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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 10

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 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p221  Chapter XI

Bureaucracy Shows its Fangs

My first intimation of the news came that morning before I had left home for my office. The commandant, Admiral Phelps, called by telephone and in an agitated voice told me that he had received a long telegram from the department which completely changed the organization of the navy yard. He asked me to come to his house at once to discuss it.

I shoved into my pocket a copy of the report I had sent to Mr. Newberry the summer before and hurried over. The admiral gave me the telegram. I glanced over it, saw what it was, and then told the admiral of my part in it, showing him my report. I soon realized that I had an unappreciative audience.

"You may as well know, Mr. Evans," he said, "that I do not approve of this change. But — here is the Secretary's order, and we shall carry it out. On February 1, you will take charge of the industrial department."

There could be no better argument for keeping line officers on their proper military jobs than Admiral Phelps' attitude toward Order No. 9 then and a few weeks later. He quickly saw the advantages of the reorganization, when it was in effect, and became an ardent advocate of the new régime, with results to himself which I shall tell farther on.

Here was an honest, capable, and clear-sighted officer. As manager of a great industrial enterprise without the advantage of factory training, his position was an arduous one. Admiral Phelps had been reared in the tradition of the line and conscientiously believed that the line should control the shore establishments. Once he had been shown something better, his integrity  p222 and his reason caused him to forsake the thinking habits of a lifetime. Why wasn't an intelligence like his kept on military duties, becoming more and more expert in the handling and fighting of ships, for which it was trained, instead of being allowed to vegetate in industrial managerial duties for which it had no special preparation?

The attitude of the Sea Lords was at the opposite pole from that of my commandant. I thought I knew the Navy, but even I was unprepared for the fury of the battle which the Washington gang and its minions waged against me.

Secretary Newberry's order threw all our industrial departments into a single manufacturing department, of which I became manager. But even this courageous Secretary had not quite had the heart to cancel shore jobs for the former heads of the ordnance, equipment, and steam engineering departments and evict them from their comfortable houses at the navy yard. They were retained with the duties and titles of inspector of ordnance, inspector of equipment, inspector of machinery. It amounted to demotion for them.

This modification, I felt sure, would make trouble.

The reader can imagine the anger and dismay with which the line officers of the station received the news. Nothing else was talked of. In rank, I was junior to all the demoted officers whom I was to supplant. This would have been bad enough in itself, but the news quickly spread that Evans was the man responsible for the change. My popularity sank to the vanishing point.

Although I had only four days' notice of the change, I had privately been preparing for it and was ready. To ease the tension somewhat, I did not take over the departments in person from their former heads but sent my able but gentle and tactful assistant, Naval Constructor Fisher, to do that. Nobody could get very angry with Fisher.

My first step was to make a thorough personal inspection of  p223 the assumed departments. I began clearing out the poor workmen at once and also marked two superintendents for discharge.

Then I received a brief letter from Senator Perkins, asking me at my convenience to call on him at his office in San Francisco. This was something I had always feared. Mare Island was notorious for political interference. The local politicians had not given me the trouble I expected. In fact, I had won many of them over to my side. But this was different. Senator Perkins was chairman of the power­ful Senate Naval Committee.

If it meant trouble ahead, I preferred to face it at once. I went to San Francisco and called on Senator Perkins. He came to the point.

He said, "I hear you are going to discharge several men who have been at the yard for years. Is that correct?"

"Yes, Senator," I told him. "I am going to recommend the immediate discharge of two; and, if there is not great improvement, more will follow them."

He pointed to a pile of letters on his desk and asked if I knew what they were. I told him I could guess.

"You are right," he said. "They are complaints to me of your administration."

I told him something about the conditions I had found.

"Senator," I gave him my ultimatum, "as long as I am manager up there, I intend to have an efficient Mare Island, no matter how many incompetents I have to discharge."

Readers of Dickens' Christmas Carol remember the scene in which Scrooge — the converted Scrooge — greets his clerk, Bob Cratchit, with a snarl on Christmas morning because Bob is late for work, and, just when poor Bob is expecting to be brained, wishes his clerk Merry Christmas and raises his salary. My feelings at Senator Perkins' next words must have been something like those of Bob Cratchit.

"For many years, Mr. Evans," he said, "I have had to make  p224 excuses for Mare Island both on the floor of the House and in the Senate. Now the yard is the most efficient in the country, and I point with pride to it. I wanted you to come here to show you what I do with the complaints made against you."

With that, he shoved the entire stack of letters into the wastepaper basket. He then went on to assure me that I could rely on his support and on that of Congressman Knowland in my work at Mare Island.

When I hear naval officers complain that they can't get efficiency because of political interference, I grow out of patience with them. My own experience, at least, does not bear them out. When it came to the test, I found that politicians were first of all patriotic citizens willing to submerge their personal interests in favor of the public good.

Yet after all it was politics that upset everything, to the heavy loss of the Navy and the country. Not local politics, not job‑hunting and job‑protecting politics. No, it was big politics, inside Washington politics — a political deal which in itself was entirely unconcerned about reform in the navy yards but which affected it adversely nevertheless.

The Postmaster General in President Roosevelt's Cabinet was George von L. Meyer, of Massachusetts. Mr. Meyer was a Harvard man whose experience in the Post-Office Department convinced him that he liked Washington as a place of residence. When it became evident that President-elect Taft was not going to include Mr. Meyer in his Cabinet, the Postmaster General let it be known that he intended to seek a seat in the Senate. The seat Mr. Meyer coveted was held by Henry Cabot Lodge.

Now Mr. Lodge was the fair-haired boy not only with T. R. but with the incoming President Taft. Lodge not in the Senate? It was unthinkable. Something had to be done to divert Mr. Meyer. Embassies would not tempt him, he had already held two. Nothing but a Cabinet post would do. Which post? That  p225 was not hard to answer. Already by promulgating his infamous Order No. 9, the independent Secretary Newberry, who had been promised the Navy portfolio, had made himself unpopular with the line. We may be sure that in February, 1909, there was plenty of Navy pressure put on Mr. Taft not to reappoint Secretary Newberry.

Mr. Newberry has told this story in his own words and is alive to verify them. He said:

"About the 1st of March, Mr. Taft, under pressure from Senator Lodge, changed his proposed Cabinet and asked me to accept the Ambassadorship to Russia. I knew Mr. Taft very well. Our relations were exceedingly friendly, and for this offer I simply thanked him, adding facetiously, 'No plush pants for me!' Mr. Taft roared and later told the story through the press.

"You are perfectly correct in saying I was one of two or three whom President Roosevelt asked Mr. Taft to retain. I think he fully intended to do so, but politics forced him to change his mind. I certainly never would have attempted the radical changes which I put into effect in February, unless I expected to be there long enough to see them carried out."

It was late in February when the first rumor went through the Mare Island yard that Mr. Newberry would not be included in President Taft's Cabinet and that his orders would soon be revoked. On March 4 we knew definitely that Mr. Newberry was out as Secretary of the Navy, and Mr. Meyer was in. It was generally reported in the yard that in a short time everything Mr. Newberry had done would be thrown into the discard, and the old order would be restored. This information came from line officers in Washington.

Emboldened by this, the opposition now reared its head in the yard and did what it could to obstruct me.

Even so, were I merely rehashing an intradepartmental squabble of the distant past, there would be little justification  p226 for this charge or for this book either, for that matter. But the Navy has not changed much since then. In the Navy of thirty years ago you have essentially the Navy of today. What sort of Navy it is to be in the future is for the taxpayer to say. If he speaks emphatically enough, Congress will hear, and the Sea Lords will have to bow.

Commander Carr's next step was to sponsor an interview in the local press, the salient part of which I quote:

Carr Prefers Kindness

. . . Capt. Clarence Carr, formerly in charge of half the work of the Yard, and older in the service than Constructor Evans, said yesterday that while officers on the Island felt that the subject was a delicate one for them to discuss, he was at liberty to say that the present policy of the Yard was laying too much stress on men as mere machines. Their identity as human beings was being considered too little. Severity of discipline had worked a hardship on men grown old in the service. He felt that the severity was due to the youth (I was then 38) and lack of experience of the young men who had been placed in charge of the work, and was confident that they would get over their hurry, and the employees would soon find the situation restored to normal.

The italics are mine. If the words were not Commander Carr's he never denied them, so far as I know. I sent a copy of the interview to Secretary Meyer. He didn't even acknowledge my letter.

Regardless of the inspectors, I never deviated an inch from my purpose. It was my idea that if I could put the Mare Island yard on an efficient basis before being interrupted, the reorganization would win the support of able line officers like Admiral Phelps. Even the Washington bureaucrats might then hesitate to upset it. With some efficient and loyal assistants, I drove ahead and soon had the entire yard in such an excellent condition  p227 that I could invite inspection by anybody.

To some extent I was right in this theory. Unable to prevent my success as manager under the new order, the opposition turned to an attempt to discredit me. The cruiser West Virginia was at the yard for repairs. One of the jobs was retubing boilers. The repairs were finished and the ship ready for sea, when the chief engineer of the West Virginia, Lieutenant Commander Barnes, came to me as manager and told me that the boilers had been retubed with common drainage tubes instead of with high-class boiler tubes. If this had not been discovered, the life of every man on the ship would have been endangered.

To say I was dumfounded by this information is understatement. I asked Commander Barnes how he discovered the substitution. He told me it was common talk around his ship. He investigated and found it to be true.

Here with a situation as serious as it was incredible and, in writing of it, I shall guard my words, because the inference is inescapable that the installation of the common drainage tubes was the secret mischief of a diabolical plan.

It stretches the imagination to conceive of any one person of experience making an inspection of that work while it was being done without detecting anything so gross and patent as the substitution of ordinary drainage tubes for boiler tubes. That it should have escaped the attention of a foreman, his two assistants and a general inspector would be unthinkable, unless some deception of unusual cleverness had been resorted to. There was a master boilermaker in general charge of the job. Two assistant foremen were in direct charge. All three men had formerly worked under Commander Carr. How could experienced men like these draw from store common drainage tubes instead of boiler tubes? The tubes had to be worked, expanded in place while cold. Even while going through that process, expert mechanics had not discovered  p228 that the tubes were not of soft boiler-tube material. Besides all that, we had an inspector of machinery, none other than Commander Carr, whose only duty was to inspect machinery installation. But though Carr didn't know that improper material had been used, the master boilermaker didn't know about it and the two assistant foremen didn't know, yet it was "common talk" around the ship.

In view of the fact that this horrifying situation had escaped the attention of four overseers, the master boilermaker, the two foremen and the inspector of machinery, I was driven to a single conclusion — that this was a conspiracy to discredit my management; that, by whatever underhanded means the substitution of common drainage tubes for boiler tubes had been accomplished under the very noses of four inspectors without detection, and whoever the culprit was or whoever the conspirators were, the purpose was that the fault should be discovered before any explosion might occur and I would stand discredited.

I immediately asked for a court of inquiry.

The court consisted of three line officers and a recorder. I intended the record to be complete — one which members of the House Naval Affairs Committee could demand and learn the truth from, if any bureaucrat should attempt to pin the blame for the sabotage on me. Whether Commander Carr and the master boilermaker regarded the inquiry as being directed against them, I do not know, but they engaged a civilian lawyer to represent them. I took care of myself.

When the inquiry was finished, I was satisfied. The record went to Washington. In due time I got the answer — an order to discharge the master boilermaker. There was not a word about myself. I had to assume that I had been exonerated.

For many years that was all I ever knew about the affair of the West Virginia's boiler tubes. Some months ago I was in New York and met in the street Captain André Proctor, a retired  p229 officer whom I had not seen since War days. We went to the University Club for a chat about old times.

"You know, Evans," he remarked in our conversation, "the best piece of work you ever did was the West Virginia boiler investigation."

"Why," I said, "how did you know about that?"

"Don't you remember? At the time I was the legal adviser of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, under Rear Admiral Hutch Cone, the Engineer-in‑Chief."

Captain Proctor went on to tell me what happened to the report in bureaucracy's headquarters. I give it as nearly as I can in his own words.

He said, "One afternoon Cone sent for me. On his desk he had the record of the West Virginia investigation.

"He said, 'Holden Evans is up against it now for sure. Here is the endorsement which Griffen [Captain Griffen, afterwards Engineer-in‑Chief of the Navy] has prepared for me to sign. I am sure it is all right, but as you are the legal officer of the bureau, I want you to go over it.' . . .

"I took the record home with me and after dinner picked it up to glance through it. I became so interested, though, that I spent nearly the whole night reading it. You did a wonder­ful job, the record was complete. The endorsement prepared by Griffen was not at all in accordance with the evidence.

"Next morning I told Cone the record was filled with dynamite. I said, 'If you sign Griffen's endorsement, it will be all Holden Evans wants. He will get the Naval Committee to call for the record, and the investigation that follows will blow you out of that chair.'

"Cone thought I was exaggerating but said he would go over the record himself. Later he sent for me and told me I was right; he would not sign the Griffen endorsement.

" 'You prepare another endorsement,' he directed me."

 p230  This is one of the few controversial episodes in this book which I can not substantiate by direct testimony or printed evidence. Captain Proctor died since I wrote the above account and before I could read it to him. However, the record of the investigation itself exists in the files of the department, including, no doubt, the endorsement prepared by Proctor.

By the middle of the summer of 1909 there was such an outcry against me that a sub‑committee of the House Naval Committee came out to investigate Mare Island. The delegation consisted of Representatives L. P. Padgett, W. Aubrey Thomas, and A. F. Dawson. We showed them everything in the yard. As to their impressions, I leave them to the statements the gentlemen gave to the press before they left — statements, incidentally, which indicate how they had been stuffed with Sea‑Lord misrepresentations in Washington.

Congressman Dawson: "This is by far the best navy yard in the United States. And I wish to say also that the work of consolidation which has been done here by Naval Constructor Evans is perfectly remarkable."

Congressman Thomas: "I have had a wrong impression of Mare Island. I thought that something was radically wrong here, but I now see that I was mistaken. Mare Island is the finest navy yard on either coast."

Congressman Padgett: "I had not understood until today what an efficient institution Mare Island is."

Disappointed by not seeing the new organization fail, balked in the attempt to discredit me through sabotage, thwarted by the facts in the effort to procure disapproval of Order No. 9 by the Naval Affairs Committee, the Sea Lords now tried burrowing from within.

George von L. Meyer's background was banking, politics, diplomacy — he had been Ambassador both to Italy and to Russia — and finally in the President's cabinet. A typical Harvard  p231 man, wealthy, aristocratic in look and manner, his tastes ran beside those of the urbane gentlemen who held the high-ranking positions in the Navy. Small wonder that in the beginning he was completely taken in by the assurances poured into his ears by these august associates and regarded that troublemaker out at Mare Island as a very disagreeable and contentious person indeed!

The first serious blow struck at the reorganization came in the form of an order restoring the Department of Steam Engineering to the manager­ship of Commander Carr. Since this was one of the two great manufacturing divisions of the yard, it amounted to tearing down nearly half of the system which I had so laboriously built up.

In spite of this defeat, I struggled along, not relaxing my grip on the remaining divisions left to me. As against the victorious officers of the line, I had the support of the commandant, Admiral Phelps. But in our confidential talks, the admiral and I agreed that my fight was hopeless.

For the first time since I began my crusade I was profoundly discouraged.

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