Start & End Date

Midway, Momentum and Manpower - The Navy's Bureau of Personnel in World War II

03 June 2021

From MC1 Mark D. Faram, Chief of Naval Personnel Public Affairs.

War is a team sport. To get the complete picture of the Battle of Midway and what it meant for the war effort, you need to know what happened behind the scenes in Washington, 5,523 miles away. The combination of Nimitz's warriors stopping the Japanese advance in 1942, and the parallel stubby pencil work in Washington, allowed the United States Navy to capitalize on the momentum gained at Midway.

The U.S. Navy's stunning victory at the Battle of Midway against overwhelming changed the course of World War II paved the opening miles of the road to victory in the Pacific war.

Six months into the war, Adm. Chester Nimitz's gritty forces stopped the Japanese advance in the South Pacific with May 1942's slugfest during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  A month later, those forces swept north, licking their wounds, and stopped the northern Japanese counterpunch aimed squarely in our Pacific backyard.

It would take four more years to defeat the Japanese juggernaut. Though Nimitz's scrappy fighters managed to stop the Japanese advance, their massive war machine was far from defeated.

Arguably the victory could have easily been in vain if that battlefield momentum was not coupled with a fast-moving mobilization back on the home front. But, instead, what the Midway miracle did was buy a little more time for America's war machine to get up to full speed.

War is a team sport. To get the complete picture of the Battle of Midway and what it meant for the war effort, you need to know what happened behind the scenes in Washington, 5,523 miles away.

The combination of Nimitz's warriors stopping the Japanese advance in 1942, and the parallel stubby pencil work in Washington, allowed the United States Navy to capitalize on the momentum gained at Midway.

In the six months between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the "Miracle at Midway," the nation unified and was mobilizing. Faced with all-out war, the Chief of Naval Personnel's team pulled out all the stops and accomplished the greatest naval manpower buildup in world history.

This impetus, seized in the early days of the war, set Midway's stage and, more importantly, gave the initiative back to the Allied forces. 

The nation's war footing started in 1939 when the clouds of war became visible on our horizon. But until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the country was heavily divided on whether to enter the war or remain neutral. 

The U.S. Navy's initial ramp-up started on Sept. 8, 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a "limited national emergency," initially calling for increasing the Navy end strength from 125,202 to 145,000 by the end of 1940.

With war already raging in Europe and the Far East, Roosevelt and Congress passed the Two-Ocean Act on July 19, 1940, authorizing 257 new warships and the Sailors needed to operate them.

As the nation's shipyards started building the ships, the Navy's efforts to man them faced an uphill battle.  

Initially, recruiting went well, but as the nation stood divided, eventually the number of willing recruits decreased, according to the Bureau of Naval Personnel records in the collection of the Navy Department Library.

Heading the Navy's efforts at the time was then-Rear Adm. Chester Nimitz, who in the days leading up to the war was at the helm of the Navy's personnel organization and the manpower ramp-up.

In mid-1941, Congress authorized the draft, requiring all men aged 21-45 to register. By 1942, subsequent calls expanded the registration window to all men from age 18 to age 66. 

The Navy, though not resistant to having a draft, opposed using it for themselves. Nimitz testified in front of Congress that the service wanted to use their own quality standards, stating the needs of the Army and Navy were very different, and the Navy wanted to recruit a volunteer force.

"Neither the Army or the Navy orders any man to fly," Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told Roosevelt in summing up the Navy's position. "The same should be for duty in ships as no small part of the present high morale of the Navy is due to the fact it is entirely a volunteer force -- a ship at sea is too small to maintain morale among men, some of whom may not wish to be there."  

The Navy's preference was to continue recruiting from all ages and leaving the draftees to the Army.

On the other hand, the Army wanted a level playing field and a moratorium on recruiting draft-age men and instead only allow the Selective Service to divvy up the men.

The Navy, Knox told Roosevelt, would postpone taking draftees as long as possible -- and avoid it altogether if possible.

The debate raged on for months, even after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was Roosevelt -- who was the assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I and who took a personal interest in Navy affairs -- who had the final word in whether the Selective Service law would apply to the Navy.

In writing to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson in February 1942, Roosevelt noted the Navy had recruited half a million volunteer Sailors during World War I.

"If the living conditions on board ship were similar to Army living conditions on land, the problem would be easier, but the circumstances of Naval Service being such as they are, I feel that it is best to continue the present system at this time," said Roosevelt.

Roosevelt didn't close the door entirely, stating, "we cannot predict personnel needs of the Navy during the balance of the war … I think it best not to take up the matter again until the problem is a little different or until the Navy should run short of men received through the enlistment process."

Early in the war, the Navy's projected growth was to a total end strength of 480,000 by 1946.  In reality, by the end of 1945, the service would reach nearly 3.4 million. By early 1943, the Navy started inducting draftees to fuel its growth but never stopped taking volunteers throughout the war. As a result, the numbers show the majority of those who served in the Navy during the war were volunteers and not conscripts.  

None of that was on the horizon during the fall of 1941 as recruiting became tougher by the month, and Nimitz began to rethink his Selective Service decisions. As a result, the final tally for November 1941 came to just 7,257, far below the numbers needed.

It took only a couple of hours on Dec. 7, 1941, to flip that dynamic back the other way. The Japanese surprise attack sunk five battleships and damaged another four while killing nearly 3,500 Americans and wounding thousands more. Many of the ships would return to action against the Japanese later in the war. Fortunately, none of our nation's aircraft carriers were in port that day.

Also, in the attack, the Japanese concentrated their firepower on the ships, leaving both the shipyard shops and the Pacific Fleet's substantial oil reserves with almost no damage at all. The latter decision made it much easier for the nation to rise quickly after the attack and keep the fleet in action. All these factors would come into play six months later at Midway.

Just ten days after Pearl Harbor, Nimitz was promoted from his two-star billet to four stars and given the entire Pacific Fleet command. Vice Adm. Randall Jacobs took the helm at the Navy's Bureau of Personnel, a job he would hold until the end of the war.

By the end of December, nearly 42,000 recruits had joined the Navy, and officials were calling it a "recruiting bonanza." In January, that number was 59,522. By the time June rolled around, the groundswell of recruits had reached nearly 200,000.

And the Navy didn't look back. By the time the war ended in August of 1945, the Bureau of Naval Personnel had recruited, trained and sent off to fight a total of 3,546,179 officers and enlisted personnel needed to crew the over 1,200 combatant ships the service ended up putting to sea. Both were numbers no one envisioned as possible in early 1942.

The skills of pre-war recruiters, mostly senior petty officers and chiefs on shore duty, were now needed back in the fleet. Most were shipped out quickly, leaving the Navy to get creative in filling recruiting billets.

To take advantage of the patriotic fervor that swept the nation, the Navy turned to Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, whose sales staffs were out of work with their employers now switching to war production. Fifty-eight of them would be commissioned as recruiting officers to teach the service how to "sell the Navy as a commodity much as you would sell a refrigerator."

This initial cadre of officers would recruit many more civilian salesmen in hometowns around the Navy as the service made an all-out push to bring the cream of the nation's crop of military-aged men to the Navy.

Millions of dollars were spent on advertising in newspapers nationwide. That effort was helped as the Navy paraded some Pearl Harbor heroes on tours around the country in early 1942. 

Recruiting wasn't the only place the Navy found the need for direct accession. Many civilian experts were brought in at ranks ranging from petty officers to captains to fill jobs in this burgeoning Navy. Most of these policies would remain in effect throughout the war before being put on the shelf again in the smaller, peacetime Navy.

One great example, started during the initial months of 1942, was the creation of the Navy's Construction Battalions that by war's end would be known as the vaunted Seabees, a title taken from their unit's abbreviations of "CB."

It was here where the practice began of enlisting Sailors and granting them higher paygrades upon entry, including many as petty officers and some as chiefs, too. Bringing in someone as a chief petty officer, however, required the approval of Chief of Naval Personnel.

The grade granted was all based on the experience of the individual. Skilled tradesmen were needed at all ranks as these units were built from scratch starting in early 1942.

The practice was also used in the ship repair trades as well as for radio operators and technicians, many of whom were plucked from civilian jobs and given short indoctrinations into Navy life before being quickly put to work in the Navy as petty officers and chiefs in the fleet.  

To expedite getting these large numbers of new recruits in uniform and to the fleet, the Navy slashed boot camp from eight weeks down to just three within a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Training time would gradually rise again throughout 1942 to the six-week level by December.

By war's end, the length of recruit training would fluctuate 28 times from as low as three weeks to as high as ten weeks, depending on how many recruits shipped off to training each month.

The Navy had existing recruit depots in Norfolk and San Diego as well as Great Lakes. In early 1942 training stations in Port Deposit, Md., Seneca Lake, N.Y. and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho were also authorized and building started. None would train any recruits, though, until later in the year.

The Maryland station, known as Bainbridge Naval Training Station, would survive the war and train Sailors into the early 1970s. The latter two, Farragut in Idaho and Sampson in New York were only in use during World War II.  The Norfolk station would close after the war, too, though San Diego remained in use until the early 1990s.

As every able-bodied Sailor was sent back to sea, the Navy would soon bring in women to fill many of the shore duty support billets with the official authorization to create the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, known as WAVES, coming just days after the victory at Midway. 

Momentum was growing for the Navy and the nation home front even as Nimitz's patchwork quilt of ships fought the Japanese advance in the Pacific, first at the Coral Sea and again a month later with the stunning victory at Midway.

Already men and machines of war were being pushed in large numbers to the war zone, taking the place of those lost in battle and building up the U.S. forces. Had it not been for this early momentum in awaking the American war machine, the United States wouldn't have had the ability to push on from Midway and begin the march across the Pacific just two months later with the invasion of Guadalcanal.      

According to the Navy's official histories, much of the momentum came from the national outrage over Pearl Harbor, followed by the Navy's quick action to capitalize on it in the early months of the war.

This fact was summed up at the wars' end by an anonymous historian.

"Pearl Harbor generated spiritual values within the military forces which carried through to great victories," the historian said. "The same is true of the civilian forces, both in military organizations and on the home front. Except for Pearl Harbor, the United States could have not entered the war as a unified nation."

The "calamity" of the attack, the writer said, threw the nation into action and, "consolidated our people into the greatest war machine imagined by man," and ensured, "all-out war and guaranteed unconditional victory."

More information on the Battle of Midway can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command website

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Editors Note: The details used to write this story were plucked from the U.S Naval Administrative Histories of World War II. These 175 unpublished histories are bound in approximately 300 volumes and exclusively in the collection of the Navy Department Library at the Washington Navy Yard. These documents are the first drafts of the Navy's history of the war. They were written both during and immediately after the war. The assistance of the Naval History and Heritage Command and the Navy Library were invaluable in writing this story.

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