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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

Hugh Rodman, USN

published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p24  Chapter II
Early Days in the Navy

From the time I was old enough to think, I had an insatiable desire to travel and see the world, and when an opportunity offered of entering the Naval Academy, it seemed as if my cup of happiness was full to overflowing.

Now, taking a retrospective view, looking at life from its various aspects, I can think of nothing that offers more interest, greater diversity or more varied experience, than life in the navy. From the money standpoint the inducements are not great, for while the pay and emoluments are barely sufficient to meet one's needs, they are still ample if rigid economy is practised. Doubtless civil life offers far greater opportunities and advantages for money-making, if that be the main object in life, yet if one serves long enough in the navy, he is sure of a reasonable pension, and throughout his active service and afterward he has many compensations which make up, to some extent, for the lack of riches.

One thing is assured in the navy, namely, that as long as one behaves himself and gives his best efforts to the service, his salary will be steadily increased. He has no worry about business conditions, no fierce competitive commercial activities, but a surety that his salary will be paid promptly and that his status is fixed for life. Then, too, should he be ill or incapacitated, incident to the service, not only will he have free  p25 hospitalization, but his salary will continue, or a reasonable pension will be awarded in case of retirement.

In addition to one month's leave each year on full pay, he has many opportunities to be absent from his ship for short periods when in port; and this, coupled with visits to places all over the face of the globe, not only offers interest and enjoyment, but is educational and broadening.

Annapolis Training To begin with, a graduate has received an excellent education at the Naval Academy, which is offered gratis by the government, in addition to which a modest salary is also granted during the four-year course, which, if he has been frugal, will enable him to purchase his outfit from his savings on graduation.

But should he then feel that he may be unfitted for naval life and that he might not like the service, he will have no difficulty in obtaining a position in one of a number of large scientific, manufacturing, commercial or other business concerns which recognize the value of Annapolis training, and offer inducements to him to enter their employ. He is valued not only for his scientific education, but also because he has learned and can exercise discipline.

Discipline in the navy is not directed simply toward saluting a superior or answering the salute of a junior, but applies more particularly to the recognition of authority and leadership, and the loyal and dependable enforcement or execution of orders.

The primary object of the Naval Academy is to educate young men to be naval officers. There is no better school for its purpose than the one at Annapolis. Its mission is admirably defined officially as follows:

 p26  "To mold the material received into educated gentlemen, thoroughly indoctrinated with honor, uprightness and truth, with practical rather than academic minds, with thorough loyalty to country, with a ground-work of educational fundamentals upon which experience afloat may build the finished naval officer, capable of upholding, whenever and wherever necessary, the honor of the United States; and withal giving due consideration to the fact that healthy minds in healthy bodies are necessities for the fulfillment of the individual missions of the graduates. . . ."

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The entrance age is from sixteen to nineteen inclusive, and the educational qualifications are about those which a high school graduate could pass.

The term at the Academy is four years, and the subjects covered are mathematics, elementary and advanced the natural sciences, English, French or Spanish, constitutional and international law, and professional subjects — seamanship, gunnery, navigation, engineering in its various forms, and others.

No sane person claims that a young graduate is of necessity a trained and accomplished naval officer; but no one can deny that he has the basic education to become one, and lacks only the opportunity of experience. This can only be acquired on board ship under service conditions, where he must spend a number of years before being assigned to shore duty.

No matter how thorough a school may be, whether it be the Naval Academy, West Point, a school of medicine, law, engineering or what‑not, a graduate has received only the preliminary instruction in his chosen profession, and can become proficient by experience alone.

Recently (1927) a retired flag officer of the navy, in an article published in a current magazine, made a most unjust and unwarranted attack on the Naval Academy under the heading, Annapolis — Our Amateur Naval College.a

In this article instance after instance is cited where members of the Annual Board of Visitors to the Naval Academy from 1921 to 1926 inclusive, or the boards themselves, have made recommendations which the reader is led to believe were never adopted, to the detriment of the Academy. All of his remarks are fully answered by the published report of the Annual Board of Visitors to the Naval Academy for 1926. The following is an extract from it:

Present Condition of the Naval Academy

"The Board of Visitors after as intensive and comprehensive an examination as possible during their sessions, of the equipment, methods, training, policies, etc., of the United States Naval Academy, desires to say that it is the board's unanimous opinion that the academy is being conducted on the very highest standards of efficiency, is being kept abreast of the times  p28 and in accordance with the best traditions of the Navy in particular; and to commend the superintendent and his able staff of assistants for the highly satisfactory and efficient way in which they are discharging their duties."b

While abroad during the World War, serving in the Grand Fleet, I had many friendly discussions with ranking British officers who had had experience at their Naval School and had made a study of its policy and methods. We discussed our respective systems with open minds from every standpoint. They were all impressed with the adaptability of our young officers, and with the fact that they could be transferred from navigation to the engine-room, from one kind of duty to another, from gunnery to radio, and soon be at home and proficient in their new duties.

In the British system they are not so highly educated, and after leaving their Academy, are more apt to specialize and spend much of their time in the same class of duty. Also, boys of fourteen are assigned to ships as midshipmen and given a great deal of boat duty, the idea being to give them preliminary instruction in sea duties.

In summing up from personal observation, I would say that the older or senior British naval officers are better seamen than ours, because they have spent nearly their whole careers at sea, and handling a ship has become second nature to them.

On the other hand, our younger officers are better educated professionally and more adaptable to the various duties on board ship and, I think, superior to the British. At any rate, there are no glaring faults in either system, for both produce as good officers as any other nation on earth, if not better ones.

 p29  Navy Requirements Like any other great enterprise with numerous ramifications the navy requires officers with a diversity of talent, and encourages specialization in its different branches and corps. But no matter how clever one may be as a specialist along certain lines, every seagoing officer of the line must be an efficient seaman if he would aspire to qualify in the most important characteristic of our profession.

Naval battles are not the result of haphazard meetings of hostile ships on the high seas, where the conclusion is determined alone by gun‑fire and other means of destruction. The result is largely dependent upon strategy and tactics, and particularly upon the ability of officers to handle their respective commands, whether they be fleets, squadrons, divisions or single ships, on making contact with the enemy and during the engagement.

A man may be the greatest strategist on earth, or a theorist with the ability to elucidate his ideas clearly in print and gain public recognition by sensational articles in the press and periodicals; but unless he be a qualified seaman who can handle his command efficiently and to the best advantage in action, his other achievements will not avail him.

Common sense and seamanship combined with an intimate knowledge of his material and personnel are the prime necessities of a naval officer afloat in time of war.

After all, when one comes those think of it, ships are built to fight; that is their ultimate mission, and officers whose ability in this direction has been demonstrated on the bridge rather than through the fountain pen, used from a swivel chair, should be chosen to command them. A man who would disparage education  p30 in any form is a fool; but one who may be a plausible theorist, but is impractical otherwise, has no place on board ship.

I once knew a doctor who had made quite a reputation by his research and investigations, and who wrote a most interesting and instructive account of them. He was a theorist, and it was said of him that he knew more medicine in each of the three languages which he spoke than the average doctor knows in one. Yet no one would employ him on board ship if they could get any one else. He was so impracticable that in actual practise he couldn't tell boils from bunions, and didn't know how to treat either.

The greatest naval strategist the world has ever known, and the one whose writings are accepted as the highest authority, was not a good seaman.c

I was shipmates with him once in the South Pacific, when he commanded one of our old wooden cruisers. Our ship collided with a bark under sail, which without question had the right of way. It was our duty to keep clear. We were under sail before the wind, steering north; she was on the port tack heading about W. S. W. and was sighted broad off our starboard bow, distant several miles. Yet we collided with her and were badly damaged, and all hands called to abandon ship, though this was later found to be unnecessary.

There was never a court-martial of any kind, but when one of our officers, who was something of a wag, was asked the reason of the collision, he and, "Why, the Pacific Ocean wasn't big enough for us to keep out of the other fellow's way."

Whether it be true or not, it is generally understood that this same commanding officer was later detached  p31 from command of the European flag-ship and sent home on account of lack of adaptability as a seaman.

The Swivel-Chair Artist This is not set forth to disparage this officer — far from it — for he did the service a world of good by his writings and his lectures at the War College, and set our navy and those of other nations thinking along new lines. But it is given as an example that while knowledge and the ability to write are great adjuncts, unless one has had experience at sea and can exercise his knowledge intelligently, he is no good afloat.

For example, during the late war some officers advocated "blisters" (water-tight compartments) on the bottoms of battle-ships; some held opposite views, for there were advantages and disadvantages in their use. Some officers made it a practise to remain on shore during both the Spanish and the World Wars, and have never been attached regularly to a fighting ship during any war, nor heard a hostile gun. It would be logical for such an one to advocate blisters on the bottom (from his position in a swivel chair); while others who were afloat throughout the two aforesaid wars would oppose blistered bottoms, since they had never had the opportunity to acquire them.

Yet the swivel-chair artist with the fountain‑pen, even though he has never seen nor experienced naval warfare afloat, sets himself up as an authority on all matters pertaining to the navy and naval warfare; and, so far as the uninitiated and inexperienced public is concerned, gets away with it — at least for a while.

Playing to the gallery is like trying to steal a pot on a "busted flush." It may work once or twice, but in the end it is a losing game if you keep at it persistently.

 p32  I have never yet seen any one man in the naval or military service who pretended to know it all, who tried to ride roughshod over the opinions of every one else, and who set himself up for a specially inspired, infallible critic, who did not meet his Waterloo in the long or short run and was chucked into the discard as far as others of his profession were concerned.

One of the simplest and easiest things in the world to do is to prophesy, to make recommendations prior to and during a war, then occupy a soft billet on shore during hostilities. "Stick close to your desk and never go to sea," as Sir John Porter sings in Pinafore, and then at the end of the war say, "I told you so." You can't beat it.

Don't for a moment think that there is the slightest intent or desire to cast any aspersions on the motives or efficiency of some of the excellent officers who served on shore during the World War from force of circumstance, after doing their utmost to get to sea, for such is not my purpose. My thoughts revert more to any one who has never been permanently afloat in war, and yet sets himself up as the authority on all matters pertaining to the navy, and rarely loses an opportunity to parade it.

Co­ordination Essential It is fortunate that both the army and navy services soon get a thorough understanding of the tactics and purpose of these incendiaries, who lose caste and are relegated to the dump, so far as their opinion is concerned, by the administration, General Board of the Navy or General Staff of the Army, and the older and more experienced officers whose opinions are respected.

Even the air service was recently subjected to a severe grilling by oned1 who apparently advocated the  p33 use of aircraft alone to the exclusion of all other branches and activities of both the army and navy. Every one knows that aeronautics will be a most important factor in any future wars, but in my judgment it will neither supersede nor eliminate the others.

There has never been a new invention or radical improvement applicable to war, which was not heralded as a means of revolutionizing warfare.

In our own times, going back to the Civil War, Admiral Farragut spread his chain cables along the sides of his wooden ship to stop the cast-iron shells from the Confederate batteries at the entrance to Mobile Bay. The Confederates built the Merrimac, covered her sides with iron, and she was successful in her engagements with the wooden Union ships at Hampton Roads. She in turn was beaten by the Monitor with its low free-board, turrets and heavier armor. And from that day to this there have been improvements in guns and armor.

Then followed the mobile torpedo; its advocates claimed that no ship could withstand its under-water body-blow and survive. Hence torpedoes were destined to sink all ships afloat in time of war.

So torpedo-boats were hurriedly built and added to the fleets, followed almost at once by torpedo-boat destroyers, and they in turn by fast light cruisers, and last, but not least, by battle cruisers, each in turn to destroy the smaller type.

Then came the submarine; now, surely, its advocates protested, no ship could survive its attacks and remain afloat at the end of a war; it would sweep the seas of surface craft.

And finally came the aircraft, the dirigible and the heavier-than‑air planes, which, according to their most  p34 prominent advocated2 and some of his disciples, would eliminate the necessity of considering any other branch of the service. As for the navy, it might as well be scrapped at once; it could be annihilated and sunk overnight, so it wasn't worth considering.

As the larger and larger craft keep the smaller ones down, so there are always ways and means found to combat anything new. The hydrophone and the depth charge, with scientific methods of finding and attacking submarines, greatly reduced their successful activities which at first, when directed almost entirely against commercial ships with inadequate means of defense, threatened very seriously the Allies' oversea lines of food and supplies.

While aircraft are important and necessary and will take a prominent place, they, like any other branch, must be coordinated with the whole and not be considered separately.

Just one more thought with reference to duty ashore and afloat during war. At the conclusion of the World War a bill was introduced into Congress to give advanced rank to the two officers who held the most important billets on shore during the war, but the bill failed to mention any who had been afloat, though one or more of the latter were discussed in the hearings. My honest opinion is that no one of flag rank accomplished anything heroic or performed any specially meritorious or extraordinary duty ashore or afloat, that would warrant advancement in rank. To my mind such rewards are associated with highly successful and meritorious operations against the enemy in actual combat; and no such opportunity offered to any flag officer in our service during the war.

Here it should be stated that the two officers in  p35 question were efficient, untiring in their efforts, and highly deserving of praise for their work. Yet had they alone been advanced and no officers afloat received like consideration, it is my humble opinion that when the danger flag shall have been hoisted on the approach of the next war, there will be such a rush and scramble for swivel chairs and press agents that last comers may have to content themselves with three-legged stools and do their own typewriting.

"The Fighting Over, Talk Begins" This long-winded digression is in keeping with the farewell address made by Admiral Beatty on board my flag-ship at the end of the war, when he came to bid us Godspeed and bon voyage. He said: "Now that the fighting is over, the talking will begin"; and he was dead right; and if I, like many another, am guilty of expressing my views in public, one of my objects, at least, is to call attention to certain types of officers who believe that the fountain‑pen, shore duty in time of war, and the limelight are mightier than the quarterdeck.

An enlisted man also has the opportunity of acquiring an educational training to fit him for his duties. After a short term of general training, he is encouraged to specialize in any one of a number of activities, and with due consideration of his duties and ability, he has reasonable assurance that he will be given ample opportunity and assistance to better himself; he may even become a commissioned officer. To‑day the navy is a vast educational establishment, for both officers and men. When the latter have completed their four-year term of enlistment and made good, there is such a demand in civil life for their services, at a salary so much higher than that paid in the navy, that we find difficulty in keeping many of our best.

 p36  How different are our men to‑day in looks and age from what they seemed to us, forty‑odd years ago, when we had real old‑time sailors on board — men who had spent their lives at sea in all sorts of craft, and who knew no other life. All, with the exception of the apprentices, looked so much older than the men do now; many of them wore beards, some with most fantastic trims. While a full beard was the most common, there were also Burnsides, Dundrearys, Horace Greeleys, clean chins with mutton-chops, side-whiskers and mustache, chin whiskers and clean-shaven cheeks, and other forms. And, strange to relate, the officers led in variety; rarely was there a clean-shaved face among them.

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There were many well-known characters among the old sailors of my early days at sea, who were known throughout the service, and many a yarn have I heard of their vagaries. Their careers had been varied; they had served in many different classes of vessels, both naval and merchant, as well as in whalers and fishing boats. It was even rumored that some had been in slave ships or had engaged in smuggling, and that one or two, at least, had actually been pirates!

On a night watch, as midshipmen of the forecastle, under sail in the trade winds in equatorial waters, we used to take great pleasure in listening to their yarns and discussing the finer points of sailorizing with them.

A Valparaiso Mermaid I remember hearing old Jim Johnson, captain of the forecastle, telling some young apprentices of a yarn about a mermaid in Valparaiso, a synopsis of which was about as follows:

On a Sunday morning about church-time, the Hartford anchored in Valparaiso, Chile, in forty-three  p37 fathoms of water, in the outer harbor, outside of all shipping. This was an unusual depth in which to anchor. Unfortunately a mermaid had built her house there to avoid the danger of an anchor damaging it, but the Hartford's anchor had gone down her chimney and scattered soot and ashes all over her room while she was curling her hair to go to church. She immediately came to the surface at the starboard gangway and insisted on seeing the captain, who, when he appeared, was soundly berated and told that he was no gentleman.

All through his yarn Jim was interrupted by ridicule, was informed that he was probably mighty close kin to old Colonel Ananias, and was shown plainly that his audience didn't believe a word he said.

Then Johnson, knowing full well that I had listened in, said, "If you don't believe me, ask Mr. Rodman. He was shipmates with me then."

One of the apprentices, approaching, said, "May I speak to you, Mr. Rodman?" which is an enlisted man's conventional method of getting a hearing.

"Certainly; what can I do for you?"

"Were you ever shipmates with Jim Johnson before this cruise?"


"What ship was it?"

"The Hartford."

"Did you visit Valparaiso?"


"Do you remember the day of the week and time of day you anchored?"

"Yes; it was Sunday, about ten forty-five A.M.."

"Just one more question, Mr. Rodman. Do you remember the depth you anchored in?

 p38  "Yes, very well; it was in the outer harbor, in about forty-five fathoms."

"Thank you, sir," and turning to the others, he said, "Old Jim Johnson was right, for Mr. Rodman was there and remembered all about it."

Only Married Men Peter Worms was a grizzled veteran of the Mexican and Civil Wars, probably seventy‑odd years of age, with a face deeply scarred, wrinkled and weather-worn, and a leathery complexion. He had a scraggly beard and a thin crop of reddish-gray hair. He rarely smiled and only spoke when necessary in the performance of his duty.

We were in New York, under orders for China, and our captain had issued an order that in the remaining days in port only the married men would be granted liberty. Peter came to me, as the officer of the deck, and said, "Request permission to go on liberty."

"Only the married men can get liberty."

"I'm a married man, sir."

"The devil you are; where does your wife live?"

"H‑m‑m — up in Harlem, sir."

"What street?"

"H‑m‑m — about One Hundred Twenty-seventh."

"What's the number of the house?"

"About the same as the street."

"You know perfectly well that you aren't married, and you can't go."

It was plainly to be seen, from his whole manner and his hesitancy in answering, that his replies were fabrications.

He went away, but within thirty minutes he was again at the mast, which is the technical term for the place of consultation, this time with a very much  p39 painted and bedecked "chippie" apparently about eighteen — silk dress, feathers in her hat, and an abundance of cheap jewelry. Where on earth he had accumulated her in that short time I do not know.

Again Peter asked permission to go on liberty.

"Look here, Worms, you have been informed, and know full well, that no one but married men can go ashore."

"I'm a married man, sir; and this is my wife."

"The mischief you say; what is her name?"

Turning to her sharply, he said, "What is your name, you hussy?" Before she could reply, and realizing his predicament, he turned to me and said, "Why, it's Mrs. Worms, sir; you don't suppose I'd associate with any one but a lady, do you?"

This was too much; it was impossible to keep my face straight, so I said, "Go to it, Peter; have your name put on the liberty list." And the last I saw of him, he had hired a hack with two horses, had "Mrs. Worms" with him and, amidst the plaudits of the crew was headed at top speed straight toward the Navy Yard gate.

On one of my practise cruises on the old Constellation, while I was still a cadet at the Academy, Peter was the captain of the forecastle. In heaving up the anchor it was his duty to see to the proper manipulation of the ground tackle, and when the anchor came to the surface, to "hook the cat"; or, in other words, to place the hook of the lower block of a large tackle, called the cat‑fall, in the ring of the anchor.

Old Peter would do this himself with the assistance of one of the seamen. On one occasion, during this maneuver, the chain or cable was accidentally let go — and down went Peter, seaman, anchor and all.

 p40  As the two men bobbed up to the surface, overboard went a bunch of midshipmen to lend a helping hand; but they were brushed aside like chaff by the said Peter Worms, though the young seaman was badly dazed and needed help.

In those days the capstan was well aft on the gun‑deck, as was the compressor, a curved iron arm for holding the chain in check. It was manned by the wardroom and steerage boys, or servants, all of whom were darkies who had been recruited largely from the waiters at the Academy. It was through their fault that the anchor had been accidentally let go.

Without opening his lips, without a single expression of his feeling or intention, Peter armed himself with a squilgee handle, similar to a broom handle, and walked deliberately below to where the compressor men were standing. Without creating any suspicion whatever, without offering a single word of admonition or giving any reason, he began to lay blow after blow upon the unsuspecting darkies. They scattered like chaff, yelling with pain and excitement, and rushed for the upper deck, with Peter in their wake belaboring them until he was caught and disarmed.

When brought to the mast later and arraigned before the captain for wilfully, deliberately and maliciously striking other men in the navy, he was asked if he had anything to say. He stood silent for a moment and then with a withering look of pity on his face for any one who could ask such a question, said, "I thought that would be enough for a first lesson, but God help them if they ever do it again!"

It isn't always easy to keep your face straight at some of the unexpected answers given by the enlisted personnel.

 p41  Special First Class Once, when I was the executive officer, a fireman came to the mast and asked for certain privileges. Inasmuch as the men were graded in several conduct classes, according to their behavior, and as the privilege requested pertained solely to those in the highest class, called Special First Class, I informed him that his request could not be granted.

He stated that he had been first class for six months, which was one of the conditions under which one might attain the Special Class.

Knowing him to be a sea‑lawyer, a "chaw-mouth" and trouble breeder, and that he was none too desirable, I informed him that it was a surprise to me that he had not been on the report for six months, and that it would have to be verified. This was done and, finding his statement to be correct, I informed him that according to regulations a man, to attain the Special First Class, in addition to being free of reports for six months, must be dependable, energetic, efficient, truthful, capable and trustworthy, at all times, and asked him, "Are you all of these things?"

"No, sir," he said; "I ain't; if I was all them things, I wouldn't be no second-class fireman — I'd be the president of a bank."

His point of view rather appealed to me, and his request was approved.

"You've Won Your Money" Old Billy O'Brien served with me on several ships. He was the typical example of an old‑time sailor who, as long as he kept away from rum, was a splendid man, but rarely failed to get b'iling full when he went on liberty, when he could be depended upon to raise a disturbance and nearly always be arrested.

Since he was in my division, I had admonished  p42 him and done all I could to get him to reform and correct the error of his ways, and while he was willing to say that he would do his best, he could still be counted upon to fall from grace.

Knowing that he was going ashore on leave in Smyrna, I gave him the usual admonition and appealed to him for the sake of our division to let drink alone, just for this once at any rate, and demonstrate his ability to return on board clean and sober.

He was profuse in his promises, but as usual, after getting on shore and tanking up, he engaged in a row, was arrested and locked up. He was found in a cell with an earthen floor, "spread-eagled," that is, his ankles were shackled to an iron rod that ran across the foot of his cell, and his wrists were handcuffed to ring-bolts in the masonry at the other end.

When asked why on earth he had been placed in such an ignominious position, he replied that he supposed it was because otherwise the vermin would have walked away with him entirely.

He was released and carried aboard, and had a chance to sleep it off and sober up. As I went on the bridge next morning he saluted and as usual said, "Good morning, sir."

I turned my back on him, intentionally ignored his salutation, to show my disapproval of his misconduct. For several days he tried to engage me in conversation, but was plainly discouraged each time. Finally, pretending to be very angry, when in fact, in spite of all his faults I was really fond of him, as he again approached me, I said:

"I'm through with you; you had better apply to go to some other division, for you not only went back on our division and me too, but you made me lose money."  p43 As a matter of fact there had been no money loss on his account and I had only said it to lead him on.

"Lose money on my account, sir? How did that happen?"

"The navigator bet me that you couldn't be depended on — that when you went ashore you would go into the very first gin‑mill you came to and tank up."

Like a drowning man clutching at a straw, and showing evident elation, he said, "Sir, you've won your money. I didn't go to the first bar I came to; it was kept by a d–––––d Turk. I went into the second one, that was kept by a Greek."

The Old-Time Sailor These old‑timers have long since passed away; they were types unto themselves, many of them privileged characters and well-known throughout the service. They were sailors who knew no other life and were out of their element on shore, and perfectly at home on the old sailing ships.

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I have whiled away many an hour in my night watches listening to their yarns, sometimes told to me, but more often to the young apprentices who had encouraged them by asking some leading question.

The old days are past and gone when an officer or man could simply be a time-server; that is, do as little as possible to avoid disciplinary action or dismissal. As a matter of fact, there is a policy in vogue which soon rids the service of such men. But for one who is ambitious and earnestly strives to better himself, there is no better school nor service than the navy; unless a man possesses the characteristics noted above, he is soon left in the discard.

To show the difference in the flow of promotion of officers who entered the navy in different epochs, we  p44 may take the date of 1875, ten years after the Civil War, when I entered the Naval Academy. At that time most of my instructors were lieutenants and lieutenant commanders who had been in the service for from ten to twelve years.

Yet my class was in the service seventeen years before we became junior lieutenants, serving in the meantime as cadet-midshipmen for six years, midshipmen one year, junior ensigns one year, and ensigns nine years, with a minimum pay, after leaving Annapolis, of one thousand dollars per annum, and a maximum of fifteen hundred dollars when we had been ensigns five years.

Now when a young man enters Annapolis, he is a midshipman during his four years at the Academy, promoted on graduation to ensign, and automatically to junior lieutenant in three years more. This grade is now reached in seven years instead of seventeen, and there has been a large increase in pay in this as in other grades.

While it was hard sledding for us and caused many to resign and go into civil life, yet it paid in the long run to those of us who stuck it out, and enabled us to appreciate and enjoy the thousand and one pleasurable and interesting events and occasions which later came into our lives and more than compensated for the earlier hardships. Methods of promotion have undergone several radical changes since then, and to‑day advancement is as fiercely competitive in the navy as in any other walk of life.

The Plucking Board Years ago we had linear promotion; that is, when a vacancy occurred, the officer heading the next junior grade would be automatically promoted, subject to examinations which were often farcical. Later, owing  p45 to stagnation in the lower grades, the laws were changed to make a steady flow of promotion, so that each year a board, generally spoken of as the "Plucking Board," would be convened to pick out a percentage of undesirables. Others were given the option of retiring, of which privilege a large number took advantage. After twelve or fifteen years this system was abolished, if for no other reason than that the undesirables had been eliminated, and those remaining might be considered a fair general average.

Then the present system of promotion by selection was substituted. None of these systems is perfect — there are good and bad points in each of them, and while the present one may appear theoretically to be more nearly perfect than some of the others, practically it leaves much to be desired.

Having been a member of the Selection Board a number of times and being thoroughly familiar with its methods, I have no hesitancy in stating that no fairer, squarer or more conscientious board ever attempted to fulfill its mission and do its duty, or was more just and open-minded. Yet almost invariably some of the members would be dissatisfied with the results.

In my humble opinion no nine admirals, of which number the board is composed, can ever be infallible, or be unanimously satisfied that only the best have been selected, or that some worthy candidate has not been passed over. I have no other suggestion to offer than that this matter be given deep study with the view of modification if a better system may be formulated.

Thayer's Notes:

a William Sowden Sims, "Annapolis — Our Amateur Naval College and Some Suggestions for Its Improvement," World's Work, Vol. LIII (April 1927), pp668‑669.

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b The careful reader will notice that this statement in no way addresses critiques of what the Academy might not be doing, and therefore the article by Admiral Sims. I have, unfortunately, seen neither that article nor the Board's report.

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c The author is speaking of Mahan, of course.

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d1 d2 Gen. Billy Mitchell, the promoter of air power; he made many enemies in both services.

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e This very famous photo appears elsewhere in a sharper print, both onsite and thruout the Web; but rather than recopy it here, I've scanned the photo as printed in this book, because it shows a bit more detail, in the rope seen on the left: whereas all those other copies, as far as I've been able to tell, are cropped. This is closer to what the photographer actually took.

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Page updated: 20 Sep 17