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Bill Thayer

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

Part III

 p302  Chapter III

Enter Christoffer Hannevig

Our little private Don't-give‑up-the‑ship policy with the Army dredge had to come to an end in the spring of 1915. The work ran out. I needed a new backlog for the shipyard. To that end, I went to New York to try to persuade an owner there to build some large coal barges.

Failing to persuade him, on a chance I called up my friend Irving Cox, of the firm of Cox and Stevens, marine architects, to see if he had anything in sight.

"I certainly have," he said. "Come down here at once."

I went to his office. He told me of a young Norwegian, Christoffer Hannevig, who was in this country. Hannevig had had Cox and Stevens make the plans and specifications for a ship which Hannevig claimed he was ready to order built. I looked over the plans and saw that the ship was too large for our yard. Cox asked me to see Hannevig anyway.

"What's the use"? I said. "I can't build his ship."

"Listen, Evans," said Cox, "this chap Hannevig ordered plans from us. We delivered them, and he asked then and there for the bill. I presented it, and he paid it on the spot. Believe me, that's a most unusual experience for a naval architect. As a favor to me, will you see him? I've told him you would, and you can tactfully inform him that his ship is too large for you."

"If you put it that way," I said, "all right."

Cox phoned to Hannevig, who said he would come right away. A new and greater phase of my industrial experience dated from that moment.

When I met Mr. Hannevig, I explained regretfully that I  p303 could not build the ship specified in my yard.

"What is the largest ship you can build?" he asked.

The conversation that followed was so fantastic I would let the reader take it as a fairy tale, were it not for the fact that Mr. Dan Cox was present and can today confirm my statements. There wasn't even a slip in our yard on which I could build a ship of any size, let alone an overhead crane or the additional machine tools such a job would need. Therefore, I can't recommend as good business procedure what I did, namely, to take a quick thought about available space at our plant, write certain figures on a piece of paper, and hand it to my inquirer. The figures read:

"Length, 300 feet; beam, 47 feet; depth, 28 feet.

In extenuation I plead that I hadn't the slightest idea anything would follow from his question. I was just making talk and being agreeable.

"Using these specifications applied to the smaller ship," said Mr. Hannevig, tapping the Cox and Stevens plan, "name your price for a vessel."

Could this be serious? Was there something to this strange foreigner who chose to do business in such a bizarre manner? I must be careful.

"Let me take these specifications to Baltimore," I said. "I'll make sketch plans of such a ship and a detailed estimate and give you a price within a week."

"A week?" he answered. "I want a price today."

The man must have been mad. I answered, "I'm sorry. That's the only way I can give you a price."

"Mr. Cox told me you are an expert on steel construction," he said. "Is that correct?"

"Yes, I'm supposed to be expert."

Mr. Hannevig picked up the specifications, studied them a few minutes, and said: "The first two pages of these specifications  p304 cover the bare steel structure only. Surely, as an expert on steel construction you can give me a price on that — a price on a ship of these new dimensions — just the bare steel structure? How soon can I have it?"

I had never heard anything that could equal this. In quick thinking he could beat me a mile, and I was in a hole. I had time to collect my thoughts.

"Come back in an hour," I said, "and you shall have the price."

He looked at his watch. "Good!" he said. "I can get my cable off today."

He left, and I considered what to do. My first thought was how to get out of the hole. Easy — give him a price so high he couldn't take it. But, did I want to get out of the hole? Though I knew nothing about this man, his talk might not be all bluff. He might be serious and reliable. If he should give me a contract for the hull at a fair price, that hull would be on my ways, he would have to deal with me for the extras necessary to finish the ship, and I could make enormous profits.

But I should have to have a huge additional equipment. Roughly I estimated its cost at $100,000. Well, in our treasury we had just 100,000 in unissued bonds. They would take care of that part. But there were the bank officers — they would laugh at me. They were satisfied to remain a small repair plant, making money. Above all, they wanted no experiments.

There was a greater objection. Actually, I had no authority to deal with Hannevig at all. Such a contract required the approval of the board of directors.

I made my decision. If Hannevig wanted a contract, I would make it and fight it out with the bankers later. I would obtain the best contract ever made by a shipbuilder. In spite of themselves, I would make big money for the bankers, and a fortune for myself.

 p305  Stepping to the door, I had Dan Cox tell his operator to get Harry Crosby, my naval architect, on the long-distance wire. Harry had his book of curves — graphs, as they are now called. From the curve of weights he could pick off the weight of the proposed ship which would be very close to the correct figure.

"Harry," I said, when he answered, "we've got a chance to build a big ship. Take down these dimensions — a ship built to Lloyd's." I gave him the dimensions. "Now — get out your curves and tell me the weight of the steel in the bare structure. I'll hold the wire."

"But, Mr. Evans," he answered, "I took my curves home last night and left them there."

"How long will it take you to get them?"

My heart sank at his answer: "Maybe an hour, if I hurry."

"Well, then, what do you think the steel will weigh?"

Even as I asked it, I knew this was a useless question. A curve addict won't give answers without his curves. Harry wouldn't even guess. I had to make the estimate myself.

Guess would be a truer word. Once before I had guessed, when Truman Newberry asked me the factory costs of steel castings, and Lady Luck had been with me. She was with me now. My guess, as it proved, was within five tons of the actual figure, and even that slight error was in my favor — an overestimate.

Mr. Hannevig was back in his hour, and I gave him a figure I thought was as high as even this traffic could possibly bear. When he didn't even question it, I kicked myself mentally that I hadn't gone higher. But he stunned me with a new question.

"If I order a second one," he said," he said, "of course you can do it for less money. How much less?"

I heard myself saying, "Ten thousand dollars less."

"I have to go back to Norway to get the money for these two ships," he informed me. "How much do you want for a sixty‑day option?"

 p306  Automatically I said, "Twenty-five thousand dollars."

"Good!" he answered. "Now we will see Mr. Cox and have him draw up the contract."

And American business men thought they were fast! The young Norwegian had not taken ten minutes to arrange his first American contract. Afterwards Hannevig was to make ship contracts in America for more than $100,000,000 — with millions in profits for himself.

I walked out of the office of Cox and Stevens with a certified check for $25,000 in my pocket, tentative contracts to build two good-sized freighters, no place to build them, and a battle with the bankers ahead. First, I stopped at the plant to learn the bad news, if any, about my "estimate." Harry Crosby told me that I was better than safe in my steel figure. We then made a careful detail estimate of the whole job on the hulls and found I had brought back a wonder­ful thing. The completion of the ships would bring large additional profits.

Do you suppose such dazzling prospects had any effect upon my banking friends? My news threw the board room of the Baltimore Trust into a panic. A meeting of the Drydock's board of directors was hastily convened. The company attorney, Mr. George Weems Williams, was present. I made a plea for the Hannevig contract but got nowhere. The board informed Mr. Williams that I had acted without authority and instructed him to ascertain the legal steps necessary to void the contract.

I decided that the moment had come for me to get rough.

"Gentlemen," I said, "my resignation is in your hands, to become effective the moment Mr. Williams makes his report to you."

Mr. Williams never made his report. For the next sixty days the bankers sweated blood, praying that the option would not be exercised. Then we would have the $25,000 of the option payment without risk — a nice way, from a banker's perspective, to  p307 make money.

Willis, Crosby and I were pulling for Hannevig and figuring that the shrewd Norwegian had not put up $25,000 for nothing. We drew plans for the two building ships, for the crane runway and the crane, ascertaining prices for everything needed. A cable came from Norway — acceptance. Mr. Hannevig deposited a 10‑per‑cent payment to our credit in a New York bank. There was no backing out now.

Mr. Bowles, whose pre‑banking background was a life-insurance office, now suddenly began to evince great interest in the actual operation of a shipbuilding plant. He examined the plans of the new slips and had me explain them to him in great detail. He even took a set of blueprints home to study.

A message called me to the bank. There I met Mr. Bowles and two other officers. They explained to me suavely that in this important undertaking the bank had deemed it advisable to obtain outside expert advice regarding our building-slip plans, and it was now evident that the plans would require important changes.

"Why, what's wrong with our plans?" I demanded.

"Well," said Mr. Bowles, "we don't know the technical part, but it seems that it will be impossible to launch a ship from the slip as you have designed it."

"And may I ask the name of the expert who has made this amazing discovery?" I said.

The man he named was an experienced steel man and a prominent business success but he knew nothing about shipbuilding.

"He knows no more about shipbuilding and building-slips than a rabbit," I told them. "If you are bound to waste some money, hire a real expert — an experienced shipbuilder — and show him these plans. I'll abide by his decision."

Then I went on to pound it into their heads that Crosby, Willis and I all knew our business. We had worked out those plans after much study and knew they were right. At last I convinced  p308 them. We were to launch many a ship from those ways without a hitch.

Hannevig's actions and those of other Norwegians that came to my ears convinced me that the war in Europe would make inevitable a great shipbuilding boom in the United States. What money I had when I came to Baltimore and the greater part of my first year's bonus I used to buy in stock in our company as it came on the market, some at low prices. I heard of a comparatively large block held by Mr. Skinner, the former owner of the plant, for which he wanted $20 a share.

Not having sufficient cash, I tried every way I could to finance for myself the purchase of that block. My bonus for the year was sure to be more than enough to pay for it. I offered to put up 15 per cent, assign my bonus, and leave the stock as collateral, but no bank would touch my proposition. An exception was Mr. Bowles, who later bought in the Skinner block for $35 a share, which was dirt cheap.

An episode occurred at this time which I must mention. Mrs. Jack Willis was ill in the Woman's Hospital. At two o'clock one morning Jack telephoned to me that she was dying, that the doctors were going to try a blood-transfusion, and for me to come down and be with him. I broke records driving to the hospital.

The transfusion expert was refusing to operate, as the case was hopeless. We prevailed upon him, absolving him from any responsibility for failure, and Jack prepared to give his blood. But Jack Willis was a thin man, without blood to spare. The three doctors overruled him and allowed me to substitute.

Blood-transfusion was not the simple operation then that it is today. The transfer was made through silver tubes kept warm by dripping boiling water. The bandage on my wrist slipped, and the boiling water went on the flesh. It took all my restraint  p309 to keep from jerking away and spoiling the operation. A scar on my left wrist today is the memento of that occasion.

I donated a quart of blood to Mrs. Willis. When the transfusion ended, in response to the usual question she answered in a strong voice, "I feel fine, Doctor." In two days she was sitting up in bed and after that made a rapid recovery. I must have had good blood.

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Page updated: 7 Feb 15