly and surely should an emergency occur.

Following closely upon the statement made Thursday in the House by Congressman Miller of Washington urging the fortification of San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles and other important coast cities, “because Japan is preparing for war with the United States, and their exposed condition invites attack,” the testimony of the officers left the impression that the relations between the two countries have reached a critical Stage.

The division of the fleet with half in the Atlantic and half in the Pacific, as at present, is a blunder “worse than reprehensible.” and that only sophistry could defend it.

“It is folly to say that our bases in the Pacific are insufficient to maintain our fighting force,” he declared. “It we cannot maintain them here now in time of peace, how in the name of common sense can we hope to maintain it there in time of war?” Admiral Fullam said further that those who justified the splitting of the fleet by the existence of the Panama Canal as allowing quick mobilization in either ocean are following a blind policy. A few bombs, he said, “might block the canal, and recognizing its strategic importance it would be the first place on which the enemy would center his attack.

“I think the whole fleet should be moved to the Pacific.” the admiral stated. “1 want it there ready for action in case of an emergency.”

Admiral Fullam was called before the committee to present his -views on the suggested naval construction holiday and the future of the battleship in view of the tremendous development of the submarine and airplane as engines of warfare. While making it plain that he nowise favors the scrapping of this class of ships, he asserted that the building program might be safely suspended for a short time until their efficacy is determined.

Admiral Fullam’s statements were disputed by Admiral R. E. Coontz, chief of naval operations: Admiral Charles V. McVay, chief of ordnance, and Capt. T. T. Craven, chief of the navy air service. They protested strongly against any interruption whatever in the building program, although-they admitted the weight of Admiral Fullam’s argument for more submarines and aircraft, and stressed the need of additional appropriations for their construction.

In speaking for a brief cessation In the work in the battleships the–navy is now building in order to ascertain whether or not the advent of the submarine and airplane has materially affected their efficiency, Admiral Fullam said:

We find that with 22 dreadnaughts, 300 destroyers, and 10 scout cruisers our navy will stand next to that of England; it will be at least 30 per cent stronger than that of Japan, and omitting Great Britain, will be more powerful than the combined navies of all Europe. In the face of these facts it cannot be truthfully said that in suspending work on five battleships and six battle cruisers, we are advocating a week navy, inadequate for national defense. On the contrary, suspension of work temporarily on these vessels will safeguard us against a policy that will produce a weak navy, as the only return to the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Washington times. (Washington [D.C.]), 20 Feb. 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Fullam would die on September 23, 1926. He did not live long enough to see his predictions come to fruition.

Many people have said that people like Fullam might have made a difference in the preparations

leading up to World War 2. Others will simply dismiss his prognostications as rear-view mirror thinking. But the use of planes and submarines certainly made all the difference in the outcome of the war that did come.

I wonder what visionaries we have ignored in the lead up to the next war?

Mister Mac

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