Based on three interviews conducted by Dr. John T. Mason, Jr. in June 1971, the volume contains 205 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1972 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.
This memoir concentrates on Admiral Withington's career in the field of naval ordnance. After graduation from the Naval Academy in 1923, he was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) and then was involved in fitting out the new battleship West Virginia (BB-48); he would serve in her for five years. He had postgraduate instruction in ordnance engineering, service in the USS Nevada (BB-36), a tour at the Naval Gun Factory, and then various staff duties during the 1930s. After another tour in BuOrd, he was in the commissioning crew of the new battleship USS Indiana (BB-58) and served in her in the Pacific, first as gunnery officer and later as exec. After more BuOrd service, he commanded the test ship USS Mississippi (AG-128) and the light cruiser USS Manchester (CL-83). He was a student at the National War College and served with the Atomic Energy Commission. As a flag officer, he was Commander Amphibious Group Three, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, and Commander U.S. Naval Forces Japan. He retired in 1961.
In this selection from his second interview at his residence in Washington, D.C., on 17 June 1971, Admiral Withington describes what it was like when he was chief of BuOrd to have William F. "Red" Raborn take on the Polaris Missile Program .
Admiral Withington: And as we began to understand that a large liquid rocket was feasible, not too much internecine war occurred when the Navy said we would prefer to go the solid rocket way for a submersible missile project rather than the Jupiter. Jupiter did turn out to be a success and was one of the earlier of the Army family of missiles. About the time that we won this war with the Army, if you could call it a war, Raborn was selected by Admiral Burke to be the head of the project, and he came to Washington and started stealing my best people and the best people from the Bureau of Aeronautics, the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts, and everybody else in Washington and anywhere else he could find.
John T. Mason Jr.: What had been his reputation that caused him to be called?
Admiral Withington: He was a very fine naval aviator with a good reputation in the field of weapons. Where he got it, I don't know, because he was not a postgraduate officer. He was known to have drive, intelligence, and capacity for carrying responsibility, all of which he showed to the greatest advantage in the successful Polaris project.
It was obvious that the only way to handle this business from my point of view and from the Aeronautics' point of view, was to give him unstinted support, otherwise he had no chance to succeed. I mean real support, not just words, so that when he came and said he had to have so and so to work for him full time, I stuttered and stammered and hollered, but I let him go. I felt I had to. I knew that if I didn't do it, he'd go to the Secretary and the Secretary would order me to let him go.
John T. Mason Jr.: Had you had any words with Arleigh Burke on this subject? Was he backing him to the hilt also?
Admiral Withington: Yes.
John T. Mason Jr.: Well, did he request you to do so?
Admiral Withington: He didn’t have to. He told Raborn - this is in this Institute article a year ago, May - if there’s any real indication that you aren’t going to make this project go, you come to me immediately and I'll cancel it. Of course, he never had to do this.
The first, thing Raborn did after he started to gather this star-studded organization - and I mean, it was star-studded, it was probably the most effective technical organization that Washington has ever seen - the first thing he did himself was to head a survey team to pick a prime contractor for the missile project, and he spent some months at this, the first two or three months really of the project itself.
John T. Mason Jr.: Was he bound by the usual government rules that you had to have competitive bidders and that kind of thing?
Admiral Withington: No, not really. He asked for proposals from several different current prime contractors. He evaluated these proposals, visited the prospective contractors, and talked to the people who would work on the project, if successful. Then he came to me and said "Lockheed is it, now what'll I do?" I said, "Red, if you want to be the head man in this project really, you announce this selection to the press, and then tell the Secretary what you've done." And that is exactly what he did do. It's exactly what would be totally impossible in present-day bureaucratic Washington. But, in my opinion, it was exactly the success of the project. He was the boss and everybody knew it.
John T. Mason Jr.: How did the Secretary react to this?
Admiral Withington: He swallowed many, many times, I think, but he never came back at Red or at me.