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Chapter 26

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

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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Chapter 28
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p367  Chapter XXVII

Bremerton Yard: Preparation for War

I Become a Mason — The United States Enters the War — Repairing Damaged German Vessels — My Son Graduates at Annapolis — War Work — The "Reds" — Promoted to Rear Admiral.

The Pan‑American Exposition was being held in San Francisco and we decided to stop there en route to Seattle. We remained several days and not only saw the great Fair, but were also able to visit some of our California friends.

We reached Bremerton July 20, 1915, and I took over from the captain the command of the yard. Bremerton had had no commandant since the retirement of Rear Admiral Cottman in February, 1914. The yard was then small, with only a limited plant, and usually had not more than one ship in dock for raps and some minor jobs.

I found conditions somewhat unsatisfactory. The people of the town had never heard much about me and they protested to the Department when I was ordered there. They wanted a flying officer to command the station instead of a captain. Years afterward they repeatedly apologized to me for their attitude. I invited the president of the Chamber of Commerce and eight or ten leading citizens to meet me and told them what I thought of the possibilities of the Bremerton yards. I laid my plans before them and we worked together from the start.

Socially, I found the situation intolerable. The high ranking officials, and more particularly their wives, were not on speaking terms and there was general dissatisfaction and apathy all down the line. It has not infrequently been my job to clear up unhappy conditions in  p368 stations and on board ship, and I began working on this situation. Within a short time there were four or five detachments from the yard. Twice in my long career I have been directed to designate unsatisfactory persons to the Bureau of Navigation; those who, in my judgment, should be displaced and reassigned. We instituted a program of getting people together at receptions and entertainments and dances at the Commandant's house. We had weekly picnics on Saturday afternoons, after office hours. In the summer months the days are long in Bremerton and one can stay out late.

We used either a cutter or a whaler to carry the people to the picnic grounds near the magazine or at Keyport. The women provided the food and there were swings and other amusements for the churchman. Everybody enjoyed the clam digging, for clams in Puget Sound are the best in the country. The arrangements made everyone happy.

I had an excellent set of officers at Bremerton, including Larimer, my aide; Gregory and Duncan, in the civil engineers' corps; Smith, Bisset, Fisher, Druley and Drake, in the construction corps; Wettengel, W. B. Wells, Griswold, Warren, Graham, Dibrell, Stiles and many others, as line officers; Timothy O'Leary and Merritt, as supply officers, and Wentworth and Ely, as surgeons — all willing to pull together. I had the advice of F. G. Forbes, chief clerk to the Commandant, who had been in Bremerton since the yard was established and, in 1929, was still on duty there. Colonel C. M. Perkins commanded the marine barracks.

Senator Poindexter was then in Congress and a member of the naval committee and W. E. Humphrey was in the House of Representatives, and both of them gave us valuable assistance in building up the Bremerton yard. Poindexter was an able and progressive legislator. The state suffered a great loss when he retired from the Senate. Humphrey was an earnest advocate of preparedness.

 p369  I had long awaited an opportunity to become a Mason, but it was not until I was established at Bremerton that I had both the time and the money to join the order. Under the tutelage of Gregory I took my first, second and third degrees, and under Duncan I joined the chapter. In 1917 I was Master of my lodge, William H. Upton Naval and Military Lodge, No. 206, of Bremerton. With 15,000 young men under my command, many of them desiring to become Masons, my nights were busy. Often we were up until one o'clock in the morning.

When I returned to the east I became a "Sojourner," then a "Hero of '76," and also joined the "Albert Pike Consistory" and "Almas" Temple of the Shrine. I was admitted to the Shrine at Keith's Theater, in Washington, in 1923. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and Major General Lejeune, with a hundred and forty-four others, crossed the "burning sands" with me. My photograph was taken on the south steps of the Treasury at two o'clock in the morning, and I have since wondered how I got there.

Senator B. R. Tillman, chairman of the Naval Committee, and a party of legislators visited us in Bremerton in 1915. The Senator sat with us at lunch, but ate nothing. As soon as the meal was over he said:

"Young man, I want to talk to you alone, but I want three quarts of hot water."

The water was brought to him in the library and he drank all of it, meanwhile asking questions. At the conclusion of our interview he said:

"You have convinced me, Captain, as to the future of the Puget Sound Yard. When you need to accomplish something call on me and it will be done; but don't call on me for aid unless it is something worth while."

We began immediately to bring work into the yard, and by 1916 the country saw the need of preparedness.

One Sunday morning I received a message from the Navy Department asking how much it would cost to fit out the Puget Sound Yard, properly, for certain purposes.  p370 That afternoon I called a meeting of our various section heads and we began to figure. We found the highest estimate was about $2,200,000. I gave each man three minutes in which to support his calculations. The statement that impressed me most was that of the late Captain Ralph M. Griswold. When he had finished I said: "It is all over, gentlemen. We shall adopt the figures and plan of Griswold."

That night I telegraphed the amount to the department and we got the money.

The yard continued to improve all the time and was in excellent shape when we entered the World War. The Helm Board, comprising Helm, McElroy, Capps and Rousseau, with Hussey as recorder, visited Puget Sound in the winter of 1916‑1917. I quartered them on board the receiving ship Philadelphia and Captain Bradshaw showed them every attention. They used the entire poop deck for their workshop and had a destroyer detailed for their use in visiting the various ports.

One afternoon, returning from Port Angeles to the yard, Admiral Capps and I discussed the imminence of war. We did not have to decide the question, however, for when we ran alongside the dock I found a message which said, "Close the Navy Yard to outsiders and prepare for war."

Every officer and man and every civilian connected with the yard put his whole soul into the work, and within a few hours the wheels began to revolve rapidly; from then on there was no relaxation.

Two German vessels were seized by our district authority at Port Blakely on receipt of a telegram which read, "War declared." A part of the machinery of one of the ships had disappeared. We sent divers down near her anchorage and also searched the woods on the neighboring shore, but without finding the missing parts.

Providentially, we discovered a set of machinery plans in the room occupied by the chief engineer. They solved  p371 our problem. We towed the ship to the yard and repaired her.

Notwithstanding our vigilance there was some sabotage on board captured German vessels. The Savannah, formerly the German Saxonia, which was put in No. 1 dry dock at Bremerton for conversion and kept there for two or three months, was one of these.

The day before she was scheduled to come out, the dock was flooded up to the point where the ship was still resting on the blocks and not entirely water-borne, in order to see that work done on her bottom was tight. This was a precaution used whenever extensive work was done on a ship's bottom.

Shortly after the water was admitted a bad leak was found through the joint where the new sea chest for the auxiliary condenser was fastened to the liner on the shell. The water was pumped out and the sea chest removed to determine the cause. The method of connection was by studs into the shell liner, which was riveted. A canvas and red lead gasket was used to ensure tightness. It was found that all of the studs, twelve or fourteen in number, had been sawed half‑way through at about the point where the joint occurred. The cutting was not the cause of the leak, as the impaired studs could stand the stress on them due to original setting up. The canvas gasket, fortunately for us, had been installed with a fold on one side, so that the joint was inherently leaky. Had it not been for this fumble, it is probable that damage would not have been discovered until the studs gave way at sea in the action of the ship. As the opening was of sizable proportions and in the bottom below the turn of the bilge, a catastrophe would doubtless have resulted.

On another passenger and freight vessel which was turned over to the Shipping Board after she was repaired we found ground glass in one of her main bearings just as she was ready for dock trial. The discovery was due to the vigilance of the master mechanic, who had to assure himself that everything was right before the steam  p372 was turned on. An armed guard was stationed on the ship and all bearings were carefully examined thereafter, but we found no further sabotage. Only the most reliable men were allowed on board and the watch was very strict. We did not feel comfortable about the ship, however, until she reached the east coast without trouble.

When war was declared hundreds of officers and men, most of them reserves, reported at the yard and I had to make arrangements for handling them. Mobilization was rapid. Fortunately, I had the receiving ship and a large hospital and weather steadily improved. The officers slept on deck on cots. I immediately sent men to fill up the crews of the Frederick, the Maryland, the Pittsburgh and the South Dakota, as well as several other cruisers. By this means the situation was slowly relieved.

My wife went to Annapolis to see our son, Kenneth, graduate on March 30, 1917. I was pleased that his class had had nearly four years at the Academy. When a man has completed a course of that length of time he has an advantage over the three-year and three‑and-a‑half‑year men. My son joined the Chattanooga at Mare Island. He came to see me on his way to join his ship.

The work was hard and the hours long at the Bremerton yard during this period. Generally I was at my office at five o'clock in the morning and during the year I lost nearly thirty pounds in weight.

The State of Washington at that time had an extremely bad element in its population. The I. W. W.'s were strong and there was much opposition to our entrance into the war. Most of the governors of the western and northwestern states appointed commissions of citizens to advise them and to help handle war matters. Learning of the intention of the Governor of Washington to appoint certain persons for such work, and realizing the seriousness of the situation, we called a secret meeting of twenty of the prominent men of the state whose patriotism was unquestioned, at the Washington Hotel in Seattle. Among them were railroad presidents, bankers,  p373 presidents of steamboat companies, shipbuilders, manufacturers and leaders in every activity of business. Our decisions were unanimous. At midnight three automobiles containing twelve of the participants in our meeting left Seattle for Olympia. They reached there at four o'clock in the morning, went to the executive mansion, awoke the governor and stated their case. When he named his "Committee of Safety" that day a sufficient number of our own people were appointed to control it.

The war seems almost a dream to me now. There was so much to do and not enough people to do it. We developed our plans without knowing what was happening in the east and in the war zone. Occasionally we had visitors like Vice-President Marshall, Dr. Henry Van Dyke, L. C. Palmer, Laning, Senn and a few of the missionary or welfare type who could tell us something. From time to time the Department asked us if we could undertake certain special work. Our answer always was, "Yes, we can."

One inquiry related to the manufacture of shells, and after a conference we said we could make them. We did, and the yard produced shells for ninety-nine cents each, of a kind for which the government had previously paid two dollars and fourteen cents under contract. My recollection is that the man who supervised the job for us was Dibrell.

Warren was ordered to duty at Bremerton with submarines. We brought from Canada submarines originally designed for Russia and actually on the way to that country when the Czar's government collapsed. They were building parts and we assembled them. Warren, who had charge of the undertaking, occupied a shack alongside the submarine ways and worked from five o'clock in the morning until midnight.

In April, 1917, the Buffalo, under Captain A. W. Hinds, took a commission from Seattle to Vladivostok to communicate with the new Kerensky government. I had had the handling of the party at Seattle both going and  p374 coming. Elihu Root was the senior of the delegates and Rear Admiral James H. Glennon was our naval representative. The commission, representing varied interests, reached Seattle at night. I met the members at the train, had them taken to the dock and then to the Buffalo which was in readiness and waiting. She sailed for Vladivostok within a few minutes, so that the party lost no time in transit.

During the war we enlisted a large number of yeomanettes. I have a picture of a hundred and forty-four of them taken on the greensward near my home.

My own offices had to be rebuilt and enlarged. We constructed a connection between two of the old brick buildings and I used the new section for my headquarters. One wing was occupied as a district office and the other was used for regular navy yard work. At the peak of our activities I had thirteen personal stenographers and went from desk to desk dictating to them.

The government began to build ships at Seattle, at Portland and at other Pacific ports, both men-of‑war and merchant vessels. Submarines were also constructed at Seattle. My daughter had the privilege of christening the N‑3. This vessel was commanded by W. R. Munroe and had her baptism of fire in the Atlantic.

In the early part of 1918 the yard began to handle repairs for British vessels, several of which were sent in search of the Emden, in the South Pacific. As soon as cargo ships were completed in Seattle or in Portland, I was instructed to have them officered and outfitted, and to get them to sea, loaded either with flour or other provisions for Europe, or to send them south to Chile and Peru for nitrates, so much needed in France. We had to choose captains and endeavor to get crews. Usually we could find a captain and a chief engineer, but it was often necessary to fill up the crews with raw recruits. They were taught to handle steam and to steer, and then sent outside of Cape Flattery, where the  p375 vessel was allowed to roll around for forty-eight hours, while they recovered from seasickness. After that they were all right for the remainder of the voyage.

The Department made a rule governing the age limit of commanding officers, but after great effort I succeeded in having it modified with respect to certain officers. The most notable case was that of Captain James S. Gibson who was a few years over age but strong and vigorous, and the kind of man whose services were needed. After the third attempt, the matter of his age was waived. He assumed command of a vessel, took her to France, and there became captain of the port of Marseilles, with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He remained vigorous until the day of his death, in 1925, when he had a heart attack in Manila where he had gone with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. The Revolution in Russia, in 1917, did not help conditions in Seattle and the northwest. There were two organizations among the laboring men that were almost "red." Later on, I think, union labor purged itself of these undesirables. One large union had members at work on ships and in shipyards around Seattle. It became necessary, from time to time, summarily to discharge some of these men. In some instances fires occurred at sea, and in other cases new vessels were crippled, because emory dust had been thrown into running parts of the machinery; and in still other cases the plates of the hulls were found to contain tallow candle rivets, instead of steel fastenings. As a result the shipment of cargoes was sometimes delayed, and altogether too frequently vessels were lost because of the sabotage of a few of these workmen.

There is no doubt that many people were deceived by these "red" workers, in and around Seattle. The flames of discontent were often fanned  p376 by the public, and even ministers of the gospel sermonized on the situation, thus making our task of handling the unsettled conditions in the northwest more difficult. Of course, we know now that some of them tried to foment a revolution in the United States.

It was the good fortune of my Aide for Information, Lieutenant Commander F. W. Becker, to capture in Seattle an agent and his wife from whom he obtained valuable information that exposed the entire anti-American plot. The papers concerning the case are in the archives of the Navy Department. Becker was able to get the communication code, the signs of recognition between the plotters, a sketch of a ring worn by them, and their passwords.

We had the right to search suspected passengers coming in ships from the Orient, and the British, in British Columbia, helped us materially. In one case we found a telegraphic code in a man's shoe. It was intended to be used in prisons and jails for concerted action in prison deliveries. The man was deported.

The uncertain Russian situation was difficult and delicate. We probably had more of it to handle in the northwest than anywhere else. The Russian vessels which arrived in Seattle about the time of the change to the Kerensky government put out to sea, and it was extremely difficult to determine the status of such ships. No sooner did some of them arrive in Seattle than the connection between certain radicals and the crews of the ships was established, but notwithstanding all we knew about these matters, there still was no justification in seizing either the vessel or members of her crew. As a consequence, several ships of the Russian Naval Volunteer fleet were allowed to proceed on their way, although the future of the vessels and the cargo they carried was uncertain.

 p377  The first of these boats to arrive was the Kishinev followed by the Novgorod. Although in the hands of an unfriendly power, they gave us no excuse to seize them, and we could find no reason, other than that I have stated, and which the State Department failed to consider. Some other reason had to be found that would justify the collector of customs, under the President's proclamation, to take over these vessels. Nothing was found other than that they were in the hands of a Bolshevik crew, the members of which might be indirect plotters against the United States.

The next vessel to come in was the Russian Naval Volunteer ship, Shilka. She was formerly the German troop-ship, Oberon. Her clearance papers and manifest were faulty, her cargo and owner­ship were uncertain, her local agents disclaimed her, and the Russian consul could give no assurance of her future conduct. The ship lacked discipline, since she was operated under rules and regulations of a committee of five of the crew — the Bolshevik plan — which made difficult the placing of responsibility in case of violation of the laws, rules or regulations concerning American harbors. Search of this vessel revealed thousands of I. W. W. handbills and books which had been printed in Chicago, urging success of the forthcoming revolution of the working class in America. Investigation in Seattle disclosed that large quantities of handbills were distributed advertising a meeting of the Central Labor Council and Labor Temple, where Russians from these ships would speak. More than five hundred labor radicals were at the dock to greet the ship on her arrival. All of this showed a close relation­ship to the things already in our minds, and we thought a condition presented itself where we were justified in a seizure.

We took the vessel and turned it over to the  p378 customs collector of the port. This action was in line with the President's proclamation that the vessel was a menace to shipping, and the crew undesirable to land or to remain in this country. The immigration commissioner took charge of the crew.

After weeks of negotiation between the collector and the Treasury Department, the vessel was released and sailed for Yokohama — but not with the war materials that she had intended to take on board.

Our next experience was with the Toula of the Russian fleet. This vessel, I was informed, represented in a greater degree the Bolshevik sprit. She had in her crew several of the delegates sent to Russia, at the expense of the United States, to "stabilize" the Kerensky government. Two of the crew had lived in San Francisco and were wanted by the police of the city for murder.

The Toula was seized by my Aide for Information. His action was based on international law, namely, that she was nothing more or less than a pirate ship. She was void of all rules and regulations. She did not have an efficient crew, and she was without inspection papers showing proper conditions of hull and boilers. She had no qualified officers. This made her a menace to navigation. Furthermore, investigation showed her to be in the hands of a committee of five of the crew who ruled the captain and her officers. The captain frankly admitted that he was not in command of the vessel, but was under orders of his crew. Failure to comply with these orders would mean death for him and his officers. The committee of five of the crew upon landing got into immediate communication with radicals in the United States. Here was presented a serious problem for us to meet, since the vessel was actually in control of enemies' agents.

After my Aide for Information seized the vessel  p379 the crew was mustered for inspection. Questioning developed the fact that each one felt that the vessel was the property of the working‑man, and all had the notion that each was part owner and could do as he saw fit with the ship. Asked whether they would comply with the rules and regulations governing conduct in the American harbors, they frankly admitted that they were not interested in any laws made by the capitalistic classes.

On the pretext that the vessel was a menace to American shipping, and extremely dangerous in the harbor, my Aide for Information immediately removed thirty of the crew, and confined them in the immigration station where a naval guard was placed over them. The ship presented many reasons for seizure aside from the "economic war" waged by the radicals. We tried to bring out the facts in the inquiry and the report which we made on this vessel. All governmental department heads took an active part in the handling of the ship. It was good teamwork.

While we were still wrestling with the problem of the Toula the Russian ship Omsk was seized in Baltimore, but instead of taking the precaution to confine the crew, as we did, our information was that the men on the Omsk were paroled ashore, and soon gathered a group of armed American labor radicals who attempted to retake the vessel by force.

In the case of the Toula the charges against the crew were well sustained, and fitted every provision of the President's war proclamation. Under the authority of that proclamation the ship was taken over and assigned to the United States Shipping Board. Her officers and crew were deported to Russia. That ended our troubles in this respect, except that the local element of radicals kept up a continuous propaganda against our actions.

The Toula situation was reported to me on the afternoon  p380 of December 24, 1917, and I directed her seizure immediately as a pirate ship. I felt it my duty to assume this responsibility. In this connection it is interesting to state that the Selection Board was in session, and considering my name at that time, and I knew what it meant to me to make a mistake. I acted as my judgment dictated, and the following morning read in the newspapers that I had been selected as the last Rear Admiral to be promoted. As I was number thirty-seven in the list I felt highly complimented.

Nearly a year later, on reaching Washington, I made inquiry both at the State and the Navy Departments as to why my messages regarding the Toula had never been answered. I was surprised to be told that, as I had made the seizure, and everything was satisfactory, the Administration thought it best to leave me alone to take what action I deemed proper in the circumstances.

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