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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 3

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 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p145  Chapter IV

Navy Yard in a Paradise

In upper San Francisco Bay, about thirty miles from the city of San Francisco, is a water-girt bit of paradise called Mare Island. The government owns the island completely and on it has placed the most important Naval Station of the Pacific Coast, the Mare Island Navy Yard.

Would that I could impart to the reader something of the charm and beauty of this place, something of the feeling I had when I first saw it, that here was a spot where one could live and die in happiness.

Come take a stroll with me over the little island, disregarding for the moment the smoke and clamor of the great workshops and the drydocks. We go up the main street, passing a small hill on the right on which stands the administration building, surrounded by trees and beauti­ful flowers. All along the left stretches a well-kept park, closely filled with trees. Beyond the administration building we reach Officers' Row, a broad, well-paved street with the officers' houses on one side, facing the park. These are frame houses. Years before they had been of brick, but an earthquake shook them down. The Government rebuilt them of wood bolted with steel rods, to make them earthquake-proof.

These are attractive, comfortable homes. The midmost one is the house of the commandant, larger than the others and surrounded by extensive grounds parked with flower beds, trees, and shrubs. On each side of the commandant are the houses for the heads of departments and their assistants. These houses, too, are well back from the street with ample grounds  p146 among them. Along the length of row, separating the gardens from the sidewalk, runs a hedge of geraniums. In back there is a general vegetable garden, a chicken run, stables for horses and cows, the gardener's house, and an orchard combining fig and other subtropical fruit trees with the apples, peaches, and plums of the Temperate Zone.

Looking at this parklike scene, it is hard to realize that the shops and drydocks of a great navy yard are within a stone's throw.

Passing down this road, now lined with enormous eucalyptus trees, we see on the right a charming little church. Farther along we reach a rather large building, back from the road in a grove of trees. This is the bachelor officers' quarters, provided with spacious reception rooms, bedroom suites, and all conveniences for its tenants.

A small distance beyond, and we reach the Marine barracks. Here a broad parade ground is flanked on each side by the attractive houses of the Marine officers, all with their flower gardens. In back, extending the width of the parade ground, is the Marine barrack.

We now climb a little hill to a large building among the trees on top. This is the Naval Hospital. Together with the houses and gardens of the medical officers clustered about, it makes another pretty picture. Beyond the hospital is the mesa, an excellent place for a gallop on your horse. At the extreme end of the island is the lighthouse.

Back at the center of the island, raise your eyes and look into the distance. On the right are the high California hills, now, in summer, brown, but beautifully green when the rain comes in December. On the left spreads a broad expanse of water — San Francisco Bay. The beauty and peace of the island, the changing brown hills and the blue bay in the distance — that is Mare Island.

 p147  The climate is also a delight — never too warm, never too cold. The cold is just enough to make one enjoy the warmth from central heating and a blazing wood fire in the hall. How different from the disagreeable climate of San Francisco, only thirty miles away! Here the rainy season is the most agreeable period of the year. The old timers tell you it rains only at night. After a few years I was telling this same story. When it did rain in the daytime, I dismissed it as an exception. There is wine in the air. When I stepped from my he mornings and walked through flowers and trees to my work, my thoughts were on the beauties of nature surrounding me and not on the sordid and often ugly troubles awaiting me at the office.

In its isolation the Mare Island community accents the social life more than do those of other navy yards. The yard, Marine, and medical officers and their families, plus the bachelors, form the society of Mare Island and are known as the Navy set.

Across the water a short distance away is the California town of Vallejo. It is a thriving little city, more or less dependent on the navy yard for its prosperity. Here live the civilians employed in the yard — superintendents, foremen, and workmen. The town also has its complement of bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, editors, merchants, et cetera. In culture and mental outlook, these people are the equals of the business and professional men to be found in any inland American city. In fact, they are probably superior, for they live on the sea, come in close contact with the Navy and its needs, and have an interest in foreign affairs that gives them breadth of mind.

Yet, though it is only a few hundred yards from Mare Island to Vallejo in physical travel, socially the distance is a great gulf, not to be bridged. For the Navy set the Vallejo set scarcely exists. The Vallejo set speaks of "Navy snobbishness."

 p148  The Navy set lives within itself. On the island occur many teas and bridge parties, numerous dinners, small dances at the bachelor officers' mess, an occasional ball in the sail loft. It is a great day when ships arrive from the Fleet. Then there are new faces to see, something to discuss besides yard gossip. Such and such officers are slated for promotion, such and such will probably fail. Congress is providing more ships. That will mean more high-ranking officers, a quicker flow of promotion. The President is favorably inclined toward the Navy. Will he persuade Congress to give a general increase in pay? Navy talk! The yard entertains the visiting officers, the visitors respond with hospitality aboard their ships.

It can be very pleasant, if the yard officers and their families are congenial. But sometimes sets and cliques spring up in the small Navy set, and you have another story. Lock some terriers and a few cats in a room together, and you have an idea of what can happen on Mare Island when the social conditions are adverse.

My first social duty was to make an official call on the commandant. Then I received a succession of calls in my house. Every officer in the yard called. I returned these calls, and a succession of dinners began, the admiral give the first. The dinners surprised me. They were formal, almost elaborate, the hosts serving wines, including champagne.

Every other head of department on Mare Island was a commander or captain, receiving the pay of those grades. I had the rank of lieutenant. Though mine was by far the largest and most important department of the yard, I was much the lowest-paid executive. Even the heads of small, unimportant departments drew much higher pay than I. Could I, with my lieutenant's pay, return these grand dinners in kind? No, my dinners must be simple — and no champagne.

As I had planned, I began slowly at Mare Island. During  p149 my first few months of duty there, I limited myself to routine work and inspection. In the Navy the "paper work" is this first consideration. The shop may tumble down, but the executive must keep his paper work in order. All the time I had away from routine duties I spent in the plant, getting acquainted with the master workmen, here called foremen, and their assistants and observing shop methods. The personnel interested me more than the methods, since human deficiencies are harder to correct than faulty practice. Make your supervisory force right, and changes to correct methods follow easily.

Soon I discovered that the master shipfitter, W. G. Stevens, was looked upon as the dean of the masters. He was a well-educated Englishman who knew his job, struggling under the handicap of the conditions which surrounded him. I cultivated Mr. Stevens's friendship, inviting him to my house for tea Sunday afternoons and discussing with him my aims and my plans. I hoped that his influence with the other masters would make my path smoother.

So also I studied my commandant. Rear Admiral Bowman McCalla was a distinguished, capable line officer, a severe disciplinarian, positive in speech and action. It was very important for me that I should have no controversies with this strong individual. I made it my business to learn his idiosyncrasies, his hobbies, and his wishes.

In the power-plant we used oil as fuel. Admiral McCalla considered smoke from the stack an indication of waste and inefficiency. I could have told him, but didn't, that sometimes some smoke is unavoidable; also that it is easy to eliminate all smoke by turning on too much air, though what happens to the boiler pressure is something else. But the admiral didn't like smoke, and I cautioned the plant operators. It would go like this:

My phone would ring, the admiral calling. He had a cultured  p150 voice and spoke in the manner of an English gentleman.

"Ah, Mr. Evans! I notice smoke from your power-house stack."

"Thank you so much, Admiral, for calling my attention to it. I hadn't noticed. I shall correct it immediately."

I call the power-house. "The admiral sees smoke from our stack. Put on more air."

My phone rings. Once more the admiral.

"Ah, Mr. Evans! I congratulate you on your quick elimination of waste."

"I'm very sorry, Admiral, you have been annoyed. I hope you won't see any more smoke from our stack."

The difficulties I ran into at Mare Island were worse than I had expected. Many of the masters were old men and were wedded to established practices. They did not take readily to newfangled methods. Many of the shop methods did not measure up to my standard of efficiency and there was soldiering among the workmen.

There was another condition here with which I had to contend, a peculiar but serious one. At Mare Island the Catholic-Protestant antagonism was deep-rooted. If the master of a shop were Catholic, then you would find all the workmen in that shop were Catholics. Where there was a Protestant master, it was just the other way — no Catholic workmen. How could this be, you ask, with Civil Service rules supposedly in force? Well, it was easy.

The machine shop of the construction department was a Catholic shop. When we needed machinists, the labor board certified them, regardless of their religious beliefs. But few Protestants would respond. They knew their jobs in that shop would not last long. But some would report for work. Very soon the foreman would send in a discharge list — "to reduce the force; lack of work." Every Protestant would be on that  p151 discharge. In another machine shop the Catholics suffered the same fate. Eventually I eliminated this discrimination in my shop, but not until I had secured the discharge of the master machinist.

I was fortunate in finding at Mare Island a senior assistant constructor assigned to me who was a devout Catholic. When investigating difficulties that arose from religious intolerance, I always had this officer, Assistant Instructor Naval Constructor William McEntee, sit with me.

Mr. McEntee was the honor man of his class at Annapolis. He had passed the three-years' post-graduate course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had been on duty at Mare Island for six months, when I arrived. Immediately I noticed that he was unfamiliar with the duties of his position. Within a few days he came to me.

"No doubt you've discovered, sir, that I don't know much about my job," he said. "You see, I've received no instructions here about my duties. I have been given very little to do."

I assured him that I would instruct him, and, as for work, I could see enough ahead for half a dozen men. In a short time he became a valued assistant. In fact, he did so well that he was sometimes bracketed with me in the abuse later thrown at me by two of the Vallejo newspapers.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology turned out assistant naval constructors with a splendid theoretical education but with little practical knowledge. To make them valuable officers at the yards they had to be thoroughly instructed in the actual practice of their profession. McEntee, when I met him, represented an expensive investment for the Government. Think of the waste in allowing this brilliant young man to be idle for half a year!

At Norfolk I had adopted the practice of giving each new assistant constructor a desk in my office and telling him only  p152 to "watch and listen." I wanted him to study my method — how I dealt with the supervisory force and the workmen and all how I dealt with officers from the ships. When I went into the plant or upon the ships under repair, the novice must accompany me, keeping his eyes and ears open. Soon I would give him definite jobs with specific instructions, keeping up this system of training until he was able to go on his own.

Some constructors with whom I talked did not agree with my system.

"When I get an assistant naval constructor, he is supposed to be qualified," they would say. "I'm no schoolmaster, and a navy yard is not a school."

Yet a good industrial manager must be more or less a schoolmaster. He must always be on the lookout for good material and then make it his business to train it. Thus he builds a smooth-working, efficient organization.

At Mare Island I found plenty of opportunity for "school-teaching." In the drafting office I discovered six apprentice draftsmen who had been kept exclusively on tracing work, thus making no progress at all. The chief draftsman, I soon learned, was incapable of laying out a course of instruction for them. I prepared one myself, including in it both office work and home study.

Then I called the six boys to my office. I told them I had no desire to make permanent tracers of them. I wanted them to become expert draftsmen. Then I gave each a copy of the course of instruction, covering six months' work. At the end of that period, I informed them, I would judge their progress in the office and also hold a written examination covering the home study. Those that did not show improvement I would discharge. I may add that I continued these courses thereafter among the apprentice draftsmen as they came in.

Of the original six boys, Willis and Cobbledick proved to  p153 be exceptional men. Since there was no future in a navy yard for a civilian, Cobbledick resigned and took a good position in Oakland. Willis stayed with me. When I introduced scientific management into my department, he became invaluable to me as an observer and time-study man.

Years later, when I resigned and went to Baltimore to build ships, I sent for Willis. At the age of 34 he was vice president and general manager of the Baltimore Drydocks & Shipbuilding Co., with a commensurate salary. The Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company bought this concern, and this same Willis is today in charge of the important Bethlehem plants in Baltimore.

When I had become well acquainted with all the master workmen in my Mare Island domain and had them sized up, I took my first easy step toward reorganization. I adopted a system of "suggestions." I would suggest that a shop method be changed and explain my reasons; suggest that a certain output seemed low; suggest that men in certain divisions were leaving their work before quitting time. I kept memoranda of these suggestions, then closely observed the responses of the foremen.

These were not orders, please note. In a civil establishment, I should have given orders, discharging all who did not obey, but at Mare Island, it should be remembered, the Civil Service, the labor unions and the politicians had to be reckoned with. Also, a false step at this point, before I had established a reputation for fair dealing and efficiency, might have been fatal. Or, if any recommendation of mine that this or that person be discharged should be disapproved by the Navy Department, my whole authority and prestige would be greatly weakened. So, I suggested. I didn't give orders.

About the Civil Service Commission, I would not be misunderstood. I am a firm believer in Civil Service. When you  p154 hear an executive claim he can not get efficiency into a navy yard because of the Civil Service, the labor unions, or the politicians, that is an excuse and only advertises the incompetency of the speaker. My record at Mare Island will prove the truth of this statement. As for our Civil Service, I only wish it were stronger. I wish it were more like the British Civil Service, entry to which is through merit and not political pull. But even as things are now, while Civil Service regulations do sometimes retard improvements in Government industrial plant, they never actually prevent them.

To my suggestions the superintendents in some departments responded well. Methods became markedly better, the men were more attentive and conscientious in their work. There was a better spirit all along the line.

In others the response was not so good. Their superintendents felt secure. They were not going to let this young naval constructor upset their old routine and methods. What could he do about it, anyhow? Nothing but talk. They had seen other new constructors come — and go. Their political connections were strong. They didn't worry.

But even in their departments there was a certain improvement. The workmen seemed to sense a change in the air. Only the superintendents remained blind and deaf.

As for me, I was getting into safer waters. I had my soundings, my records were complete. The time was at hand for me to end giving suggestions and to issue orders.

Simultaneously two episodes or events were occurring which need a place in this recounting. One of them occupied so much of my time for almost three months that I had little left to devote to the continued improvement of my department. Since I can not weave these outside experiences into the account of my campaign to bring efficiency into the Mare Island Navy Yard, I pause in that narrative to insert the two stories.

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