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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 8

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 II
Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p111  Chapter I

"Learn How to Handle Men"

In the summer of 1897 the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydocks Co. was, as it is today, one of the largest and most important shipbuilding plants in the United States. When I reported I found Naval Constructor J. J. Woodward supervising the construction of the three battle­ships. He was a high-ranking constructor and one of great ability. His senior assistant was Naval Constructor Robert Stocker, a born mechanic, a fine draftsman with a natural gift for design, besides being hard-working, painstaking, conscientious, and very patient.

With two such outstanding men to direct and guide me, if I couldn't learn I must be hopeless.

I took to Naval Constructor Stocker at once, going to him always for advice or information. He lived in Hampton, therefore so would I. It involved a long trolley ride morning and evening, but that did not matter. I wanted to live near this man so that I might really know him, and the trolley rides together would only further my ambition.

My salary was $2,600 a year — very good for a young man in those days. But I owed a debt to those who had helped me on the way to an education; and, at least until that was paid, I resolved to live as frugally as I could. I rented a small house in Hampton for $15 a month, and bought only absolutely necessary furniture. There was no bathroom, not even any plumbing, no den nor library. We bathed in tin tubs, and I did my work at night on the dining-room table. My wife had one Negro servant, whom we paid $12 a month.

Horrified Navy wives may say I was not keeping up my  p112 position as a naval officer. I have often heard officers' wives talk about keeping up their positions, but it's all bunk — an excuse for living beyond one's means. Tell your young wife, Lieutenant, that next door to us in Hampton, in a house the exact duplicate of ours, lived a young man named Harry Blackistone, who was a clerk in the office of Furness-Withy at Newport News. Twenty years later I knew him in New York. He was the American Managing Director of Furness-Withy and a member of the Board of Directors in London.

Small houses, small expenses, and hard work move young men up in the world.

My assignment was to inspect the construction of the Illinois, our latest battle­ship. This was splendid duty. The work had only just started, so I could see every detail of it almost from the beginning. My responsibility was to make sure that everything was done according to the working plans and specifications and that no defective work or material got past. As assistants I had two skilled mechanics who were on the ship during working hours watching every detail.

Every watertight bulkhead, except the main center-line bulkhead in the engine and boiler rooms, had to be tested under a head of water. To witness these tests personally, I spent many hours crawling in the double bottom of the hull, where there were many small watertight compartments.

Naval Constructor Woodward was an engineer in the broad sense of the word — a scientist, in fact. Also he was fearless and did not hesitate to suggest changes in the general plans received from Washington or even to make strong protests against what he considered faults in design.

No main center-line bulkhead of an American battle­ship had ever been tested. The foundations on which the ship was built would not support the great weight of the water necessary to fill one of the large compartments. Mr. Woodward protested  p113 against the design of the bulkhead in use — it was too light; the stiffeners were not fixed at the ends. He maintained that it would collapse under a test and was therefore useless as designed.

After much correspondence he received permission to build a wooden cofferdam a few feet from the bulkhead and test it that way. As the cofferdam was filled, we made careful observations on the bulkhead. It was exactly as Mr. Woodward had predicted. As the result, the bulkhead was redesigned, and thereafter our Navy had center-line bulkheads in its engine and boiler rooms that would hold in the emergency.

Naval Constructor Woodward won this fight but lost another and a more important one. In effect his defeat cost the Navy two battle­ships and the taxpayer a huge sum of money.

Congress had appropriated for two first‑class battle­ships. A brilliant line officer, expert in ordnance, made a distribution of the main battery which he thought would revolutionize battle­ship design. He placed the turrets for the 8‑inch guns on top of the turrets for the 13‑inch guns.

From the chief constructor down, the naval constructors opposed this design. A technical man might understand that a line officer would be ignorant regarding the disadvantages of a too‑great concentration of weight; but that line officers, experts in gunnery, the very men who would have to fight the ships, should wish to mount 13‑inch guns and 8‑inch guns on the same turntable remains incomprehensible to me to this day.

The line officer just as strongly supported the revolutionary design and, as usual, won. The results were the Kearsarge and Kentucky, building at Newport News.

Time and again Mr. Woodward had protested against the design. One day he received notice that the new Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, was coming to inspect the yard. The chief was jubilant. Now he could show  p114 this brilliant man at first hand the defects of the design. It was not too late yet for the design to be changed, which Mr. Woodward felt sure the Assistant Secretary would authorize once he had seen the faults.

To take advantage of this opportunity, Mr. Woodward threw his whole large drafting-room force into the feverish work of redesigning the ship. He spent his whole time in the drafting room, going from board to board. The plans were finished in time, and the chief was satisfied. He felt that he was doing his country a great service.

The Assistant Secretary arrived. It was a hot day in midsummer, and a hot day in a Virginia shipyard is anything but comfortable. We had rehearsed our program. Mr. Woodward and Stocker were to escort the Secretary to the deck of the Kearsarge. I was to carry the roll of plans. As Mr. Woodward explained, I was to produce each drawing from the roll at the proper moment.

Thus we arrived on the deck of the ship. Poor Mr. Woodward! He never had a chance. Before he could speak, the gentleman who was to be known to millions later simply as T. R. began to extol the wonder­ful design of the Kearsarge and from that went on into general remarks about designing and building ships. We found ourselves standing in silence in that hot sun for half an hour as we listened to a lecture on ship design. I never unrolled the plans at all.​a

We returned to the office. Our distinguished guest departed. I asked Mr. Woodward why he had not shown the Secretary the plans anyhow.

"What was the use?" he said dejectedly. "I have been told that he considers himself an expert in many lines. Now I know he thinks he's an expert in naval architecture."

No doubt the suave gentlemen who always surround the Secretary and Assistant Secretary had fully primed Mr. Roosevelt  p115 before he left Washington.

The Kearsarge and Kentucky went through to completion as designed. Their design was never duplicated in our Navy or in any other.

Like any of the workmen, Stocker and I carried our cold lunches and ate them in company. Each day we had two long trolley rides together. Our talks were nearly always on professional subjects. I learned much from him then. At a later date I was able to be of some help to him. When my eldest daughter was christened, Mr. and Mrs. Stocker were her godparents.

It was a happy life for me in Hampton. My evenings I usually spent in study, but on Saturday evenings we went to the dances at the Chamberlain Hotel at Old Point Comfort. Sunday afternoons we always went to the Stockers'. Mrs. Stocker was the daughter of Captain Jesse Jones, and she and her husband lived with her parents in a home near the water.

Sunday evening supper was an event with Captain and Mrs. Jones. I have heard of southern hospitality, but never have I seen it so open-handed and gracious as it was in Jesse Jones's home. Nobody ever knew how many would be present at the Sunday supper, six or sixteen, but it averaged about a dozen. The dining-room table, extended to full length, was literally loaded with good things to eat; and not only the frills usually served at suppers but solid food in addition — always two roasts, usually a turkey and a ham.

Anyone who "dropped in" Sunday afternoon was expected to stay for supper. When all were seated at the table, delicious, flaky, hot biscuits began to arrive from the oven. I can see Captain Jesse Jones now, standing to carve the roast and smiling happily as he looked around the table at his friends.

Although I was learning the practical side of my profession under two experts, it was a third man I met at Newport News,  p116 a civilian employee of the shipbuilding company, who proved to have a decisive influence upon my professional life. This was Mr. Matthew Doughty, the Superintendent of Hull Construction, known to his friends as Matt.

Matt Doughty was a remarkable man. He had little book education, having come up from the bottom. He knew ship construction thoroughly, but his great value was his ability to handle men. He was the best manager of men I have ever known. Under him worked Scotchmen, Englishmen, Irishmen, Poles, white Americans, and many Negroes. How Matt commanded this mixed army was a marvel. He knew the characteristics of the nationalities, knew when to be harsh and when to be gentle, knew well how to get tough, if necessity arose. Needless to say, he got the very best from the men under him.

I became well acquainted with this man and could call him my friend. Like nearly all students of naval architecture, I had visions of designing ships. I wanted to see the great vessel that had come from my brain slide down the ways. I was too inexperienced then to know that I had no talent for design whatsoever. I could have spent a lifetime in the work and still not have made a competent designer. But I confided my dreams to Matt Doughty.

He said, "Forget about this design business. Learn how to handle men, that's what you get paid for. Look at me — no education and getting ten thousand a year — and Gatewood, the best naval architect in the United States, getting forty-five hundred. Learn how to manage men, my boy. You can hire plenty of men to do your figuring."

That advice made me take thought. Already, at the threshold of my career, I was beginning to realize that the field of a naval constructor was so broad that a man must specialize in some branch of it, if he intended to move ahead. This, I admit,  p117 is not Navy belief nor Navy practice. In the Navy an Annapolis diploma, a short post-graduate course, and the grace of God fit an officer to fill any position. For my specialty I decided to take Matt's advice. I would go in for management, and here at hand was a master to give me my first lessons.

Thereafter when I could spare time from my inspection work, I went to Matt's office. I watched him at work, listened to him talk to his superintendents and foremen — giving instructions, commending, reproving. I studied his manner, even to the change in the tone of his voice.

I was learning and must have been learning fast. Matt began throwing out mysterious hints to me.

"I'm getting old, you know," he would say. "Pretty well fixed, too; a man like me ought to be able to retire and rest. But there isn't anyone here to take up my work. I should have an assistant that I can train to take up my work. Then maybe in three or four years I could retire."

It was easy to see what was coming — the company was going to make me an offer. For me that meant only that I must be making good in my profession, and I was elated. The Spanish War intervened, and my duties took me for some months to Key West; but shortly after that the offer came. The position as assistant to Doughty was open to me; starting salary, $4,500 a year. With it came a letter from old Matt, begging me to accept. I was only seventeen months out of the University of Glasgow.

But I couldn't think of accepting. I owed two debts — one to those who had enabled me to get to Annapolis, the other to the Government which had so splendidly educated me. I had long since resolved not to resign from the Service until I had returned to the Government in payment for my education a full measure of professional services.

My orders to go to Key West to take charge of repairs on  p118 the ships of the fleet blockading Cuba came suddenly one night soon after the Spanish War broke out. I sent my family to my old home in West Florida. I found Key West packed. Only after great difficulty did I secure a small room in a boarding house which lodged a number of Western Union telegraphers. We lived mostly on tough turtle steak. The drinking water was so filled with wiggletails that a strainer was fitted under the cooler faucet in the dining room to catch them.

Soon turtle steak and wiggletails ceased to worry me. I found inadequate facilities for making ship repairs. I had one assistant, Warrant Carpenter Mackie, an excellent man. He and I alternated as foremen, supervising the men day and night. Frequently I could snatch sleep only in my office, fully clothed. But we got the work out somehow.

One day Admiral Remey sent for me to come to the Lancaster, the flagship. There he handed me a telegram from the Department. I read, "Foreign Powers declare blockade ineffective. Get ships on the blockade."

"I know, Mr. Evans, you are doing everything possible," the Admiral told me, but I fear some of the commanding officers prefer Key West to the coast of Cuba. Hereafter don't undertake any repair work that is not absolutely necessary."

The blockading fleet consisted of some regular Navy vessels and numerous converted yachts and tugs. Patrol duty was uninteresting and unpleasant. Whenever I had suggested that repairs sought were not necessary, some commanders in port became very indignant. Now I could tell them, "Admiral Remey's orders. You can make your protest to him." None protested.

The war ended, but not before an epidemic of yellow fever invaded Key West. I received orders to go to Washington but first had to pass through that horror, a Florida quarantine camp.

 p119  The camp was located on a small key not far from Tampa. Each day's arrivals were herded in a barbed-wire enclosure. There were canvas tents with board floors over the stagnant water. There were no sanitary arrangements. A bucket of water served for a bathtub. Poor food was sent to the enclosure in large tin pans. The air was alive with millions of mosquitoes. Ten days there were simple torture, but at last they ended. I joined my family and went to Washington.

I had gone to Key West weighing over 160 pounds. When I arrived in Washington I weighed 128 pounds. The chief constructor was shocked at my appearance and wanted to send me to the cool climate of the Portsmouth Navy Yard to recuperate; but instead I pleaded successfully for temporary duty in the bureau until permanent duty had been determined for me.

In the bureau I was made "crank editor." It was my duty to read the many letters received by the Navy Department submitting inventions or idea for wonder­ful ships that could whip the world, and pass on the few — the very, very few — that seemed worth investigating. In the bureau I came in contact with David Taylor. To see this mathematician, this scientist, this great naval designer busy on routine work, writing endorsements regarding petty interbureau squabbles, and so on, was not inspiring.

Within a few months the chief constructor asked me if I would like to go as Superintending Constructor to the works of the Crescent Shipyard, Elizabeth, N. J., where work was about to start on a new monitor and two torpedo boats. The duty would also include supervision of two destroyers to be built at Morris Heights, N. Y.

This prospect delighted me — the construction of three classes of naval vessels to watch in an independent job, subject only to the orders of the bureau — and I thanked the chief  p120 for such splendid duty. My acquaintances in the bureau at once began to condole with me.

The Crescent plant was owned by Lewis Nixon, a brilliant ex‑naval constructor, who while in the Service had designed our first modern battle­ships — the Indiana-Oregon class. I was told that Nixon was a hard man to get along with; I should be having rows with him all the time. Not one congratulation did I receive — except my own.

The Jeremiahs were wrong. From the start my relations with Lewis Nixon, both official and personal, were very pleasant. In the eyes of some of the constructors still left in the Service, Nixon had committed the unpardonable sin of having resigned and made a success in business.

In Elizabeth I followed my Hampton plan and rented a cheap house in a row at the edge of town, far from the elite section. My next-door neighbor was a railway conductor. Our early acquaintances in Elizabeth told us that nobody would call on us there — and nobody did. But we had friends in New York, and it was an easy ride in to the theaters.

Scarcely had I settled down here, looking forward to several years of congenial duty, when there came a bombshell — sudden orders for me to go to Mare Island Navy Yard in California, 3,000 miles away! This was a little too much — Newport News, Key West, Washington, Elizabeth, and California, all within about a year. What kind of service could I render the Navy, if I were kept shuttling from pillar to post in this fashion? The cost of moving to California, not nearly covered by the mileage allowance, would plunge me in debt more deeply than ever. I made up my mind to leave the Navy.

In New York I saw President Orcutt of the Newport News Shipbuilding Co. and asked about the job as Matt Doughty's assistant. He said it was still open for me and sent me down to see General Manager Post to arrange details. But I stopped  p121 off in Washington to ask the Chief Constructor, Rear Admiral Philip Hichborn, why I had received such unexpected orders.

"Has my work been unsatisfactory?"

"On the contrary," he replied, "your work has been most satisfactory, but Naval Constructor Ruhm has asked for your job and made out a good case. He is your senior, he has had over six years' duty on the Pacific Coast, and he wishes to come East. It was felt his request should be granted."

I then told the chief of my intention to resign. He tried to dissuade me. Finding me determined, he said, "Wait here. I'm going upstairs to see the Secretary."

I begged him not to see the Secretary. I had no wish to appeal over the chief's head. I need stay no longer than the time it would take to write out my resignation and have it over.

"No," he said, "I want to tell the Secretary. I want him to see the difficulties with which I have to contend to keep my good men."

I waited. When he returned he said, "The Secretary will revoke your orders, provided nothing is given to the newspapers regarding your resignation."

I still hesitated.

"Then what do you propose to do with me?" I asked.

He said he would send me to the Norfolk Navy Yard as senior assistant to the naval constructor, promising me a furnished house in the yard.

This seemed to me the finest job in the United States — a large navy yard, direct charge of work and of thousands of workmen. Now I could study management and learn how to handle men.

All thoughts of resignation flew out of my head.

Thayer's Note:

a The superimposed turrets weren't the only design flaw: see G. C. O'Gara, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of the Modern Navy, pp57‑58.

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