John Doe and William Smith both came from small mid-western towns. They were upstanding and ambitious young men; each of about the same ability and of higher than average intelligence. John Doe and William Smith having finished high school, both decided to enlist in the Navy. As in the case of most recruits, each was earnest and enthusiastic. Each had progressed normally when at the conclusion of “boot camp” both were assigned to battleships.
Let us then skip two years; not with the succession of blurred landscapes and dizzy unrealities the movies would have us believe, but with the continuous routine of days and nights that constitutes life. Our friend, John Doe, is now an electrician’s mate third class; he is drawing $60 a month, is learning a valuable profession, and is well satisfied with his career as might be expected. William Smith, however, is hoping that within the next few months there may be a vacancy for him to go up for seaman first class. He is drawing $36 a month and has learned no profession which would be of much value to him in the outside world. He is still trying but is naturally a little discouraged with himself and his career.
What has caused this wide discrepancy in the fortunes of two men of equal ability and application who started out on even terms? Merely the fact that on reporting to his first ship one was assigned to a deck division and the other to the engineer force. Chance might have had John Doe a fireman first class instead of an electrician’s mate third class, but if so he would be drawing the same pay and would have a second class petty officer rating as the next step ahead. William Smith, however, has years to go before he will be eligible for the rating of boatswain’s mate.
Statistics compiled aboard the Tennessee indicate that the percentage of rated men in the deck force is 15.9, while that in the engineer force is 49.4. If we include fireman first class as a rating, the latter percentage becomes 58.8. The average time taken for a man to acquire the lowest rating on deck is 4.38 years, while in the engineer force (counting fireman first class), it is 2.10 years.
Generally speaking, chance is the chief element involved in deciding whether a new recruit shall be assigned to the engineer force or on deck. Men are assigned in accordance with the existing number of vacancies in each branch, and in the case of a recruit new to the ship there is no way of knowing whether he is particularly fitted for the one or the other. Some may have had previous experience in engineering; I know of one case where a man had been working with ice machines for five years and yet when he reported aboard ship there were twelve vacancies in a certain deck division and none in the auxiliary division. He was sent to the deck division. If left to the choice of the individuals it has been found that only about 1.5 men in a hundred will arbitrarily choose the deck. It seems unfair that a man's fate for the next four years should haphazardly be decided by whether his name starts with an A or a G.
Is there some way to remedy all this? What of equalizing the number of ratings in the deck and engineer forces and thus affording an equal opportunity in each? It would certainly eliminate the unfairness, but in so doing we would decrease the efficiency of the ship. A responsible position calls for a responsible man and a subordinate position for an untried man. To have the safety of the ship in the hands of a fireman third class at the feed valve would be foolishness, just as it would be to have a boatswain's mate first class polishing a dog on the ammunition hatch. As the case now stands, the proportionate number of petty officers in each branch has been carefully prescribed.
What then of giving each man reporting aboard a test to determine his kind and degree to of ability before assigning him to a division? This is all very fine theoretically, but practically such a test is impossible to devise. Had we a staff of eminent psychologists on each ship they might succeed in agreeing on an appropriate test, but granting that they did there would still be those who would question its fairness. Or the men might be studied for a period of time by an officer in charge. But would this be justice? There has been comment to the effect that even after seven years an officer's fitness reports may not indicate his true character. How much more so in the case of an enlisted man hastily judged!
Yet there is a way to remedy this defect in equalities and to increase the efficiency of the ship simultaneously. Suppose that every man were to serve a specified time in the deck force before being assigned to the engineer force. In this event the engineers would undergo longer service before being rated (part of it being spent on deck) and the men on deck slightly less (because of the greater number of men on deck and the consequent need for more ratings). It would amount to their each having about the same service at the time of rating, for under present conditions engineer petty officers are far junior in point of service. Such a system would have to be put into effect through gradual steps. Otherwise there would be no influx to compensate for attrition during the early period of operation. Once the system was inaugurated there would still be the same number of petty officers and men in the engineer force but the petty officers would have more service to their credit. Their assignment to the engineer force would be an indication of proved ability rather than one of fortunate chance.
A year and a half is suggested as an arbitrary but adequate time for a man to serve on deck before being sent to the engineers or to a special division. In this connection I add that in the foregoing discussion I have considered special divisions such as the shipfitters, radio, etc., under the same general classification as the engineers proper, i.e., as distinguished from the deck divisions. At the end of a year and a half those who made the choice or who were selected to do so might be sent to the engineer force. In spite of a reluctance to part with good men, the deck division officers, being assured of the inevitability of the occasion, might well recommend men of intelligence or who were considered as having special mechanical aptitude. Or an examination might be given, which compared with past records should give a fair indication. Having entered the engineer force at the end of eighteen months a man would still have adequate time to become indoctrinated in his new duties before the expiration of his first enlistment. The average man would be ready for petty officer rating about the last year of his first enlistment.
Perhaps best of all, the suggested procedure would give all hands in the service a seaman’s knowledge of ships and a justification to wear the naval uniform. There would be no opportunity for results such as in a case I have in mind, in which an engineer having been asked by a visitor as to the identity and use of paravanes, replied after a moment’s hesitation, “Why lady, them’s flying torpedoes!”