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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 4

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 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part I

 p51  Chapter V

Front-door Entrance — To the Line

My roommate Jimmy Sheehan and I, with three kindred spirits, Sawyer, Paine, and Hasbrouck, secured assignment to the comfortable old Charleston, then in Puget Sound. The "steerage," as the junior officers's quarters were then called, was considered the best in the Navy. But I found the ship far too crowded for the studying I had resolved to do. There was no place to write, except the mess table when it had been cleared after meals.

Accordingly, I obtained permission to fit up as a workroom the circular structure forming the foundation for the after 8‑inch gun. In my zeal I confined myself too much in this cubbyhole and suffered a nervous breakdown. The Mare Island Hospital sent me home to Florida on sick leave. A few weeks of complete rest brought me back, I reported fit for duty, and was ordered to the Concord, a 1700‑ton gunboat, at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

The Concord was so tiny and crowded that study was impossible. However, Norfolk and Portsmouth, with numerous dances, many pretty girls, and a great deal of entertaining, were delight­ful places for a midshipman. I can't say I learned much professionally that winter and spring, but I did have a tremendously good time. Probably it was just as well. I had done too much reading and studying.

The four senior midshipmen with whom I shared our tight quarters were ordered to Annapolis for the final examination, and I had the steerage to myself. At the request of the navigator, Lieutenant Colvocoresses, I was given the duty of assistant navigator. I immediately resumed my previous routine of  p52 study and work, doing a great deal of compass investigation which greatly pleased the navigator.

The year 1893 was the World's Fair year. Spain was sending to the Chicago Exposition the replicas of the three caravels of Christopher Columbus, and the combined navies of most of the world were joining to receive them in a great naval review. Our own ships began gathering in Hampton Roads. Among the first to arrive was the Charleston, so that I once more had the companion­ship of my classmates and friends.

We were really just beginning to have a modern navy then. Our navy regulations were so primitive that they did not contain any boat salute for the Secretary of the Navy. On the Concord, however, we had a coxswain who had served in the Swedish Navy. When the Secretary passed our cutter in his beautifully pulling barge, his flag flying, Coxswain Svenson had his crew toss and boat oars and stand until the barge passed. Our astonished fleet commander, Admiral John G. Walker, at once signaled his compliments to the Concord.

In smartness of seaman­ship our fleet did not compare with the crack British fleet which, headed by the new cruiser Blake, steamed into the Roads at good speed and, when the signal was hauled down, anchored simultaneously, all ships in position. We could not do that.

It was an inspiring sight when the combined fleet in two columns steamed for New York for the greatest naval demonstration this country had yet seen. President Cleveland and his Cabinet reviewed the war vessels on the gunboat Dolphin. There was a grand parade ashore and the usual "grand naval ball" at night. But New York's arrangements were execrable. The visitors were exploited on every side, and the ball was a mob. With a broad-shouldered civilian I rescued the small French admiral from the crush at the cloakroom counter. All this was in marked contrast to the arrangements I was to see  p53 at the opening of the Kiel Canal in the not distant future.

Soon after the review I was ordered to my old ship, the Charleston, then fitting out at Norfolk for a South American cruise. Lieutenant Calhoun, navigator of the Charleston, heard of my work on the Concord and asked for my detail as assistant navigator. This assignment was not only excellent duty in itself, but it placed at my disposal the large chart room and office for study.

At this time Naval Constructor Bowles was supervising at Norfolk Navy Yard the building of the first battle­ship of the new Navy — the Texas — from a design purchased in England. With my ambition to become a naval constructor strong within me, this was an opportunity I could not miss. I obtained permission from Constructor Bowles and spent much time both in the drafting room studying the plans and in the yard observing construction methods. I filled many pages of my cruise notebooks with what I learned.

Summers are hot in Norfolk, and we were all pleased when in August the Charleston went to sea, headed for South America. Our first stop was Barbados, where the Negroes, speaking an English accent, interested me greatly, as I contrasted them with the darkies I knew in the extreme South.

On the long voyage from Barbados to Montevideo, across the tropics, we reduced speed to less than ten knots to save fuel. We had no ice machine, no cold storage, no laundry, none of today's luxuries, and the distilled water tasted of grease. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the trip. The navigator was considerate, and I worked well with him. We had the usual day sights and on clear nights a star sight.

Lieutenant Calhoun had the fault of being too positive in giving the ship's position.

"We are on this spot," he would say to the captain, making a small dot on the chart.

 p54  This cocksureness may have irritated the captain, who, I think, resolved to take Mr. Calhoun down a peg. One afternoon he came into the chart room and asked for the position for 8 o'clock that evening. Out came triangles and rulers, and in a few moments, Mr. Calhoun put a dot on the chart and said, "On that spot, sir."

He wrote out the latitude and longitude. The captain put on his glasses, read the written slip, carefully examined the chart. Then he spoke.

"If you are right, Mr. Calhoun, we can have a dipsey sounding at eight. Slow down, or stop if necessary, and take a sounding at eight exactly. I want the depth and also the character of bottom." Then he left the chart room.

It was Mr. Calhoun's turn to examine the chart. "Dipsey" is Navy lingo for "deep sea." Why should we be taking a dipsey sounding in the middle of the ocean, where the depths were profound? Then Mr. Calhoun saw. At the very spot where he had put his pencil, in the lonely wastes of the equatorial Atlantic, there was a tiny shoal, with deep water all around it. The bottom was marked, "Fine gravel and shell." It must have been an excellent survey to have found that shoal in the first place.

"Hell," said the navigator, "we are in a fix — perhaps a hell of a fix."

I was flattered that he had said we, yet I had to admit that there was about one chance in a hundred that we would find the shoal. The dipsey lead is a heavy lead with a large bottom cavity in which tallow is placed. Sand, gravel, or shell adheres to the tallow, determining the character of the boat. We prepared two lines, so that if we failed once, we could try again.

At five minutes before eight the captain emerged from his cabin and stood waiting on the quarter-deck. At the zero hour we made the cast and watched anxiously. Would the line stop paying out? It did, the lead had reached bottom. This was most  p55 encouraging. While the lead was being hove in, Mr. Calhoun walked over to the captain and gave the depth, then returned. When the lead was in we both examined it. This time Mr. Calhoun could not wait to go to the captain.

"Fine gravel and shell, sir," he shouted.

"Bring the lead to me."

The captain examined the gravel and shell in the tallow. Then he turned and walked into his cabin without a word. I think he was disappointed.

In Montevideo we received an unexpected cable order to go to Rio de Janeiro, where revolution had broken out. We arrived in the beauti­ful bay of Rio on September 26, 1893. The disturbance, we discovered, was in the nature of civil war — Army against Navy.​a The Army had elected a president and grabbed all the offices, and the Navy rebelled. The Army occupied the forts and the city, the Navy under Admiral Mello held the bay. Now and then the ships threw a few shells into the town or raided the waterfront. We were greatly excited at first, rushing on deck to see the results; but, since there seemed to be no results, we decided it was all opera bouffe and turned our attention to sightseeing.

Later I decided I had been mistaken about the results. One morning it was my duty to take the boat to the customhouse to get the stewards, who were ashore for supplies. Just as I climbed up on the dock, an insurgent ship which had come in close opened fire with rifles and machine guns. The Brazilian soldiers jumped for the shelter of a barricade made of piles of hay with steel plates in front — but not before one, within ten feet of me, fell with a bullet through his heart.

I looked for our Chinese stewards, whom I had seen on the dock but a moment before. They had vanished. I looked down into the water and saw four Chinese heads and Chinese arms and hands clinging to the steel ringbolts in the sea‑wall. I was  p56 in a most uncomfortable position. The hay shelters were already crowded to capacity, and I couldn't very well join the Chinese servants in the bay. I stood and took it, thinking how very unpleasant is the whine of a Mannlicher small-bore. After a few bad minutes the ship passed on, and the battle was over.

Many foreign men-of‑war were now arriving, including an American squadron commanded by Admiral Stanton. Admiral Mello called on Admiral Stanton, and, when he left, Stanton's ship fired a salute. Then Admiral Stanton returned the call and received Mello's salute. I was amazed and shocked. International law was one of my best subjects. I stood first in the class at the academy and knew my Wharton and Wheaton from cover to cover. Any midshipman should have known that by saluting the rebel leader he had given formal, official recognition of Admiral Mello and his rebellion. Admiral Stanton soon found out about this point in international law. Washington disavowed his action and relieved him of his command.

yellow-fever outbreak on shore held us prisoners on our ships. There was little else to do, and I threw myself into my textbooks. Close study and confinement for weeks, besides the heat, threw me into another nervous breakdown, a severe one. I was ordered home to the Brooklyn Naval Hospital and boarded the new Royal Mail liner Nile, bound for Southampton, England.

Not counting a miserable tub on which I had made a short voyage on the Pacific Coast, this was the first passenger vessel I had ever traveled in. The luxuries of the fine new ship amazed me. I rested in my deck chair, walked the spacious decks, ate excellent meals. Gathering strength, I went ashore at Bahia and Lisbon. When we reached Southampton I was almost myself.

London in December was most depressing. The boat train arrived about four in the afternoon, but, with the fog and  p57 smoke, it was already quite dark. Not knowing a soul in that great city, I had never before felt so lonely. At the fabulous price of ten shillings and sixpence I took a stall at Daly's Theatre to see Ada Rehan in an American company. The sound of home speech cheered me up a little, but after two more days I went to Paris to wait for the sailing of my ship, the American liner New York.

Two classmates already assigned to the construction corps and studying in Paris welcomed me royally. They took me to the Opera, also to see Bernhardt in Camille, and to Maxim's to dine and sup. Maxim's was then at its zenith. In America it stood for all that was elegant and wicked in Paris. I had never before seen so many well-gowned, beauti­ful women in one place and could hardly believe my friends when they told me the character of some of these ladies.

In reciprocal hospitality I myself gave a dinner to about a dozen American, insisting upon ordering everything without help. Platter after platter of oysters appeared, and a shout went up. My friends asked me if I knew anything about French oysters. "Of course," I said, and I did — after I had paid the stupendous bill.

At the Naval Hospital in Brooklyn, the medical officers wished to know why I had come. Long sea trips and new scenes had completely restored my health. A medical survey certified me fit; and, since I was due to take my final examination at Annapolis in April, I was ordered to the old receiving ship Vermont at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Here I had almost complete leisure to apply myself to my books; but, with a physical examination to pass, I was not going to risk another breakdown. I followed a sensible routine of study, exercise, and amusement. When I reported for the final examination I knew myself to be fully prepared both mentally and physically.

Two years earlier I had promised myself to turn in outstanding  p58 examination papers. I did better than that. My whole examination was sensational, receiving a mark of 214.34 out of 240 possible points, and this value included a poor mark in French, still my stumblingblock. My cruise notebooks were such models that the declaim retained them as examples for future graduates to follow. They remained at the academy until I recovered them twenty years later, after my resignation.

This examination raised me from number 9 in the class standing to number 3. I was in the charmed circle. I felt sure now the academic board would recommend me for assignment to the construction corps. There still remained the formality of my physical examination. I passed it without difficulty and awaited the medical board's report with only casual interest. Yet, when I read it, astounding, incredible, impossible words jumped out at me.

"The Board finds the physical condition of Naval Cadet Holden A. Evans excellent, but in view of his past medical history considers him physically unfit for the naval service."

Plucked! Thrown out — yes, actually thrown out — not even discharged with a year's sea pay — simply dropped — "physically disqualified"! Here was a man educated at public expense, a man whose career and whose present physical condition gave every promise that he would render to his country an adequate return in service for that education, yet who, because as an adolescent, overworked boy he had been subject to fainting spells, and who later had broken down twice from confinement and study, was to be kicked out.

Why? The Navy is sometimes a maddening institution. Things are done — illogical, arbitrary, even cruel things — and nobody ever finds out why. So, even today I can only guess why the medical board made such an absurd report. Two popular men of my class needed a vacancy ahead of them. One, a charming social luminary, lacked one number of appointment  p59 to the Line. Unless a place were made for him, he would have to be relegated to the Marines. The other, a football hero who was one of the most popular men in the class, was in a worse plight. One upper vacancy would save him also.

To support my guess is the fact that while I was making my fight against this injustice, a line officer died suddenly and made a vacancy. After that the opposition to Cadet Evans measurably decreased.

Let me comment here that none of the medical officers who ever treated or examined me made any attempt to discover any cause of my trouble. It was simply "nervous breakdown from overwork." I had a weak nervous system. These attacks continued with me afterwards, increasing in severity, thereby seeming to justify the original report of the medical board. It was not until one such breakdown nearly finished me that I gained sense enough to consult a civilian doctor. This specialist, Dr. Deane, of San Francisco, diagnosed my trouble in thirty minutes — a serious infection in my frontal sinus. A minor operation completely cured me, and from that day to this I have had rugged health.

Even a naval cadet had resources, and I was not going to take this outrage lying down. I rushed to Washington and appealed to the Surgeon General, to the Bureau of Navigation, but in vain. Bureaucracy turned on me a stony face. The case was closed, I was to be dropped.

Luck was with me. The Secretary of the Navy in Cleveland's Cabinet was Colonel Hilary Herbert, and Colonel Herbert and my father were lifelong friends. They had been deskmates at school. When young Lawyer Herbert hung out his shingle, my father was his first client. I wired Father to come to Washington and save me.

Father went in to see the Secretary alone, leaving me outside. As the minutes stretched into an hour, I fell into despair. I  p60 pictured Father pleading for me and failing because of difficulties I didn't understand. At last he came out, laughing. There were others in the anteroom, but I had to whisper and ask what had happened.

Father said, "Hill and I have been talking over old times."

"But what about me?"

"Oh, that was settled in a few minutes. Hill has sent for the records. If the case is as you represent, you'll get your commission. We are to come back tomorrow."

I hardly slept that night. Next day we went to the Department, and when Father had presented me, Secretary Herbert said: "I have placed this record before some eminent medical men in whom I have confidence. On the strength of their opinion, I have decided to waive the report of the Naval Academy Medical Board and order you commissioned."

"Then, Mr. Secretary," I said eagerly, "I would like to be assigned to the construction corps. I believe the academic board will recommend me."

"If they recommend you, I'll appoint you," the Secretary said.

"Then, too," I went on, "I've never been able to learn French. Some of the naval constructors are sent to Paris for study. If I'm appointed, I'd prefer to be sent to Glasgow."

"Then to Glasgow you shall go," Mr. Herbert replied, adding laughingly as he turned to Father, "Has the young man any more requests?"

"No, sir," I said. "But from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for all you have done for me."

Very rightly, the Navy resents political interference. If politics governed the Navy Department as it does some other Government departments, the results would be disastrous. But secretly the Navy carries this feeling still further. It resents civilian control at all. It believes that the offices of Secretary and  p61 Assistant Secretary should be filled by high ranking officers. Failing that, the Navy would like to see weak men appointed to these high civilian posts. With mediocrity in the front office, the Navy really governs itself. Naval officers at the time with some justice strongly criticized Secretary Herbert's intervention in my case, though that intervention was vital to me. I am willing to let my record of eighteen subsequent years of service to the Navy justify the Secretary's action.

Father wanted to go home at once, but I persuaded him to remain in Washington a few days. This was a blunder on my part. I applied at once for assignment to the construction corps, the academic board recommended me, the Bureau of Navigation informed me that I was to be commissioned an Assistant Naval Constructor. All this within a week.

Father and I were staying at the old Ebbitt House. The day after I got the good news from the Bureau of Navigation, a messenger came with a request from Admiral Ramsay, chief of that bureau, to see Father as soon as possible. It gave me a chill. Admiral Ramsay did not know my father, had never met him. Something was afoot, disagreeable to me.

Father was with the admiral a long time.

"Son," he said to me, when he came out of the office, "you must not take this in the wrong way. Admiral Ramsay is much interested in your welfare. He says the course of study abroad is most difficult. If you attempt it, your health will be ruined, and it may kill you. He convinced me that it is best for you to go into the line. I have promised to see the Secretary and ask him to revoke his instructions to commission you in the construction corps."

In vain I protested that Admiral Ramsay hadn't the slightest interest in me or in my welfare. He had completely hoodwinked Father. I could never convince Father, though, that he had been taken in by a sympathetic manner. He always insisted  p62 that I had misunderstood the old admiral.

In calm retrospect I now believe that Admiral Ramsay did sincerely wish me to remain in the line, though not for my sake nor that of my health. The line is always chagrined to see the top men of the academy graduating classes, who are eligible for it, choose the construction corps in preference to the line. The line can stand some of these ornaments itself and often tries to induce brilliant midshipmen to reject assignments to the construction corps.

With Father I went to the Secretary and made a final but ineffectual plea to change the verdict. My commission was, Ensign in the Line of the Navy. I was granted a short leave, then ordered to the San Francisco at the New York Navy Yard. But Secretary Herbert had left me with a ray of hope.

"My boy," was his final remark to me, "we shall see how you get along during the next year. Perhaps you may yet be a constructor."

Thayer's Note:

a A summary of the "Revolta da Armada" is given by Brazilian historian João Pandiá Calógeras in Formação Histórica do Brasil, § 203. Another American naval officer's account of the revolt, considerably more consequential and detailed, is given in Yates Stirling, Sea Duty, pp21‑27.

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