Material Donations for the Navy

By Rod Speer
Alexandria, VA

Funny how one’s jobs can develop. In the Civil Service, I had come up in personnel work, then switched over to Foreign Military Sales—got to Paris once and Dayton, Ohio three times, that’s it—and was returning to my research and writing background (Ph.D. in English from Penn) by contributing book reviews (a couple dozen) and interviews (two) to military history magazines.  Employed by an essentially engineering organization, Naval Sea Systems, which builds and maintains ships over their life cycle, I let people know I was publishing in milhist.  Here lies one maxim for career development, which my retired Yale buddies can pass to their children: always let people know what you are interested in.  In my case, the engineering organization was being asked to manage artifacts — e.g. guns and anchors and such— and they put the word out, “Who do we have who, like, is into naval history?” And so I was identified.

There began a period of government employment where I had more fun than you’re supposed to have.  First, I was made manager of artifacts for the new headquarters developed at the Washington Navy Yard (we were moving from contractor buildings across the river in Virginia) — only a part-time job.  In that role, I placed 20-ton anchors at the entrance to the new HQ, two Spanish-American war ship guns, two huge cruiser propellers, four old-fashioned anchors, nine 16-inch battleship projectiles, and a reconditioned submarine conning tower (starred in the Pink Submarine, but nowhere did we say that) as ornaments to the new Navy Yard HQ.  This was full of challenges, as mountings were debated and placement contested — e.g. the projectiles were going to be painted blue, the Navy training color, when I instead made them the authentic high explosive coloring — which led to a panic by visiting gunnery specialists, until I got demo experts to declare them inert.  The submarine command wanted the tower in front of their building, until I lobbied through a vice admiral to get it to the planned location in front of my command’s building.  Nothing was simple.  The propellers had been measured wrong for their mountings, and we had to develop a work-around, this with cranes trying to place them, and they had to be trucked away to a laydown area. You get the idea.

But here is the oddity of this work: I was involved in the world of LOOs: Large Outdoor Objects.  Crane work and trucking became my expertise — had anyone ever predicted this earlier in my career (a philosophy major at Yale, a PhD. in English from Penn), I would have declared them loony.   And while I enjoyed this part-time job, my dream came true when a full-time job was created as Material Donation Manager.  I would control all donations from the ship Navy to non-profit groups, such as veterans groups, municipalities, and museums, in accordance with statutory requirements for giving away Government property.   I was to do this full-time for five years, and as part-time (after they abolished the job) for four more.   Incidentally, for those last four years I handled the retirement of service craft through reefing or auction sale and made millions for the Navy.

But the Material Donations job was the apple of my eye, because it kept me in constant contact with the Curator division of the Navy and the Director of the Navy Museum.  And in contact with veterans and towns all over the country (I myself have served in the Navy and the Army, so had the cred to deal with them).   I kept an atlas of the U.S. at my desk to figure out the location from which I was being called.  For example, Ottumwa, Iowa came in with an effort to get a retired tugboat which had been named for it. Don’t know where Ottumwa is?  Look it up!  Anyway, a lot of effort went into this with one big issue: how to get the boat up a shallow river with low bridges to the town.  It wasn’t going to happen, even with the usual lack of funding on the potential donee’s part to make it happen.

Many things didn’t work out, but some did:  a huge anchor went to Boulder, Colorado, to commemorate a great CNO, Arleigh Burke.  My name is on a brass plaque there, though maybe that is not proper for a faceless bureaucrat!  But faceless I was not in this world, especially to the volunteers supporting historic ship museums.  I was their patron saint, and to this day am referred to as Admiral Speer.  Why?   Because I was the go-to guy for things they wanted, and I could sometimes go find these things — it took some doing to explore the warehouses scattered throughout the Navy world, but for some golden years I was authorized to do this.  For example, I came up with dummy tear-drop depth charges, needed by a Destroyer Escort in Albany, found in stockpiles in middle-Nevada, a place I actually visited — come in, turn left at the traffic light, and we are at the end.  “Which traffic light?  Well, there’s only one.”  While at that location, I observed — and kicked the unyielding mass — of one of the two groupings of 16-inch (battleship) gun barrels remaining in the U.S. inventory.  (The others are in Norfolk, and I’ve kicked them, too, gives you an idea of what I did.)   As well, out there in the Nevada desert, were huge repositories of torpedoes.  This world is not a simple thing.

Probably my favorite story concerns the Navy’s “Open Houses” with mothballed ships  Let me go through this to explain: “mothball ships” means those that have been retired from active service and are held in anchorage facilities awaiting final disposition — if they can’t be museum ships, they will be scrapped, reefed, or sunk in fleet firing exercises.  The office I worked in had such facilities in Philadelphia, Bremerton (WA), and Pearl Harbor, all of which I had to visit, with understandably many visits to Philadelphia — my hometown and relatively near to Washington.  Since there are many, almost 50, historic ships on exhibit around the U.S. including in Hawaii, they are on the constant lookout for equipment to complete their presentation.  So the Navy would allow them on specified occasions, to go on certain mothballed ships and take what they needed.  The issue arose:  what if the different ship groups got into arguments over who gets what?  Well, I sat fat and happy through a staff meeting at Washington HQ, where the Captain demanded to know how we were going to do to handle such a situation.  At issue was a 1946 cruiser with all kinds of equipment suitable for WWII era museum ships.  He was unsatisfied to hear that contractor personnel in Philadelphia would handle any disputes.  He wanted more direct, authoritative control over all this.  At the end of the day, I was informed that I was the answer!  So on several occasions, I presided over such Open Houses.  My message was, briefly,  Love one another or I will show you the gate.   And I had the authority to say this:  I could eject any group.  They knew it, too.  There were never any problems: the competing groups sang like angels together for me.

This was one of those bureaucratic jobs which involved so much more than meets the eye.  Take, for example, the group that wanted to get something trucked, whom I had referred to a shipping office.  The office had no clue what they were talking about.  So I called, and they got it right away.  It was all a matter of being inside the system, knowing how it worked and how to talk to people.  For their part, sometimes people on the other end of the phone had an unclear idea of what I was:  a civilian employee of the Navy.  One city official said of my request that we retrieve some artifacts from a city park: who was she to argue with someone in uniform?  Whatever, as long as I could keep the wheels turning.

Then there was the weirdest request ever made.  As I’ve mentioned, I was one of the few people in the Navy to have seen all spare battleship barrels in the inventory.  Bear in mind these things weigh near 120 tons (that’s not a misprint: 139,000 lbs.).  So I had passed to me from a Congressional office of a Gulf Coast state — I can hear the staffers sniggering as they sent this one on to me — a request for one battleship barrel for the purpose of… oyster shucking.  After wondering who was going mad — I or the citizen out there — I finally figured this one out:  the barrel to him was a cylinder;  properly stopped at each end, it could be a kind of pressure cooker.  Of course, a donation for that purpose was a non-starter, let alone the sheer physical impossibility of it all.

The battleship barrels were a gift that kept on giving.  They are so heavy it is of course extremely difficult to move them.  In fact, the ones in Nevada are isolated because the rail lines and bridges to transport them to the coast no longer exist in places.  And the anecdote is that they tried to truck one out one time: it rolled off the transport to the side of the road.  So they just buried it where it lay.  End of that story!

Other items included life boats to a museum in central New York and also to a museum ship in Holland, where the Dutch Naval officer, hearing of my Dutch ancestry, wondered if I still spoke any.  Well, I couldn’t pretend to do everything!  Funny, but my interest in Naval history meant I personally had no need for artifacts to touch that history.  But powers that be thought that was the qualification needed, and I ended up helping so many organizations that were devoted to the physical display.  I was honored to act as the gateway to fulfilling their needs — and I met many fine people into the bargain.   It all now seems to have happened in a galaxy far away, as I move in retirement into manuscript editing work. Imagine: heavy objects and cranes and trucks.  What a run for this Yale philosopher!

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  • John Crary December 28, 2010 at 11:30 am

    It is nice to see that a classmate has been involved in helping to refit the destroyer escort located in Albany, NY (USS Slater DE 766). I have been involved with the project over the years and the efforts of many individuals have revived an old derelict that served in the Greek Navy for some years. Perhaps I’ll suggest we pursue Rod Speer for more WWII destroyer artifacts.

  • David Scharff December 18, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Wonderful story. The makings of a book really that any Naval History buff would want.

  • Henry Childs December 17, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Most amusing. Most enlightening. A great tale to be able to share with all of us without the 120 ton barrels to kick around.