In the latter 1950s the Navy tried unsuccessfully to obtain a special one-time funding grant for the purpose of extending the useful lives of its hard-used World War II-vintage ships. The Secretary of Defense had advised that he could not justify shifting money away from the other services and what the Navy should do is enlist a few reputable civilians to report on the ships’ conditions. He would then approach Congress for extra funding.
The individual who recruited the three committee members made wise choices. One was the president of a commercial shipping company. He could be expected to be critical of the Navy’s need for more funds. The second was the top manager of a large shipyard that would surely benefit. He, very likely, would neutralize the member having only commercial-ship experience. The third, the head of a noted university’s applied physics laboratory, would report objectively.
The Atlantic Fleet’s Material Officer, Rear Admiral Fulton, arranged for the Committee to visit each of the Atlantic Fleet’s logistic ship-type commanders, that is, for aircraft carriers, submarines, etc.
Within the Amphibious Force, Rear Admiral Gano, the Commander of Amphibious Group Two and one of the brightest and friendliest senior officers that I ever met, was charged with escorting the committee of civilians. I was assigned as his only assistant. Admiral Gano trusted me to select the amphibious ships that the three-member board should visit and to identify specifically what they should see. I spent a week crawling through machinery spaces, tanks, shaft alleys, etc. before I prepared my recommendations. They were accepted without change.
Admiral Gano was particularly impressed by the fact that I had discovered a stiffener, made from an eight-inch angle iron, in a landing ship ballast tank that was excessively corroded and that was near enough to a manhole access for someone to reach without entering the tank. Moreover, I had asked the ship’s commanding officer to insure that no one touched it. Then during the inspection, I asked the committee member from the physics lab to reach into the tank, grab the stiffener, and pull. A two foot long section came off in his hand. Other items weren’t that dramatic but they also contributed to the committee reporting in our favor.
Afterwards Admiral Fulton advised that he too appreciated my efforts. He said that in comparison to what I showed the committee in amphibious ships, my counterpart for aircraft carriers presented a wish list that included things like padded seats in the pilots’ ready room and escalators to lift pilots to the flight deck. Regardless, our combined efforts were successful and Congress appropriated the huge amount of money that the Navy’s Bureau of Ships estimated to be sufficient for extending the useful lives of World War II-built ships by twenty years.
The Bureau named the effort, “Fleet Rehabilitation And Maintenance Program (FRAM).”
While the FRAM program started out on a positive note it soured as soon as the naval shipyards submitted their estimated costs for accomplishment of the work lists submitted by the various type commanders.
According to the estimates, the special grant couldn’t possibly support extending the useful lives of all the ships listed in the presentation to Congress. There was a significant shortfall. Either the engineering duty officers (EDOs) in the Bureau of Ships (BuShips) had seriously underestimated the total cost presented to Congress or their counterparts in the shipyards were responsible for overestimating the costs. Add to that mix the fact that other EDOs who were assigned to the type-commanders’ staffs were responsible for the work lists submitted.
There were about seven-hundred of us EDOs at that time, a community of engineering specialists assigned throughout the Navy. Officially EDO careers were linked to how well they served the commands to which they were assigned, but in a de-facto sense and to a significant degree their fate was determined by the senior EDOs in BuShips.
The BuShips captain in charge of the FRAM project could have recommended that Congress be notified that the cost of the program was significantly underestimated, that another estimate was being compiled, and that a revised plan would be proposed. Instead, he convened a meeting in the Bureau of the EDOs from both the naval shipyards and from the type-commanders’ staffs. The Bureau’s FRAM project team would show how the work lists could be reduced in size so that all of the ships would receive so-called FRAM overhauls; it would be like teaching musicians how to fake it.
Since the Chief of Staff for the Commander Amphibious Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, asked for my opinion I was not making an end run around the senior EDO when I proposed the slogan that was adopted, “We do not want the stigma of a FRAM that is not consistent with what was promised to Congress.”
I went to the meeting in BuShips knowing that I was about to put my head on the promotion chopping block. However, just as the meeting was about to convene an uninvited admiral from the Chief of Naval Operations office entered the conference room, sat in a hastily vacated seat, and simply fixed his gaze on the FRAM project officer. The air in the room was suddenly electrified because the admiral’s stare clearly conveyed the message, “I dare you to say anything about why you convened this meeting!”
A flunky was dispatched and within minutes the Chief of the Bureau, another admiral, entered, assumed leadership of the meeting, babbled something about the naval shipyards being out of control, that it was his problem, and that being the case, he adjourned the meeting.
The consequence was that the truth prevailed. Fewer ships received real FRAM overhauls and the true status of the other ships’ readiness conditions remained known.