William Shepherd Benson (25 September 1855 – 20 May 1932) was an Admiral in the United States Navy and the first Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), holding the post throughout World War I.
Born in Bibb County, Georgia, Benson graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1877. His early years of sea duty included cruise around the World in Dolphin during the 1880s. He was also active in coast survey and hydrographic duties, was an instructor at the Naval Academy, commanded the cruiser Albany (CL-23) and served as a flag aide, in addition to other assignments.
In 1909, Benson was promoted to Captain and became Chief of Staff of the US Pacific Fleet. In 1911, Benson became the first Commanding Officer of the battleship Utah (BB-31). He was Commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1913-15.
In May 1915 he was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral and became the Navy's first Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), functionally replacing Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske, the last Aide for Naval Operations.
Benson was heavily involved in defining the functions of the new CNO position and strengthening the Navy during a period marked by internal Navy Department tensions, U.S. interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, and the world war. Promoted to the rank of Admiral in 1916, his responsibilities greatly expanded when the United States entered the First World War in April 1917. Over the next year and a half, he oversaw a huge expansion of the Navy, the extension of its operations to European waters and the transportation of the Army's American Expeditionary Forces to France. After the November 1918 Armistice, he was an active participant in the lengthy peace negotiations held in France.
In World War I the Navy explored aviation, both land-based and carrier based. However the Navy nearly abolished aviation in 1919 when Benson could not "...conceive of any use the fleet will ever have for aviation," and he secretly tried to abolish the Navy's Aviation Division. However, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed the decision because he believed naval aviation might someday be "the principal factor" at sea with missions to bomb enemy warships, scout enemy fleets, map mine fields, and escort convoys. Grudgingly allowing it a minor mission, the Navy slowly built up its aviation arm. U.S. Naval Aviation later proved to be the decisive advantage for the U.S Navy that ensured victory during World War II, the duration of the Cold War, and it remains today as the centerpiece of the combat striking arms of the United States Navy.
Benson retired from the Naval service in September 1919. Over the next decade, he was active in the leadership of the U.S. Shipping Board. Admiral William S. Benson died in Washington, D.C.
His mother, Catherine Brewer Benson, was the first woman to receive a degree Georgia Female College (now Wesleyan College).
His son Commodore Howard Hartwell James Benson, also a career Navy officer, received the Navy Cross and Legion of Merit.
USS Benson (DD-421) and USS Admiral W. S. Benson (AP-120) were named in his honor.