"Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. Get your official tickets here. We're starting in just a few minutes, folks. It's the chance of a lifetime, and only 25 cents. Right this way, ladies and gentlemen."
The barker paused for much-needed breath while a pair of more or less bedraggled blondes in yachting costumes assisted the patrons in finding their way to the box office, over which a large sign proclaimed reassuringly: Official Tickets.
I hasten to explain that these activities did not take place at the World's Fair. The above words do not represent a high-pressure invitation to a side show. Incredible as it may seem, the ballyhoo which I have just quoted was only a part of the tawdry commotion on a certain dock in one of the large seaports of the United States, a dock from which small boats under private auspices were conveying visitors to the ships of the United States Navy.
Although the scene is not unusual, what thoughtful member of our naval forces can fail to be disheartened when he lands on the docks of various ports of his own country to find that his profession is apparently becoming an activity classed in certain minds with a side show.
It is true, of course, that we do not encourage the type of publicity quoted here as a particularly flagrant example. Nevertheless, it seems to have developed, in spite of the fact that we make it a policy to utilize as many of our own ships' boats as practicable for bringing off those citizens who would not otherwise have an opportunity to visit our country's men-of-war. In the zeal of trying to make available such opportunities, is it impossible to curb the commercial tendencies with which our hospitality is at times misused? At least we should be able to prevent the vulgarization of our well-meant invitations to the public to visit the ships of their Navy, an organization which we administer in the ceaseless ambition that it shall be fit for any duty that the national interests may require.
I hope that I shall not be misunderstood, for no one believes more firmly than I that the Navy belongs to the public, perhaps especially to the taxpaying public, which, contrary to the general impression, includes naval personnel. However, from more than one conversation with civilian taxpayers, I am convinced that many of them who do not happen to have acquaintances in the-Navy are, in spite of genuine interest, hesitant about visiting the ships under the system of general open house. They are not enthusiastic about taking passage in boats crowded not only by those who have nothing to do in the afternoon, but with miscellaneous girls stalking sailors, object: pay day, and sometimes blackmail. Surely the fighting ships of other countries are not constantly open to the indiscriminate scrambling of hordes of idle curiosity seekers representing every nationality, race, creed, and color.
As I write, the tramp, tramp, tramp of visitors’ feet sounds overhead. On deck a radio has been connected to the movie loud-speaker, and a crooner sobs his latest heart pang in order that the ears of the multitude may continue to be assaulted by that raucous electric din without which we, as a nation, would now feel ill at ease. Under the scrutiny of merciless eyes that seem to regard him as a freak caged within the portholes of his cabin for the entertainment of the crowd, the admiral is making a noble effort to consolidate his estimate of the situation for the next war game. The officer of the deck longs for eight bells to strike as he chases children out of the rigging.
Open house of this character is usually part of the routine when ships of the Navy are present at festivals, conventions, and carnivals. Although such attendance is often beyond our control, it does lead, I believe, to what I choose to call unhealthily informal publicity. Not long ago a glaring handbill announced the attractions which a certain festival expected to offer to jaded motorists and hitch hikers. The list read, in part: "Lights, Fireworks, Floats, Navy Ships, Music." During the particular festival to which I refer, hundreds of visitors came aboard directly from near-by bathing beaches, and were, consequently in varying degrees of dress. Even to my dimming and misanthropic eyes there were some extremely refreshing sights. Nevertheless, the picture seemed incongruous in a life where no officer or enlisted man may step on deck unless he is in a recognized uniform. If we require of ourselves such consideration for the aspect of the fighting ships in which we have the honor of serving, should we submit those ships to such informal scrutiny on the part of those who wish to see how we live?
The public impression of naval life is always influenced to a certain extent by the uniform, and it is possible that we are giving erroneous impressions through the usage of our cloth. The wearing ashore of service dress uniforms has almost disappeared and, while there may be good reasons for the practice, the fact remains that service dress is a uniform of businesslike neatness, simplicity, and dignity. We have, however, abandoned its wearing ashore to such an extent that one almost feels a self-consciousness in so appearing. On the other hand, particularly in connection with festivals and kindred occasions, we frequently attend social activities in the conspicuousness of "Evening Full-Dress Dog," a term that is apt to be misinterpreted by the uninitiated. Such appearances are usually followed by a surprising number of flamboyant newspaper exaggerations, such as a recent headline: "Five Miles of Gold Lace Worn at Navy Fete. Reception Strictly on the Gold Standard." Nothing could give a more inaccurate impression of the financial difficulties which beset most naval officers in living up to the untarnished standard of their required professional ornaments.
One article concerning a civic occasion in honor of the Navy even went so far as to estimate the cost of the resplendent gold braid involved, apparently feeling that the financial aspect enhanced the social worth of the affair. However, the writer neglected to include the fact that the expensive braid represented, in many cases, the triumph of desperate budget manipulation, and not the benevolence of the Navy Department. Probably the latter was imagined by many of the spectators who sat in the gallery to watch the animals dance. I know of no profession, the personal aspects of which are so misunderstood and misinterpreted as that of a naval officer, but I believe that part of it may be our fault in permitting ourselves to appear in full-dress uniforms on certain occasions.
To return to the activities of the fleet, evidence of the fact that our publicity may not always be of the most healthy kind seems to be found in the newspaper attitude of one of our cities. Numerous editorials had not only stressed the desirability of requiring the fleet to visit the local harbor, but insisted that such a visit amounted to a military necessity, in view of the probable strategic importance of the harbor in time of war. Not fret many months thereafter, during a fleet problem, one portion of the defense force was based on the city in question. Was its presence gratifying to the community? Apparently not. In fact, certain newspapers complained that the dawn patrols of aircraft disturbed the citizens' rest. Is it not evident that they had no actual desire for a visit from the working, fighting Navy for whose presence they had clamored in the name of national strategy? What they really wanted was the parading, band-playing, pay-roll-spending Navy that they could bill as a civic semi-vaudeville act, a carnival Navy which they had come to expect, possibly through some of the methods of publicity which we have neglected to eliminate.
I believe our true functions would be illustrated accurately and effectively to those who are genuinely interested in the Navy, and who pay for it, if we were to take with us when we go to sea for brief periods a carefully selected number of reputable citizens. Let them see what the responsibilities to which they hold us really mean. Let them share the majesty of the battle line, the tensions of the scouting line. Let them bark their shins on hatch coamings during periods of darkened ship. Let them peer through the fog, and appreciate, if vicariously, the responsibilities of those in command. Let them be shaken by the blast of guns. Let them watch the salvos splash; hear the hell-divers roar and scream. Surely they would have a much more healthy opinion of our real selves than they acquire from shore parades and the wearing of full-dress uniforms, activities which tend to promote the popular belief that we are on a perpetual yachting cruise at government expense.
To be sure, the number of such visiting citizens would be limited. The number of ports from which they could be taken would also be limited, but no more so than is the number of ports in which we parade.
I do not believe military secrets would be jeopardized as much as they are at present by indiscriminate open house, and I do believe that the word-of-mouth impressions of a bona fide taxpayer who had visited our Navy under battle conditions would be of greater value than the thrilled gushing of a high-school girl who saw the most perfectly darling sailor in the parade this morning.
A man’s evaluation of himself is partly responsible for the valuation which is accorded him by others. I believe it is time for the Navy, as expressed in certain aspects of publicity, to take stock of itself. Let us have publicity, but if we do not control it, it will control us.
My plea is for publicity that is consistent with the dignity of a profession which exacts from its members the willingness to lay down their lives whenever public interest may be served by so doing. Otherwise, should we be called upon to make that sacrifice, it may be accompanied by the voices of radio announcers, broadcasting from neutral observation planes:
Well folks, it’s a dirty day out hereon the ocean. The battle fleets have just opened fire and already several ships have been sunk. Look out! There comes another salvo. Wham! A battleship has just blown up, flinging fragments of hell in every direction. Not a chance for anybody to escape. Those sailor lads have got plenty of nerve, and believe me, it certainly takes plenty today. Boy, oh boy, is this some show!