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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sea Duty

Yates Stirling

published by
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York

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 15
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p224  Chapter XIV


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I was aware when I started that my service in China in command of the Yangtze Patrol would not be a stepping stone to a high command in the Fleet. I had spent one year and five months on the Yangtze. I arrived in Washington, via liner across the Pacific, on May 6, 1929, my father's birthday; but he and my mother had died just before I sailed from China. Both were in their eighty-sixth year.

I became President of the Naval Examining and Retiring Board. It should be a very important post. The five‑odd, high-ranking officers composing it examine all officers of the line for promotion. The Retiring Board is separate from the Examining Board and is composed partly of medical officers of the Navy. The Board's lack of prestige at the Navy Department has occurred because the positions never are occupied long enough. Everyone is anxious to get away from service on the Board as soon as possible. Captains on the Board feel their selection for promotion to admiral is at stake if they stay. That is a pretty pass when every officer going up for promotion must be passed by the Board. Naturally officers of the line or the executive branch are anxious to obtain some more positive duty. The duty performed by the Examining Board seems to require the selection of officers particularly fitted for the work. The intellectual professor type maybe. These are not plentiful in the Navy. When an officer goes to the Navy Department on duty, he prefers to be in a position  p225 where he is actively involved in the administration of the Navy, and where they will know at first hand what the Navy is doing from day to day by actual contact with those who are running it from the seats of the mighty. The Examining Board is off in an airtight cell by itself and is too dignified even to gossip with its many victims. The officers who come before it give the Board due respect, but the general opinion is that the members are being sidetracked. Personally I disliked the duty and tried to get away. I remained a year only. While in Washington, I did have an opportunity to observe the operations of the Navy Department, the thing I had been taught to fear, yet not to respect, for over thirty-seven years. I became quite aware of the several cliques forming around officers calculated to have promise and a certain amount of political finesse. I was told one day by a high-ranking officer with whom I had served afloat, that I was losing out in my present position and to get out of it as soon as I could if I wanted to get anywhere. He advised me to organize a group who would boost me, publicize me, and put me into a position of importance in the Department. He said to go after the Bureau of Navigation; from that you can get anything you want. He then went on to say:

"I tied up with two other high-ranking officers and you'd be surprised how effective that was. Each of us got just what we wanted, and all of us got all the plums there were. Remember, by yourself you can get nowhere. It's a game of give and take. Ability alone doesn't count. Cultivate the women in Washington. Go out and be seen. Navy women's influence here is enormous. Keep in with them. Flatter them; make them like you. But don't play favorites, for that will arouse jealousies among the rest."

High commands in the past and at present usually go to men who work for them by organization and publicity of the right sort.

Navy control is under a triumvirate. Friendship with them or their wives is not to be overlooked. I suppose that is but human. I am looking back now dispassionately and thinking most of all of how the Navy is going to fight the next war, well or badly. I am sure that many officers who obtain high commands are not the best that can be selected from those available. Social influences are too great. Personal favoritism and the baneful political methods employed, so similar to those used in civil politics, have no place in choosing men who are to command and fight our fleet. If we  p226 are to be victorious in the next war, our admirals must be equal or better than those of our enemy.

My remedy is a General Staff and a board of admirals from the Fleet to select for high commands without favor. It may require the lapse of some time to get rid entirely of the present political give-and‑take system, but if the nation desires to obtain full benefit for the enormous sums of money expended on its Navy, it must insist that a method for the selection of naval leaders be used that will bring to the front brilliant naval men, who know their profession thoroughly but are unwilling to use what smacks too much of playing politics to force themselves to the front and obtain these positions for themselves.

Some years ago Sims (Admiral) recommended that lower ranking officers and not the high-ranking ones do the selecting. That, at long last, would be a method of obtaining service opinion on high-ranking officers. It sounds a bit communistic, but it might at that heighten morale in the Fleet, if the personnel of the fleet could be assured that the Commander in Chief of the Fleet and his important assistants are the best the Navy itself can pick. After all, officers of all ranks are vitally interested in the ability of their leaders. A Commander in Chief's efficiency and daring in handling his Fleet are basic ingredients, and his possession of these superlative qualities, if thoroughly known to his officers and men, will give all the fighting edge upon which success in battle has always depended.

When I arrived in Washington in the spring of 1929, Admiral Hughes was Chief of Naval Operations, and when I saw him in his office, I was shocked at his appearance. I could see that he was gradually breaking under the strain. He was not sparing himself but was taking on his shoulders enough to break down the strongest constitution. It is not just work that kills, but the incessant worries and petty conflicts a man of great honesty of purpose, like Hughes, must accept as his cross. He had discovered that the system was too powerful for him. The great machine of the Navy Department was grinding out grist as it has always done. Hughes found himself, like Cervantes' Don Quixote, fighting windmills. He was a man who always had been able to grasp his problems in his two hands and bend them to his will. In the Fleet he had been supreme. That task was relatively simple for him. It was clean cut, and he dealt with men who thought as he did. In the Navy Department things were different. The juggernaut was too  p227 strong and powerful even for Hughes. Hughes was a fighter, and the subtle mental opposition of unindoctrinated minds, with which he was surrounded, slowly undermined even his confidence in himself. There was too much iron in the man. He did not know how to bend.

Gradually he succumbed to the influence, and his high ideals began to be overpowered one by one. Possibly he did not realize it until too late, but with all his potential authority, he was a prisoner in a strait jacket. His responsibility was enormous, but there was no real authority, only a make-believe. If Admiral Hughes had been surrounded by a General Staff corps, one large enough and fully indoctrinated with his own ideals, fully imbued with prestige, and strong enough to give him efficient and effective support in his colossal task of preparing the Navy for its mission, war, he would have been able to cut himself adrift from the worries and annoyances surrounding his office. The General Staff would have furnished him an instrument through which to work and a reliable staff to lean upon. On this body of officers trained in the art of war he could have placed the oppressive details and daily mental conflicts, which in but a few months more pressed down so hard upon him that he was forced to give over for his health's sake.

Those officers who have been able to stand the gaff as Chief of Naval Operations have done so because they allowed themselves to be bent and were satisfied with the honor of the position, or were without imagination to realize how inefficient was the setup under them to meet its exacting obligations should the country be forced into a war with a great power.

When the detail to Hawaii was offered me in the spring of 1930, I knew that it was Hughes's last gesture to reward me for my loyal service to him. I could see that he was a sick man. Not at all like the blustering, good-hearted Hughes of old. Naturally I would rather have gone to a position in the Fleet and so I told him. When I left his office, he said something to the effect that he would see I got due consideration later, but that now there was lots to do in Hawaii and he was glad to have me go there. I never saw him again. He retired in the fall and died four years later after a long illness. He was a disillusioned man. There is nothing more disheartening to a man of ideals than to attempt to perform an important function at the top of an unscientific, almost chaotic organization, which he cannot change in the face  p228 of opposition by men who, under the circumstances, are virtually independent of him, and, because of their situations, forced to be loyal first to self.

I arrived in Hawaii the spring of 1930 to take command of all naval forces in those islands.

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Page updated: 29 Oct 14