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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 16

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 18
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p272  Chapter XVII

My Last Command

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Then came my orders to command the Third Naval District in New York. Because of the circumstances, the Navy Department had kept me in Hawaii one year longer than I desired. I was then sixty‑one years old and too senior to be given anything but the highest commands in the Fleet and they now were occupied by men who were my juniors. I had been away from the Fleet for six years, although that in itself had not made me unavailable for command in it, because during those six years I had exercised command over important naval units in China and in Hawaii. Competition, however, was so keen that the Department readily enough could, with a clear conscience, use it to deny me a fleet command. When I received my orders to New York, I realized my sea duty was over.

I was surprised that I was not more disappointed. I took the blow philosophically. I had seen enough of high command to realize its limitations and its heartbreaking annoyances. I would not have accepted an assignment under a junior, even if it had been offered. I had used no influence in my own behalf, although I had friends who might have helped. After getting the orders to New York, I wrote a note to Admiral W. V. Pratt, then Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, expressing my appreciation for his splendid support of my stand during the regrettable incidents in Hawaii. He had backed me up in every particular.  p273 Pratt answered in a very generous and flattering letter which so accurately confirmed what I have always maintained of the methods employed to pick officers for high commands who will be responsible for fighting our Fleet in war, that I am giving the letter verbatim. He wrote:

I appreciate the thought which prompted you to write me. I appreciate it the more coming from a man for whom, while I appreciate his abilities as a naval officer very highly, I did not take active steps in seeing that his name was put on the list for a high sea command. It takes a real man to do this, and it shows a spirit, which is more than I can say for some. If I were you, I would not take it too hard. Let me tell you that opportunity plays 90 per cent of the game. There is mighty little to choose between topnotch men in the Navy, and you are one of those. Had fate decided that you be in Washington when the choices were made, had you been sitting near the dealer, fate might have been different. Had you been at sea at the time, there is no question in my mind that you would have been remembered. As I look back, now that I am leaving active service, I see that it is Lady Luck in the shape of opportunity which plays the most prominent part in the selection for duty; especially as we grow older and choice commands are few and hard to get.

No one has anything but praise for the part you played in the regrettable Hawaii affair. Your judgment and the wisdom shown by you left nothing to be desired. Without it, it might have been a bad mess. As it was, the situation was handled tactfully and with skill by you.

As I leave the service, I wish you all good luck and happiness.

Most sincerely,

(Sig.) W. V. Pratt.

I sailed from Honolulu in the steamer Lurline of the Matson Line with my family in time to arrive in New York by June 30, 1933. Upon leaving, I received a marvelous tribute from the two services. The Army paraded a regiment of troops for me near the pier, and, with General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wells, the Commanding General of the Department, I inspected the men. It was a fine body. Eight submarines formed two lines through which the Lurline passed after leaving the harbor. The Army fort at the entrance to the harbor fired a salute of 13 guns as the ship passed out of the harbor. There were Aloha flights of airplanes from both Army and Navy; nearly sixty planes were in the air over the  p274 ship. Everyone of any prominence in Honolulu came to say Aloha, and the whole family were weighted down with leis. There was only one prominent absentee. Governor Judd sent his regrets by one of his high officials. He had, though, given me a dinner before my departure, but apparently did not wish to appear in public as bidding me an Aloha.

After the many abuses that had been fired at my head during my struggle with the Hawaiian Government, it was a certain satisfaction to know that after all I had some friends who were standing by me.

I relieved Admiral W. W. Phelps as Commandant of the Navy Yard and District in New York on July 1. The position was not unfamiliar. I had been Chief of Staff of the District under Admiral Usher during the last few months of the war and after. I lived in a great house in the Yard where I could see from my window the great shipbuilding ways and watch the construction of the cruisers Brooklyn and Honolulu. I officiated at the laying of the keels and the launchings of both of these ships.

Almost my first official act was to receive Marshal Balbo and his aviators and take part in the elaborate receptions tendered him by an always hospitable New York.

I felt that the Navy should take some part in these numerous entertainments for Balbo, and applied to the Navy Department for a money allowance for the purpose of a dinner on the night of Balbo's arrival. I was granted an allowance of $50. Through the support of men of means who were Navy admirers, I gave to General Balbo and his officers a most elaborate dinner at the Columbian Yacht Club on the Hudson River, now demolished in the development of the Park project. How such a dinner could be given, with over a hundred guests and champagne flowing freely, on the small voucher that I signed, would be no mystery when the guest list is read. Among them were Vincent Astor, Grover Whalen, Ellery Stone, E. J. Sadler, and W. S. Farish, all public spirited citizens and some of them members of the Naval Reserve. It has always been difficult for the services to interest Congress in the advantage of appropriating sufficient funds for official entertaining.

Balbo enjoyed himself at the dinner, and we were all glad to have such an intimate view of him and his daring men. I regretted that I did not speak Italian or he English, but there was a fellowship  p275 developed that evening between the Italian flyers and our other guests, in spite of the handicap of language. I was surprised months later to receive from the great Mussolini the decoration of the Crown of Italy. It was in recognition of the Navy's help to Balbo and his airplanes while in New York.

The New York District is our most important naval shore post. The peacetime activity is but a skeleton of what it would be in time of war. While I was in command of the Navy Yard, there were built there two 10,000‑ton cruisers with a battery of 16 six‑inch guns, two destroyers, a gunboat, and several large Coast Guard Cutters.

Warship construction in navy yards is nothing new; it has existed as far back as the Civil War. In the past 20‑odd years it has increased, much to the disadvantage of the private shipbuilding yards of the country. The so‑called New Deal, which in essence and results amounts to the partial establishment of the Government in business and in competition with private industry, was begun on a small scale about 1916 in navy yards, when Mr. Daniels was Secretary of the Navy.

Navy yards essentially should be repair and refit yards, and if a well-balanced plan of warship refits was worked out and adhered to, a normal workload, sufficiently high to hold the organization together, ready to be expanded in an emergency, could be accomplished. But it was conceived that by building ships in navy yards the private yards could be forced to lower their bids. Bids from navy yards are entirely fictitious and most unreliable and are in comparison most unfair to private industry. The worst abuse, however, is in increasing the navy yards force beyond naval requirements and thus building up in a locality a voting plurality which is both unfair and undemocratic. Men employed at a navy yard naturally feel that as their jobs have been created by a political party, they may be at the mercy of that party if they dared to vote for another.

This political system once having been established, private shipbuilding almost went on the rocks, because government work had greatly helped to keep it alive when few merchant ships were being laid down. Recently, to show how private shipbuilding has suffered, only one firm dared bid upon a new aircraft carrier because of the lack of experience in building such a type of warship. The Government should give back to private industry a larger percentage of navy construction, else in an emergency,  p276 with the navy yards overburdened by ships under repairs, there will be a great lack of facilities in the country for the building of warships.

As a building and repair yard for warships, a navy yard industrial plant is under the direct management of a technical officer of the Navy, an engineer or a naval constructor. The Commandant, of course, is the titular head of everything and is responsible for everything. That is necessary in a military or naval establishment. The Commandant's authority is complete, yet if he is a wise man, he will render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.

The Commandant's part in the construction of ships at navy yards is one of interest and understanding, and the acceptance of responsibility, and might be exemplified by a classic story told of General Oyama, a Japanese hero, during the course of the Battle of the Yalu in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904‑5. An energetic war correspondent of ours during the course of the battle, when the tide was ebbing and flowing, sought an interview for his newspaper and naturally enough expected to find the great general on the firing line or near it. Much to his surprise he was led by a Japanese staff officer far from the din of battle to a small stream running through cool and dense woods. There, a small communication station had been established with field telegraph. On the bank of the stream, fishing pole in hand sat General Oyama. When the Japanese were victorious in the battle, Oyama received the plaudits of his nation.

The duties of a district commandant include many and sundry naval activities, both personnel and material in nature, in New York and in several adjoining states. The organization supplies officers for each of these functions, and the Commandant never had need to be burdened with details any more than Oyama was at the battle of the Yalu. When an officer reaches the grade of rear admiral and the position of commandant of a naval district, it must be recognized that he has occupied, at one time or another, during his long naval career, almost every position now comprising his command. Therefore he is familiar with all things in his district. He has graduated in the rigid and comprehensive school of experience, and can make his subordinates feel while carrying on their work that the Commandant stands ever ready to protect them from their honest errors of judgment. Thus wisely he can afford to delegate his authority to others and show sympathy and  p277 understanding in their many trials and tribulations that will exist in any organization, even the most perfect.

The Commandant of the New York Naval District, as the highest ranking representative of the Navy in that locality, finds himself included in my official affairs: dinners, luncheons, and receptions, almost continuously given to prominent Americans and distinguished visitors from abroad, and often discovers that he must address such gatherings, generally on the subject of the Navy. I found the ordeal exacting at times, frequently having myself booked for some occasion almost every night of the week. I was past sixty years and could not help wishing that I might have reached the exalted rank of admiral at an earlier age so that my capacity for enjoyment, not to mention physical endurance, would have been higher.

The Commandant usually is expected to appear in uniform at these official-social occasions and therefore, being all "lit up" in gold braid and decorations, is easily identified, often much to his embarrassment, for people expect to be as easily recognized as him. I met in that way many interesting people who were doing things in the great world and whose names were on everybody's lips.

What always amused me was that the great majority of people I met felt they must talk to me about the Navy, just as if I were a child to be humored, little thinking that I might like to talk on other topics. I always attempted to steer them clear of the Navy theme and that appeared to surprise them. I recall that, after I had first met the great Louis Sobol, the Hearst columnist, he put in his widely read column that Admiral Stirling did not seem at all like the fierce swashbuckling sailor he had imagined, and instead of talking about naval strategy and other naval technicalities, I had wanted to tell him about just having had accepted an article or a story in a British magazine.

As Commandant, I had daily communications with the Navy Department on all manner of subjects. Although never having served in any of the Bureaus of the Department, I have had continuous contact with all of them throughout my naval career on matters pertaining to my duties at the time. I have also made studies of Department organization and published professional articles on the subject. In those ways I have acquired some knowledge of the Department's workings, and never have been too much satisfied with the setup in Navy administration. The Navy  p278 Department, like all other departments of government, has been a growth, but not always a scientific and logical one. Many useless accretions have been added from time to time and few subtracted. There exists duplication and overlapping. In my opinion it does require a complete reorganization to bring it up to modern conditions, more especially in the highest cells of its anatomy. I doubt that much can be done in peacetime, and of course we are not hoping for a war to make such reorganization possible. Any peacetime attempt would likely result in a poor compromise, for there are jealous and strongly entrenched Bureaus that will fight against any curtailment of their power and authority, which would be necessary if real efficiency is to be attained. Some day when the nation is faced with an emergency, we may see a large part of the organization, or old structure, torn down and a new one built, streamlined and modern, to administer, upkeep, and fight a great fleet. The Fleet is modern, at least it has become so after some years of unwise stagnation in building of necessary types, and deserves a more scientific and substantially constructed headpiece in Washington to be the main source of its efficiency and power as a fighting instrument for the nation on the seas.

The Bureau of Navigation is by tradition and importance the head Bureau of the Navy Department, for it administers the personnel of the Navy, and personnel is to material as 3 to 1, or so declared the great Napoleon. This Bureau always has deplored the shortage in the Navy of officers of the executive branch, or the line as it is called. There is a rule, adhered to when convenient, that tours at sea and ashore are to be equal. The tour at sea now is supposed to be three years. In the higher ranks it is shorter. Therefore at any one time, one half of the line officers of the Navy are on sea duty and one half on shore duty.

In time of war many of these regular officers on shore will be relieved by Naval Reserves. If this number of line officers need be ashore in time of peace when there is no emergency, it does not seem logical that they should be sent away in time of war. Of course, one of the reasons why the line, the branch that fights the ships, has refused to give up its hold on shore positions is the fear that a shoregoing outfit might in time get so powerful as to control the Navy.

However, I am convinced that many line officers would be most valuable at sea are performing duties in the Department, the Naval Districts, and in other shore positions that could well  p279 be occupied by expert civilian clerks. Naturally all the key positions ashore must be retained by the line, for to that body of officers belongs the supreme task of fighting the Fleet in battle. But if the situation were studied with an impartial and economical eye, I feel sure that many line officers could be spared from desks ashore and sent where they could breathe more continuously the salt air of the sea. After all, at sea in ships is where a line officer obtains his ability and dexterity to handle the instruments of naval war and becomes accustomed to the exacting life, with its gales, fogs, and other disadvantages, that can be lived without timidity only when met frequently.

When I was Chief of Staff of the New York District at the time, it was clear at 90 Church Street in New York City wherea District Headquarters was located, that it was a scandal to see the large number of men behind desks at headquarters whose positions could be taken by women. These men mostly were reservists, who had no wish to go to sea. They were yeomen: stenographers and typists, maybe bookkeepers. The ships at sea meanwhile had been protesting against the shortage on board ship of men to do the clerical work.

Lieutenant Commander Newberry, once Assistant Secretary of the Navy, then personnel officer of the District, and I looked over the situation and devised a remedy. I went to the Commandant and told him of the talk on the outside and suggested that we send at once to sea one quarter of the men and fill their places with yeomanettes, women clerks. He agreed and it was done. Later we sent another quarter, and if the war had lasted longer, we would have had at headquarters practically all women at the clerical desks. The work of the District went on just as usual.

I believe something similar could be done by the Bureau of Navigation without injuring the efficiency of the Navy's shore establishments. Increasing the time at sea for all our line officers would make them more efficient in handling our ships and in fighting our fleet at war. Besides it would hush, to some extent, the clamor that our fleet is under-officered. Of course we would hear from the wives, but, after all, their lives, when their husbands are at sea are no longer so difficult. The Fleet does not take the long cruises as formerly, and wives can follow their husbands now at the expense of the Government.

I retired from active service on my birthday, April 30, 1936, at the statutory age of 64 years, having been 48 years in the  p280 Navy since entering the Naval Academy in 1888. Many people have asked me if retiring has not brought me great disappointment and unhappiness. Naturally enough, I miss the active navy life, especially the prestige and importance that position and a uniform bring, to say nothing of the conveniences. If I had no other vital interest or outlook, the answer would be emphatically yes, because the occasion of retirement is like ringing down the curtain of a theater on a play. On the other hand, retirement is something long expected, and like everything else in life that is dreaded, takes out most of its bitterness in the anticipation. When it comes, our mind is prepared.

A retired officer completely severs his connections with the active Navy, except to keep the Navy Department informed of his address, to which his retired pay is sent him. Some medical officers feel their loss so deeply that they make their homes in Washington or elsewhere, in order to keep alive their naval connections and associations. In my opinion, that is not good for a man's morale. I believe it far better, if a man is yet active and vigorous, which he should be after a healthy naval life, to start in a new career, as different as possible from that of the Navy, thus obtaining other interests in order that life may continue for him a vital thing, a new adventure, and not just an existence, kept alive through old navy contacts.

Writing has been my principal diversion, one that has absorbed my creative instincts and energy, giving an outlet to thoughts that have been stored in my mind during a full life in the Navy, a life which, though full of disappointments, and failures, has, on looking back, a few things to its credit. It might have been far better, and then again it might have been worse.

Thayer's Note:

a I've tentatively — and not altogether satisfactorily — emended the text which, as printed, is corrupt. In the paragraph as printed the second line is replaced by a duplication of the fourth line, as follows:

When I was Chief of Staff of the New York District at the

the large number of men behind desks at headquarters whose

District Headquarters was located, that it was a scandal to see

the large number of men behind desks at headquarters whose

positions could be taken by women. These men mostly were

reservists, who had no wish to go to sea. They were yeomen:

stenographers and typists, maybe bookkeepers. The ships at sea

meanwhile had been protesting against the shortage on board ship

of men to do the clerical work.

If you can suggest a more satisfying emendation, or even by good fortune have an improved text from some other source, for example a subsequently corrected edition of the book, please drop me a line, of course.

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Page updated: 29 Oct 14