Someone who served time in both said, “Military prisons are worst than civilian prisons because in military prisons, the jailers are amateurs and the prisoners are professionals.”
I think that something similar can be said of naval shipyards. Often the managers are amateurs and the workers are professionals.
My first encounter with amateur management was in 1947 when I was assigned as a ship superintendent in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A four striper who was the Production Officer and, no doubt, had never seen toil through the eyes of a workingman, was frustrated by observing people not engaged in work during prescribed working hours. Instead of focusing the civilian supervision on improving planning, scheduling and material marshalling, all readily apparent and major causes of idleness, he conceived a naive scheme that turned the myrmidons among his officers into predators and the workers into prey. The Captain created an idler-chit system.
The system featured printed forms that provided for an idler’s name, badge number, and shop affiliation in addition to other pertinent information, e.g., time, place, work conditions, and worker’s excuse. Pads of such forms, to be filled out in triplicate, were given to each of the commissioned and warrant officers who served as ship superintendents.
Normally ship superintendents performed liaison between ships’ crews and the Yard’s civilian management. They also assessed progress of ship overhauls and identified potential problems. The smartest of us believed that they we responsible for everything and in charge of nothing because civilian shop masters had absolute control of workers and materials. Thus, when the production officer attempted a solution to the idler problem via his officer corps rather than via the civilian management, he had created a kind of Gestopo.
We ship superintendents, three were lieutenant commanders who possessed advanced degrees from the MIT Graduate School, were ordered to report idlers. Like student monitors in a grade school we were instructed in how to fill out the forms and for each idler observed, to forward the original to the Production Officer and a copy to the concerned shop master. The reports of idling would be analyzed and, per the Production Officer, “If many reports disclose that workers were waiting for cranes, that would be justification to procure another crane.”
Some of us believed that example to be naive and it was interesting to observe how the various hunted and hunters reacted. That’s what the workers and most of the ship superintendents, respectively became.
A few of the warrant officers, as if they were after game, competed to see who could get the most idlers. During the first month, two of the lieutenant commanders and most of the other officers submitted enough reports to demonstrate that they were complying and went on with their other business. The remaining lieutenant commander and one lieutenant junior grade, me, didn’t write any. I’ll always remember the chewing out we got from the Repair Officer who was our immediate boss and who, no doubt, was on the receiving end of a lecture from his boss, the officer who had conceived the idler-chit system.
I had not discussed non-compliance with the other holdout so I didn’t learn what his motivation was. Mine was based on knowing that the New York City once employed incognito spotters. Reported idlers were suspended without pay. The impact on responsible family men like my father, a truck driver for the City, was devastating. In order to be above suspicion they worked manifestly longer and harder. The practice was inhuman.
It was sickening to see how the Yard workers were affected. Most of their civilian supervisors immediately concentrated on excuses for themselves. Since the idler-reporting system disclosed that there was no loyalty downward, whatever upward loyalty that had existed, vanished.
Also, the predator warrant officers avoided antagonizing workers in their ships. They always hunted for idlers in ships assigned to others. They found ORISKANY, an aircraft carrier then being constructed, to be the best hunting ground because of the many workers that were assigned and because of the large number of compartments where people were concealed from normal supervision.
I had no responsibilities in ORISKANY; my periodic visits were solely to familiarize myself with a modern aircraft carrier. Before, no one paid attention to me. But after the idler-chit system was imposed, upon spotting someone wearing a white safety helmet that designated an officer, workers drifted out of sight just as a ship underway caused a continuous stream of flying fish to glide away from its path. The panic was infectious; some who had been working put down their tools and disappeared with the others.
On the last day of the second month the hold-out lieutenant commander, a family man, yielded to the pressure and submitted an idler report. That left me, a bachelor, as the only holdout. Had I not been on the receiving end, and if the Repair Officer had not threatened that my career as an engineering duty officer was about to end, I would say that the chewing out that I received was a magnificent performance.
The total number of idler reports submitted the second month didn’t satisfy the Production Officer; he lectured to us again in very strong terms on the need to report idlers. Afterwards, one of the warrant officers, ironically one who had complied as if he was shooting ducks, in an attempt to make an excuse for himself, told a shop foremen that the Production Officer had established a quota. That information went like lightening via the employee’s union to the local congressman. He complained to the Chief of Naval Operations who dumped the complaint on the Chief of the Bureau of Ships who passed it on to the Shipyard Commander, an admiral. The boomerang hit the Production Officer in the form of an order, “If you think you need an idler-chit system, you may keep it. But there shall be no quota!”
The Production Officer reacted by reconvening us ship superintendents. He castigated the squealer who was unknown to him, and in a manner that was angrier than I have ever seen a senior officer address other officers, said, “There is no quota! But none of you can walk around this Yard for a month without seeing three or four idlers!”
A few days later, I received orders to report to the University of Louisville in order to participate in the Navy’s Five-term College Program. Thus I do not know the details of how the repulsive system died. I got away without participating in it. In a manner of speaking, I was saved by the school bell.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo