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Part II
Chapter 2

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 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p135  Chapter III

A Constructor Finds His Mission

It is probably unnecessary to remind the reader that Admiral Harrington was the same Commander Harrington who was the commanding officer of the Constellation at the time it ran ashore three times in the course of a short run from Annapolis to the sea. It was now he who became the Commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard. As administrator of so large a Government industrial enterprise, he proved to be every bit as competent as he had been as commanding officer on the quarter-deck of the Constellation.

Unfortunately, a commandant of a navy yard does not put the ship ashore where everyone can see it. But it may get stuck in the mud just the same.

For some reason Admiral Harrington had a violent dislike for naval constructors. Nothing personal about it — just an antipathy for the entire class of them. "I'm going to put the naval constructors in their place," he would remark to the line officers. They repeated it. The report current in the yard that "the admiral is gunning for the constructors" didn't add to the morale of the working force.

A commandant may interfere with the construction department by meddling and incessant demands for explanations regarding trivial matters and, at the same time, remain within his rights under the navy regulations. The head of department has no redress. But Admiral Harrington, in trying to check Stocker, went a little too far on one occasion and ran afoul of the laws of the State of Virginia.

The telegraph company gave a reduced rate for Government  p136 messages, and many telegrams were sent under the Government rate not strictly proper to go through official channels. For example, if I were away from the yard on some temporary duty and found myself delayed, I would wire Stocker so that he could arrange my work. Such a message was not official but was one on which the telegraph company would grant the reduced rate.

The Western Union maintained an office in our administration building, though the operator was a Government employee. One day Stocker found on his desk a Government-rate telegram which had been opened. He asked the operator about it and was informed that the commandant had ordered all Government-rate messages to be brought first to his desk. Stocker's telegram had gone there, and the admiral had opened it.

Stocker protested. The admiral informed him that every message henceforth would be opened by him and read.

Virginia law placed penalties on the telegraph companies for delivering telegrams to others than the addressees. Stocker reported the case to the district office in Richmond. That office asked the commandant about it and received the same reply he had sent to Stocker. He purposed to open and read every Government-rate telegram that came to the yard. The Western Union replied, sending a copy of its letter to Stocker, that if the admiral persisted in his stand, it would remove its wires from the navy yard.

The admiral reported Stocker to Washington for what he termed insubordination. Since the department couldn't very well support a violation of state law, it disapproved the admiral's whole action.

About this time I once more nearly left the Navy. Without warning I was notified that orders were about to be issued sending me to Havana, Cuba, to take charge of a floating drydock  p137 lately acquired from Spain. For me it meant no real work but merely sitting on a floating drydock and holding the fort. I was indignant at being taken from work which I considered of value and resolved to quit the Navy rather than accept such duty. By now I considered that I had repaid the Government the cost of my education.

On the telephone I was assured that the job of assistant to Matt Doughty was still open for me. Then I wrote to Admiral Bowles a courteous but strong letter, telling him the circumstances under which I was sent to Norfolk and stating that I must resign, if ordered to go to Havana.

Stocker and I both feared that Admiral Bowles might resent this letter and tell me to get out and be quick about it. To our surprise, his answer was very cordial. He said he had been impressed by my statements and had decided to order another naval constructor to Havana. I went back to my work with joy and loyalty in my heart.

Norfolk was the repair yard for torpedo boats and destroyers, which were then comparatively new types in our Navy and which had many faults. Since I was the constructor most largely responsible for correcting these faults, I made it my business to cultivate the friendship of the enthusiastic young officers of these vessels so that there might be close co‑operation in this work. I often took meals aboard their ships, and on Saturday nights they came to my house for an innocent little poker party at which there was plenty of beer and good-fellowship.

The most annoying difficulties were with what one might consider minor fittings — guards for propellers, side fenders, life-rails, awning stanchions, floor and deck coverings, etc. On vessels of this classes this allowable weight is very small, and every pound of unnecessary weight, every ounce, must be watched. And it was most difficult to obtain extremely light  p138 fittings strong enough for the work.

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day on a French destroyer of the latest design — a boat of 83,000 horsepower and speed of 42 knots. I was surprised to see that in all the years since I left Norfolk, very little advance had been made in the design of these same troublesome fittings.

On this power­ful French vessel I noted something else — something pertinent to the lesson I hope to teach in this book. When I shook hands with the chief engineer, I knew he had come up from the ranks. His hands told the story. He told me that since boyhood he had spent his life in shops and in the engine rooms of sea‑going vessels. Here was a chief engineer who knew how his machinery was built and knew how to operate it under all conditions.

In our Navy it would have been different. On such a ship our chief engineer would have been a Naval Academy graduate who had taken a P. G. course at Annapolis in engineering but who had had little practical experience in shops or engine rooms. He would have been chief engineer only in theory. The actual operation of the machinery he would have to entrust to subordinates.

It is high time that our Navy formed an Engineer Corps, made up of the designing engineers and practical, experienced operating engineers. The British navy, which has to be ready to fight on a day's notice, maintains such a corps. If our line officers do not establish an engineer corps themselves, I predict that the warrant machinists and the machinist's mates now doing the work will demand recognition and that Congress will heed their demand. The result may be an engineer corps not at all to the liking of the Sea Lords.

To get back to Norfolk, alterations to vessels were my nightmare. One commanding officer wants a new navigating bridge three feet higher than the existing one. Another would change  p139 the location of the searchlights. A third wants a gun location changed — and on all of them there is the cabin, the captain's living quarters! Rare indeed was it that a new commanding officer did not want his cabin altered.

Finally I had an inspiration that eliminated many of these requested changes. I suggested, and it was adopted as policy, that if one vessel of a class required an alteration, the alteration should be made on all the vessels of that class.

Then the fun began. Commanding officers could not agree. Captain A––– would come to me, saying, "I hear B––– has requested a change in his bridge. Don't you recommended that change for my ship. It's a foolish idea of his, and I won't have it."

Of four vessels of a class, the commanders of three requested changes in the location of the searchlight. Each wanted it in a different place. The fourth commanding officer said to me, "The searchlight is just right as it is."

I reported: "As the commanding officers of this class can not agree on the best location of the searchlight, it is recommended that no change be made in the present installation."

Alterations were always a bone of contention between line officers and the constructors. The line contended that sea‑going officers should determine the changes necessary and that the constructors should do the work without questions. There was much to be said for this view. In the language of diplomacy, I agreed in principle. Nevertheless, the constructor had to consider the results of any change in weight and moments. Often enough the constructors in my day agreed to make unnecessary changes merely to keep peace in the family.

And evidently the Navy has not changed so much since then. Captains still want changes made, especially in their living quarters. The captains of two of our new cruisers asked for their bathrooms to be changed. Upon comparison of the surveys it developed  p140 that Captain A–––'s ideal bathroom already existed on Captain B–––'s ship, whereas Captain B–––'s dream arrangement of toilet facilities coincided with the specification of those which Captain A––– was scorning. The board suggested that the solution was for the two cruisers to exchange captains.

Rear Admiral Bowles, our chief constructor, resigned to accept the presidency of a large private shipbuilding company. His successor was Naval Constructor Washington Lee Capps.

Naval Constructor Capps was an able and conscientious officer, but as chief constructor he had a fault — too much kindness of heart. This made him sometimes retain in important positions subordinates who should have been replaced. Often Admiral Capps had to take blame that belonged to others.

The examination on which I must rely for my promotion from Assistant Naval Constructor was ahead of me. So far as practical subjects were concerned, I had no fear of it; but I was weak on design of ships, and I should have to brush up thoroughly in such things as the mathematics of rolling, resistance, stability, strength calculations, and so on. I began a regular course of study evenings. Six months later, when I was ordered up for examination, I felt that I was ready.

Two other assistant constructors took the examination with me in Washington. David Taylor was senior member of the examining board, and he had prepared the papers. Two of his questions were so far over my head that I had no idea what they were about. But I don't think he really expected us to answer them. At any rate, after the examination was over, Chief Constructor Capps told me I had written a fine paper. In fact, my marks were 908 out of 1,000 — and with one exception it was the best examination that had ever been turned in by an assistant constructor up to that time.

It gave me my commission as a full Naval Constructor, with  p141 a material increase in pay. Gradually I had been losing my idea of resigning from the Navy and making a career in private life. More and more I was gathering the opinion that my proper career lay in the Navy.

In the Norfolk Navy Yard I had changed, had grown. I knew now I had not missed my calling. I could handle men and get results from them. I could discover faults in methods or organization and get the remedies for them.

But there was something else. When I first came into the navy yard I was bewildered. It all seemed so strange. Inefficient methods stared me in the face. If it had been dishonesty, something could have been done about it. But the officers were honest men, and there was no graft. Yet, as it seemed to me, a change of methods would result in a tremendous saving of public funds.

Was the very education of a naval officer the cause? During my twenty‑odd years in the Navy, both in the academy and afterwards, I never heard anyone in uniform allude to the source of my pay or the source of the vast sums expended under the direction of naval officers. Did you ever hear a naval officer discuss taxation other than his own personal taxes? Did you ever hear a naval officer suggest that naval expenditures should be reduced? Can you even interest the average officer in naval economy?

"Don't talk economy to me," a high-ranking officer once said to me. "It is my duty to spend, not to save."

A few years after making this remark, this officer was the commandant of one of the navy yards.

Time and experience had given me an insight into this situation. Here were the navy yards of the country, all flagrantly inefficient and spending millions of the taxpayers' dollars. How could I best utilize the talents which God and the Government's training had given me? It was no longer a question of  p142 any debt I owed the Navy for my education. That I had paid in full. But as a patriotic citizen I owed a service to my country, when I could do her one.

Few men knew and cared about the vast waste of the navy yards. Fewer still had the training to enable them to find out what was to do about it, but I was one of that few. Could there be a wider or better field for my efforts? I began to see my mission in life ahead of me. I would be the pioneer in that field of efficiency and economy. I would blaze the way for those that followed. That would be better than amassing millions for myself in a private life.

As a full constructor I could soon expect another assignment. Probably a department of one of the smaller yards would be put under my charge. There, on my own, I could go much farther than I was willing to attempt at Norfolk, where Stocker had to take the responsibility for my acts. I would make drastic changes and build a model department, one that by glaring contrast would force its organization and methods upon the whole system.

Yet I realized that I could not reach my goal of efficiency in a single department as long as the general navy yard organization remained so defective. It did a constructor no good to build and launch the hull of a vessel only to find that the work of building its machinery — a function of the engineering department — had not yet begun. That has happened more than once in our navy yards. I must undertake an intensive survey of navy yard organization, find the remedy for its defects, and fight that remedy through to adoption.

I hoped that Washington would not give me my new assignment too soon. I wanted another year with Stocker — a little more experience, a little more time in which to formulate my plans. It was an ambitious program I had set for myself. Would I have undertaken it, had I foreseen the future? I don't know.  p143 But then, as a young lieutenant, my heart was strong for the fight.

My assignment came much sooner than I expected. The chief constructor called me to Washington and what he had to say to me stunned me, literally. It was to be no small yard for me. He told me that as a reward for my record at Norfolk and for my fine examination, he was sending me as construction officer to the Mare Island Navy Yard, one of the great yards of the country.

At that time I seemed to have a genius for saying the wrong thing at the right time. An ill‑considered remark of mine had estranged me from Mr. Stahl. Now, bewildered by this news, at a los for words, I blurted out, "Chief, can't I remain a while longer at Norfolk with Stocker?"

For once kind Chief Constructor Capps lost his temper.

"I am disappointed, Evans," he said. "Here I selected you and because of your youth and low rank I had to make a fight for you with the Secretary. Officers of high rank, men many years your senior, desire this position and are in line for it. One has made a definite request for the assignment. In spite of this, I have selected you; and you ask, 'Can I remain at Norfolk?' "

I apologized profusely, expressed my heartfelt appreciation of what he had done for me, assured him that I would go to my new work enthusiasm. The chief then warned me of some of the difficulties and pitfalls. He had scarcely need to do so. The difficulties with which the Mare Island Navy Yard was beset were well known in the service — it was ridden by labor unions and politicians. It was the graveyard of the ambitions of naval constructors. To try to improve it was to invite attack.

In Norfolk I had two weeks in which to close up my work and get ready for the big change. I had been on duty there for  p144 more than five years and had many friends to whom to say good‑by both among the officers and the workmen. I left with many regrets. Navy regulations forbidding a gift to me, the civilian supervisory force presented my wife with a handsome chest of silver.

On the long railroad journey I gave much thought to my plans. I determined to go ahead with my purpose, but slowly, very slowly. I must be sure of my ground for every change. Above all, I must be always prepared to present to the Navy Department my reasons, and good reasons, too, for every act. Finally, if I had to go down, I should go down fighting.

In the end it was not the labor unions that were to defeat me, nor the politicians either. My opposition was from the line officers of the Navy. Their aims did not mix well with mine.

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