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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 29

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 31
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p399  Chapter XXX

Chief of Naval Operations

The Prince of Wales — Inspections — Harding Administration Takes Office — Denby Becomes Secretary of the Navy — Budget Committee Work.

I took the oath of office November 1, 1919. I had not then passed my examination to be a permanent Rear Admiral, but did so on November 4, and my commission was dated as of September 25, 1919.

I chose as Assistant Chief of the Bureau, Captain Benjamin F. Hutchison; as Assistant for Material, Captain William C. Cole; and as my personal aide, Lieutenant Commander Harry W. Hill. Hutchison had commanded my flagship, the Iowa, on the trip to Europe, in 1911, and I had been associated with him in the fleet, off and on, for many years. "Hutch," as was familiarly called, was born in Boonville, Missouri, only seventy miles from my birthplace. Cole had been with me, now and then, since 1908, and had commanded the Nevada, in my division. I had known Hill since he was a midshipman at the Naval Academy.

The bureau chiefs were strong men. Thomas Washington was Chief of the Bureau of Navigation; Ralph Earle,​a Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance; Samuel McGowan, Paymaster General; David W. Taylor, Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair; R. S. Griffin, Chief of the Bureau of Engineering; Charles W. Parks, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks; W. C. Braisted, Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery; George R. Clark,​b  p400 Judge Advocate General; and George Barnett, Commandant of the Marine Corps.

With these powerful personalities in office, the staff corps were strongly intrenched. Owing to the rush of work after the war, Operations had not cleaned up its work. McKean, therefore, turned over much unfinished business, some of which was not finally acted upon until 1923. Having been away from Washington duty most of the time since 1896, my congressional acquaintance was limited.

I am a firm believer in the authority of the Chief of Naval Operations over all the bureaus. In no other manner can the Department function properly in time of war. I always considered that Mr. Daniels' tendency was to lean toward the staff, rather than toward the line. Mr. Denby, however, inclined the other way. This was probably due to the fact that he had served as a gunner's mate, as a private in the marines, and later as a marine officer in the World War. I found that Mr. Daniels took up matters of importance personally with Congress, calling upon the bureau chiefs when their advice was needed. He was eminently successful, as he had the full confidence of the committees of Congress.

I found the weekly councils of the Chief of Operations, and also the conferences of the Secretary of the Navy, were real clearing houses. When the bureau chiefs sat around a table and threshed out questions, face to face, they got much better action than by running to the Secretary, individually, with matters in their respective divisions. There is scarce a financial question arising in any bureau that is not, to some extent, dependent upon one or more other bureaus.

The council meetings of the Secretary of the Navy, each week, were, of course, attended by the Assistant Secretary, F. D. Roosevelt.

At this time demobilization was still in progress  p401 in a small way, and it was extremely difficult to man the ships of the fleet. It required a long time after the war to get the public to settle down to routine work. Therefore, it was not easy to get the Atlantic Fleet, under Admiral Wilson, equipped with anywhere near its quota of men.

My family had an apartment at the Wardman Park Hotel. We moved there in January, 1919, and did not leave until May, 1924. The White House was quiet socially, but otherwise there was the usual round of social life. I had to give my share of parties and they were expensive. I paid $300 a night for the use of the ballroom of the Wardman Park Hotel; but a naval officer must maintain his position in the game.

As might be expected, we were besieged to aid various associations and charities. Soon we found we would become bankrupt if we continued to subscribe to every appeal.

One of my pleasures while in Washington was a box at the baseball park which I had through the courtesy of Mr. Clark Griffith and Secretary Eynon. I had played baseball for forty-five years — since 1874 — and nearly every year played several games in or near Washington. Twice I assisted at the opening of the season's games, at Washington Park, and once hoisted the flag with "Babe" Ruth.

In the winter of 1919 the Prince of Wales made his good will visit to the United States, and came to Washington. He made his headquarters, of course, at the British Embassy. He had served his tour of duty in the British Navy. One of the early receptions at the Embassy was attended by my wife and myself. As I entered the reception room, the Prince recognized me and, stepping out of his position in line, he said,

 p402  "Admiral, look at my right hand; they are crushing it with handshaking. What can I do?

"Prince," I replied, "place your right hand behind your back and shake with your left."

He did so. His right hand was badly swollen. Because of his fatigue, the guests left the embassy at midnight, but the Prince braced up, I was told, and danced until four o'clock in the morning.

Admiral Washington and I decided that we would reduce the personnel of shore stations, and particularly the reservists. In January, 1920, we made trips to Boston and to New York, for this purpose, with satisfactory results.

In April, accompanied by my Aide, Lieutenant Commander Hill, I inspected the Air Station at Pensacola, Florida, and the Naval Station at Key West, and proceeded from there by destroyer to Guantanamo, where the Atlantic Fleet was operating. There I lived on Admiral Wilson's flagship, the Pennsylvania. The visit was instructive and helpful. I also went to Santiago de Cuba, for the first time. The untimely death of Rear Admiral Brittain seriously affected the fleet's cruise.

I spent much of my time in 1920 in making inspections and in attempts to reduce expenditures.

In August Hill and I went South. We left Washington one morning, and our first stop was at Charleston, West Virginia. As we got aboard the train I handed a large, heavy navy suitcase to the Pullman porter, who placed it at the end of the car, near our berth. A few minutes later Hill looked for it and could not find it. Months later, when the thieves were found, remains of the clothing the suitcase had contained were sent to us. My fine blouse had been changed into a bandman's coat. We were left with scant wearing apparel, and I was without an extra pair of trousers. The next day at Charleston I wore a pair of trousers belonging to  p403 one of the captains who accompanied me. They were a poor fit.

We visited the naval station in New Orleans in August, and slept under double mosquito nets. Captain Cooper showed us the city. I did not go down to the mouth of the Mississippi at that time, as I had hoped to do, but managed to get there a few years later.

At St. Louis we rounded up all the naval officers, and found affairs in good shape. At Hannibal I attended the American Legion State Convention, and the greetings I received from my home people greatly impressed me.

The purpose of this trip was to obtain preliminary information as to what station complements could be reduced, which stations could be closed down, and possibly sold, and what other property could be transferred, or disposed of. Acting upon that information, the Secretary ordered the Rodman Board.

We visited Sackett's Harbor, New York. This harbor opens on Lake Ontario. Long ago the place was famous in naval history. The sunken wreck of the New Orleans lay in sight at the edge of the reservation. When our party arrived there we found one house occupied. A woman came to the door in response to our knocking and I asked her who was in command.

"I am," she replied.

I told her I was the Chief of Naval Operations.

"Well, tell me about it," she said.

After satisfying herself as to my identity, she invited me to enter and sit down.

The story, as I recall it, and as she narrated it to me was that early in the 'seventies William Ronckendorff, who was either a commodore or a captain, was ordered to command the station. With him were his wife and daughter. Both his wife and his  p404 daughter died, and when he passed away a Mr. Metcalf took charge, remaining there until his death, when his wife assumed command. She managed the station and was given fifty dollars a month as compensation, in addition to the use of a house and garden. The naval reserves used the station for drills. The account she gave me was long and interesting, and like a page of ancient history.

When I returned to Washington I made report of the peculiar situation, and obtained an order from the Secretary that the woman should retain command until her death or the station should be abolished. She died in command in 1928.

In the summer of 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated for Vice-President on the democratic ticket, and soon thereafter resigned his office as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Honorable Gordon Woodbury was appointed to succeed him. The election went overwhelmingly Republican.

Shortly after the election a joint Congressional Committee made an inspection of the west coast bases. The committee comprised Senator L. H. Ball, of Delaware; Senator H. W. Keyes, of New Hampshire; Representative F. A. Britten, of Illinois; Representative L. P. Padgett, of Tennessee; Representative George P. Darrow, of Pennsylvania; Representative D. A. Riordan, of New York; and Representative A. E. B. Stephens, of Ohio. Accompanying them and representing the Navy were Rear Admiral W. L. Capps, Rear Admiral C. W. Parks, Lieutenant Commander Harry W. Will and I. Senator T. J. Walsh, of Montana, joined us at Seattle.

At Seattle we inspected the proposed site of the naval air station at Sand Point. It has taken eight years to develop this undertaking. I credit Mr. Claude Ramsay, of Seattle, with a large share of the responsibility for its success.

The Puget Sound Navy Yard was thoroughly inspected,  p405 and we met all of the leading citizens of Bremerton. At Keyport the committee saw the site of the proposed rifle range. Its location was ideal and the price satisfactory, but after eight years the measure providing for its establishment has not been enacted.

Port Angeles gave our party a royal welcome. Lake Crescent was close by, and most of the members preferred to fish rather than to inspect Ediz Rock.

Mr. Britten told some of his celebrated stories, and Mr. Stephens narrated his classic about the man of many troubles, who had a jug of whiskey. Each successive drink he took made "things get better," and finally the sun shone and the flowers bloomed, his troubles vanished and all the air became filled with the music of birds flitting from bough to bough.

Padgett, Riordan and Stephens are dead. They were strong men, and advocates of an adequate Navy.

We had a most agreeable time at the Seattle banquet. Lieutenant Commander Hill was placed at a table directly in front of the speakers. His neighbor was the young and good-looking wife of a prominent banker. The Lieutenantº was enjoying himself immensely when a waiter slipped him a note. He read it, and grew pale. His companion observed his appearance and asked, "Why, what's the matter, Mr. Hill?"

"Oh, nothing much," replied the officer.

The note read, "You will be called upon as the next speaker and your subject will be 'The Influence of Women on the Population of the World.' "

Hill stopped eating and became distrait. He was thinking, "What shall I say? How can I handle the subject?"

As the orator who was speaking neared his peroration,  p406 Hill was trembling so that the note fell from his hand upon the table. For the first time he saw that it was the personal card of a newspaper humorist. He breathed a sigh of relief and regained his composure.

Mr. Charles Collins presided at the dinner. Representative Vinson, of Georgia, upon being introduced, requested permission to submit a question of personal privilege. Permission being granted, he said, "Mr. Collins, may I ask what your politics were when you lived in Alabama, and before you came to Seattle?"

"Why, I was a Democrat," replied the toastmaster.

"Well, then, would you mind telling me what your present politics are?" continued the Congressman.

"I am a Republican," admitted Mr. Collins.

"Yes, and what would your politics be in case you were to return to Alabama?" persisted the speaker.

Mr. Collins flushed, and then said, "I guess I would be a Democrat again."

From the laughter which followed, Mr. Vinson evidently scored his point.

Many years spent in Alaska and the Northwest have convinced me that in that section, as soon as an able Democrat joins the Republican party, they give him a good local job, or send him to the Legislature or to Congress. It is easy to substantiate this statement.

One night, on our trip, a member of Congress told me that the difficulties usually experienced by our presidents and secretaries of the navy arose from their lack of knowledge of naval matters. The experience necessary to handle them intelligently he thought they did not gain until their administrations were nearing an end.

We stopped at the submarine base under construction  p407 near Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. Its position is strategic, and it should be maintained in readiness for use in case war ever comes to the Pacific.

We had a beautiful trip over the Shasta route to the Golden Gate. In San Francisco, in Alameda, in Oakland and also at Mare Island, the Alameda base question was discussed. The report of the board spoke for itself. Personally I am strong as ever for the Alameda base. The issue cannot be kept down. The base would aid, instead of impair, Mare Island.

The situation at Los Angeles and its harbor and the army airplane base were also inspected by the committee. My son joined me at Los Angeles and we went to San Diego. He was on duty on the Idaho. Representative William Kettner ably handled the San Diego inspections and here the party disbanded.

A telegram from Rear Admiral Thomas Washington, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, informed me that a certain important matter in which I was interested was not progressing well, and he advised my immediate return to Washington. We left San Diego at midnight, and en route across Arizona we got the returns of the first three quarters of the Army and Navy football game, and during the wait at El Paso, Texas, we learned the final score. It was a Navy victory.

Congress was about to meet, and the naval committee hearings were soon to start. The session was hard on the Democrats, for, after eight years of power, they were deprived of executive and legislative control.

Feeling the necessity for an additional aide in operations, with submarine experience, the Bureau of Navigation ordered Lieutenant Commander Lee P. Warren for that duty and he was also assigned to  p408 the difficult task of bringing the Navy regulation up to date.

The new Administration was inducted into office on March 4, 1921. I met Mr. Denby, the new Secretary of the Navy, the night before, and was much pleased with his personality and with his ideas. For the first time I participated in presidential inaugural ceremonies, and in the inaugural parade.

As Chief of the Bureau of Operations I had the privilege of the Senate floor. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing, as General of the Armies, was similarly honored. Up to this time I had never availed myself of it. I was given a comfortable seat in the Senate chamber at the left of the Vice-President. Shortly before the session opened I was called to the President's room by Secretary Daniels and paid my respects to Mr. Wilson for the last time. By chance, as I turned to leave, Senator Lodge came in to make the customary reports on final business, and I was an involuntary witness to the coolness between the President and the Senator. I doubt if the two men ever met again.

Secretary Denby's first act was to send again to the Senate the names of Major General Lejeune, Surgeon General Stitt and Rear Admiral Moffett. They were all southern men. Lejeune had relieved Barnett the preceding summer. Stitt had relieved Braisted, and Moffett's first appointment had taken effect a few months before. None of them had been confirmed by the Senate, and their appointments had lapsed. Operations had called Moffett to Washington to take charge of the aviation branch of the service. I felt that aviation had grown to be too important for the small amount of consideration which it was receiving in the department, and that a strong and experienced man was needed to develop it to its proper sphere in the Navy.

It is not often that a bureau chief is willing to surrender any function of his office. I knew, however, that a Bureau of Aeronautics should be formed for the good  p409 of the service.​c It was my belief then, and is now, that later this bureau should go back to its component parts in the Navy, just as other bureaus have had to do in the past. That time may or may not be far distant.

Mr. Denby quickly grasped the work of his office. His previous naval and marine training was a great help to him. Colonel Roosevelt was also keen and quick on his job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His selection of Lieutenant Commander Lee P. Warren as his aide proved to be most satisfactory.

Soon after the new Administration came in there arose the case of a midshipman who had imbibed too much liquor while on leave. The boy was sentenced to dismissal. My advice in the matter was asked by the Secretary and Colonel Roosevelt. After examining the papers, I stated that while I had never been drunk myself, I did not believe in ruining the career of a youngster for a single transgression. The Secretary and the Colonel solemnly arose and shook me by the hand.

Secretary Denby visited the Atlantic Fleet at Guantanamo in April, going by way of Key West. He took with him his aide, Captain John K. Robison. Out of that trip arose incidents that later made history. Robison was chosen by the Secretary to relieve R. S. Griffin as Chief of the Bureau of Engineering. Mr. Denby met Captain Latimer at Key West, and was so pleased with him that he subsequently selected him for Judge Advocate General. Latimer was not an applicant for the position, and at the time he was chosen was under orders to go to sea. The Secretary also decided on Captain David Potter, of the Supply Corps, for Paymaster General. Potter was the fleet pay officer under Admiral Wilson.

Secretary Denby was honest in the matter of his appointments, even going so far as to average up a man's marks throughout his career. Beuret, I recall, had a 3.84, and was chosen as Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair while on duty at Mare Island, though not even  p410 a candidate for the place. In the case of Gregory the same procedure was followed.

In the summer of 1921 there was keen interest in the sinking of the Ostfriesland and other vessels off the Virginia Capes by airplanes.​d Wide differences of opinion resulted from these experiences, some maintaining that aircraft would rule the world, and others that planes were entitled only to their relative place in the Navy.

While witnessing the airplane operations I received a radio to proceed to Washington immediately, as I had been named by the Secretary as budget officer of the Navy. I returned at once by destroyer. There was a great deal of activity in connection with the work of the budget committee. For the first time we learned of co‑ordinators, and then co‑ordinators of co‑ordinators.

It reminded me of Representative Britten's story of the colored man in Chicago who had joined a new lodge. Mr. Britten met him on the street with the greeting, "Hello, Mose, what do all that uniform and regalia mean?"

"Well, Mr. Britten," replied the darky, "I now belongs to the colored 'Goob' Society, and I'm Supreme High Grand Cockalorum."

"That's fine," said the Congressman, "so you are the head man of the 'Goobs?' "

"No," said Mose, "there is three higher in rank than me."

Thayer's Notes:

a Adm. Ralph Earle is the co‑author of a book onsite, Makers of Naval Tradition.

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b Adm. George R. Clark is the lead co‑author of a very fine book onsite, A Short History of the United States Navy.

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c Turnbull & Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation, p189.

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d Turnbull & Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation, pp193‑204.

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