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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 14

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 16
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p260  Chapter XV

Brainwork of a Navy Board

Heretofore in these memoirs I had occasion to speak of that marvelous triumph of bureaucracy red tape, a navy yard board. Now I am going to talk about a different kind of board, a higher board, a Navy Department board at headquarters, settling great matters of naval policy — specifically, the Vreeland Board of 1911, created to study the United States navy yards and draft a permanent plan for their efficient reorganization.

The Navy never changes. As far back as 1840, Secretary of the Navy Paulding was saying, "According to custom we have had Boards sit and cogitate and disagree and compromise, so that in the end nobody will be responsible for a failure, if one should take place." He might as well have been speaking of the Navy boards of 1939.

As the Navy was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.

There may have been two original conceptions of the function of the important Vreeland Board. One could have been Secretary Meyer's, genuinely hoping that it would produce a plan that would put the yards on an efficiency par with private industrial enterprises. The other may have been that those of the Sea Lords whose chief concern was to occupy swivel-chair positions expected the board's report to quiet the secretary and all this rumpus about Navy efficiency.

"The Secretary sought and obtained the advice of a board of high-ranking naval officers," the Sea Lords could imagine the final statement handed to the press. "That board, after an exhaustive investigation, made recommendations to the department,  p261 etc., etc., etc." Mr. John Public might as well question the decision of a grand jury, or a Presbyterian synod, or the Supreme Court.

Now let us see how one of these weighty and sacrosanct board decisions is reached. In this chapter I am going to tell about the so‑called deliberations of the Vreeland Board in session. It is a story full of backdoor politics and such scuttlings and scurryings to cover, often ludicrous, that I should hesitate to put up it forward as truth were I not supported in every detail by testimony now embalmed in the files of the House Naval Affairs Committee.

The investigation conducted by the Vreeland Board was precisely zero. As to the value of its recommendations, I adopt the device of an Annapolis instructor of the old days helping an unprepared cadet escape reprimand and give it a mark of 0.1.

The board consisted of nine members — five line officers and four staff officers. Admiral Vreeland, the senior member, was courteous, charming, and in the confidence of both the Secretary and his brother bureaucrats. The most important line officer of the admiral's board was Captain Emil Theiss. He had a good record as an engineer and was familiar with shop management of the old‑fashioned variety but had little use for the new‑fangled scientific methods they were trying to bring in. The other line members were Captain Fletcher, Captain Zane, and Lieutenant Commander Tardy.

The staff was represented by two paymasters, Messrs. Leutze and Conard, and two naval constructors, George H. Rock and myself. Naval Constructor Rock, like myself, knew navy yards and industrial management, for that was his life work, as it was mine. We two did all of the constructive work on the board. Captain Theiss worked as the spearhead of the opposition. The others at around and looked wise.

Lest I forget it later on, I may remark that Rock later became  p262 chief constructor of the Navy, with the rank of rear admiral. But before he reached that post, he was passed over by a junior, when he clearly deserved the appointment.

Having set the machinery of progress in motion, Secretary Meyer prepared to take a vacation trip to Europe. At the first assembling of the board, I asked Admiral Vreeland if he had received a letter from the Secretary saying something about creating managers for the navy yards. He drew me aside and said he had, showing me the letter. The Secretary had kept his word. The letter was the one I had written for him.

"If I were you, Mr. Evans, said Admiral Vreeland to me, "I wouldn't say anything about this letter to the other members of the board. I have a telegram from the Secretary to meet him in New York, and he may change his mind. Wait until I come back."

The board assembled. Admiral Vreeland appointed a subcommittee on organization of navy yards. He named himself as chairman and as members Captain Theiss, Naval Constructor Rock, Lieutenant Commander Tardy, and myself — three line and two staff officers, maintaining the majority even on the technical subcommittee. The admiral then left for New York, directing the subcommittee to proceed with its work during his absence.

As senior ranking officer, Captain Theiss became acting chairman of the subcommittee. We met, and I rose to place before the board my organization plan. I began to read the same paper which I had presented to the Secretary a few days before. I had not gone far before Captain Theiss interrupted me.

"It is a waste of time, Mr. Evans, for the committee to consider your plan," he said. "The Secretary will not approve any such scheme."

"May I call your attention, Captain, to the precept and orders to the board?" I said. "Under these we are expected to report what we believe best for the Navy.

 p263  Captain Theiss shook his head. "It's an absolute waste of time. The board won't consider your proposition."

"How do you know the Secretary will not approve the plan?" I demanded.

He answered with a trace of sarcasm, "From your past experience, Constructor, you should know better than anyone else that he will not approve it."

Admiral Vreeland returned next day. I told him the subcommittee was deadlocked, as Captain Theiss would not allow it to consider my plan of organization. The admiral's answer was to call the full board together. When the members were associated, blissfully unaware that anything out of the routine was to occur, Admiral Vreeland read them the letter from the Secretary — the letter I wrote. Then he went on to make a statement.

"I saw the Secretary yesterday," he said, "and talked this over with him fully. In conversation he made himself very much stronger than he has in this letter. He wishes me to state to the board that he now considers a mechanical superintendent necessary. Furthermore, he hass given me full authority to carry into effect such changes as may be recommended in that line by the board, and he wishes his plans carried out immediately. The Assistant Secretary has instructions to sign and issue any orders sent over by this board."

No dictation, eh? A hawk over a hen yard couldn't have created greater consternation. The line officers did not know which way to turn. The board recessed in confusion, and several of the officers retired to consult in private. They remained away two minutes.

When the board reassembled, Admiral Vreeland moved that Constructor Evans draft the report of the board. The members agreed. The admiral then proposed to adjourn the board for several days to give me time to draft the report. Such an adjournment  p264 would also give the Sea Lords time in which to rally their forces, and I didn't want that. I told the admiral that if he would convene the board the next morning, I would be ready with the report.

I was ready with it. The full board considered it paragraph by paragraph, making only a few changes in the original draft. Then, without a record vote, the board approved unanimously the plan of navy yard organization — the same plan for advocating which, six months before, I was harried out of Mare Island.

The board next hastened on to prepare the orders to the commandants of the various navy yards. At a quarter to four o'clock that afternoon, when the members were checking the final proofs of the report, a messenger came, asking for Admiral Vreeland. The admiral left the room and was gone something less than half an hour. When he returned, he was much agitated, walking up and down the floor. Something important had occurred. I whispered to Paymaster Conard, sitting next to me, "I guess everything's off."

Admiral Vreeland, regaining his composure, took his seat at the head of the table, and the meeting went on.

"Theiss," the admiral said, "you do not believe in this report we have prepared, do you?"

Captain Theiss hedged, "I can't say I think the changes are absolutely necessary."

"Well, Theiss," said Admiral Vreeland, "you get up a report setting forth your views. While the Secretary gave authority to make these changes we've been considering, I am not going to take the responsibility. I will send out your report to the yards, Theiss, and the secretary, when he gets back, can change it to the other plan, if he desires."

Naval Constructor Rock and I both protested at once that such orders would certainly not represent the views of the board,  p265 but no other member spoke up.

Next morning Captain Theiss presented a rough draft of his proposal and a few days later presented his final draft. He made no change in the existing organization but confined himself almost exclusively to improvements in methods — improvements which I had made year before at Mare Island. In fact, I had the wry satisfaction of noting that nearly all of Captain Theiss's improvements were in accordance with my book Cost Keeping and Scientific Management.

Secretary Meyer had given the board authority to hear testimony from the civilian efficiency experts Gant, Day, and Emerson, who had previously done some work for the department. In an effort to forestall the Theiss report, I requested several times that these experts be called to give their opinions. Each time my request was refused. Finally I asked that it be noted in the minutes of the board that I had made the request. This, too, was denied me.

The senior member announced that he was going to adjourn the board until the return of the Secretary, having dropped his first impulsive idea to send out the Theiss plan in the form of orders. I played my final card, asking that a record vote be taken on the two plans. The board could not refuse this. My plan was called Number One, Theiss's Number Two.

As the junior member of the board, Lieutenant Commander Tardy's name was called first.

"One," he voted.

Paymasters Leutze and Conard voted, "One!"

Naval Constructors Rock and Evans voted, "One!"

Captain Fletcher was absent. Captain Zane didn't vote, saying he hadn't made up his mind. Captain Theiss stated that he wasn't prepared to vote.

"What?" I queried him. "Will you refuse to vote for your own plan?"

 p266  He answered stiffly, "I am not prepared to vote."

Finally the recorder called for vote of Admiral Vreeland. The admiral said, "You can pass that."

Five votes were cast, the majority, and all for my plan. Once again the board had gone on record as favoring it. We then adjourned to await the return of the Secretary.

Poor Lieutenant Commander Tardy! He was a young officer, not in the close confidence of the bureaucrats. Quite honestly and innocently, he had voted for my plan when his name was called, only to find himself out on a limb as the only line officer who had voted for it or indeed had voted at all. The two paymasters, too, not quite aware what it was all about, had recklessly followed their convictions.

Mr. Meyer finally returned. The Vreeland Board reassembled, and it was now clear that the Sea Lords had won. They had convinced Mr. Meyer that his orders to Admiral Vreeland ought to be rescinded. The admiral was not now consulting me on questions before the board. I was no longer the white-haired boy.

But the victory over Mr. Meyer did not seem complete. The Theiss plan was not adopted either. Instead, Captain Theiss was instructed to take my plan and modify it for the board. When this had been done, there was no attempt to railroad the amended plan through.

While we were marking time, I sent a copy of my plan, together with the Theiss modifications, to Fred W. Taylor, asking for his opinion. He wired me:

"Heartily endorse your scheme for the organization of navy yards and do not believe the Theiss modification could be made to work."

He also dispatched a letter to me praising the stand I had taken in the board and predicting that my plan would eventually win. But before Mr. Taylor's letter could reach me, my plan was  p267 beyond help.

At the final session I again forced a roll‑call on my plan. It received only two votes, Naval Constructor Rock's and my own. Tardy and the two paymasters, who had twice previously voted for my plan, now jumped on the bandwagon and voted, "No!" Theiss's plan came up next. Only two votes were cast it, Rock's and mine. We submitted a minority report.

Though now profoundly committed through my association with such men as Fred Taylor to the battle for Navy efficiency, I was at last discouraged. I began to look forward to a change in the Administration in the coming year's election as the only hope of reform.

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Page updated: 7 Feb 15