Rising Sun 1940:
The Fleet Visits Hawaii

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2021

Starting in 1923, the U.S. Navy conducted regular exercises known as “Fleet Problems,” employing most of the fleet’s major units and often Marines and even Army troops. Usually these took place once per year, but a few years saw more than one such exercise. They usually took place in the Caribbean or along the California Coast, and frequently involved the Panama Canal (from either or both of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts).

The last one held before the outbreak of World War II, Fleet Problem XXI, took place in two phases, both of them in the Pacific Ocean. The first saw the White and Black fleets fighting it out along the California coast, while the second moved the action to Hawaii, where Purple and Maroon brawled over the waters around and west of the islands. The fleet left San Diego for the Hawaii phase of the exercises on 2 April 1940, and was expected to depart on 9 May for a return to San Diego by the 17th.

The United States had not yet adopted a Two Ocean Navy posture in the summer of 1940. The Battle Force, commonly called the Pacific Fleet, had most of the Navy’s strength: 12 battleships, four aircraft carriers, 10 heavy cruiser and 15 light cruisers. The Patrol Force, or Atlantic Squadron, had the Navy’s three oldest active battleships, two aircraft carriers, and six heavy cruisers. One of the Patrol Force’s aircraft carriers (Ranger) and all of the cruisers were expected to join the Battle Force in Hawaiian waters for the exercises.

3 May 1940. The fleet has just anchored in Pearl Harbor following the conclusion of Fleet Problem XXI.

On 29 April the Battle Force commander, Admiral James O. Richardson, began to receive a series of messages from the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark, warning him of the increasing likelihood that he would be ordered to retain the fleet in Hawaii. On 7 May, he received additional orders to hold a press conference, in which he would announce that he had requested permission to retain the fleet in Hawaii for further exercises.

“I did not resent being told to do something by orders from above,” Richardson write in his memoirs, “but I did resent being told how to do it, particularly when that ‘how’ made a perfect ‘nitwit’ out of me.”

Stark initially told Richardson that the delay would be “about two weeks,” but he would not confirm that despite the fleet commander’s repeated requests for clarity. That left Richardson with an uncomfortable question regarding further training. Pearl Harbor had not been intended to serve as the fleet’s permanent base. It did not have enough fuel oil on hand to maintain the regular training schedule Richardson desired (unlike his successor, Husband E. Kimmel, Richardson liked to have most of his ships at sea at any given moment).

2 October 1935. All 12 battleships pass in review for FDR off San Diego.

Richardson listed more difficulties. His ships had shot off most of their ammunition for their 5-inch/38 anti-aircraft guns during the Fleet Problem, and worst of all the fleet’s targets for both surface and anti-aircraft gunnery remained in San Diego. These could be towed to Hawaii, but would take about two weeks to arrive. If the fleet really did leave in two weeks, then they would have to turn around immediately to return to California. That would limit gunnery training for an entire month.

The fleet also faced expiring enlistments for both sailors and officers. The intent had been to release these men upon the fleet’s return to San Diego, but with that event cancelled, what was to be done with them? Stark offered no answers, only telling Richardson to await further orders.

Some sources claim that Richardson protested the move to Hawaii, and lost his job as a result. That’s not entirely accurate. Richardson showed perfect willingness to remain at Pearl Harbor, but pushed for confirmation of how long the deployment would last, to schedule training around that. The admiral wanted his gun crews to receive constant training, and his officers to work their ships while firing. He could conduct limited maneuver training that would benefit his senior officers, he told Stark, and table-top exercises, but the fleet’s battle readiness would degrade without a decision.

3 May 1940. Another view of the fleet in Pearl Harbor.

On 15 May he finally extracted a statement from King that the fleet would remain in Hawaii “for some time,” and Richardson began energetically arranging for overhaul of his ships in West Coast yards, the delivery to Hawaii of many supplies including fuel and ammunition, and the discharge of personnel due to be released – except for carrier-qualified pilots, who were retained in service. He also asked that Ranger and the cruisers join the fleet to give the Americans an edge in carrier strength compared to the Japanese; that was denied.

On the 22nd, Richardson suggested to Stark that the fleet as a whole return to California to take on wartime loads of ammunition, undergo needed overhauls and fill out the ships’ crew complements. That, he argued, would make the fleet a more fitting instrument of war if it were the President’s intent that Hawaii serve as a “stepping off place for belligerent activity.” Stark replied that the fleet had been moved to Hawaii to deter a Japanese move against the Dutch East Indies, and a return to California could be seen as tacit permission for such an occupation. He did grant Richardson authority to send his ships individually to the West Coast for overhaul, ammunition and personnel, but none of the usual peacetime announcements of such moves were to be made. Richardson had expressed concern about the effects on morale of a long deployment at Pearl Harbor – in those days a fairly empty area – and Stark promised to provide all the fuel needed to keep the fleet constant exercising to prevent boredom among the crews.

While the two ammunition ships available in the Pacific – the aptly-named Pyro and Nitro – struggled to fill the magazines, Richardson ordered all ships moved to a wartime footing, with their peacetime fittings removed and battleship gray paint applied. In August Richardson received approval to allow entire task forces to visit the West Coast and grant shore leave there, so that married men could visit their families. But the deployment remained officially a temporary one.

Richardson (the tall guy at center striding up the deck) is probably not contemplating tossing Knox (the dorky guy in the suit) off the deck of carrier Enterprise.

Richardson seems to have been a prickly sort, but his demands for a certain date did not lead to his relief. That came into motion in July 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt tapped newspaper publisher and 1936 Republican vice-presidential nominee Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy. FDR hoped to placate Republican opposition to fighting fascism by adding Republicans to his cabinet; it didn’t work.

Knox called Richardson to Washington that fall following the September 1940 Japanese occupation of French Indo-China. At a conference of top admirals, Knox laid out a plan to set up a patrol line of cruisers between Hawaii and the coast of China to intercept Japanese merchant shipping. Richardson pointed out that this would be an act of war, and asked if Roosevelt contemplated declaring war on Japan. Knox apparently grew irritated and refused to answer, whereupon Richardson proceeded to demolish the patrol line plan. Such a strategy had been tried in one of the earlier Fleet Problems – something Knox, with no naval experience, likely did not know – which resulted in the opposing force (standing in for the Japanese) rolling up the line and destroying nearly all of the picket cruisers.

Humiliating his dilettante boss might have produced some momentary satisfaction, but it was not a wise career move. Richardson had to read in the press that his relief was imminent, and soon he was re-organized out of a job, with Kimmel becoming commander of the newly-named Pacific Fleet and Ernest King of the new Atlantic Fleet. With that change, the fleet’s deployment to Pearl Harbor became official.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.

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