Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sea Duty

Yates Stirling

published by
G. P. Putnam's Sons
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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p187  Chapter XII

In the Fleet

[image ALT: missingALT.]

After the war was over, our Navy came to a deplorable state because politicians felt they must heed the trend of popular reaction. Ships were laid up with skeleton crews, too few in number to keep the ships decently clean. Training ended. Morale was at the lowest possible ebb. The minds of our people suddenly had turned against the armed forces of our nation, believing they must be openly scorned to show the public contempt for war. It was not logical, but quite in line with what always happens after the danger is over. After such an ordeal as war, no people are sane for a while. We had won the war and celebrated the victory and the home-comings of the warriors. Now, those who had fought the war were to be cast aside as useless things in the race for economy and retrenchment. While we were grossly neglecting the warships we had, at the same time we were building many new ships. With the nation in its present frame of mind it was not difficult to persuade us to scrap our best ship. This a few years later was done to our everlasting sorrow.

Admiral Hilary Jones hoisted his flag in the Connecticut, after we had tied up in the back basin at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He asked me to be his Chief of Staff, but I felt I had done more than my share of staff duty, and I wanted to get the credit of command duty, even if my ship was inoperative for lack of men. I would have liked to serve with him more than almost any officer  p188 I knew. The Admiral established a branch War College at the Navy Yard, where his ships were all tied up. I was glad to help and it did bolster up the waning morale of the officers by taking their minds off their ship troubles. Admiral Jones was one of our most distinguished officers. He had rare common sense and was a most able administrator and leader. We all know how long he fought against the senseless business of disarming the nation on the seas. When the disastrous Washington Treaty provided for the scrapping of our great warships, then building, Jones let it be known that he considered our sacrifice was too great. To the day of his death, only a short time ago, he was ever a stanch advocate for an adequate fleet. Because of his loyalty to his ideals and his inexhaustible moral strength in upholding them, he served on several limitation of armament commissions and never was influenced in the slightest degree by the silver-tongued politicians, or so‑called statesmen, whose sham Utopian ideals have done more injury to our security on the seas than losing a battle with an enemy's fleet.

After serving as Captain of the Yard at Philadelphia, under Admiral C. F. Hughes for about two years, I was given command of the dreadnaught battle­ship New Mexico. I joined it at the Navy Yard, Puget Sound, where the ship was overhauling.

The New Mexico was a 34,000‑ton battle­ship with electric drive propulsion. It was the largest ship I had ever served in, much less commanded. On looking back over the vessels I had commanded, I saw they had the appearance of a stepladder. Of course I had commanded the little Paragua as a lieutenant, way back in 1901, after which a long time elapsed before I was given another command. It was first necessary for me to go through the Navy mill: watch officer and division officer, gunnery officer, navigator, and executive officer. Between being navigator and executive, I was given command of a destroyer, the Paulding, of 750 tons.

After reaching what is called command rank, that of commander, I had commanded the Salem, a cruiser of about 5000 tons, two monitors of 3500 tons, the Columbia, of 8000 tons, then two big transports of 20,000 tons and 25,000 tons. After the war I had the battle­ship Connecticut, of 16,000 tons and now the New Mexico, of 34,000 tons. Eight commands within ten years. It was a good school. If I now failed to handle skillfully my new command, it could not be laid to lack of experience but to my own gaucherie. I am free to confess, even with all  p189 the opportunity afforded me in the past with ships of all types and sizes, I was a little bit nervous when I went on the bridge of the New Mexico for the first time to take her from a pier at the Navy Yard and through the difficult channel leading out of Port Orchard Sound. I hardly believe anyone but myself was wise to that. I have always been able to hide my feelings.

The Commander, Admiral J. A. Hoogewerff,​a had offered the Navy Yard pilot and tug to assist us. I had thanked him but refused the offer. He said to me when I went to say good‑by:

"Stirling, I think I'd feel safer if I were you, handling such a big ship for the first time, especially after an overhaul, if I had an experienced pilot of these waters on the bridge and a powerful tug alongside. You know the currents are very strong when they make and they make quickly." It was most sensible advice to give, and I suppose it was some false pride that prevented me from jumping at his suggestion. I replied:

"Here's the way I feel. You may consider it childish. I have handled many ships of all sizes in all sorts of places without pilots or tugs. It has become a fetish with me not to use them if I can help it. Of course some places they are indispensable, but here navigation seems so open and clear. If I took a pilot now, my people in the ship would say the skipper's getting cautious. No," I added, "although I may agree with everything you have said, the New Mexico will be no different."

When I stood on the bridge then and gazed down at the two great turrets and then aft along four hundred and fifty feet of massive steel, little shivers went up and down my spine while I waited to have the lines taken on board. The ship's bow was heading in. There was little current.

"All clear," was reported. I stood near the helmsman. To me a helmsman is more than just a helmsman, he is a personage, something quite indispensable. A helmsman can make or ruin a maneuver. For that reason, Admiral Clark Woodward, when he commanded the destroyer Roe, upon berthing his ship, always took the helm himself. I remember one day I made him mad by criticizing him for it.

"Slow astern both engines," I ordered. The great mass of steel began slowly to move astern. "Half-speed astern." Then to the helmsman, left rudder, when the bow was abreast the end of the dock. The ship gathered way, her stern swinging slowly up the sound, clearing the ship at anchor, another battle­ship that  p190 would take our berth. From then on I felt myself master of the situation. The first uneasiness had passed. I no longer gave the task a thought. What I did came to me automatically. Why should it not; of what use was all my training if I now was afraid of my ship? We headed for the entrance. The tide had begun to run fairly strong when we reached it. I had the chart in my hand, reading it as if it were a book. The navigator was taking cross bearings and plotting the ship's position on his chart. The men in the chains were heaving the lead. I paid no attention consciously to either, but if anything had been wrong I would instantly, subconsciously, have known it. The pilot in his tug had followed us, and when we had passed through the narrow and sometimes difficult channel leading out into Puget Sound, the tug gave us three whistles and turned back.

I was soon to have my first experience in handling a big ship in close formation with other similar ones, as captain of the ship. Of course, as officer of the deck, navigator, and even as executive officer, I had handled ships in maneuvers and in piloting, but then the responsibility belonged to someone else, the captain. Now the responsibility was all mine. Then one feels differently. While in destroyers, we operated at high speeds at very close distances, but there is a vast difference between ships of 750 tons and those of 34,000 tons. The battle­ship fleet maneuvered at 500 yards distance from foremast to foremast. Between the stern of one ship to the bow of the next astern is 300 yards. Our speed usually is fifteen knots or 500 yards a minute. In thirty‑six seconds of time the bow of one ship would be where the stern of the next ahead had been. Handling big ships or even small ones in formation is an art belonging peculiarly to the naval profession. Merchant ship officers do not need to master that art. During the war, many reserve officers acquired some expertness, but to them it was a new and sometimes fearsome experience. More especially the art becomes difficult in thick and foggy weather. Ships of war must learn to steam in company in all weathers, for in war they dare not separate and be overwhelmed by a superior enemy force.

To an onlooker, the handling of a fleet of warships of all types is something almost uncanny. Here is where training and experience enters the navy problem. On the deck of each ship is an officer who has received long training in just that sort of work. He knows what his own ship can do and what other ships will do. Every ship knows what is expected of it.

 p191  I recall one day the Fleet under Vice Admiral H. A. Wiley, consisting of twelve battle­ships and twenty destroyers, was approaching San Francisco harbor, via the Bonito Channel, when a fog rolled in shutting out every landmark and obscuring one ship from another. Immediately came a radio to reduce speed, then stop. Finally orders to anchor. The last battle­ship in column anchored first, firing a gun and blowing its whistle, followed by ship after ship up to the leader. When the fog lifted, the fleet was anchored in perfect formation, destroyers and all.

The New Mexico had a temperamental steering engine that did give me great concern and almost constant uneasiness. Paraphrasing the words of Admiral Lord Nelson: at that time if my heart had been opened, steering engine would have been found written thereon. The reliability of the steering gear could not be remedied except by a complete change. The engine was of faulty design and of insufficient strength and reliability to operate it as constantly as has to be done in maneuvers. It had the habit of letting go at the most inopportune times. Once it let go while going into San Francisco harbor. The rudder jammed full right, and we helplessly steered out of column and headed for some ugly rocks not far distant. Backing full speed prevented stranding. The thought of a steering gear breakdown was ever in my mind and in a measure did spoil my confidence a little.

The most serious occurrence was in the West Indies. We were leading the battle­ships back to port after maneuvers; and just before reaching our anchorage in Viaques Sound, speed eighteen knots, we had a bad "let go." I had gone down to the Admiral's bridge, just below the navigating bridge, and was talking to Admiral Wiley. Suddenly I saw the bow of the New Mexico sheer away to port. I made one jump and was beside the officer of the deck. Our whistle was blowing short, nervous toots, telling ships astern that it was a breakdown and not to follow us. The officer of the deck said: "Rudder's jammed left."

I glanced at the rudder indicator; it showed on the contrary that the rudder was jammed right and hard against the stop. The New Mexico swung out to the left and then, with the change of rudder, which now had taken complete charge, was swinging back to the right. Meanwhile the other ships were coming on at high speed. Our ship would soon be plunging across their path or down the long column. There was nothing to do but back the engines emergency speed at once, which I did. We ended up  p192 dead in the water with our bow pointing at the Maryland as she swept past not twenty yards away. It was a close shave. The next time we went to the navy yard an improved steering engine was installed, much to my relief and happiness.

Much of our time was spent in gunnery training work and target practice. Since the earlier days when Sims raised the shooting ability of our guns many hundred percent, a most complicated system of target practice had been devised in the Target Practice Office at the Department for all ships of the fleet. Starting in with what was called record practice for qualifying gun pointers, it ranged through night practice with guns, torpedo practice, aircraft practice, single ship practice, division battle practice, then fleet battle practice. In most of these practices, scores are competitive and the ship obtaining the highest aggregate score wins gunnery efficiency pennant for the year.

The New Mexico had the reputation of being a good shooting ship. She had won the gunnery trophy in the past but never the coveted efficiency pennant. The first year of my command all indications pointed to our winning it.

All but one of the practices that counted on the score were finished, and the New Mexico's score was so high it seemed impossible that on the one remaining practice to fire the ship could lose the pennant. The uncompleted practice was single ship battle practice fired in division formation. The day was misty. The great target was towed by a battle­ship, and even that great ship at the prescribed range could barely be seen. While on the firing course and about five minutes from the firing bearing of the target, I reported to the flag bridge that our range finders had been unable to obtain ranges. Admiral W. R. Shoemaker was the flag officer, and Captain Claude Bloch was his chief of staff.

The range we had decided to use was, as I remember it, 15,000 or more yards. Word then came back from the Admiral asking if we wanted to go to a shorter range. I replied, "No, but I want to get a range-finder range before opening fire," or words to that effect. It would have been to our disadvantage to shoot at a shorter range because greater weight was given by the rules for hits at the longer ranges.

I was then told by the voice from the flag bridge, which was that of Bloch, that the signal for commence firing had been hoisted. The gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander E. J. Foy, looked at me. We were in the conning tower together. He knew  p193 the business of gunnery thoroughly. "We have no ranges, and there has been no tracking," he said sadly. I could not believe that, after I had told the Chief of Staff through the speaking tube that our range finders had been unable to see the target distinctly enough to obtain a dependable range, they would deliberately ruin our chances for a score. I learned afterward that the Admiral's bridge had hauled down the signal after a member of the Admiral's staff in the top had reported that he could see both the battle­ship and the target perfectly. A casual observer in the top was considered more reliable than the entire range-finder organization of the ship.

The signal was hauled down. Foy, after consulting me, had sent out a range of 15,000 yards, a mere guess. We were back in the ancient days from which Sims had disturbed us. I was dumbfounded. We had decided to fire ranging salvos, and at this last minute we could not change the plan to single fire for fear of confusion. Our first salvo of twelve fourteen-inch shells fell to the right of the target and far beyond. We wasted several more salvos finding the range. Our score was poor, and instead of winning we came out only third in the battle­ships of the Fleet. I have always held a grudge against those who forced us to waste our ammunition and the Government's money, but never before have I spoken of the incident publicly. Of course, in my official report to the Target Practice Office, sent in after the practice, I gave a full account of what had happened.

I feel sure that the reason for this serious blow at the morale of the New Mexico was not intentional but was caused by that same impatience of delay I have observed so frequently in the high-ranking officers. Target practices for that reason, at least in my experience, have always been hectic.

I do not imagine that our rough treatment was because the Admiral had an engagement to keep ashore, although I have heard that said, as was the case when the captain had the unexpended allowance of ammunition thrown overboard, but nevertheless I feel quite justified in submitting, for the benefit of our future admirals, that to hurry along an important target practice or fire it under conditions that are unfair to the ship shooting in competition, is just as heinous an offense against the morale of that ship as to throw the ammunition over the side. In the case of the New Mexico, the ship was tuned up to make a fine score and had every chance of winning the pennant, but, because of selfishness — it  p194 could be nothing else — we literally heaved over the side many valuable shells and powder without other result than chagrin, disappointment, and a feeling of utter helplessness by those who had given their hard work and their thoughts to bring the ship up to a gunnery efficiency capable, if it had been given a fair break, to make a phenomenal score. You would have thought that the flagship would have been given better consideration.

My two years in the New Mexico could not have been happier. During that time my ship was the flagship of Admirals Shoemaker and Wiley. Two of the best in the Fleet. Both of our winter maneuvers were in the vicinity of the West Indies and the Panama Canal. I passed through the canal twice with the ship. Handling a great ship in formation in maneuvers to me is much more exciting and stimulating than anything else in the world. Command of a ship is a personal thing. One has the delightful feeling of proprietor­ship. You and the ship are one and inseparable. As a flag officer one has many ships under his command, but that feeling of personal interest that clings to a captain is gone. An admiral is of course responsible for his division, squadron, or fleet, but each separate unit has its own commanding officer.

When my term of two years in command of the New Mexico was up, the ship was ordered from San Pedro, California, the seaport of Los Angeles, to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, where the new captain, F. H. Brumby would relieve me. We sailed alone from the fleet anchorage in a dense fog. However, it was clear enough inside to permit us to range close to the ships at anchor to bid them farewell. Many a time I had brought the New Mexico into that harbor in clear weather and foul. There is a weather condition met there called a Santa Anna, where dust from the desert so obscures vision that it is almost a fog. At the same time the wind blows at fifty miles an hour. I had gone into the inner harbor to an anchorage behind the breakwater in a Santa Anna. I had to moor on a line at right angles to the direction of the fifty-mile wind. When we swung to the wind, my heart was in my mouth until I saw that the anchor had not dragged and our stern cleared the breakwater with plenty of margin. I recall one near casualty while approaching our anchorage there. We had rounded the lighthouse on the end of the breakwater and were heading parallel to it, going about eight knots. We were over a thousand yards to our anchorage when suddenly I heard the anchor let go and the chain run out. I could not imagine what  p195 had caused this mistake, but there was no time to bother about the cause. I backed both engines full speed and told the officer of the forecastle to let the chain run and not under any conditions try to snub it. If any strain had been put on the chain we would either have gone into the battle­ship Maryland or into the sea wall or breakwater. The ship backed perfectly straight, and when we had become dead in the water, we heaved in the chain, hoisted the anchor, and proceeded to our anchorage. What had caused the mistake was that two gunner's mates were dismounting the sub‑caliber guns from the turrets and lowering them on deck with a whip. When the gun reached the deck, the gunner's mate attending it had sung out "let go." The officer of the forecastle mistook it for a command from the bridge and let go the anchor.

The navigator was Lieutenant E. W. Tod. He afterward went into the air corps and commanded the air base when I was in Honolulu as commandant. He had laid down courses on the chart from San Pedro outside of the Santa Barbara Channel and said to me as I examined the chart: "That avoids all the traffic in the channel, and you can get a good night's sleep, instead of being on the bridge all night." Navigators are always solicitous of their captain's comfort.

I had been captain of the New Mexico for two years. Was I now going to play safe by steering over a hundred miles out of our way just to avoid a difficult task of navigation and all night on the bridge?

I shook my head and said: "Tod, you ought know me better than that by this time. You and I will be on the bridge if there is a fog, and it's much more interesting in the channel and much shorter."

We went through Santa Barbara Channel and just missed two collisions with stupidly guided merchant ships, bent upon making fast time for their passengers heedless of danger.

Our electrical officer, Lieutenant W. H. Pashley, hooked up our electric oscillator with the submarine bell tanks and earphones and we had, I believe, the first instrument to give instantaneous soundings in water as shallow as twenty-five fathoms and to any depth. The way it worked was this: A push button in the chartroom caused the oscillator to vibrate. This sound traveled to the bottom and echoed back through the submarine bell tanks or ears in the ship's bow to the telephone headpiece in the charthouse. When the button was pushed a stop watch was started, and when  p196 the echo was received in the telephone, that watch was stopped. The time interval was looked up in a prepared table, giving the depth of water based upon the velocity of sound through water. We used this hookup while passing through the channel, and it gave us an immense feeling of security to know by the soundings on the chart that we were clear of all dangers. Now this principle has been applied in what is called the fathometer, an instrument giving instantaneous and continuous soundings.

On nearing Puget Sound, the Commandant again offered us pilot and tug, but I had the satisfaction again and for the last time of putting the ship alongside the pier at the Navy Yard, never having used a tug or pilot. When I stepped down off the bridge, I was as near tears as I have ever been in my life over something inanimate. Actually I felt as if I were leaving an old and trusted friend. It was as personal a good‑by as I gave later to officers and men, assembled on the quarterdeck in all their full uniforms to witness the ceremony of turning over the command of one of Uncle Sam's finest battle­ships.

The command of a battle­ship might be considered the most important, in fact the key duty performed by a captain, upon which service he will be judged in the selection for flag officer. He will be with the Fleet almost constantly and his ship will constantly cruise in company with other battle­ships. She will compete in gunnery, athletics, and drills of the personnel. Contentment and morale will be judged through continuous observation by the admiral of his division and his numerous and thorough staff. The result of all this will form for him the service opinion which will decide his fitness for promotion when he becomes due for it. His capability in maneuvers with the rest of the Fleet, his handling of many delicate and dangerous situations, and above all his ability to co‑operate will add to his chances for consideration as admiral timber and worthy to be selected for the next higher grade.

My next assignment was as Captain of the Yard at the Washington Navy Yard and Gun Factory. The Superintendent was Admiral R. H. Hutchinson, and I became his assistant. My most interesting duty was presiding over boards of experts to investigate the cause and responsibility for defects developing necessarily in guns, mounts, and accessories in service.

While I had been in command of the New Mexico, a turret casualty in the battle­ship Mississippi had occurred. The ship was  p197 having an advanced, experimental practice, firing her forward 14‑inch guns across the bow, representing one ship chasing another or closing the range rapidly and using only the forward turrets.

A flareback occurred. The entire turret and handling-room crews of one turret were wiped out. Nearly fifty men were killed. I had been the President of the Court of Inquiry. The gas ejection device had been effective enough against a moderate breeze in the muzzle of the guns but in this firing the wind in the muzzle was not moderate. The velocity of the wind and the speed of the ship when added together gave a velocity in the muzzle of nearly fifty miles.

While I was at the Gun Factory, the subject of this casualty was thoroughly investigated. Different wind pressures and air pressures were experimented with and it was discovered that the air injection pressure under the conditions as met by the Mississippi had to be made very much higher for safety. Higher pressures were therefore given by the Gun Factory to all guns of the Navy using air injection.

In the game of preparing for war there will ever be casualties.

While I was at the Washington Navy Yard, I often saw President Coolidge on his departure and arrival on board his yacht, the Mayflower, on week‑end cruises on the Potomac. I was always at the gangway to greet him as a matter of courtesy to our Chief Executive and Commander in Chief. My father and mother were temporarily living with us in the great house, over a hundred years old, assigned to me. Both were over eighty-three years old.

One day when I was in my office, I was called to the phone; the voice was that of Admiral Charles McVay, a lifelong friend. The voice said: "I want to speak with Rear Admiral Yates Stirling." I answered:

"The Admiral is at the house, but he is too deaf to speak on the phone. Can I give him your message?"

McVay's reply was: "I don't want to speak to Admiral Stirling, senior, but Admiral Stirling, junior."

That was my first intimation that the Selection Board of which McVay was a member had finished its work and that I had been selected to be a rear admiral.

Every year the President of the United States appoints a Selection Board to select commanders for captain, and captains for  p198 rear admiral. This board consists of nine rear admirals from the active list of the Navy. These nine officers individually examine all written service records of all officers available for promotion, and thoroughly estimate the relative professional and moral fitness of each. It is a star chamber board and may consider anything, favorable or unfavorable to any officer. Everything on file in the Navy Department upon the officers under consideration is given to the board to review.

After the board has examined and studied each case, the members cast ballots on each individual officer in a manner prescribed. Six votes out of the nine are necessary for the selection of an officer. The approval of the President of the United States is then needed before an officer's commission to the next higher grade is sent to the Senate for confirmation. Before being promoted, an officer must pass a satisfactory mental and physical examination.

Many have asked me whether I was surprised in being selected. Frankly I was, and also vastly relieved. A man may have done many useful things for the Navy, but no man can feel sure that the board will not know something about him that might cause four adverse votes. In anyone's life there may be things that one may not wish to be made too public at a time when one is being considered for promotion, no matter how callous one might be at other times.

I had talked the subject of selection over with my father on several occasions while the selection board was in session. Subconsciously, no doubt, I was preparing him for the shock in case I did not make the grade. Of course there was no doubt in his mind that I would be selected. That year, 1926, there were five captains to be selected for rear admiral. I was about sixteen on the list, and several of those above me had been passed over the year before, but I thought there were good reasons why one or two of those might be picked up by the board this year. Therefore I did not see how the board could get down the list as far as me. I had tried to feel secure because I had seen my entire record at the Navy Department and I knew it was good enough. In my heart I was not sure at all, though it would have been a death blow to my pride if I had been passed over. I am sure it would have killed my father. I have never seen him more delighted than when I told him the good news. There were now three Yates Stirlings living; two were rear admirals and the other a midshipman at  p199 the Naval Academy.​b This situation occurs very seldom in our Navy. My son happened to be home on leave, and the press photographers took a picture of the three, standing outside of our home in the Navy Yard.

The method of promotion by selection always will be a grueling strain on officers. Many believe that selection has made officers timid and fearful to keep the favor of superiors who can throw enough weight on one side or the other to make selection sure or cause an overwhelming disappointment in being discarded. Yet a better method has never been devised. With all its faults, and there are many, the Navy has accepted selection because it brings officers to high ranks young enough to be at their best. Promotion by seniority, waiting for dead men's shoes, is a sad blow to efficiency for it stifles initiative and offers no incentive.

After receiving my commission as rear admiral, I was at once due for sea duty. At the Navy Department I saw my old shipmate Admiral W. R. Shoemaker, then Chief of Bureau of Navigation. He offered me command of a division of light cruisers, four ships. I had received my orders to this duty and was soon to leave the Washington Navy Yard, where there were now two rear admirals on duty.

I heard that Admiral R. H. Leigh was to be the next Chief of Bureau of Navigation, but it had not occurred to me that that would influence my duty. Leigh came to see me at the Navy Yard and told me Admiral Hughes wanted me as his Chief of Staff in his place. That put me in an embarrassing position. Admiral Henry Wiley was expecting to relieve Admiral Hughes as Commander in Chief of the Fleet in about a year and had asked me to be his Chief of Staff. I had accepted, thinking I could command the cruiser division for the year meanwhile. Going with Hughes would cut me off from the cruiser command, which was a distinct disappointment. However, I could not refuse such a flattering personal offer. This was concrete, while Wiley's was only speculative. I accepted the offer of Hughes after being released by Wiley. As for the personalities, I liked both Admirals and knew I could be happy serving with either in so intimate a relation as Chief of Staff; but the loss of the first command of my own as a rear admiral caused me much sorrow. A classmate of mine was given the cruisers and I joined the Seattle, Hughes's flagship.

In the year 1927 the Fleet held its annual maneuvers and fleet problem in the Atlantic. In January the ships were all assembled  p200 in Guantanamo Bay. Of course, the position of Chief of Staff of a great fleet is an important assignment. His usefulness, however, depends in large measure upon the personal characteristics of the Commander in Chief. With some, the Chief of Staff has almost a free hand, while with others his work is much circumscribed. Some admirals hesitate to delegate as much as others. Hughes was of the latter. He was a hard worker and wanted to be informed about everything. He would go into many details which I felt could be taken care of by others, leaving him more time for more vital things. Hughes spent more time on things of material than he did on the subject of maneuvers, strategy, and tactics. I knew the Admiral from past experience and was prepared not to be too sensitive because of his wish to be kept fully informed about everything, whether vital or not. That was through no lack of trust in the other members of the staff or myself. Hughes prided himself on his general knowledge and his memory for details of every naval activity. He had been Chief of Staff to Admiral Badger when the latter was Commander in Chief. Badger was the type that was glad to leave details to others, and Hughes had handled all details of Badger's fleet. This was not good training for Hughes for when he himself became Commander in Chief, he was tempted to carry on just as he had as Chief of Staff. He found it hard to drop details; they interested him. Hughes and Grant were much alike in that. Both believed they could carry the entire load on their own shoulders. In serving as Chief of Staff to both men, I had early to realize that I could be of help and relieve them of many burdens only by constant and intimate contact with them. I could not play a lone hand and do things without their knowledge.

Admiral Hughes was almost constantly at his desk. He read every official paper that in any way concerned his fleet. He knew the material condition of every ship. No one could serve with Hughes in close association without appreciating his selflessness and his one thought to increase the Navy's efficiency. His efforts did conduce to material readiness; but after that had been accomplished, there was little time for him to give his personal attention to the planning of strategical and tactical maneuvers and the indoctrination of his admirals and commanding officers into how he would fight an enemy fleet.

Many men in high positions have likewise endeavored to carry on their shoulders the burden of details of their activity; but in  p201 the long run it has been the man who could delegate the details to others, reserving for himself policies and decisions bearing upon them who has succeeded most brilliantly. I feel confident that if Admiral Hughes had been a leader in wartime, that then he would have seen the necessity of dropping details and have concentrated his remarkable energy and mental power upon how to defeat his enemy. He had all the earmarks of a great leader: foresight and eternal wakefulness. In war he would have kept before his mental vision at all times, what his enemy was doing, the operation of his own forces, the needs of upkeep and supply of his many ships, and finally the necessity of synchronizing and combining all these activities into detailed and co‑ordinate plans for action. But there was no enemy; so Hughes spent his great energy and vitality in the upkeep of a fleet, all of whose ships were efficient and well maintained and whose personnel were happy, contented, and proud to be of that fleet.

Hughes had a mental setup wide as the Navy itself, and the great importance of his position as Commander in Chief of the Fleet widened the field, yet he refused to make room for these added horizons by dropping less vital things. In the end these many burdens broke him down physically at the very height of his career.

Hughes was extremely modest and could not think of himself as a most capable leader. The Secretary of the Navy, a personal friend and a classmate at the Naval Academy, had offered him the position of Chief of Naval Operations. This is the highest position in the Navy that a naval man can reach. Hughes was on the point of refusing it. He had told me that he did not believe the Navy thought he was the man for the position. The Navy's opinion carried great weight with him.

I cannot say that there is any well-defined method of selecting an officer for this key assignment. In some cases service opinion may have crystallized upon an officer of ability for some years before he becomes eligible. As a general rule, such an officer to win the award must also have a flare for politics. He cannot hope to win unless pushed forward by faithful followers. He must understand how to acquire a following and, during the years of his apprentice­ship, obtain with their help commands both ashore and afloat where each will serve as stepping stones to the top position. The most usual traveled road is through certain key positions in the Navy Department and in the Fleet. Age also is  p202 considered. An officer should have at least three and preferably four years to serve as Chief of Naval Operations before he is due for retirement.

The President of the United States makes the appointment, and his power cannot be curtailed, but if the method of selection had the force of precedent as, for instance, if made by a star chamber board of admirals, even a President would be unlikely to insist upon his personal preference against a well-defined service wish for a particularly able officer. As it is, the personal wishes of the Secretary of the Navy and the President have the greatest weight.

There was a meeting on board Hughes's flagship of the Chief of Bureau of Navigation, Admiral Leigh, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Admiral Hughes, the purpose being to obtain Hughes' decision. I had done my level best to convince the Admiral that he should accept, and that he was the logical man, due to his wide experience and because he had been both Chief of Staff and Commander in Chief of the Fleet, giving him a full understanding of the Fleet's needs. When the door closed on this star chamber meeting, I felt in my bones that he would refuse.

In proof that the Navy did not approve of him, Hughes, in his talk with me, had brought up the name of Admiral N. E. Irwin, who then commanded the destroyers of the Fleet. Hughes had criticized Irwin in the administration of his force in some minor particular. The two men were old and tried friends. The result had been a heated argument in which hard words had been said on both sides. Hughes was certain that Irwin was against him and held his opinion in esteem.

While the conference was in session, "Bull" Irwin, in his usual impetuous way burst into my room and exclaimed: "Where's the Boss?"

I said quietly: "Did you come over to apologize for your rudeness to him yesterday?"

"Hell, no," he replied; "but between you and me in confidence, I find the old walrus was right, but I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing it. Where is he?"

"In there," I told him. "They are trying to badger him into becoming Chief of Naval Operations and he doesn't want it."

"He's got to take it," he sang out earnestly. "There's not a better man in the Navy for that job. He's the one man I know who can keep those stuffed-shirted Bureau Chiefs in line."

 p203  I pounced on him at once: "Irwin, if you really mean that, sit right down there at my desk and write him a note, telling him so."

"What I would say would not influence him," he said. "He's off me, after yesterday."

I led him firmly to the desk and shoved a pen into his hand. "Write," I commanded, "and say just what you have told me."

He wrote quickly, read it aloud, and sealed it. I sent the note to the Admiral by his orderly with the message it was important and must be read by the admiral at once.

Then we waited. The time passed and we both held our breath. "Bull" was silent except for an impatient exclamation: "Why're they taking so long to make an obvious decision? Of course Hughes will be the next C. N. O."

Finally the door opened. Leigh came over and whispered to me: "He has accepted. What was in that note?"

The Admiral handed the note for Leigh to read.

"I have told you many times that you should accept and that the Navy wants you. Why is Irwin's opinion so prized?" Leigh exclaimed.

"So have I," I said. "But the Admiral feels we're in the family and 'Bull' represents the public." I felt like a kingmaker.

After extensive maneuvers in the Caribbean, the Fleet assembled in Gonaives Bay, Haiti. That Republic was being kept tranquil by our marines, with a High Commissioner, Major General J. H. Russell, of that corps, giving advice to the President of the dark republic. Russell was a classmate of mine at the Naval Academy and a mediocre student like myself. Yet here he was a High Commissioner. When I met his charming wife, I began to understand. No man could remain mediocre with so gracious a helpmate.

The Fleet staged a grand review for the Negro President. He steamed around the anchored Fleet on board one of the light cruisers. As the cruiser passed, each ship fired a salute of twenty‑one guns with the Haitian flag at the main truck. After the review, the President and his wife, with General and Mrs. Russell, lunched with the Admiral and his staff on board the flagship.

The Fleet went to New York for liberty and all hands were as usual royally entertained. Jimmy Walker was the Mayor, and Hughes and he took a great fancy to each other. A great banquet was given the Admiral by the city at the Waldorf, and Jimmy  p204 of course was an hour or so late to arrive; but when he did come and arose to speak, his personality charmed everybody, and no one gave a thought to his tardiness. He kept all hands in a gale of laughter for nearly an hour.

After New York, the Fleet sailed for Hampton Roads and passed in review before the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge wore a yachting cap instead of the traditional, formal silk hat and was photographed by the press sitting on a divan on deck reviewing his fleet, a rather woebegone expression on his face, that many took for a sign of seasickness. The review was held just inside the Capes of the Chesapeake and a severe storm only a day or so before had so ruffled the waters of the ocean that even where the yacht Mayflower, the reviewing ship, was anchored, the swell was perceptible.

After the Fleet flagship passed the Mayflower, Hughes and I went aboard to assist the President in the review. We were rigged out in all our full dress uniform, and our formal attire was in contrast to the President's simple business suit and yachting cap. But the President can do no wrong, and besides he had the President's permission.

My father was fond of telling a story of a captain of a warship of years ago who made it a habit of taking a daily walk on the quarterdeck of his ship dressed in a black seersucker coat, white trousers, and a much-battered straw hat. The officer of the deck in those days, usually a lieutenant over forty years old, nearly as old as the captain, was dressed in a heavy frock coat, buttoned to the neck, and a high starched collar, and cap. The coat was most uncomfortable to wear for long because of its tightness and heavy texture. It was not a pleasant hot weather garb. The captain in his stroll observed that the officer of the deck had two buttons undone on his coat to give him more room, and called him over to him.

"Button your coat, Sir," the captain said gruffly.

The officer of the deck showed mild resentment, and as he obeyed, he glanced at the captain and said:

"Captain, don't you think it a little unfair to criticize me for a few buttons when you are wearing that outfit?"

The captain smiled wickedly and replied:

"Oh, but I have the Captain's permission."

After the review, the Fleet again went to Guantanamo. There inspections were held and athletic contests staged between the  p205 different detachments of the Fleet. When those were over, the Fleet broke up into its units which sailed for their permanent operating grounds. The Battle Fleet to the Pacific and the Scouting Fleet to its operating area in the Atlantic, while the Commander in Chief of the Fleet ascended Mount Olympus until he would be needed again when the Fleet assembled. At the time I labored this point in an article for our service periodical which was not published. My theme was that the Commander in Chief of the Fleet should be with his entire fleet every day of the year instead of less than a month a year when it was concentrated. That is the doctrine today. The Admiral now has every opportunity to know his fleet. The cause of the former senseless method was to placate personal jealousies between the flag officers.

After the disbanding of the concentrated Fleet at Guantanamo, the Commander in Chief then made a cruise in his flagship, stopping at many ports in the West Indies and South America, including La Guaira, the port for Caracas. It was there that, as a very young ensign, I had overstayed my leave, thirty‑two years before. But in spite of that it was as vivid to me as if it had just happened.

We went up to Caracas by train and were royally entertained by President Gomez and his son, a general in the army. The Admiral and all of us on the staff were quartered in a beautifully appointed house with sixteen servants to wait on us. Afterward we were honored by the President with the Order of Bolivar, a much-coveted decoration. The Admiral received the Grand Cross, and I was given the next highest award.

In September we transferred to the battle­ship Texas, the new flagship, and sailed through the Panama Canal for the Pacific.

Thayer's Notes:

a John Adrian Hoogewerff, b. Nov. 27, 1860, d. Feb. 13, 1933. Elsewhere on site (Admiral R. E. Coontz, From the Mississippi to the Sea, p158), we find him as a young ensign at the Naval Observatory. A biographical sketch with a photograph of him, and of his gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, can be found at Michael Patterson's site.

[decorative delimiter]

b Yates Stirling, III, b. Sep. 25, 1904, d. Sep. 14, 1997, eventually retired with the rank of Captain.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 28 Aug 16