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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 6

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 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part I

 p78  Chapter VII

Farewell to the Line

Gravesend, the non‑geographic reader may need a reminder, is a port on the Thames River at the edge of metropolitan London. We moored to a buoy off the Clarendon Hotel and settled down for a month of sightseeing. I had seen London only in foggy, wet, dreary December. How different was London in summer! Of all foreign cities it remains my favorite to this day.

We made acquaintances on shore, and I decided to give a small dinner party aboard the ship to two very pretty American girls and their chaperon. We lived well in the mess and always had a large mess bill. Our arrangement was that if any individual member of the mess wished to invite friends to dinner, the mess caterer would provide a nice menu, and the host had to pay only for flowers and wine.

At table I sat at the head, and the other senior officers — the doctor, two engineer officers, the Marine officer, and two other ensigns — sat at my end. The seven midshipmen had the other end of the table, which was known as the "fourth ward."

All the officers of the mess knew and liked the young ladies I had invited. On the eve of my party, the midshipmen came to me with an ultimatum. They were tired of being the downtrodden, they said. If at my dinner I would seat one of the pretty girls in the Fourth Ward, then they would agree to go easy on the champagne.

"And if I don't?"

"Then the Lord help you! We'll drink enough to keep you aboard ship for months paying your wine bill. Another point, don't serve us any of that cheap Algiers stuff, or we'll expose  p79 you to your guests."

In Algiers we had put in a stock of cheap champagne, costing seventy-five cents a bottle, for use in punch or cocktails.

I offered a compromise — I would seat the chaperon in the Fourth Ward — but they shouted me down. I was not to be blackmailed in this fashion and rejected their proposition. The ringleaders of the conspiracy, Ridley McLean and Roscoe Bulmer, called our Chinese wine boy.

"Tsin never want to see bottom of glass," they said. "Champagne all the same as beer."

Tsin said, "Yes, sir, I understand."

The ladies were seated at our end. When the champagne was served, I saw the young devils slyly examine the label under the table napkin to make sure they were not getting the cheap wine. It was amazing how much champagne seven husky young midshipmen could put away. I saw bottle after bottle disappear.

Finally tongues were loosened, and out came the story. The young ladies were highly flattered, and one voluntarily went to the Fourth Ward. My guests thought it a wonder­ful joke on me and joined the midshipmen in celebrating my discomfiture.

Next morning I asked the mess caterer, Ensign McCormick, for the amount of the wine bill, to know how long I must stay aboard ship to save money to pay it. His reply was ominous.

"I can't tell you yet. Tsin is still counting empty bottles."

At luncheon the jubilant midshipmen shouted, "Now maybe you'll treat the Fourth Ward with some consideration." Just before dinner McCormick gave me the bill. I was astonished. The total was most moderate.

He said, "I know those young cubs couldn't tell poor champagne from good. So I had Tsin take labels from empty vintage bottles and paste them on the Algiers bottles for the midshipmen. At our end we had good champagne."

Did I have a story to tell at dinner? I, or rather Ensign McCormick,  p80 had not only turned the laugh on the midshipmen but had exposed their lack of taste in wine. They couldn't believe it until McCormick passed around my bill for their inspection.

In 1933 my wife and I gave a dinner dance at the Valley Club of Montecito, Cal., in honor of Rear Admiral McLean and Rear Admiral Sexton, another old friend of mine. It was an occasion, for at 8 o'clock next morning Sexton was to become Vice Admiral Sexton. One of my guests, Governor Livingston Beekman, made a speech welcoming the admirals and their naval parties.

Ridley McLean was still senior officer, and he made his reply. He recalled our happy days on the San Francisco and told the story of my dinner party. Then, finishing, he lifted his glass high and said to me, "You can't fool me now, Holden. I know this is not Algiers champagne."

Before going to Scotland we drydocked the ship at Havre. Though promised the drydock for August 21, we did not get it until August 31. Captain Shepard's family was at Lausanne, and the delay enabled him to take a week's leave. He left for Switzerland on August 23. His aide went to Paris on the 24th.

Was it a coincidence that I stopped at the Hotel Chatham and found there one of the young ladies of the Gravesend dinner, with her mother. The Young Lady was a determined sightseer, so, in my seven days in Paris, I saw much more of the historic city than I should otherwise have done. I refused to take her to the Moulin Rouge but compromised on the Jardin de Paris. Today we would consider that performance mild; but, such was ladylike opinion in the 90's, Mamma did not like it and after half an hour made us walk out of the show.

I watched the French dock our ship, comparing the operation with that of naval constructors in our navy yards at home. I noted that very few shores and blocks were used; the French docked a warship exactly as they docked a merchant vessel. I reported my views to the captain, who acted tactfully. Going out  p81 on the dock, he pretended to make the discovery of insufficient shoring. We got the additional support — and also a heavy addition to the bill over the agreed contract price.

From Havre we went to Southampton again, where we all had many acquaintances and friends. Ridley McLean and I took a bicycle trip to Winchester. The road was deep in dust, and we were riding the footpath when a police constable stopped us and told us we were violating the law. He had out his notebook to take our names, then paused and said, "Are you gentlemen?"

"What's that got to do with it?" I asked.

He answered, "If you are gentlemen, I shall warn you. If you are not, I shall summons you."

We assured him that we certainly were gentlemen — officers from the U. S. S. San Francisco anchored in Southampton Water. When he seemed to doubt us, we showed him our visiting cards and told him to come and visit the ship. He put away his notebook and said, "I know you gentlemen will be careful, so you can use the footpath."

We went off gayly, Ridley leading. Soon he turned off into the dusty road and waved me to follow. I asked for an explanation.

"The next constable we meet may not be able to recognize a gentleman," said Ridley.

Captain Shepard had come to rely on me more than is usual, but on one point we disagreed. When he made out the efficiency reports on the midshipmen, he would not take my suggestion that Ridley McLean was the most efficient. He gave Midshipman X––– better marks. Midshipman X––– was a good officer, but I did not think he was McLean's equal.

About this time I found opportunity to make a vivid comparison of the relative merits of these two young men. I was serving as recorder of the summary court martial. Nearly always the accused before a summary court is guilty, rarely does he make  p82 any defense. The court acts only because the offense merits greater punishment than a captain is allowed by law to inflict. As captain's clerk, it was my duty to draw up the charges for the captain's signature. As recorder, it was my duty to present the evidence, keep a record of the proceedings, and write it up in regulation form for the court members to sign.

At best, summary court martial duty is a bore. When the recorder presents cases briefly, then writes up the proceedings quickly and in proper form so that there will be no kick-back on the senior member, all hands are pleased.

Our court, of which Lieutenant A. C. Hodgson was senior member, worked like a well-regulated clock. As clerk to the captain, I made the charges and specifications clear and brief and included nothing which I, as recorder, could not prove. As recorder, I interviewed the witnesses in advance, told them to make direct, brief answers. Thus we could run off four to six cases in a forenoon, and by evening I would have all the proceedings written up and signed by the court members.

Proud as I was of our court and its speed, Midshipman X––– severely criticized it. He said it was no court of justice but a court to railroad men to punishment. He denied the right of a recorder to question witnesses, except in the presence of the court. Here I saw an opportunity. I would let Mr. X––– conduct a few cases according to his ideas, and the captain should see what happened.

A difficult case came up. One of the men was charged with stealing a pair of shoes. His mates nicknamed him Casey, and the name under which he was enlisted had become all but forgotten. But he was still on the ship's records under his correct name. This would be an excellent case for Mr. X––– to try.

I told the captain that I had now been recorder for a long time, and might it not be well to let the midshipmen take the job  p83 in turn, to learn the procedure.

"An excellent suggestion," agreed the captain. "I will put on Mr. X––– first as recorder. Write out the orders."

I knew Captain Shepard would select X–––, whom he regarded as the foremost midshipman. When I delivered the order to Mr. X–––, I told him he had a hard case to handle and advised him to interrogate all the witnesses before the court met.

He answered, "I shall not question any witness except before the court." I waited for the circus to begin.

The court convened. Mr. X––– called his first witness and asked him, "Do you recognize the accused, and, if so, as whom?"

The witness answered, "I do. He is Casey."

Mr. X––– looked surprised. He tried several other questions, but the witness insisted the name was Casey.

The new recorder gave up and brought other witnesses. One after the other they also said the accused was named Casey. Finally the senior member blew up.

"Will the recorder call a witness who can identify the accused?" he said. "Call the executive officer, if necessary."

The case dragged on for days, until the exasperated senior member complained of the recorder to the captain. Finally Mr. X––– managed to finish his case. When he sent the record to the captain, it was my duty as clerk to examine it for errors. I found so many the captain disapproved the whole proceedings. This was Midshipman X–––'s one and only case before the summary court martial. Midshipman Ridley McLean became recorder.

The captain sent the record of the case to the admiral for his action and transmittal to the office of the Judge Advocate General. A few days later the admiral stamped out of his cabin, holding the record in his hand.

He said to the captain, "Why did you send this paper to me?"

Captain Shepard explained that he had disapproved the proceedings and had sent the paper for the admiral to transmit to  p84 Washington.

"I'll do nothing of the sort," replied the admiral. "Do you want me to forward a damned comic sheet? I'll have nothing to do with it." And in his wrath he threw the papers on the deck.

"But what am I going to do with them, sir?" asked the captain.

"Throw 'em overboard," said the admiral. "You disapproved the proceedings, why forward that trash to Washington?"

But in the Navy papers are not thrown overboard. Once written, they have to go through the mill. Lieutenant York Noel, the flag secretary, said he would wait a day or so until the admiral cooled down and then persuade him to forward the papers, but he finally had to come and tell me that the admiral positively refused.

At that I wrote a letter to the Judge Advocate General for the captain to sign, forwarding the papers direct and explaining why. Captain Shepard would not sign it, for he said it was implied criticism of the admiral. So we sent the record in without any explanation at all. In due course back it came to us with a sharp letter calling the captain's attention to the navy regulations. Without commenting on the implied rebuke, Captain Shepard told me to show this letter to the flag secretary and again send the papers to the admiral. This time the admiral forwarded the comic sheet. Such is life in the Navy.

With Midshipman McLean as recorder there was no further trouble, and in the next efficiency report the captain gave him the highest marks. But all his life Ridley McLean bore out my early judgment of him, the judgment of a very young officer. It was a first indication of what I was to discover later — that my strongest point as an executive was my judgment of men. Ridley McLean became an outstanding officer. Under Admiral Sims he was Assistant Director of Target Practice. He became Judge Advocate General of the Navy, navy budget officer, and rear admiral in command of a squadron, and had he lived, would  p85 have gone higher.

When, years after the incident of the court martial, we had taken Miss Aimee DuPont's beauti­ful home at Santa Barbara, Cal., for the summer, Admiral Ridley McLean and his wife were visiting us. My wife and I were breakfasting upstairs. Looking from the window, we could see Ridley on the terrace surrounded by lovely flowers, breakfast before him, the morning paper by his side. Peace, happiness, and contentment were written on his face. He did not look like the stern disciplinarian. It will be my lasting remembrance of Ridley McLean, for not long after this he was dead. He dropped dead one day of heart failure, dying as he would have liked to die — on his flagship surrounded by his staff, working on a problem.

After a week in Southampton, the San Francisco sailed for Greenock, Scotland, on the Clyde River below Glasgow, where we moored at Tail-of‑the‑Bend. The Lord Provost of Glasgow invited the admiral and officers to a luncheon at the City Hall. It was necessary to make a detail of officers to accompany Captain Shepard, and it was my duty to take the invitation to the wardroom and steerage and list those desiring to attend.

Our older officers rarely wished to go to official entertainments; but the juniors, anxious to see the world, were usually glad to go. I brought back the list to the captain. On it was not one wardroom officer, but nearly every junior officer had signed.

The captain said, "I shall take seven officers with me — Mr. A––– and Mr. B––– from the wardroom, yourself, and you will select four more from the steerage."

I went to the wardroom, taking the order to A––– and B–––.

"Oh, hell!" exclaimed Mr. A–––. "Evans, this is some of your dirty work."

I assured them that I had had nothing to do with the detail. Then I went to the steerage and posted the names of the four officers I had selected. Immediately there were shouts from all  p86 sides — "Why am I left out? Why does Ridley McLean go to everything?" I answered mendaciously, "This is a detail by the captain."

After an elaborate luncheon we were driven in state over the city. The president of Glasgow University showed us though all the university buildings. I knew that this was the best engineering school in the world for teaching marine construction and design. I could not keep back the thought, "Will this beauti­ful place one day be my university?"

The Gordon Highlanders were giving a grand ball on their 100th anniversary, incidentally saying good‑by to their guest of honor, the Duke of Cambridge, who was retiring as Commander-in‑Chief of the British Army. To that famous function the admiral, captain, and officers of the San Francisco were invited. The captain told me that the admiral was not going, and therefore he would not attend, either. As usual, none of the wardroom officers could be budged, but the steerage clamored for the chance. Captain Shepard told me to take a group of junior officers.

"But no more than five altogether. I don't want the place overrun with my junior officers."

We youngsters attended in full evening dress uniform. A British Army officer of an upper grade came to us and asked when he could expect our admiral and captain.

I lied glibly, "We greatly regret that they can not attend. The admiral is away, and the captain is ill."

The officer looked surprised.

"His Royal Highness was told the American admiral and captain would be present," he said. "I shall have to present your senior officer as the admiral. Who is your senior officer?"

I felt very foolish as I replied, "I am, sir."

 p87  "That is too bad," he said, looking me up and down. "I hardly know what to do. You are too young to be presented as an admiral. Perhaps the Duke will forget, and then it will be all right."

Then, seeing my embarrassment, he went on, "Don't you worry, but have a good time. If the Duke does remember, I shall find you." Then he called two younger officers and told them to introduce us to all the pretty girls.

There is not much in Glasgow to interest the casual visitor, but I had an advantage over my messmates in that the Young Lady appeared in that city. She and her mother were now touring Scotland and took occasion to visit Glasgow while our ship was there. It was when driving around Glasgow with them, and especially through the beauti­ful grounds of the university, rising from the bank of the River Kelvin, that I made up my mind to apply once more for assignment to the Construction Corps. But I did not then tell the Young Lady of my plans.

In this book I purpose in the main to give an account of my life only insofar as it tends to establish my authority as a critic of the Navy and of Navy methods. My career and experiences in the Navy are germane to that purpose, and so are my subsequent experiences as an independent shipbuilder in civilian life. So also is my earlier background pertinent, for it forced me into habits of concentration, of deep and penetrating analyses of difficult subjects.

For that reason I have given the reader of the preceding pages something about my family and my boyhood struggles for education. They definitely determined the course of my professional life. After I became an adult, however, my domestic affairs had little or nothing to do with my career, and I will not obtrude them upon the reader any more than is necessary.

Therefore, I will dismiss the Young Lady from these chapters by stating that we agreed to disagree, and, for the sake of this record, I add that before finally leaving Scotland, I married a  p88 very pretty young English actress. She was only 18 and was playing leading parts, giving promise of going far. From a life of gayety and excitement I took her to the drab life of the wife of a naval constructor, who thought of but little other than his work. We were divorced in 1909. She is the mother of my three daughters, and we have always remained friends. The only complaint she ever made against me was that I thought more of my work than I did of my wife. It was a just accusation.​a

On October 4 we left Greenock for Lisbon, Portugal, arriving four days later. On this voyage I told my captain of my determination to seek appointment to the Construction Corps. He tried to dissuade me, but I was determined.

"I love my line duties," I told him. "The work and the life are most congenial. But I want a profession that will give me some independence, one in which I can make my living in civil life, if the time ever comes when I don't like the Navy or the Navy doesn't like me."

These remarks I take from my journal, just as I wrote them the night after my conversation with my dear captain. They were prophetic. The day came when the Navy did not like me.

Finding that he could not move me, Captain Shepard promised to help me in any way he could. I requested a Medical Board of Survey on me. The board reported that I had not been on the sick list a day since joining the ship and that my physical condition was excellent. Still serving as captain's clerk, I attached my request for assignment to this report and handed it in.

Captain Shepard said, "Write my endorsement, and make it strong."

"I'm sorry, sir," I answered, "but that is one endorsement I cannot write."

He understood and wrote his endorsement in longhand. The admiral approved my request, and forwarded it to the Secretary of the Navy on October 11.

 p89  Secretary Herbert acted promptly. The ship went on to Algiers. There on November 1 a cable came, telling that I had been assigned to the Construction Corps. Nor had the Secretary forgotten my choice of schools. I was ordered to London to report to the naval attaché, who was arranging for my studies at the University of Glasgow.

Sorrow at leaving my friends mingled with elation at having achieved my ambition at last, as I packed up to depart. But Captain Shepard with still to do me another kindness, and an amazing one. The paymaster, who was arranging my transportation, reported that the steamer from Algiers to Marseilles offered only poor accommodations. This did not worry me in the least, but the captain stepped in to see the admiral. He came out smiling.

"We're sending you away in style," he said. "This ship is going to Marseilles, so you will be my aide a little longer. Tell Ensign Hines he will relieve you at Marseilles, and show him everything."

That is how I left the line of the Navy. No young officer ever had better duty or finer, more considerate commanding officers. As for congenial companions, there were never any better than those who formed our junior officers' mess on the old San Francisco.

As I went over the side for the last time, it is useless for me to deny that there was a lump in my throat.

Thayer's Note:

a The following item from the San Francisco Call, Feb. 4, 1909, will prove instructive on several accounts:

Mrs. Maude Evans feels sorry for ex‑husband
Denies Plan to Introduce Character of Navy Man in Sketch

Mrs. Maude Evans, late of Mare island, will not introduce a character made up to represent her former husband, Naval Constructor Holden Evans, into her playlet to be produced on the boards of vaudeville houses throughout the west, nor will she claim the most of the $1,000 a week which her little company will receive for putting on two performances a day of "An Old Maid's Hobby." Neither will she sing a song entitled "I'm Too Warm for You," believing that such a song would be absurd.

"I don't need to go to such lengths to gain a living," said the actress yesterday. "The song I will sing is 'Ah Want You, Mah Honey,' and has not the vaguest reference to Mr. Evans. I have talent, and although I have not been on the stage for some years, I come of a well known theatrical family, and played leading parts with George Edwardes in the best musical comedy company in London.

"I would not even use Mr. Evans' name except that I am known by that name here. When we reach London, which we expect to do, I will resume my former name by which I am well known in England. I don't see why they bring Mr. Evans into this affair.' He has suffered enough notoriety. It would not be so bad if it had been the other man — Osborne. He is younger and could stand it.

"When I appear on the stage people will not see the bold brazen woman they expect. I am a young girl In the sketch and have very few lines to speak. I have a good entrance and almost immediately introduce my songs and later on skirt dances. Mr. de Lain, who is a well known female impersonator, will play an old maid role, my aunt, and Mr. La Frantz will assume the part of a broken down tragedian. The situations are extremely funny, where Le Frantz makes love to De Lain. We close with a dance for the three of us.

"I will not claim all the money, and it will be an even division. We will probably close with one of the circuits by Saturday."

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