Beat the Press

When I first met Don Surgenor in August of 1960, the meeting was not at all favorable from both our points of view. He was then the newly assigned assistant engineering manager for the Seattle Division of Todd Shipyards Corporation that had just launched a guided-missile destroyer, TOWERS (DDG-9) and had just laid the keel for BUCHANAN (DDG-14). The contract for construction of RICHARD E. BYRD (DDG-23) and WADDELL (DDG-24) was not yet awarded.
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I had just taken over as the Navy’s Resident Supervisor of Shipbuilding and was thus in charge of the civilian inspectors who had first whack at deciding if something in the warships being constructed did not conform to contract specifications. I was also responsible for assessing percentages of completion so that progress payments to the Yard could be made commensurate with progress achieved. Don and I would have to resolve some of the issues that arose to the satisfaction of our respective organizations.

Don didn’t know that, unlike my predecessor, I had pertinent experience. Four-years before, I was the planning officer for the U.S. Navy’s first guided-missile destroyer. None of Todd’s managers had experienced what I knew was coming and, in my opinion, did not have enough time for weapons-systems tests in their schedules. They were unaware of how much more extensive the tests were going to be as compared to the testing that was performed in the relatively simple destroyers built by their shipyard fifteen-years before.

Don was anxious to make a favorable impression. He came into my office and bubbled over about the yard’s experience¬†during World-War II (he was in high school then). He raved on about management’s intention to deliver great ships no matter what (as if he alone could guarantee the Navy’s complete satisfaction). So the first words Don heard me say were, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Despite that ominous beginning, we enjoyed working together and maintained a friendship that continued until his untimely death some years later.

About a week after our first meeting I earned Don’s respect. He visited my office with one of his people, Tom Sandry who was active in supporting the Maritime Wing of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. They had with them a blueprint that showed the outboard profile of TOWERS and asked if would be OK to exhibit it at the museum. Since it was non-classified for security purposes, I saw no reason to object. However, I suggested that it would be prudent to wash out the acronyms that identified the radar types. That they did.

The next day when I arrived at work, obviously worried Don and Tom were anxiously waiting for me. They showed me a brief article in the morning newspaper that must have just made the edition’s deadline. The article advised that between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. that morning, someone jimmied a side door of the museum, broke open a single glass case, and stole only the blueprint showing the outboard profile of the Navy’s latest guided-missile destroyer! Further, the article noted that the FBI was investigating!

My response was immediate, “Quick!, I said, “Make another copy of that blueprint and get it posted in the museum as fast as you can!”

Simultaneously I was dialing my boss, Captain John Shirley. I told him about the newspaper item, that the drawing was not classified, and that another copy was on its way to the museum. Within minutes, a reporter phoned and Captain Shirley was able to reply with confidence that the Navy knew exactly what drawing it was, that it was unclassified, and that a replacement copy was on its way to the museum. The press lost interest.

Don was amazed by how we Navy guys handled that drill. What he didn’t know was that I had observed something just a few months before that prompted my rapid and effective response. I was then assigned to the Staff of the Commander Amphibious Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. The Amphibious Base at Little Creek, Virginia was one of the subordinate commands. One day, some Navy brats who had authorized access to the Base, broke into an ammunition locker and stole a grenade. One kid had a hand blown off.

I remembered how angry the Admiral became. He was, of course, concerned because some delinquents were able to break into the ammo locker and cause serious injury. But, that was nothing compared to his anger when a reporter, asking for his comment, was the first to inform him of the tragedy.

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