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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
One Man's Fight
for a Better Navy

Holden A. Evans
[Former Naval Constructor, U. S. N.]

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
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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Part I
Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part I

 p25  Chapter III

A Plebe in the Academy

Having come through the entrance examination so well, it never occurred to me that I might have trouble with the course of studies in the Naval Academy. I expected to stand high in my class. Nothing less than first was my goal. I was due for an awakening. Very soon I discovered that it would be nip and tuck if I made the grade at all.

It was the academy dentist who disillusioned me — Dr. Walton, an outspoken man with a rough, straight-from-the‑shoulder manner, which, at times, made him seem what we would call today hard-boiled. As a matter of routine all plebe midshipmen, or, as they were then called, naval cadets, were sent to the dentist soon after entrance. In my turn I reported to Dr. Walton.


"Evans, sir."

I did not know then that the dentist did not rate a Sir, but I was taking no chances. I Sirred everyone who seemed to have authority.

"Where do you come from?"

"Florida, sir."

"Humph!" grunted the doctor. "Like all other Florida boys, I suppose — strong body, weak mind."

Then he went on to tell me that no Florida boy had ever been able to graduate from the academy. Most of them "bilged" on the early examinations.

This information caused me grave concern. Could I succeed where the rest had failed? I looked around me and discovered  p26 the reason for the poor showing of the "weak-minded" Florida boys. In Florida then there were practically no opportunities for education. There was not one of my classmates who was not better prepared for Annapolis than I. Nearly all had attended excellent schools; some had actually been over the first two years of academy work, which was therefore in the nature of review for them. As for me, I had not the groundwork to make even the first courses come easily and logically.

To overcome my great disadvantage I had only one piece of equipment — the ability to work hard. Hard study, hard concentration, I must rely on them to carry me through. Grinding at studies does not make a boy popular in the Naval Academy. While I had friends, some very close ones, I was never a popular man. I was Evans the "boner," the seeker of "marks," the "conduct fiend." "Guilty," I plead today to those indictments.

From the first day I threw myself into my books. I had an excellent roommate, John Beuret, who afterwards rose high in the Construction Corps.​a John was upright, with high religious principles. I won't say he was studious, for he didn't have to be. He was far and away the brightest man in the class. We had study hours Sunday evening, but John did not believe in studying on Sunday. While I was digging, he read his Bible. How he managed his first recitations Monday, I don't know, since the only preparation he had was the few minutes between breakfast and the first call for classes.

At the end of the first month I anxiously waited for the class rating. When it came it brought a great disappointment to me. There were 93 plebes in the class. John Beuret was No. 1. My rating, in spite of all my boning, was 65.

At that time the Navy was small and the academy, with a midshipman from every Congressional District, was graduating more officers than there were vacancies. Every effort, therefore, was made to weed out midshipmen and avoid the surplus of  p27 officers who at graduation simply had to be discharged with a year's sea pay. My position in the "wooden" third of my class was perilous. I saw now what I was up against and looked for more opportunities for study.

At the start I was confronted with the hazing question — to take it or not to take it. Though I was but 17 years old, hard knocks had matured my judgment and point of view. I worked out a practical compromise for myself which I recommend now to any lad entering the academy.

I decided that I would not be cheeky to an upper classman, that I would obey all the don'ts for plebes; I would say Sir to upper classmen, stand at attention when one entered the room, even stand for "running." But I would not suffer any indignities. If that meant fighting, I could stand a fight. No doubt I should be beaten, but I could stand that better than humiliation. And perhaps they would not find me so easy in a fight. My predecessor, who had so obligingly bilged and made room for me, had licked three upper classmen, one after the other. Maybe that was why Dr. Walton called Florida boys strong of body but weak in their heads.

Soon after our first rating was posted, I had occasion to test my program. A third classman came into our room. Both Beuret and I rose and stood at attention. He asked our names, then asked where we stood in the class. Beuret answered, "Number one."

"Sixty-five," I said.

He said, "Mr. Beuret, you can sit down! you are savey. Mr. Evans, stand on your head; you are wooden."

This was an indignity, and instead of obeying I sat down, too.

"What do you mean?" The third classman blustered.

I said, "You told Beuret to sit down because he is savey. Well, I'm sitting down because I am wooden."

"Do you want a fight?" he asked.

 p28  I told him I was quite willing to fight, but he went away, and I never heard any more from him. Do not think, though, that he had any physical fear of fighting me. Both the law and the academy regulation provided heavy penalties for hazing — even dismissal. Fights among classmates or among upper classmen went unnoticed; but a fight between a plebe and an upper classman was likely to be investigated, since it was almost certain to be the outcome of hazing.

Of course, by Naval Academy tradition the plebe is expected to lie to exonerate the upper classman — but what if he doesn't? The upper classman is dismissed. As for the honest plebe, he has three years of misery before him.

The third classman I had defied stood high in his class. He was ambitious and was not risking his future on the uncertainty whether I would lie about the cause of our fight. And in this he was a wise man.

The tradition that a midshipman should lie about hazing seems to me abominable. I should have thought that it had long since gone into the discard, except that I recently saw it glorified in a film celebrating the Naval Academy, a picture shown with the full sanction of the academy authorities.

Opportunities for more study opened to me. I put aside all thought of pleasure or amusement. Taps sounded at 10 P.M. and no lights were permitted after that hour. However, we were allowed to be called at 4:45 A.M. for a full hour's study before reveille. I was permanently on the call list.

On Wednesday afternoons there were no drills. Cadets were expected to relax and enjoy themselves out of doors, being forbidden to remain in their rooms from 4:30 to 6 o'clock. At first, I hid in the wardrobe until the officer of the duty had inspected the rooms, then came out and studied. But this was precarious. Learning that cadets were allowed the library Wednesday afternoons, I took my books there.

 p29  Saturday afternoons were given up to games. I remained in my room to study but could accomplish little. Cheers from outside spoiled my concentration. After the first year I gave up this practice and attended the games.

In the "tower" a gas jet burned all night. Often after taps I slipped into the tower and got in an hour or two of extra study. One night I was standing under the gas jet when a slight sound made me look up from my book. I saw Lieutenant Daniels, the officer-in‑charge — "Savey Dan," the cadets called him. I hastened to explain that there was an important examination the next day, and I did not feel fully prepared.

"Go to your room," was his curt reply.

Still, I did not think that, under the circumstances, he would report me for such a slight infraction of the rules. I didn't then know my Savey Dan. Next morning at breakfast formation the adjutant read from the conduct report: "Evans, H. A. In the tower at 2:30 A.M. for the purpose of study." My classmates ridiculed me, and I received three demerits.

Rising before five in the morning, stealing hours after taps in the tower, sleeping very little — it told on my health. While I was strong, I was still a growing boy and did not have the physical bottom to endure such self-punishment. One morning while standing in the ranks at breakfast formation, I fell in a dead faint and had to be taken to sick quarters. These fainting spells persisted until Dr. Harmon, the medical officer, in a most kindly way told me I would ruin my health if I kept on studying so hard. After that I tried to get six hours' sleep every night. But for my hard work I was having the satisfaction of seeing myself pull up month after month in the class standing until I was in the first twenty.

It was a lucky day for us when Commander Glass took charge. We cadets on the call list, for instance, no longer had to put in that bleak morning hour of study without nourishment.  p30 Hot chocolate and cocoa, with crackers, were ready for us when we got up. Glass took personal charge of the catering, and our meals became excellent. We even had ice cream twice a week. He studied our comfort and actually allowed us to have dressing gowns, which we could wear in our rooms and in the corridors.

Commander Harrington was not popular with the cadets. As Naval officer he was something Gilbert and Sullivan might have imagined. He had a heavy black beard at this time, and the cadets called him "Blackjack" Harrington but more often, though I don't know why, "Spuds" Harrington. The reader is going to meet "Spuds" Harrington twice again in this narrative, once under comic circumstances and again when it wasn't so funny. For this man, staying in the Service and rising by seniority, we will see at last in a vital and very responsible position at the head of a Government institution spending thousands and even millions of the public money.

Although there were plenty of men serving as instructors, there was no instruction at the academy worthy of the name. A lesson was set, one was supposed to master it in his room, then stand or fall by his recitation. There was no one to whom a student could go if in difficulties and in need of explanation and instruction. The Annapolis instructors simply did not instruct.

This condition got me into a bad habit. It was so easy, sitting across the table from the brilliant John Beuret, to say when I was stuck, "John, show me this one." John could toss off the answer. There was so much studying to do I fell into the habit of calling for help before my own resources were exhausted.

The system made a cadet tricky. If a cadet were sent to the blackboard to solve a problem in mathematics, for example, it was a mistake for him to attempt a solution unless he was certain of it. His proper course was to tell the instructor the problem  p31 was beyond him. The instructor would never think of trying to explain the problem and its solution to the cadet — not at Annapolis in my day. Instead, the student would hear, "Rub it out and take this one."

If he solved the second problem correctly, the instructor gave him a mark of 2.0, which meant 50 on the scale of 100. But if he tried to solve the first problem and failed, his mark would be 0.1, the complimentary fraction enabling the instructor to avoid making the report "Unprepared at Recitation."

That system of instruction made it hard for those boys who had not had adequate schooling before going to Annapolis. Some of them were excellent raw material and might have become valuable officers in the Navy, if they had received more personal attention. I know of some notable examples of cadets, who, having bilged at Annapolis, went on to make good at other high-class institutions, where professors explained the problems in the classroom. There were some exceptional men in our corps of instructors and this criticism is not meant for them, but for those who manifested no concern for the progress of those students who were backward in their studies.

Some of the instructors devoted particular attention to the dull-witted sons of popular officers of the Navy. If the dumb son of an influential officer had also a persevering mother, he was likely to be coached and coddled through to graduation. I knew two such cadets during my sojourn at Annapolis — boys who, if they had been treated like the others, would have early joined the great army of bilgers.

About this time I came in contact with another academy tradition which, if it has not yet been eradicated, certainly ought to be. During my time it was the rigid unwritten law that a cadet on duty should never report a classmate. He could report those from the class above or below him but not from his own class. If he did, he was cruelly and severely punished. Class  p32 feeling was very strong, one associated only with one's own classmates. The penalty for breach of the unwritten law was to be put in Coventry by one's class, which meant complete social isolation.

Soon after I entered the academy my comrades pointed out to me a cadet, a first classman, to whom his classmates had not spoken, except officially or under absolute necessity, for three years, and who for three years had had no social contact with any member of his class. As a plebe, while on duty he had reported members of his own class for infractions of the rules. His class put him in Coventry and kept him there. Since social contacts outside of his class were impossible, he had gone through without a friend, without one confidant with whom to exchange comment and opinion on studies, professors, games, or any other topic discussed by the cadets together. In the bustle of the academy he had led the life of a hermit.

He was a young man from Alabama named Hobson — Richmond Pearson Hobson.​b

But this Hobson proved to be a very exceptional cadet. He was brilliant in his studies and moved up to the head of his class. At the beginning of his fourth year he was made cadet officer in charge of the battalion. The class felt it was time to call a halt. It couldn't very well be keeping one of its brightest stars in Coventry. A committee went to Hobson and held out the olive branch.

"Gentlemen," Hobson replied, "I have gone three years without my class, I think I can manage without it for one more."

A very fitting and proper reply.

I had not been many weeks at the academy when I had a personal experience with Cadet Hobson that showed the man's broad humanity. On Christmas day I seized the opportunity of the holiday to go over to Washington to thank Congressman Davidson verbally for my appointment and to report my progress  p33 to him. To reach Annapolis from Washington, one had to change cars at Odenton, Md. I found the connecting train would be very late that day. Supper at the academy would be over when I arrived, and there was no place at Odenton where I could obtain food.

Only one other cadet was on the Odenton platform, Hobson. But he, the great first classmate, the four-striper, came to me, a poor plebe, and asked my name.

"Evans, sir," I replied.

"Well, Evans," he said, "there's not much chance of supper at the academy tonight. However, I've been in this fix before, so I brought a lunch. If you want to share it with me, I'll be very glad."

Only those who know the class distinctions of the Naval Academy can appreciate the kindness of that act.

In later years, while Hobson was in the Navy and in Congress afterwards, I became well acquainted with him. I never knew a man of finer character or of greater moral courage. All the world knows of his courage. The treatment he received at Annapolis reflects no credit on the members of his class, nor was the treatment he received at the hands of the Navy what this great character deserved.

Some of the Naval Academy traditions were merely funny. For instance, a plebe soon learned to be careful about the use of two words — pants and boys. Midshipmen wear trousers. Never, no never, do they wear pants. Only women wear pants.

A classmate, Poinsett Pringle, and I were in the commandant's office trying to obtain the permission of the assistant commandant, Lieutenant Commander Todd, to seek some badly needed articles of apparel.

"Sir," Pringle made his request, "may I have permission to make a special re­quisition for a pair of pants?"

He got no further. He had no opportunity to tell the necessity  p34 for the pants. Commander Todd jumped from his chair, leaned over his desk, and shouted:

"Mr. Pringle, what do the women wear in your part of the country?"

Pringle, who was later to become a commander-in‑chief, was of an aristocratic family of South Carolina. Now, with his eyes nearly popping out of his head, he answered:

"Why, sir, they wear drawers."

One must never call the midshipmen boys. It is an insult to the Corps. Only the Negro servants at the academy are boys. Occasionally in this narrative, with the general reader in mind, I have said boys when referring to the cadets. I beg the academy's forgiveness for this heinous offense.

Marks were the measure of success at the academy. After I left the Navy, I found dollars the measure of success in the business world. I sought marks at the academy and dollars in the business world.

Naturally, I became what the cadets called a conduct fiend. That is, I tried to keep off the conduct report by avoiding as far as possible all infractions of the regulations. Every demerit subtracted from the mark received for academic work, and I did not intend to lose any of my hard‑won academic standing through bad deportment. I had sized myself up very well. I knew I was not brilliant like Beuret and other classmates. If I were to make a success, it would come only by hard plugging. So I became the conduct fiend of my class, I might say its conduct archfiend.

French dragged me down. I know now, after much travel in Europe, that I have a blind spot for languages. My wife, a fine linguist, has tried to teach me French but is now convinced it is impossible. In the plebe year French counted as much as mathematics. I devoted twice as much time to it as to mathematics but was always in the next‑to-wooden section.

 p35  A bright scheme occurred to me — I would make my memory serve me in place of natural talent. We were reading French plays. In recitation a cadet read aloud to the class a page of the French text, then closed the book and in his own words — his own French words — gave a paraphrase of what he had just read.

This was beyond my powers, but it was no trick at all for me to memorize a page of French, even though I had little idea of what it was about. I began rattling off my recitations. Professor Marion, our instructor, was delighted with my sudden improvement. Never noticing that I was repeating the dialogue verbatim, he gave me fine marks. My system was so success­ful that before I got through with this phase of the course, I had memorized a complete play, and next month found me in the first section of the class.

But there, when we moved into general French conversation, I was lost. Surrounded by fluent linguists, I made a spectacle of myself. The following month I found myself not in the next‑to-wooden section but in the wooden section itself, and very near the bottom of that.

Due primarily to my poor marks in French, I finished my plebe year Number 17 in the class. In view of my preparatory training, this was probably as much as I should have expected, but I was far from satisfied with my mark. Next year I resolved to do better.

Thayer's Notes:

a John D. Beuret became Chief Constructor of the Navy on July 1, 1922.

[decorative delimiter]

b Cadet Hobson rose to Rear Admiral, and received the Medal of Honor in the Spanish-American War for his courage in the tactical sinking of the Merrimac in Santiago harbor: an account is found in Yates Stirling, Sea Duty, p54 (with the chivalrous reaction of the Spanish admiral: Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, p451; also Alden, Makers of Naval Tradition, p285 f.). For Capt. Hobson's prescience in 1908 as to eventual war with Japan, see Wheeler, Prelude to Pearl Harbor, p68.

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