The Secretary of State to the British Ambassador (Lindsay) 38

The Secretary of State has given careful study to an aide-mémoire dated June 6, 1932, which the British Ambassador left with him, relating to the present status of four former United States destroyers which have recently been converted into banana carriers, and two of which are flying a foreign flag. In connection with these ships Sir Ronald Lindsay raised one question of fact and two questions concerning the interpretation of existing treaties.
Before discussing either of these questions, Mr. Stimson desires to review the circumstances surrounding the conversion of these destroyers into merchant vessels.
The four destroyers in question, the Worden, Putnam, Osborne and Dale were stricken from the Navy list on October 22, 1930, and after being stripped of their ordnance and other equipment were sold to the Boston Iron and Metal Company, Inc., of 313 Hanover Street, Baltimore, for purposes of scrapping, under an agreement dated [Page 41] January 14, 1931. Pertinent provisions of the catalogue under which the vessels were advertised for sale (No. 365–B of January 10, 1931) and of the specific agreement of sale are to be found in an annex to this aide-mémoire. 39
Subsequently, on February 5, 1931, the Boston Iron and Metal Company requested the sanction of the Navy Department to reduce the Worden and Putnam to the condition of hulks and to sell them to the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company of New Orleans for service as fruit boats. The plans submitted contemplated carrying out completely the pertinent provisions of the London Treaty as given in Section II, Annex II, and thereafter reengining the vessels with Diesel engines. This request for a change in contract was acceded to by officers in the Navy Department and a supplementary agreement was signed modifying the original contract.
The pertinent provisions of this new contract, dated February 6, 1931, follow:
  • “(2) That in lieu of scrapping Destroyers Nos. 287 and 288, the U.S.S. Worden and the U.S.S. Putnam , the purchaser is authorized to convert said two vessels to hulks. Said conversion shall, in accordance with the requirements of the London Treaty, consist of removing and landing or else destroying in the ships
    all guns and essential parts of guns, fire control tops and revolving parts of all barbettes and turrets;
    all hydraulic or electric machinery for operating turrets;
    all fire control instruments and range finders;
    all ammunition, explosives, mines and mine rails;
    all torpedoes, war heads, torpedo tubes and training racks
  • and by effecting the following:
    mutilation beyond repair of all propeller shafts, thrust blocks, turbine gearing or main propelling motors, and turbines or cylinders of main engines;
    removal of propeller brackets
    removal and breaking up of all aircraft lifts, and removal of all aircraft cranes, derricks and launching apparatus.
  • “(3) The purchaser will notify the Government when the work of converting the U.S.S. Worden and the U.S.S. Putnam to hulks has been finally accomplished and said vessels shall not be turned over to the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company or to any other party until the work of conversion has been inspected by the Government and the Government is satisfied that the work has been completed to conform in every respect with the treaty requirements. Any expense necessary to complete said work to conform to such requirements shall be borne by the purchaser.
  • “(4) The work of converting these vessels to hulks shall be completed not later than December 31, 1936. If notice shall not have been received by July 1, 1936, of the completion of such work, the Government may investigate the progress made thereon, and if in the opinion of the Secretary of the Navy sufficient work has not been performed to insure complete conversion as aforesaid prior to December 31, 1936, then the Government shall have the right at any time after July 1, 1936, to again take possession or assume control of the vessels and any work thereon and to proceed in such manner as it may deem expedient to complete the work of conversion as above set forth.
  • “(6) Except as specifically provided herein, all the provisions of the contract aforesaid shall be and remain in full force and effect. Nothing contained in this agreement or done or required under its terms shall operate to annul, release, or otherwise affect the validity of any bond given in connection with agreement dated January 14, 1931, and said bonds shall remain in full force and effect in the same manner and with like effect as if the modifications provided for herein had been made a part of the original contract at the time of its execution, and the sureties under said bonds shall, and by signing hereby do, consent to this agreement for the purpose of extending their obligation to the modifications aforesaid.”
In response to a further request from the purchaser, a similar agreement was signed on May 6, 1931, with respect to the Dale and Osborne .
The vessels were thereupon reduced to hulks, the Worden and the Putnam prior to April 2, 1931, the Dale and the Osborne prior to July 29, 1931. In this connection Sir Ronald Lindsay raised the question as to whether all of the rules for conversion as found in the London Treaty, embracing as they do, not only the removal of armaments, flying decks, ammunition lifts, etc., but also the mutilation beyond repair of certain parts of the engines, were thoroughly carried out.
The Secretary of State has made careful inquiry on this point. He is informed by the Navy Department that all of these vessels were inspected after the work of reduction was completed and were found to have been reduced to hulks in strict accordance with the terms of the Treaty. The Secretary of State is thus able to assure the British Ambassador, in answer to the question of fact which he has raised, that the requirements of the Treaty of London governing reduction of vessels to hulks were fully complied with.
In addition to this question of fact, Sir Ronald Lindsay raised two questions concerning the interpretation of existing Treaties.
One of these questions was whether the transfer of two of these vessels to foreign registry is in violation of Article 18 of the Washington Treaty, which forbids the transfer of any vessel of [Page 43] war “in such a manner that such a vessel may become a vessel of war in the navy of any foreign power.” Sir Ronald Lindsay holds that, according to the terms of this article, the parties to the Washington Treaty should make it a condition upon selling any vessel of war that it would not subsequently be placed under a foreign mercantile flag. In this contention, the American Government concurs. The transfer to foreign registry of the two ex-destroyers which are now flying the Nicaraguan flag was not only unauthorized, but was in fact a violation of the requirement that “such vessel will be documented promptly under the laws of the United States if it is to be operated as a vessel subsequent to sale”, found under Article 24 of the catalogue of January 10, 1931, quoted in the annex. The Navy Department has given no sanction for other action.
Steps have already been initiated to require the purchasers of these two destroyers promptly to retransfer the vessels to American registry. Pending the completion of the necessary formalities, it should be borne in mind that the vessels are still under American ownership and that their present condition and characteristics are such as to render them valueless for combatant purposes.
The second question concerning treaty interpretation raised by Sir Ronald Lindsay relates to the interpretation of the Treaty of London with respect to the subsequent reconversion into merchant ships of vessels which have been reduced to hulks. The Secretary of State is glad to inform the British Ambassador that the American Government’s interpretation of the Treaty in this respect is precisely the same as that of the British Government, namely that the Treaty as it stands does not contemplate the reengining or reconditioning of such hulks, and that the governments concerned will not countenance such action. It was only due to a misconception of this interpretation of the Treaty on the part of the officials charged with the sale of the destroyers that their reconditioning was agreed to. This misconception has been corrected and will not occur again.
Although the American Government does not seem to possess the power at the present time to secure any alteration in the present physical condition of these four vessels, inasmuch as the terms of sale contained no provision to prevent their being reengined by the purchaser, nevertheless the American Government hereby gives the assurance (1) that the ex-destroyers, Worden, Putnam, Osborne and Dale will never be used for naval purposes by this Government, and (2) that it will in the future assure itself that American naval vessels disposed of by conversion to a hulk under the provisions of the London Treaty shall be finally disposed of, and that provision [Page 44] shall be made with any purchaser of a hulk to prevent its being subsequently reconditioned.
With the two safeguards indicated above, namely, the transfer back to American registry of the two destroyers now flying a foreign flag, and the assurance that the four destroyers will never be used for naval purposes in this country, the Secretary of State believes that the purpose of the pertinent portions of the naval treaties, namely, to prevent the reconversion into warships of naval vessels which had been disposed of, has been fully assured.
In the circumstances, the Secretary of State plans to lay the facts of this case before all the other parties to the Washington and London Treaties and to repeat the commitments given above.40
  1. Handed to the British Ambassador by the Secretary of State July 21, 1932.
  2. Not printed.
  3. In despatches dated August 31, 1932, the Secretary of State instructed the American Ambassadors in France, Italy, and Japan to convey to the respective Governments to which they were accredited the substance of the above aide-mémoire.