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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 1

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 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p122  Chapter II

The Insides of a Navy Yard

When I reported for duty to the commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard, he informed me that Naval Constructor Stahl, head of my department, was on leave and would be absent for thirty days. Automatically that made me acting head of department during Mr. Stahl's absence.

In the constructor's office I found the man I was to supersede as senior assistant, Constructor Robert. I showed him my orders.

He said, "Mr. Stahl told me to remain in charge until he returned. Of course, you will sign the official papers, but I shall run the department."

"Well, Robert, I said, taken a little aback by this reception, "I'm sorry to have to interfere with your plans, but while Mr. Stahl is away I expect to be in charge — not that I won't be pleased to receive suggestions from you."

"But you know nothing of navy yard work," he said. "Mr. Stahl gave me the specific orders which I have repeated to you."

This was quite enough for me. I replied sharply, "You're not going to be able to carry them out. I'm in charge of this department, and I will administer it. There's nothing more to be said."

Not a very auspicious way in which to begin work under a new chief. Laurence Adams, who had been with me at Glasgow, was one of the assistants at Norfolk. He came to me privately and told me that Mr. Stahl had left such general instructions — Mr. Robert was to remain in charge. The chief  p123 was going to be highly displeased by my action. I remained unmoved by this warning. I was still too new in the Service to be accustomed to the navy practice of one man doing the work and another pretending to do it. Even in my younger days I could not be a figurehead.

My promised house, I discovered, existed only on paper. Congress had appropriated the money to build it two years previously, but no work on in it had yet started. An excellent house, assigned to the general storekeeper, was vacant. The storekeeper, a high-ranking paymaster, having no family, lived in the bachelor officers' mess and he permitted me to occupy his house.

Naval Constructor Stahl returned from leave. If he were displeased at the way I overrode his instructions, he said nothing about it to me. He greeted me courteously but coolly. But I was to get the repercussion. A few days later he handed me some papers.

"Here," he said, "are orders for a general survey of the Puritan. While you are not a member of the board of survey, I want you to conduct the survey for me — in every detail. Don't ask me any questions. When you have completed the survey, bring me the report."

Mr. Stahl undoubtedly expected to ride me hard with that assignment, but I equally expected not to give him the opportunity. When I handed him the report, it was written smooth, ready for his signature. I saw him take it and go to the Puritan. He spent several hours aboard, and I knew he was carefully checking my work. Next day he sent for me.

"Your survey of the Puritan is excellent," he said. "I have signed the report."

From that day until shortly before his detachment, he treated me with every consideration and even kindness, giving me much important work. A foolish incident marred our relations  p124 at the end, but that is a story to tell later.

Almost at once I became aware that something was wrong with the Norfolk Navy Yard. What the trouble was I could not tell exactly, but I did know that the work did not go here as it had in the Newport News Shipyard, a private institution. I determined to discover the cause. After many months I still had not found all the causes, but I had discovered defects in the organization so grave and outstanding it amazed me that no steps had ever been taken to correct them.

The navy yard was made up of numerous departments with no co‑ordination among them and no directing head over them. True, there was a commandant ostensibly at the head of the yard, but so far as industrial work was concerned, he was a mere figurehead. Three departments had as chiefs not experts but line officers, captains and commanders, who had not been educated along the lines of the work they were to direct. Steam Engineering did get its work out, and, due to the ability of its general foreman, Wilson, there was a measure of co‑operation between the engineering and construction departments.

The construction department was the most efficient one in the yard, but even its efficiency was more apparent than real. The yardstick was all wrong. The other departments were none of my business, but I was concerned with the department in which I was senior assistant. I saw that it would be very difficult to make changes, since Chief Stahl considered his department efficient already.

House troubles worried me. My tenancy of the storekeeper's house was precarious. At any time, the officer whose house I was occupying might be detached and a paymaster with a family sent to take his place. I cultivated the yard's civil engineer and induced him to start building my house, but the work was distressingly slow. At last came the bad news — a new storekeeper to arrive in six weeks. At the rate of progress,  p125 my house would not be finished within three months.

Appeals to the civil engineer and to the commandant did no good. The engineer went on a month's leave, putting the work in charge of a general foreman. I had made friends with this man. We went into consultation, and when the civil engineer returned I was just moving into my new house. He complained to the commandant that I had persuaded his foreman to spend too much money.

The second winter at Norfolk I scored a minor triumph for which I really deserved little credit. A submarine went ashore off Currituck Sound, and I was sent down to see what should be done to salvage it. Why they sent me I don't know, since I didn't know any more about salvage work than a rabbit. Facing this problem, I felt for the first time that I ought to adopt the tactics of looking wise and make believe.

The tug assigned to me was well supplied with lines, anchors, and buoys but carried no wrecking equipment. When we arrived off the wreck there was a heavy surf, and I had to be taken ashore by the life-saving crew. A view of the submarine confirmed my worst fears. She was high and dry on the beach, only the stern touching the water, and was moreover half buried in the sand. The only promising point was that the hull was intact. I hadn't the faintest idea of how to attempt to get her off.

Still, I could look wise and make believe. The lifesavers took me into their station as a boarder — at twenty-five cents a day. For two weeks I lived with these men and saw them at their work — patrolling the coast day and night in snow and bitter weather, drilling every day in the boats through the surf, ready to risk their lives to save the crew of a wrecked ship. And all this for the miserable pittance of $60 a month. I hope their lot is better now.

For two days I walked around that submarine, but the more  p126 I thought the harder the problem got. I even fixed upon a cofferdam, until I realized that piling could not be driven into the sand without a hydraulic jet. Then one of the dour, weather-beaten lifesavers came to me and told me something. I held him in conversation a long time, then called up the Navy Yard on the Government telephone. I told the admiral I would try to get the submarine off myself, but it might take ten days to two weeks. He gave me his permission.

The lifesaver had had experience as a rigger and diver. This was the trick he taught me. Plant an anchor well out beyond the breakers and run a heavy 16‑inch line from the anchor to the submarine. With heavy jiggers and a capstan planted in the sand, get the line taut. Then wait for high tide with a strong southeast wind. He told me that the pull of the current on the line would be sufficiently strong to drag the submarine off and carry her out beyond the breakers.

We did this, each day manning the capstan and jiggers and taking in slack whenever any appeared. Finally we were satisfied that we had taken all the stretch out of the line and that it was taut. We sat down to wait for wind and tide.

Within a week a strong southeast breeze set in late in the evening. Would it hold until high tide in the morning? At midnight the wind was still increasing. My rigger in the station puffed his pipe and said, "You'll get your submarine in the morning."

At daylight I was standing by the stranded vessel. It was bitterly cold, but I did not mind, for the wind was holding and the tide would be high within one hour. Soon I had to rub my eyes. The heavy hull seemed to stir. It seemed uneasy. Then it began to oscillate, to wallow in the sand, at first gently, then violently, and finally it seemed to shake off the sand, as a wet dog shakes off water. Then out it went over the breakers in the open sea. No tug had a line on it, no man touched it. The  p127 sight was uncanny — that heavy vessel breaking itself free from the sand and riding out over the surf to the sea, drawn by some power­ful invisible force.

The tug picked up the anchor and line and started for Norfolk with the submarine in tow. My job was finished, and I got the credit. The only credit due me was for having the sense to listen to the practical mechanic. I rewarded my lifesaver with an excellent job at good pay in the navy yard as a diver and rigger.

While we brought about some improvement in the efficiency of the navy yard, any major change for the better was impossible. It worried me a great deal and also caused me to overwork. The result was another nervous breakdown, a recurrence of the trouble from which I had suffered as a midshipman of the line on the old Charleston. A month's sick leave in the South put me right, and once more I threw myself into the work at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

Then occurred the incident I spoke of, the unfortunate affair that brought about the estrangement of Mr. Stahl and myself. Naval Constructor Francis Bowles had become Chief Constructor in Washington, with the rank of rear admiral. He was the ablest constructor in the Navy and belonged to the new régime — a graduate of the Naval Academy and of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Admiral Bowles was the first Annapolis graduate to be made Chief Constructor.

We all now expected a general shake‑up among constructors. The admiral was a forceful, dominating man and also somewhat arbitrary. He had disapproved of some of the policies of his predecessor. Our Norfolk Navy Yard he knew like a book, having served here for a long period. We expected changes.

Soon Admiral Bowles came down to inspect Norfolk. Perhaps I was overconscious of our faults, but I gained the impression that he was not altogether pleased with what he saw.  p128 Afterwards the tone of the bureau letters grew somewhat sharp. When Mr. Stahl was summoned to Washington for a conference, I felt sure he was to be detached. Naturally I speculated about his successor. I hoped it might be my old Newport News friend, Naval Constructor Robert Stocker.

Mr. Stahl returned from Washington and met me in the yard.

"What do you suppose has happened?" he said.

I had only to look at his face to know what had happened. Why I made the answer I did, I don't know, but it was no testimonial to my good sense.

"You are to be detached," I said, "and Stocker will take your place."

Mr. Stahl became grim. He said, "How did you know? Did you have anything to do with it?"

I realized I had made a mistake and assured him that I knew nothing, had had no communication with Stocker — it was nothing but a guess. He accepted my explanation and resumed his cordial manner. Then he went home of the luncheon. And what happened there I can only guess; but when Mr. Stahl returned to the office, he was once more grim in manner, and he never spoke to me again, except officially. I sincerely regretted such a termination of our friendship.

At the same time I could not but rejoice that Stocker, my good friend, the godfather of my daughter, was coming to be my chief. Now we would show progress. Now we could make some real improvement — and I was not to be disappointed.

Robert Stocker was a born mechanic and a born designer. The Naval Academy long kept as exhibits specimens of his craftsman­ship which as a cadet he turned out in the academy workshops. As for design, he loved it — loved it as much as he hated managerial duty. Stocker was a man who should have been put on design at the start and kept there. Years later the  p129 bureau finally discovered his real talent and made use of it, but too late to create a great designer. Had Robert Stocker been taken into the design section when he entered the Corps, we would have had another David Taylor.

With me, soon after his arrival at Norfolk, Stocker made an arrangement which I can safely call unique in the whole annals of the Navy. It was informal, confidential, something just between friends.

"Holden," he said, "we're not going to run this department as Head and Assistant but as a partner­ship. I'll assume certain definite duties, and you will have yours. I'll take general administration, dealing with the commandant and the heads of departments, the drafting office, design work, and plant upkeep and improvement. You will have reports on repairs to ships and carry out the repairs themselves. The management of the working force will be yours, and you will have charge of all production. Junior assistant naval constructors will be assigned to duty with you."

Did ever any assistant in the Navy have equal duty? I doubt it. Turning over the working force to me — a force of 1,600 men — was most unusual. But Stocker knew I had made management my specialty and was reading and studying everything I could find on the subject, while he disliked management. Let me say that I never presumed on this confidence. Before I made any important change, I talked it over with my chief and secured his approval.

How we did talk about policy and changes — but never in the office. Our partner­ship functioned in the privacy of our homes. We averaged four evenings a week together, in Stocker's house or in mine, boring our wives to death with our everlasting shop talk.

But it bore results. The lack of co‑ordination in the navy yard made it difficult to achieve real efficiency in any one  p130 department, but we made progress. We moved slowly, with little disturbance. The force soon learned that we knew our jobs and were just, and we were gratified to sense a new spirit among the men.

We were fortunate at first in our commandants. One in particular, Admiral Cotton, was the best commandant I was ever to know in many years of navy yard service. He made no attempt to exercise the broad authority granted him by the navy regulations and left us free from picayune interferences. He made some effort to co‑ordinate the yard departments.

At Norfolk I was first introduced to that wonder­ful institution, the Navy Yard Board. The Navy makes nearly all its decisions by means of boards. Thus individual officers evade definite responsibility — and it makes jobs for line officers.

A ship in the yard is needing repairs. A Board of Survey is ordered to determine what must be done. The members of such a board are: a line officer as senior member, a naval constructor, and the various master workmen. The line officer never sees the ship, except from a distance. I have served on scores of survey boards, but never once have I seen the line officer senior member visit the ship under survey. The constructor and master workmen prepare and sign the report and send it to the senior officer for his signature. The line officer contributes rank and dignity to the board, and nothing else.

A permanent board in every navy yard is the Board of Inspection, charged with inspecting all supplies and materials purchased for the working departments. It consists of the inevitable line officer senior member and a representative from each department. This senior member, if he is sensible, as a real swivel-chair job. Theoretically and according to the letter of the navy regulations, his board should be in more or less constant session, but in any yard where common sense rules, that isn't what happens.

 p131  Instead, when supplies arrive the storekeeper sends an inspection call to the senior member, noting on it the name of the department concerned. This may be the department which uses all of the material in question or the one which uses most of it. The senior officer sends the call to that department, which makes the inspection at its convenience. The signed report goes back to the senior officer, he attaches his signature, and the matter is settled. The senior officer hasn't even seen the material, nor need he see it.

But now and then some fuss-budget comes in to serve as senior officer. This gentleman, who takes himself seriously, reads his naval regulations and discovers that inspections must be made by the board as a body. He therefore, when notified by the storekeeper, sends out a call for a meeting, naming the hour. His clerk ventures to tell him how inspections have been conducted in the past. He tells the clerk to mind his own business. In the future, inspections are going to be strictly in accordance with regulations.

It was my bad luck to have such a line officer move into our swivel chair just when I was snowed under by important work. The commander assembled his board members for every inspection. At the most inopportune times I got messages to meet with him to inspect this, that, and the other material. It was frittering away the time of an executive responsible for the efficient management of 1,600 men.

One day the senior member directed me to meet him for the inspection of some leather belting. I told him it was impossible for me to come, as I was about to drydock a ship. He insisted, to the point of giving me a positive order. I did not obey but docked the ship. He reported me to the commander for disobedience of orders.

Our commandant's reply to the senior member was a scathing one. He bluntly informed him that I had much work to do  p132 and was doing it, whereas the senior member had much time at his disposal. Henceforth he must arrange the meetings of his board to suit my convenience, not his.

Now I never left my office before six‑thirty in the evening. The senior member liked to be out of his before 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Thereafter when he telephoned me asking for a convenient time for a board meeting, I always said 5 o'clock, or five-thirty. The board didn't meet.

There is another important navy yard board which meets only once a year and then recommends to the Navy Department the rates of wages to be paid to the workmen for the following year. It consists normally of the heads of the yard departments; but, since I had charge of the mechanical force of the construction department, I served on it instead of Stocker.

By law navy yard wages must be the same as those paid by commercial plants in the same district for similar work. Actually they are always higher. In the Norfolk Navy Yard we were paying higher wages than those paid in the Newport News Shipbuilding Plant in our vicinity. Nevertheless, one year our employees made a determined effort to increase their wages.

There were five members on the wage board — myself, a young assistant naval constructor with the rank of lieutenant, and four older men, captains and commanders. They were rounding out their careers.

Our wages were already higher than those outside, but they were determined to grant the increase. And they had four votes to my one.

I went to the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, whose officials were my personal friends, and made an unusual request. Could I examine their actual payrolls? They gave me permission, and I spent two days collecting data. I found the  p133 pay rates generally lower than ours. This information, however, had no effect on the board. The majority decided to take the popular way and recommend the increase.

By this time I had been long enough in the Navy to have courage to speak out against what I was thought was wrong. So now I made a bold move. I refused to sign the wage report but submitted a minority report, recommending a decrease in wages and supporting the recommendation with complete data. Actually I did not wish to decrease the wages, but I wanted no increase.

Both reports went to the commandant. A few days later he sent for the board, asking for an explanation of the majority report.

"Please tell me," he said to the senior member, "how you justify your report in the face of the data Mr. Evans furnished you."

The senior member was stumped. He hadn't expected anything like this. He said something about my perhaps having been misled at Newport News — they could have shown me a faked payroll.

"Do you really believe," the admiral inquired, "that Mr. Evans examined a faked payroll?"

"No, sir, I don't," was the answer.

The commandant gave his decision. "I'm sending both reports to the department but disapproving the majority report. I shall approve the report submitted by Mr. Evans."

The Secretary replied to the commandant: "The department is much impressed by the minority report, and in view of that report there will be no changes made in the rates of wages at the Norfolk Navy Yard."

The news was spread among the employees that they would have obtained their increase, except for young Evans in construction. It added none to my popularity with the workmen.  p134 Besides, the marked improvement in efficiency which Stocker and I were now making did not find favor with the labor unions. As the manager of the mechanical force, I became the target. The unions passed resolutions condemning me. The local newspapers, as usual, took up the cause of the workmen. I got used to the headline, "Constructor Evans' latest."

Finally, a committee of politicians and several labor leaders went to Washington to demand my head. The admiral vigorously defended me and my actions. The Secretary of the Navy investigated, found nothing to criticize, and dismissed the complaints.

It is unfortunate that, when a commandant proves a success at a navy yard, he cannot be permitted to remain to carry on in the good work he has begun. In the rotation of assignments to shore duty, he must be removed when the time comes, even though the change may play havoc in the organization at the yard. Admiral Cotton's service as commandant at the Norfolk Navy Yard was sensible and high-minded, but there is another kind of commandant — the kind which, by using or misusing the great authority granted him by the navy regulations, can knock the efficiency of a yard into a cocked hat.

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