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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 11

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 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p232  Chapter XII

Mr. Winthrop Attends a Banquet

The pack was now in full cry. "Get Evans!" was the slogan in sundry mahogany offices in the old gingerbread building at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street. The Newberry order was proving a tougher nut to crack than the bureaucracy had imagined. The Sea Lords considered me responsible for it, and there were those among them who demanded my head.

In the plots and intrigues within the Navy there always run lines of grapevine communication. I had my friends and informants in the bureaus as well as my opposition. From Naval Constructor Linnard, senior assistant to Chief Constructor Capps in the Bureau of Construction and Repair, I received a private letter. Mr. Linnard informed me that the new Assistant Secretary, Mr. Beekman Winthrop, was about to visit Mare Island on an inspection tour. In his pocket Mr. Winthrop would have authority from Secretary Meyer to detach me on the spot. In a too‑bad-old‑fellow spirit, Mr. Linnard advised me to make up my mind that my head would fall as soon as the Assistant Secretary arrived.

Part of this information was soon officially confirmed. The commandant received a telegram from the Assistant Secretary apprising him of the forthcoming visit to Mare Island and naming the day.

The admiral sent for me, showed me the telegram, and said, "This is embarrassing. The Assistant Secretary is coming to the yard on the very day I am dated to go with the Governor to a Native‑Son celebration on the State Line. I don't intend to break my engagement, either."

 p233  "How are you going to get out of it?" I asked.

"Just this way," replied Admiral Phelps. "You're going to San Francisco to meet Mr. Winthrop, and you're going to hold him there until I get back."

I was convinced that the Assistant Secretary was coming to get my scalp and it didn't exactly appeal to me to serve as his reception committee. I suggested that it might be better to do the usual thing and send the captain of the yard.

"Not at all," said the admiral, "I don't want any slip in this. I know you'll find some way to detain him in San Francisco."

I considered a moment and said, "I tell you, I'll go down ahead of time and arrange for the various commercial organizations to give a big banquet for the Secretary — one he can't refuse. That ought to do it."

"You see?" said the commandant. "I knew you'd think of something."

So I went to San Francisco. It was never any trouble then to get up a banquet in San Francisco on short notice. All the commercial organizations joined in, and I was delegated to deliver the invitation on the Secretary's arrival.

I met him at the St. Francis Hotel. If the Secretary was surprised at being greeted by a mere naval constructor, he did not lift his eyebrows. Mrs. Winthrop was with him, and they were having breakfast. They invited me to join them, but I had already breakfasted. I sat with them, however, discussing plans for the Secretary's stay. Then I delivered to him the invitation for the banquet next day — the day of the Native‑Son celebration. The Secretary was dubious.

"You've no idea, sir," I urged, "what interest the commercial bodies of San Francisco take in the Navy and in the Mare Island Navy Yard. I think you would be making a mistake to disappoint them.

"It will make it a pretty strenuous day, won't it," he asked,  p234 "to tramp around the navy yard all afternoon and get back here in time to dress for a banquet in the evening?"

"That won't be necessary," I said. "We can just as well hold the inspection day after tomorrow."

"But your commandant — Admiral Phelps," he objected. "I wired him I would be at Mare Island tomorrow. He'll be put out."

"No, no, Mr. Secretary," I said. "The admiral knows about the banquet and hopes you will attend. He's quite prepared to postpone the inspection."

So Mr. Winthrop accepted the invitation to the banquet. He had found quite a lot of mail waiting for him in San Francisco. I offered to take care of it for him, and he indicated the replies I was to write for his signature. It was then a question of his program for the day.

Automobiles were scarcer in those days than they are now, but I had secured two fine ones for the use of Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop, one from the president of the Union Iron Works and the other from the California Promotion Committee. As an anchor to windward, I had arranged through the commercial bodies for the two principal shops in Chinatown to give Mrs. Winthrop a discount on purchases. I knew that most lady visitors from the East liked to shop in Chinatown, and I hoped, if the Secretary were undecided about the banquet, that Mrs. Winthrop, foreseeing a day for herself among enticing bargains in Chinatown, would throw her influence my way.

The Secretary decided he would inspect the Goat Island Naval Training Station that day. I suggested that if Mrs. Winthrop didn't go to Goat Island with him, she might like to take a car and drive through Golden Gate Park, or visit the shops in Chinatown, and I told her about the discounts. She decided to let her husband go to Goat Island alone while she visited Chinatown.

Having settled all arrangements, I left ostensibly to attend to  p235 the Secretary's mail but actually to telephone to Admiral Phelps that all was well, and he could go to his picnic with an easy conscience. Then I went to the California Promotion Committee to inform it that the Secretary had accepted the banquet invitation. Since the banquet was to be a men's affair, I inquired what was to be done for Mrs. Winthrop. A few telephone calls arranged for the ladies of San Francisco to give her a dinner on the balcony, where she could see the banqueters and hear the speeches. Finally I attended to the Secretary's mail.

When I took the dinner invitation to Mrs. Winthrop, I relayed the instructions "that she was to wear everything she had and to wear a hat." It testifies to the amount of attention I had been giving to home and domestic life that I had to confess to her I didn't know the meaning of the message. She laughed and said she understood perfectly.

Late in the afternoon before the banquet, Admiral Phelps arrived to pay his respects to the Secretary. The admiral was in a happy frame of mind, having had a splendid time with the Governor at the Native-Sons celebration. The Secretary, Admiral Phelps, and I were sitting at a table in the bar of the St. Francis, when the admiral said, "Mr. Secretary, I suppose you were surprised that I did not send an officer with four stripes on his arm to meet you?"

"I know, Admiral, that is the usual thing," replied the Secretary, "but Mr. Evans has been very satisfactory."

"Well, Mr. Secretary," said Admiral Phelps, "I had an important job to attend to. I wanted to go to a State celebration, and I wanted you kept in San Francisco today, so I could go. I gave the job to Evans, because I knew he would accomplish it. He never falls down on any job he undertakes."

The admiral thought this a capital joke, but I was inwardly too embarrassed even to smile. I knew what Admiral Phelps did not know — the grapevine report that Mr. Winthrop had come  p236 West to detach me from my work at Mare Island and would probably issue the orders on the following day.

The Secretary was to arrive at the yard next morning and be received with full naval honors. I went on the yard tug with the Secretary and Mrs. Winthrop. Admiral Phelps had gone up earlier to take charge of the reception. As our tug drew near the dock, I saw the Marines and the band and all the officers of the yard in full dress, awaiting the arrival of the secretary. I was hated enough in the yard as it was, and I could imagine the indignation of the line officers at the commandant's favoritism in sending me, a staff officer and a junior in rank, to meet the assistant civilian head of the Navy.

I had no intention of adding fuel to the flames. I was not going to step ashore as the officer attending the Secretary and his wife. As the tug neared the dock, I disappeared and remained out of sight until the Secretary had been received and had gone to the admiral's carriage. Childish, you may think it, but that's the Navy. From plebe days one is trained to look down on the civilian and staff officer and to glorify the line. For the same reason I declined the admiral's invitation to have luncheon at his house with the Secretary, giving the excuse that I must arrange for the inspection.

After luncheon the Secretary made the rounds. I assumed that he would be going through the plant with a microscope, looking for faults. Soon it was evident that he was as much surprised as had been the members of the Naval Committee. He began uttering exclamations of pleasure at the progress which we had made. His inspection was thorough, and never once did he offer a word of criticism.

On the following day, shortly before Secretary Winthrop was to leave, the admiral telephoned me to come to his house. Now, thought I, the ax is going to fall. I found the Secretary with the admiral. He told me he was very much pleased with the efficiency  p237 of the yard and with my administration and gave me copies of statements he had handed to the press.

His Associated Press statement read: "I have inspected Mare Island and am agreeably surprised at the work which is turned out and the general conditions. Naval Constructor Evans is doing good work, and the changes which have been made have received my hearty support."

A rather unexpected statement from the man sent from Washington to detach me on the spot. Admiral Phelps was tremendously pleased with this result.

"Now you can stop worrying," he told me, when Mr. Winthrop had gone. "The Secretary will go back to Washington and tell them what we have done, and they will let us alone, and we can go on with the good work."

"Oh, I have no doubt the Secretary will give an excellent or even an enthusiastic report," I answered. "His support of us will only infuriate those officers who are opposed to us and make them more determined than ever to destroy our work and to destroy me. Against such opposition Mr. Winthrop will last just about two weeks, and then you will find him in accord with them."

I was right. In a short time the attacks on the new organization started again. The rumor appeared in the press that Mare Island was in for a general reorganization. In alarm, thirteen commercial associations of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda sent a joint appeal to the Secretary of the Navy to make no changes at Mare Island. After reciting the past conditions and the great improvements which had been made, the appeal continued:

In the opinion of this Committee, great credit is due to Naval Constructor Evans through whose efforts the Mare Island Navy Yard has been brought to its present high state of efficiency.

 p238  Under these conditions, this Committee notes with great regret the newspaper stories that it is probable or possible that there will be a change in the organization now in effect and feels that it will be a mistake to make any change. As patriotic citizens who have actual knowledge of the situation and who are interested in the welfare of the whole country, and particularly interested in the defence of the Pacific Coast, this Committee takes the liberty of appealing to you, Mr. Secretary, not to make any changes in the present organization.

This did not have the slightest effect. Those of the Sea Lords who were after my scalp were now drunk with power and were going to root out every vestige of Mr. Newberry's efficient organization, which they feared meant a reduction in the number of shore jobs for the line. Change after change was ordered, all crippling efficiency, ending with a final absurdity — an order making the commandant the general manager of the yard. This was a step behind what the navy yards had been when I first met them; for then the commandant was but a figurehead, relying on his departments to get out their work. Now he was supposed to take active charge of the manufacturing department.

Admiral Phelps showed me the order. He said, "I can't do this job, and I know it. We are going on as before, with a single difference. You take a stock of my office stationery to your office, write the letters, make the report I am expected to make. Send them to me, and I shall sign them and send them to Washington."

At this point it is necessary for me to interpolate a bit of my personal domestic history in order to be clear in an episode which followed. I had been divorced from my first wife and was about to remarry. For this purpose I needed to go to Boston. For eight years I had not taken any leave, though entitled to thirty days each year. Late in January, 1910, I requested ten days' leave from the commandant, with permission to request ten days' extension. He readily granted it.

 p239  After Boston I went to Washington to request my ten days' extension. Captain Mulligan, the Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, said there would be no trouble about it. I next went to the Bureau of Steam Engineering to pay my respects to the Engineer-in‑Chief, Rear Admiral Hutch Cone, an old acquaintance and, I supposed, friend. My war against the Sea Lords was against them as a system, not as individuals. Individually many of them were charming fellows.

While I was talking with Cone, Captain Wilson, near Rear Admiral Wilson, came in. He was detail officer of the Bureau of Navigation, which I had just left. He began asking me questions about what I was going to do on my leave, and where I intended to stay.

I said, "Isn't it a bit unusual to ask questions of that kind, when an officer applies for leave?"

"I am obeying orders of the Secretary," he said.

"My wife is running this trip," I said. "I don't know where I'm going, nor how long I'm going to stay."

In the afternoon I received a telephone message to go to the Bureau of Navigation. Captain Wilson met me. He emphasized that the message he had for me was from the Secretary of the Navy.

He said, "If you go to your home in Alabama and telegraph your arrival to the department from there, you will then be granted leave."

"But I don't want to go to Alabama right now," I said. "Is my request for leave disapproved?"

Captain Wilson, "By direction of the Secretary, it is disapproved. The only way by which you can obtain leave is by going to Alabama."

It seemed to me that for some reason they didn't want me in Washington at that time. Why? The secretary had invented an absurd Aide system and was trying to have it legalized by Congress,  p240 but it was making heavy weather. Incorrectly, I assumed that he did not wish me to use my influence against it with my friends on the House Naval Committee. It was only after I returned to Mare Island that I learned the real reason why at that moment I was not wanted in Washington, and it was a sinister reason.

Secretly Commander Carr had prepared at Mare Island a long report not only criticizing my administration as manager but questioning my veracity. Perhaps it was not for me then to complain of channels of communication. If I was irregular in the way I presented my original report on reorganization, at least I went to the top of the Navy with it. I did not send it to a confederate. Commander Carr sent his to some unknown in the Bureau of Steam Engineering. At the very moment I was paying my respects to Admiral Cone, the Engineer-in‑Chief of the Navy, he was preparing to present this statement to the House Naval Committee.

I have some excuses to make for Admiral Cone. As to the truth of the statement, he could have been misled by subordinates, since he knew little about navy yards or industrial management, as he almost snobbishly admitted in the House Naval Committee hearings. But what about his method? He had in his hands a document which seriously reflected on my administration and questioned my veracity, written by an author he knew to be most antagonistic to me, a document moreover which had come to him through subterranean channels. Without referring it to me or without making any investigation whatever as to its truth or falsity, he was willing to adopt it as fact and, using his power­ful position as Engineer-in‑Chief of the Navy, present its false statements as facts to a Congressional Committee.

As soon as I could obtain a copy of Admiral Cone's testimony, I answered it item by item. Since many of the misleading statements  p241 referred to costs in the yard, I requested the commandant to detail a competent independent officer to audit our accounts. The commandant detailed Paymaster Bonnafon, an expert accountant of the rank of commander. Paymaster Bonnafon certified to the correctness of my statements. I sent all this to the department, adding, "I respectfully request that, in justice to myself, this statement be furnished to the House Committee."

Admiral Phelps was as indignant as I. Though a high officer of the line, he could not stand for unfair methods. He wrote a vigorous and courageous protest to the Secretary of the Navy. What happened to our two communications? My statement in rebuttal never reached the House Naval Affairs Committee. The Secretary of the Navy promptly detached Admiral Phelps from duty as commandant of the Mare Island Navy Yard.

Commander Carr had played the game of the Sea Lords. His next upward step was to be given charge of an important inspection district in the East. He was promoted to captain and was finally retired with the rank of rear admiral.

Never before in naval history had the Sea Lords possessed such power as now. But in spite of their influence they had not been able to discredit the naval constructor at the Mare Island Yard, who had dared to upset their equanimity by battling for economy and efficient management.

Evans was the one above all others they desired to "get." Evans must be erased. The strongest line officer in the Navy, Rear Admiral Hugo Osterhaus, a former Commander-in‑Chief of the Fleet, was selected to succeed Admiral Phelps at Mare Island. He was ordered to Mare Island as commandant and general manager, with confidential instructions to "get" me, or, failing in that, to humiliate me to the point where I would resign.

But for that story, a new chapter.

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