Admiral William S. Sims

Inducted: 1972
Born: 10/15/1958
Died: 09/26/1936

Admiral William S. Sims modernized gunnery and professionalism in the late 19th and early 20th century U.S. Navy, placing him among the most influential figures of the modern Navy. During World War I, he commanded all United States Naval forces operating in Europe. He also served twice as president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Sims was born to American father Alfred William and Canadian mother Adelaide Sowden in Port Hope, Canada West. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1880, the beginning of an era of naval reform and greater professionalization. Commodore Stephen B. Luce founded the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1884 to be the service’s professional school. During the same era, Naval War College instructor Captain Alfred Mahan was writing influential books on naval strategy and sea power, during that time. In March 1897, shortly after his promotion to lieutenant, Sims was assigned as the military attaché to Paris and St. Petersburg. In this position, he became aware of naval technology developments in Europe as well gaining familiarity with European politics, which would greatly assist him during World War I. He was in this assignment during the Spanish–American War during which Sims was able to use his diplomatic connections to gain information on Spain and its high-ranking officials.

As a young officer, Sims sought to reform naval gunnery by improving target practice. His superiors resisted his suggestions, failing to see the necessity. He was also hindered by his low rank. In 1902, Sims wrote directly to President Theodore Roosevelt. The president, who had previously served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was intrigued by Sims’ ideas and made him the Navy’s Inspector of Naval Gunnery on November 5, 1902, shortly after which Sims was promoted to lieutenant commander and then to commander in 1907. From 1911 to 1912, Sims attended the Naval War College. Promoted to captain in 1911, he became Commander of the Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla in July 1913. On March 11, 1916, Sims became the first captain of the battleship USS Nevada, the largest, most modern, and most powerful ship in the U.S. Navy at that time. His selection as her captain shows the esteem in which he was held in the Navy. Shortly before the United States entered World War I, then Rear Admiral Sims was assigned as the president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in February 1917. Just before the U.S. entered the war, the Wilson administration sent him to London as the senior naval representative. After the U.S. entry in April 1917, Sims was given command over U.S. naval forces operating from Britain. He received a temporary promotion to vice admiral in May 1917.

The major threat he faced was a highly effective German submarine campaign against freighters bringing vital food and munitions to the Allies. The combined Anglo-American naval war against U-boats in the western approaches to the British Isles in 1917–18 was a success due to the ability of Sims to work smoothly with his British counterpart, Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly. Sims believed the Navy Department in Washington, which was headed by Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, was failing to provide him with sufficient authority, information, autonomy, manpower, and naval forces. He ended the war as a vice admiral, in command of all U.S. naval forces operating in Europe. Shortly after the Armistice, Sims was promoted to temporary admiral in December 1918 but reverted to his permanent rank of rear admiral in April 1919 when he was assigned as president of the Naval War College.

In 1919, Sims publicly attacked the deficiencies of American naval strategy, tactics, policy, and administration. He charged the failures had cost the Allies 2,500,000 tons of supplies, thereby prolonging the war by six months. He estimated the delay had raised the cost of the war to the Allies by $15 billion and that it led to the unnecessary loss of 500,000 lives. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels was more of a politician than a naval strategist, but he ably countered the accusations. He argued that Sims’ vantage point in London was too narrow to assess accurately the overall war effort by the U.S. Navy. Daniels cited prewar naval preparations and strategy proposals made by other American leaders during the war to disprove Sims’ charges.

Despite the public acrimony, Sims emerged with his reputation unharmed, although some historians believe it cost him promotion to the rank of Admiral of the Navy. He did, however, serve a second tour as president of the Naval War College from 1919 to 1922.  It was during his time at the Naval War College that he wrote and published his book The Victory at Sea, which describes his experiences in World War I. In 1921 , The Victory at Sea won the Pulitzer Prize for History, making Sims the only career naval officer to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Sims married Anne Erwin Hitchcock, who was sixteen years his junior, in 1905. The couple had five children: three daughters (Margaret, Adelaide, and Anne) and two sons (William S. Sims, Jr. and Ethan Sims). He retired from the Navy in October 1922, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 64. In retirement, he lived at 73 Catherine Street in Newport, Rhode Island. He appeared on the cover of the October 26, 1925 issue of Time magazine and was the subject of a feature article. He was promoted to full admiral on the retired list in 1930. In 1929, he was honored with a Doctor of Laws from Bates College. Columbia University conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws upon him on June 2, 1920. Williams College conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws during its June 21, 1920, commencement exercises. Four ships have been named USS Sims—the World War II-era destroyer USS Sims (DD-409) and destroyer escort USS Sims (DE-154). A transport vessel was named USS Admiral W. S. Sims. Additionally, the Knox-class frigate USS W. S. Sims (FF-1059) was commissioned in 1970. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp panel on February 4, 2010, depicting Admiral Sims. In 1947, the Naval War College acquired an existing barracks building, which they converted to a secondary war gaming facility, naming it Sims Hall after its former president.

Admiral Sims died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1936 at the age of 77. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1972.  

For additional reading:

  1. William N. Still. Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I.
  2. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Vol. V, p. 52.
  3. Michael Simpson, “Admiral William S. Sims, U.S. Navy, and Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, Royal Navy: An Unlikely Friendship and Anglo-American Cooperation, 1917–1919”, Naval War College Review, Spring 1988,
  4.  “Burial detail: Sims, William S”. ANC .
  5. Sims, William (1920). The Victory at Sea. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co. p. 352.
  6. The Washington Post. June 2, 1920. “Columbia to Honor Five”. p 6, column 3.
  7. The Washington Post (Washington DC). Tuesday, 22 June 1920. “Williams Honors Pershing. Admiral Sims and Franklin K. Lane Also Given LL.D’s.” no. 16,079, p 6, column 6.
  8.  “Distinguished Sailors Saluted On Stamps”. USPS release no. 10-009.
  9. Allard, Dean C., “Admiral William S. Sims and United States Naval Policy in World War I” in American Neptune 35 (April 1975).
  10. Coletta, Paolo E. “Naval Lessons of the Great War: The William Sims-Josephus Daniels Controversy,” American Neptune, Sept 1991, Vol. 51 Issue 4, pp 241–251
  11. Hagan, Kenneth J., “William S. Sims: Naval Insurgent and Coalition Warrior” in The Human Tradition in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era Ballard C. Campbell, ed. (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000).
  12. Hagan, Kenneth J., and Michael T. McMaster, “His Remarks Reverberated from Berlin to Washington,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (December 2010):
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