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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 3

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 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part I

 p36  Chapter IV

Anchors Aweigh — Not à la Hollywood

What a grand feeling it was to step out of plebedom! We were now third classmen. No longer did we have to Sir every upper classman. No longer for us the plebe don'ts — the absurd and illogical but usually harmless verbotens of academy tradition.

Now for a long-anticipated adventure — our third-class summer cruise in the old Constellation.​a But there was a fly in the ointment, a large fly with a black beard. "Spuds" Harrington was to be commanding officer for the cruise.

If Hollywood ever produces our voyage "straight" for the screen, at least the producer will have to market it as comedy — slapstick comedy. A public saturated with Annapolis fiction stories and propaganda films would scarcely credit our adventures, or misadventures, as being real. They would seem to have been something dreamed up by a contemporary Walt Disney.

The Constellation was a full-rigged ship, one of the old Navy frigates. We sailed with a full complement of officers, drawn from those on duty at the academy, to perform the regular ship duties and also to be our instructors in navigation and seaman­ship. There were a few Navy seamen, to wash decks and give a hand in an emergency. Cadets of the first and third classes, plus the plebes who had entered in May, formed the crew and worked the ship. And, as I have said, Commander Harrington was commanding officer.

We sailed down the river, but scarcely had we entered Chesapeake Bay when we went aground. With a whole inland sea before  p37 us, somebody ran the ship on the shoals. We were in soft mud; but the tide was low, and in a few hours the flood tide lifted the ship free.

Merrily we were on our way once more, the cadets singing "Sailing down the Chesapeake Bay," but before very long we were not sailing down the bay. The genius of the quarterdeck had put us aground again. This time we were hard and fast in the mud; and, since the tide was fairly high at the time, there was not much chance of getting an assist from nature.

Cadets who were on that voyage will long remember the efforts to free the ship. The navigators conceived the idea of rocking her off the shoal. Lieutenant McCracken was in charge as executive officer. He marshaled us all forward, and then shouted the command, "Sally aft!" Whereupon we all rushed aft in a body.

Then, when we were gathered together in the stern, McCracken shouted, "Sally forward!" Like a stampeded herd we thundered forward to the bows. Similarly we would sally starboard, and then sally port. We kept up the sallying all night. By morning we were ready to drop, and Mr. McCracken's voice had become a mere croak from yelling orders to sally somewhere or other. However, the maneuvering had gradually rocked the ship free, and once more we were "Sailing down Chesapeake Bay."

Years afterwards I found myself in association with Mr. McCracken for some time at the Mare Island Navy Yard. How we laughed over that night of "sallying"! He told me that ever since he had been called Sally McCracken.

No account of life at Annapolis is complete, it seems, without something said about fisticuffs. It was on this same voyage that I had my first serious fight.

There was a bilger in the third class named McReavy. A bilger is a cadet who has failed, has resigned, and then has secured  p38 reappointment. If a bilger comes back as a plebe, he is treated socially as still a member of his own old class, now the third, and is not subjected to hazing or to any of the under­ground discipline imposed on the plebes by the third class. As a result, the bilger is apt to regard himself as above his scholastic classmates. To be sure, some bilgers are helpful to their new classmates, steering them away from pitfalls, but others are overbearing and arrogant.

McReavy belonged to the latter class. I didn't like him, and he didn't like me. Reddy Davis, a classmate of mine and a most lovable fellow, was giving a May plebe a little mild running. I was standing several feet behind him, not paying much attention. McReavy was near Reddy, saying something to him. Then they both walked back to me.

Reddy said, "Evans, you are making the plebe cheeky to me."

"Don't be absurd," I answered. "I was hardly noticing him."

"I saw him make signs to the plebe," McReady insisted.

"Will you fight?" Reddy asked me.

"We've got nothing to fight about, Redd."

"I told you he wouldn't fight," jeered McReavy. "He's a coward."

That settled it. Within the hour we were on the way to the forehold, with seconds, referee, and timekeeper. In the gymnasium I had paid some attention to boxing and felt sure I could give a fair account of myself. I had a plan of campaign. Powers Symington, a classmate who was later my roommate, often laughed at the thickness of my skull. I could stand a stout blow on the head without flinching. I resolved to keep my chin in and a close guard and let Reddy batter his hands into bad condition on my skull. Then I could go in and finish him.

In those days we fought with bare knuckles, and a fight was no picnic. In the fifth round Reddy got home a terrific blow to  p39 the top of my head. I saw him flinch and knew the end was near. Soon his right hand looked like a ham. I punished him, then called the referee's attention to his hand. The referee stopped the fight. I had two black eyes and numerous other bruises. They took Reddy to the sick bay.

Next morning, when, showing the marks of battle, I handed in my cruise notebook, there were several officers seated on the halfdeck. One of them, Lieutenant Potts, asked me whom I had fought. I told him frankly. He wanted to know who was licked, but I answered that I would rather not say. Dr. Harmon spoke up.

"I don't know who was licked," he said, "but Mr. Davis is in the sick bay and will be there a week, while Mr. Evans is here."

I couldn't resist telling this to several classmates. McReavy heard of it and came to me.

He said, "That was a dirty trick, Evans, to tell officers of the fight."

"What should I have told them?" I asked.

"That you fell down a hatch and was bruised."

"McReavy," I replied, "when I do lie, it won't be any such stupid, silly lie as you suggest."

I knew McReavy was picking a fight with me, but I didn't care. He challenged me and, over the protests of my friends, I accepted the challenge. McReavy was the best boxer in the class and had a reputation as a ferocious fighter, though nobody seemed to remember any fights he had ever been in. A bully often gets an undeserved reputation for prowess.

I was sore and bruised from my fight with Davis but resolved to fight McReavy the same way. Maybe he would break his hand on my hard head. Once more we were in the forehold with seconds, referee, and timekeeper. The fight started, and almost immediately I changed my tactics. I found that this  p40 formidable bully was no great fighter at all. Abandoning my defensive role, I tore into him with all I had. In the third round a lucky haymaker of mine opened a long cut beside his left eye above the temple. With the blood streaming down his face, he raised the claim that I had on a ring. The referee stopped the fight, and I held up my hands. There was no ring. The referee waved us to go ahead.

McReavy was now very wild. I ducked his swings easily and was able to get in some telling punches. Just as the fifth round was ending, there came a shout from the hatchway.

"Scatter! Jimmy-legs is coming!"

Jimmy-legs was the cadet name for the master-at‑arms. We scattered. When Jimmy-legs arrived in the forehold, there was no one there.

I waited for McReavy's invitation to finish the fight, but none came, nor did get any further challenges to fight. Two hard fights within twenty-four hours had given me a reputation.

Amid such diversions and excitements, we cruised pleasantly enough down Chesapeake Bay, suffering no new mishaps. Soon we should be on the broad Atlantic. Would I be very seasick? I am sure I was not alone in that fear. Most of the third classmen and the plebes had never yet seen the sea.

In a fine breeze and under full sail to royals, the ship bore out toward the Virginia Capes. The old Constellation was a fine sailer. She had once set a record, crossing the Atlantic. Near the open sea we ran into fog. No order came to shorten sail. Through the fog sped the Constellation, footing it like a cup defender. A sailing vessel is quiet compared with a ship that is driven by power. Suddenly we heard the roar of breakers, and simultaneously the order was barked out: "All hands shorten sail!"

Up through the rigging swarmed the cadets. I had reached the maintopgallant yard and was standing on the short foot  p41 rope, leaning well over the yard gathering in sail, when there was a hard shock. It was all I could do to keep from going over the yard and into a headlong plunge to the deck, more than a hundred feet below. There was dead silence for a few minutes. Under our bows was the beach. Through the fog a short distance away loomed Cape Henry Lighthouse.

"Sallying" would do no good here. This was a job for wrecking tugs, but there was also plenty of hard work ahead for the cadets. All the top spars had to be sent down. After that came a most unwelcome order, "Man the pumps!" There were no power pumps, only the old‑fashioned hand pumps. Working their brakes was no child's play. On the brakes, though, we remained all night, pumping watch and watch.

In the morning the wrecking tugs arrived. After a tussle of a few hours, they pulled us off the beach. But our work was far from over. The ship was making a great deal of water, and the pumps had to be kept going. But there was no rest now even for the watch not working the brakes.

The Constellation had to put up as brave an appearance as possible and not look a worse wreck than she was as she was towed into the Norfolk Navy Yard. So a bunch of tired boys, who had been up twenty-four hours and whose back were aching from service at the pumps, sent up all the spars they had sent down the day before.

Fortunately the drydock was open when we arrived at the yards. We were soon in the dock and pumped out. At last we could rest, but some most us still had enough energy to go to the bottom of the dock to view the damage. Even our unpracticed eyes told us that the old Constellation was not going to sail again soon. Our "cruise" was over. Instead of it, we were sent on a month's leave.

Commander Harrington was court-martialed and found guilty. His sentence was merely the loss of a few numbers, a  p42 punishment that did not prevent him from reaching the highest grade in the naval service. I have promised the reader another encounter with "Spuds" Harrington. When we again see this officer who put a Government vessel into three accidents in the course of a brief voyage, we will meet him as Rear Admiral Harrington, Commandant of the great, important, and costly Norfolk Navy Yard.

Before we began the scholastic term of our third class year John Beuret and I had a serious talk. I was depending too much on Beuret in my studying, and I realized that my constant calls for help were annoying to him, though he never once said so. He was most patient with me. However, we agreed not to room together that year, and I requested a room alone. Instead, I was placed in a large room with two roommates. They didn't like the arrangement any better than I did, but we made the best of it. With one of them, Powers Symington, I became good friends — a friendship which has lasted all these years.

That year, depending entirely on myself, I pulled up to number 12 in the class. This was encouraging; but I hoped that the following year, when we got into studies new to all, I should make a bigger improvement.

While I was a third classman I had a very unpleasant experience, one that might have ended my career in the Navy. I was forced to flatly contradict an officer. If I had not had witnesses to support my statement, I should have been dismissed from the academy.

One morning I was greatly surprised to find my name on the conduct report — "Evans, H. A. Absent from station at furling sail"; reporting officer, Lieutenant W. S. Benson.

How could the conduct fiend of the class, the one who avoided even the slightest infractions of the rules, because demerits pulled down class standing, have made such a blunder? Well, he didn't make the blunder. I was not absent from my  p43 station. I was there and did my part in furling sail.

Naturally, if unwisely, I made a written statement to the commandant, saying that Lieut. Benson had made a mistake. I stated that I was at my station, close to the bunt on the main yard. Commander Glass was now our commandant, and he sent for me. I found Lieut. Benson with him. The commandant was in no amiable frame of mind.

"Mr. Evans," he said, "by contradicting a reporting officer you have committed a very serious offense. Have you anything to say for yourself?"

I expressed my regrets but very earnestly insisted that I had been at my station. Commander Glass looked toward Benson.

That officer said grimly and positively, "Mr. Evans was not present."

This was a bad situation for me. If it were not cleared up I would surely be dismissed.

"But, sir," I told Commander Glass, "I can bring witnesses."

"Do so then," he ordered curtly. "Bring them at once."

In a few minutes I was back with three. Kuenzli and Waldo Evans, second classmen, were the captains of the top — that is, petty officers, under whom I worked. They testified that they were at the bunt, and that I had been present at my station. My third witness was a classmate, John Porter. He also said I was at my station, directly beside him.

"In view of these statements, Mr. Benson," said Glass, "do you not wish to withdraw the report?"

I could take a full breath now. I had made my case, Lieutenant Benson would admit his mistake, and the very disturbing incident would be closed.

Mr. Benson made a most surprising reply.

"No, sir," he said. "I insist Mr. Evans was absent from his station."

Commander Glass looked sharply at Benson, then motioned  p44 us cadets to withdraw. Mr. Benson remained with him.

What was going to happen? I knew when the conduct report was reposted, this time with punishments awarded. Opposite my name I was astonished to find: "Excuse accepted in part. One demerit."

What kind of solution was that? I was either present or absent. If present, the report should have been withdrawn or the commandant should have accepted my statement, supported as it was by disinterested witnesses, and discredited the reporting officer. If absent, I should have been dismissed from the academy for lying.

Thoroughly aroused by this injustice, I sent a strong written protest to the commandant, asking for a reconsideration. Commander Glass sent for me once more. This time he was not the stern disciplinarian but a kindly diplomat soothing a boy's ruffled feelings. He told me that in view of Mr. Benson's insistence he had handled the case the only way he could. Commander Glass, of course, knew I had been present, but he was so imbued with the spirit of the Navy that he felt he must sustain an officer against a cadet, at least to the point of saving the officer's face. But what of the officer himself, Lieutenant Benson, the man without, rather than suffer the slight embarrassment of admitting an error, was willing to sacrifice the career of a subordinate and crush all his hopes and ambitions? Does any reader think such a man could get very far in his profession?

Well, let me inform the reader that this officer, by living long enough and benefiting by promotion through seniority, became a rear admiral and by appointment went to the supreme top of the Navy. Admiral W. S. Benson was chief of operations during the Great War and afterwards became chairman of the United States Shipping Board.

While I was a third-year man I began a sincere friendship  p45 with James Sheehan. During our last two years we were roommates. The semi-annual year was unevent­ful. Jimmy and I were about equal in ability, but I worked harder and was able to stand higher in the class. Scholastically I was now on an equal footing with my classmates, since we were in studies new to everybody.

We became lordly first classmen together. I was a cadet officer, Jimmy was a petty officer. Our division was quartered in the old building, well away from the regular officer-in‑charge, and we were able now and then to steal a few privileges, without fear of detection. I was finding the professional subjects much to my liking. It was a glorious feeling to see myself month after month very near the top of the class in all subjects.

By this time I was living the normal life of a naval cadet. I no longer got up mornings for that extra hour of study. I attended all the games and entertainments. I went to the dances and, of course, became devoted to the attractive girls, of whom there were many. I accepted invitations to dinners and teas. My health, spirits, and general outlook were greatly improved.

At the beginning of my last year, a plebe named Johnson, from North Carolina, entered the academy. He had not had enough money to pay railway fare and had walked nearly the whole way from his home to Annapolis. He pad the entrance examinations, then learned that he must deposit nearly $200 to pay for his first outfit.

The cadets heard of his plight and, with the commandant's permission, took up a subscription and paid Johnson's deposit for him. Then, as if wishing some return their money, they subjected the simple Carolinian to a more than usual hazing.

Although as a rule first classmen took little interest in plebes, I had been through hardships myself and sympathized with the boy who had walked to Annapolis. One day I went to his room, where I found him with his roommate, whom I shall call Mr. X.

 p46  I announced, "I spoon on this room."

In academy parlance that meant there were to be no class distinction. I should be considered a friend to whom the occupants of the room could go help and advice. And there would be no hazing in the room while I was present.

I visited them often, my purpose really being to prevent the hazing of Johnson. The more I saw of X, the better I liked him. He was intelligent and honest — really excellent material. However, he lacked the preparatory groundwork to make him success­ful in the academy under its system of no individual instruction.

One evening when I entered their room, Johnson jumped up, ran to the door, fell on his knees, and began biting the doorknob. I ordered him to stop and demand what he meant.

He said, "I have drunk ink. I have eaten soap. I am a dog and must masticate everything. I have masticated the broom handle, the corner of the table. Now I am ordered to chew the doorknob every time anyone enters the room."

I tried to show him that it was unnecessary for him to suffer such indignities.

"Just what I told him," said X, his roommate. "I refused to obey, and nothing has happened to me. But it's no use — Johnson does everything a third classman tells him to do."

Both Johnson and X bilged at the first semi-annual examination. Johnson was no loss, but X was the kind of man the academy ought to have developed. With adequate instruction, he could have passed the examinations.

A few years ago I was standing in the lobby of a hotel in Munich, when I heard my name called. A gentleman came and introduced himself to me. It was X, who had remembered me from our short association forty years before. He was taking a holiday in Europe with his family. In him the Navy lost a good officer, but one of the greatest corporations in America had  p47 gained an excellent vice president.

It has always been a characteristic of mine to see the fly in the amber, the bug on the rose, and having seen it, to speak out about it. I pursued this course all during my career in the Navy. It did not add anything to my popularity, but it was good for my conscience. If therefore in this personal account of Annapolis life I have dwelt on some of its unpleasant aspects, it is only to give the reader a salutary antidote for the propaganda spread by stories, film, and speakers that glorify the Naval Academy and paint it as perfect in every respect. Academy life has its seamy side, too. And because the academy is my alma mater, and because I would like to see it attain the perfection the propaganda claims for it, I point to some of its defects, hoping that some day the proper remedies may be applied.

Which little preface brings me to what I consider the gravest fault of the Naval Academy, which is the baseless and ridiculous feeling of superiority which academy life instills into the midshipmen. Soon after a boy enters Annapolis, any civilian becomes "that cit" to him. By the time the midshipman reaches the first class, that cit is "that damn cit."

During my time we had a very distinguished man at the head of the Department of Physics and Chemistry. Do you suppose he was known to the cadet corps as Professor Terry or Doctor Terry? Not at all. He was "Cit Terry." The pupils had reached a state of snobbishness where they could look down on this eminent man because he was not in a Navy uniform.

If this attitude were confined to undergraduate life, it would not be important. Unfortunately the assumption of superiority engendered at the academy remains with many officers throughout their naval life. Study this is no propitious spirit to exist in an institution which is engaged in spending, and spending lavishly, the damn cits' money.

 p48  How this assumption happened to become so cherished a part of Navy tradition is obscure. Certainly, one has only to view the members of a new plebe class, before they have donned uniforms, to be assured that they are not superior beings. Appointed by politicians, they come from every class, from every district. Most of them have had few social advantages. Many have to be taught table manners and the proper use of knife and fork. Yet in a few weeks they have entered the aristocracy.

From the time a boy enters the academy until his graduation, there is a never ceasing glorification of the naval officer and his honor. An officer and a gentleman — the cadet becomes convinced that the two words are synonyms. If such propaganda be considered necessary then let it also be impressed upon the minds of the cadets that truth and honor are not restricted to naval officers.

Another point is the overstaffing of the academy's faculty. There are at the academy now, directly connected with midshipmen, over 230 naval officers — one for every ten midshipmen — and to these you must add about 60 civilian instructors to have the entire faculty. If some of our great universities were proportionately staffed, their faculty members would be counted by the thousands.

Don't think that these officers of the faculty are trained educators. Over two hundred of them are merely line officers who, according to Navy practice, are due for shore duty. They have not specialized in teaching, but shore duty they must have, and the Naval Academy seems a good place to put them. The heads of every faculty department, except that of English and History, are line officers — captains or commanders.

Although I have often been critical of the Navy, none of my late associates in the service can accuse me of merely trying to tear down and not offering remedies. During my long fight to bring about efficiency in the navy yards I brought forward a  p49 concrete plan of reform, some features of which were later adopted and are in use today. The Navy remains my chief interest in life. I want to see it a better navy, and I think reform can begin right in the academy.

To that end I suggest that the four important faculty departments at the Naval Academy — Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, Engineering, and English and History — be placed under the supervision of distinguished civilian educators. The tenure of office of these four men should be limited to four years. Thus, outstanding professors from our great universities and engineering schools could be borrowed for short terms. The influence of such men on the academic board would greatly improve the scholastic tone of the school. By coming into contact with a procession of inspiring civilian teachers, the midshipmen could be expected to lose a great deal of their harmful and absurd attitude of superiority.

To return to my own experience, my last year at the academy was very satisfactory to me. My marks were such that even averaging in the poor showing of my plebe year, I ranked number 9 for the four years' course. The professional subjects I had found engrossing. Secretly my ambition soared. It was nothing less than assignment to the Construction Corps of the Navy.

Naturally I confided that ambition to no one. It would have brought me only ridicule. Only the top men of the class were assigned to the construction corps. I graduated as number 9. But I still had a chance. My assignment would be based on the final examinations held at the end of the two years' cruise imposed upon young officers after their graduation from the academy. The marks of that examination, together with the cruise report marks, were added to one's academy mark to determine one's standing for the whole six years of training.

Carefully I planned my future cruise. I determined that my  p50 cruise notebooks should be excellent, my final examination papers outstanding. If all went as I intended, I could apply for the coveted assignment with some hope of success.

It was not entirely the honor of assignment to the construction corps that attracted me. I did not wish to spend my life in the Navy. I had the moral obligation to render to the Government full service to pay for my education. After that I would resign. I would take a post-graduate course in one of the fine technical schools abroad and finally have a profession which I could follow profitably in civil life. In the construction corps, too, were immediate advantages, such as increased pay while young, and permanent shore duty.

My aims were high, I realized, but determination and work had already brought me a long way. They could take me farther.

Thayer's Note:

a The Constellation was a late‑18c ship built for and commanded by Commodore Truxtun in several famous engagements. The story of the ship is told in Chapters 23‑25 and 27‑37 of Eugene Ferguson's Truxtun of the Constellation; a complete transcription of the book is onsite.

She can be seen in the background of a photograph of the Naval Academy crew, in Proceedings of the U. S. Naval Institute, 61:1558; that photograph was taken in 1893, the year after our author graduated from the Academy.

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