Of Ships, Horses and Bayonets — Just How Big Was the U.S. Navy in 1917?

An American destroyer, circa World War One.

Following last night’s presidential debate, the web has been buzzing over Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s claim that the U.S. Navy is smaller today than it was in 1917, (not to mention President Obama’s pithy comeback).

And it didn’t take long for the folks at the British newspaper, The Guardian to put the governor’s claim to the test. According to the newspaper’s research, the U.S. Navy had 342 warships in 1917, as opposed to its current strength of 285. However today 11 of those vessels are aircraft carriers – arguably the most powerful surface vessels of all time. Interestingly enough, America’s navy would more double in size before the end of the First World War in 1918, reaching 772 ships — the lion’s share of those being destroyers. Still, America’s race to build ships for World War One would pale in comparison to the massive fleet building program that would take place during the subsequent global conflict. The Guardian shows that from 1941 to 1945, the U.S. Navy would grow in size from 790 ships to a staggering 6700 vessels — and 99 of those ships would be aircraft carriers.

For his part, Obama concurred with the governor’s assertion on the size of the navy, pointing out that the military also had more horses and bayonets in 1917 as well. And he was correct, reported  Slate.com this very morning. According to the piece, the Marines, who still train with bayonets, ordered 120,000 of OKC-3S 8-inch blades beginning in 2003. The According to the story, the U.S. Army has scaled back its bayonet training, however it still keeps its smaller 6.7 inch M9s in its inventory. During the First World War, every infantryman in the 4 million strong U.S. military would have carried a bayonet into action and used them.

As for the horses, in 1917, the U.S. Army maintained more than 20 cavalry regiments, exceeding 20,000 men. Currently the, United States has only one cavalry regiment that keeps horses for ceremonial functions. The 1st Cavalry is stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

6 comments for “Of Ships, Horses and Bayonets — Just How Big Was the U.S. Navy in 1917?

  1. 23 October, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Is the Old Guard part of the 1st Cavalry? Just curious.

    During the early months of WWII, the US Navy was down to actually (I believe to the best recollection of my aging mind) one operational carrier in the Pacific after losing the Yorktown, Lexington, Hornet and Wasp. The Big E was severely damaged at Midway and Guadalcanal. Langley was a training carrier and out in the Atlantic.

    Amazingly, by war’s end the US produced over 100 aircraft carriers (including the CVE’s). Unbelievable. But today, if war of a large magnitude would start, that production might would not materialize…

  2. 24 October, 2012 at 11:21 am

    The USN was reduced to just the USS Saratoga in the Pacific after the USS Wasp was sunk and the USS Enterprise at the Battle of Santa Cruz on 26 October 1942. The Americans asked for British help and HMS Victorious was sent to the Pacific.

    The Saratoga was left on her own until May 1943, as Victorious had to be re-equipped with Wildcats and Avengers and to have extra AA guns added before serving in the Pacific. She remained there until the first of the Essex class were operational in September.

    It was discovered that the British were better at defensive operations and the Americans were superior at attack, so Victorious’ Avengers were transferred to Saratoga and some of Saratoga’s Wildcats to Victorious.

    The Japanese had also suffered heavy losses in late 1942, and no major carrier battle took place whilst Victorious was in the Pacific. However, the Saratoga and Victorious did cover the invasion of New Guinea.

    Victorious was called the USS Robin in signals traffic in order to conceal the presence of a British carrier in the Pacific (and her absence from the Atlantic). However, it is a myth that she was renamed USS Robin whilst serving with the USN.

    The USN training carrier was the USS Ranger; the USS Langley was converted to a seaplane tender in 1937 and was sunk in February 1942.

  3. 25 October, 2012 at 6:54 am

    Well in fifty years of enjoying naval history I never knew that USS Robin thing. A great pub-quizz question.

    Thanks!

    • 25 October, 2012 at 8:10 am

      I agree… great bit of trivia about the Robin.

      • 25 October, 2012 at 9:43 am

        There is more about HMS Victorious/USS Robin at the link below:

        http://www.armchairgeneral.com/uss-robin-the-victorious-u-s-carrier-that-didnt-exist.htm

        Also, the first paragraph in my reply above does not make sense. It should read (alteration in capitals):

        The USN was reduced to just the USS Saratoga in the Pacific after the USS Wasp was sunk and the USS Enterprise SEVERELY DAMAGED at the Battle of Santa Cruz on 26 October 1942. The Americans asked for British help and HMS Victorious was sent to the Pacific.

  4. 25 October, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    BTW, nice pic of the WW1 Destroyer.

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