"We are ready now, sir" said Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Taussig, division commander for the first six U.S. destroyers to arrive in Europe (in Queenstown, now Cobh, Ireland) 100 years ago on May 4, 1917, in response to a question from the local British commander on when the U.S. destroyers could commence operations against German U-boats.  

It's not exactly what Taussig said, although the gist was correct, but it's what the British press reported. The "quote" became the most famous U.S. Navy rallying cry of the war. It was also a huge boost to British morale at a time when U-boats were sinking British merchant ships at a rate that gravely threatened the entire Allied war effort and Britain's very survival.

In many respects, however, the U.S. Navy (and the U.S. Army, too) were far from being ready to go to war. The U.S. had tried very hard to stay out of the First World War and the horrific carnage of millions of futile deaths that characterized the war.

The British naval blockade of Germany, which disrupted U.S. trade to Europe, angered the U.S. almost as much as German actions. Even the sinking of the liner SS Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915, and the loss of 128 of the 139 American civilians on board, was not enough to overcome intense opposition in the U.S. to going to war.

Only belatedly did President Woodrow Wilson and Congress authorize serious preparations and a massive naval buildup (the Naval Act of 1916), but none of those new ships would be ready by the time the U.S. declared war on April 6, 1917, resulting from the German’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare that February.

World War I would profoundly change the U.S. Navy, and naval warfare, ever after. The rapid building program created the second-largest navy in the world. Two U.S. technological innovations early in the war, underway refueling and reliable radio-telephones, were significant in defeating the U-boat threat and revolutionized naval warfare.

Social change in the Navy also was profound. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, a strong proponent of rapid technological development, also implemented programs aimed at improving the training, safety and living standards (and morals) of the Navy’s enlisted ranks. In March 1917, Loretta Perfectus Walshwould enlist as the first "Yeoman (F)," and 13,000 more women would follow.

Conversely, Daniels implemented racial segregation in the Navy, ending the full integration of blacks that had been the case in the enlisted ranks since at least the War of 1812.

In the end, the key contribution of the U.S. Navy was to prevent U-boats from sinking the transport ships that safely delivered 2 million U.S. troops to the Western Front in France — where they were then killed in large numbers, but which decisively changed the course of the war, resulting in Germany's rapid defeat after years of bloody stalemate.   

Retired Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox

Photo Credit: Courtesy photos

Retired Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox is the d

irector of Naval History and Heritage Command. His piece was provided to Military Times by the World War I Centennial Commission; for more on the commission, including their work to create a National World War I Memorial in Washington, visit


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