The nation’s capital city fairly teems with buildings, museums, and parks of national fame and interest. Yet last Navy Day over 200,000 people considered it worth while to visit the historic Navy Yard on the Anacostia River. This exceeded the total number of visitors at all the other navy yards in the United States on that day when the Navy is “at home” to the general public.
Throughout the year, hundreds of visitors daily follow the footsteps of the Yard’s well-trained guides and marvel at the many objects of historical and mechanical interest to be seen there. The sightseer finally leaves the gates feeling that he has seen the largest and most complete gun production plant in the world.
This Navy Yard, which has gained national prominence and become a place of unending interest and formidable proportions, was established in 1799 and placed under the command of Captain Thomas Tingey, who held this assignment for almost thirty years, so long that he considered the Commandant’s house his own property and willed it to his children.
During its early days, the yard functioned as any other of its type, by building and repairing men-of-war. Some of the early large ships of the line and frigates were constructed here. This type of work continued up to the Civil War days, although the very existence of the Yard was threatened at one time during the War of 1812 when Washington was captured by the British. To prevent stores, supplies, and machinery from falling into the hands of the enemy, Commodore Tingey had the Yard burned. It was later rebuilt and work went on as before.
After the famous battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac, wooden ships quickly lost their popularity and there was a world race to build iron and steel ships. The upper reaches of the Potomac were too shallow to handle this type of ship and the life of the Washington Navy Yard might have been snuffed out except for one reason. Along with the progress of the ship went that of ordnance, from the smoothbore gun to the modern high- powered rifle. The stages which marked this progress in the United States may be traced in the experiments and development work carried on at this Yard by its corps of highly skilled ordnance engineers and designers, whose ability and experience enabled the Navy to accomplish successfully some of its biggest tasks during the World War.
The term Gun Factory does not adequately describe the plant. It does more than merely manufacture the gun; it produces everything that goes with the gun, including instruments for controlling its fire.
Let me elaborate by taking the reader on a rapid inspection tour, pausing only at the more important buildings. It might be well to assume on this tour that the United States is fabricating a new cruiser and the very latest thing in guns and fire control is desired for it.
The Design and Drafting Section takes the first step. The key men in this division are, perforce, idealistic. The art of naval ordnance is advancing so rapidly that the up-to-date designs of today may be obsolete tomorrow, and, in order that the Navy may not retrogress, these men must have vision, imagination, skill, and infinite patience in their daily struggle for the ideal design, usually visualized as in a haze just appearing at the horizon. Accordingly, each key man should be and is a specialist in his line.
Out from the bluish mist hovering over this section arise eventually the detailed plans for the new gun and its accessories, whose construction will take place in the various buildings in the 109 acres of land embraced in the Yard. Here 8,200 men are employed in the three shifts necessary to meet the heavy work schedule.
The Gun Shop, covering slightly over three acres of ground, is at the northwestern section of the Yard. At one end of the building are the shrinkage pits, the bottoms of which are 100 feet below the floor of the shop. Each pit is divided into ten compartments, wherein the several forgings of the big guns are assembled together by the method of expanding and shrinking. All service people know that the big guns, such as the 14-inch rifles, consist of a number of major forgings, hoops, jackets, a tube, and a liner. The first hoop is placed in the electric furnace and heated, thereby causing it to expand sufficiently to permit it to be slipped over the breech end of the cold tube. As the hoop cools, it contracts and grips the end of the tube under enormous pressure. When cold, the assembled tube and hoop are removed from the pit and the exterior surfaces of the assembled parts are finished, turned for the next hoop. A repetition of these operations is carried out for each successive hoop. After the last hoop has been fitted, the exterior of the gun is roughened, preparatory to finish boring for the reception of the gun liner. After completion of this, the liner is finish-turned and shrunk into the gun in much the same manner as were the hoops.
The gun is then put in one of the large boring lathes and is finish-bored and chambered. This completed, the gun is rifled and sent to the Naval Proving round at Dahlgren, Virginia, for proof firing before being issued to the service.
To give a general idea of the size of the guns that the boring lathes and overhead cranes have to handle, the finished 8-inch gun weighs about 19 tons, the 12-inch gun 56 tons, and the 16-inch gun 128 tons. To see a 16-inch gun teetering about in midair is a spectacle.
To provide the necessary accessories for the gun there is the Sight Shop, where all types and sizes of sights used in the Navy are made—-exclusive of optical instruments—as well as powder and projectile hoists, elevation and training gun indicators and attachments, fuse setters, torpedo directors, and machine guns.
The Torpedo Tube Shop has really outgrown its designation. In addition to the manufacturing of parts for the torpedo tube, this shop aids in providing parts for the 5- and 8-inch mounts, and in the complete manufacture and assembly of gun directors. This shop employs about 500 trained workmen. A considerable amount of possible trouble from torpedo tubes is eliminated by these people by giving the finished tubes exhaustive pressure tests and trials, including actual ejection of torpedoes. Nothing could ever be so discouraging to a torpedo crew as to have the torpedo miss on the target traced back to a tube weakness.
The Breech Mechanism Shop has an important mission. In this shop the breech mechanisms for guns ranging in size from the small one-pounder to the largest naval guns are machined, fitted, and assembled, and, as interchangeability of the various details is required, workmanship of the highest order is performed to obtain the degree of exactness required for this purpose. In this shop also are turned out the firing mechanisms and firing locks for all guns in the service, and the detailed parts for the catapults that launch airplanes from the decks of the battleships and cruisers. The barrels of minor caliber guns are bored, turned, and chambered here.
The Erecting Shop receives the thousands of parts which go to make up one gun mount and carefully fits them together into a complete gun assembly. This shop makes the entire assembly of the 5- inch 38-caliber single and twin mounts for our new destroyers. The 6- and 8-inch triple gun mounts for the light and heavy cruisers receive their final fitting together and test at this shop.
The 5-inch 38-caliber mounts, spoken of above, are the latest developments along this line and are capable of double duty, that is, for anti-aircraft as well as for firing broadsides.
Complete 8-inch turrets for the heavy cruisers are assembled here in the same manner in which they are to be installed on board ship. Although this results in the creation of a small-size skyscraper within the shop, it is necessary in order that little work need be done on them by the shipyard making the final assembly. Any alterations found desirable can be done by the ordnance specialists at the Gun Factory before the turret or mount ever goes to the ship.
The Cartridge Case Shop manufactures all of the cartridge cases of major and minor caliber used by the United States Navy, the largest usually being for the 5- and 6-inch guns. The process employed in turning out these cartridge cases is one of the most interesting to be seen by visitors to the Navy Yard.
Within a very small space is concentrated a set of operations by which a heavy brass disc is punched and drawn into a long, shining, seamless cartridge case which meets the most rigid tests for size, weight, and flawlessness. This shop is also engaged in blanking, punching, and forming of cold drawn parts used in the fabrication of aerial bombs, bomb fuses, and the manufacture of all types of springs for naval ordnance use.
The Optical Shop is equipped for the manufacture and repair of naval optical instruments such as range finders, periscopes, gun and bomb sight telescopes, gun director optical systems for fire control equipment, binoculars, stadimeters, aircraft instruments, telescopic and periscopic alidades for navigational purposes.
The glass department contains all special machinery designed for the precision grinding and polishing required in the production of optical glass elements, such as lenses, prisms, and mirrors. The optical glass used for the manufacture of these parts is of a special type, made exclusively by the National Bureau of Standards at Washington, D. C. Optical glass of a quality suitable for naval instruments had not been successfully produced in this country previous to the World War, and was procured from abroad, chiefly from Germany. Every naval officer recalls the binoculars of war-time issue. They were aptly described as being “almost as good as the naked eye.” Today there is no optical instrument of better grade than that produced by the Optical Shop.
Optical instruments for the directing and control of firing play a most important part in present naval gunnery. The power and precision of guns have been increased to the extent that relatively small targets may be successfully attacked at ranges up to 40,000 and 50,000 yards. The accuracy necessary to hit objects at such ranges is attainable only by means of optical instruments of high precision, which serve both as observational instruments for detecting details of distant objects and noting the result of the firing, and as instruments for measuring ranges and angles correctly. Not only is a high order of exactness demanded in the performance of these devices, but they must be so designed and constructed that the delicate glass elements are rigidly mounted without mechanical strains, to withstand the violent concussions of heavy gunfire.
This brings us to the more intimate work of fire control. Fire control, as understood in naval services, includes the entire of directing the operation of the offensive weapons of a vessel, including material, personnel, methods, and organization. Its proper development and use ls a factor of vital importance to a ship or fleet.
To obtain good fire control, accurate information must be correctly set up on the instruments used—the speed and course of the enemy, the firing ship’s own speed and course, range to the target, etc. The personal element is involved in gunnery as in other pursuits controlled by man. To reduce the chance of erratic human an mechanical performance to a minimum, a Fire Control School is maintained at the Navy Yard throughout the year, or officers and rated fire controlmen in the enlisted branch.
It is the mission of the school to thoroughly acquaint the officers with the proper operation and necessary adjustments of the intricate instruments, and to give the enlisted men a theoretical and practical knowledge of the material under their cognizance aboard ship and to make them proficient in its operation, upkeep, and repair where necessary and practicable.
The first course given the fire control-man is the primary one, which lasts six months. During this time he is under the able tutelage of experienced officers and chief petty officers. Fundamental work in electricity, machine shop work, and optics is given him and he is returned to the Fleet Qualified as an able assistant. Later on, after he has thoroughly digested his early training and seen the practical application of it, he is sent back to the Fire Control School for four months of advanced work. Each course graduates about 100 students year. In this manner the Fleet is kept applied not only with the latest development in fire control instruments but with the personnel to operate it efficiently.
The students from the Fire Control School receive only enough instruction in the Optical Shop to enable them to handle the optical parts of the fire control equipment correctly. The repairing of the optical instruments must be turned over to another set of specialists—the machinist’s mates. Each year about twelve machinist’s mates who have shown marked skill in the machine shops aboard ship are sent to the Optical Shop for a 12-month course. The purpose of this course is to keep the Fleet repair ships such as the Medusa and Vestal supplied with men who can repair the optical instruments for the Fleet without having to have recourse to a navy yard or the Optical Shop at Washington.
Other schools of interest in the Yard are the Range Finder and Deep Sea Diving Schools, and the U. S. Navy School of Music.
The Deep Sea Diving School was established about the time the Navy was salvaging the stricken submarines S-51 and S-4. The divers on this job were called upon to perform work that they were not ordinarily accustomed to, our usual diving operations being to clear a fouled propeller, put a line on an unshackled anchor, or clear an overboard suction or discharge strainer. At the Deep Sea Diving School the divers are put in an enclosed tank under pressure corresponding to the depth at which the schooling is to take place— from shallow depths up to 300 feet.
Instructors watch the students at work in the lighted tank through porthole lenses and comment or explain how the various underwater jobs assigned them are done, the tasks being to connect up pipe lines on the outside salvage system of a stricken submarine, straighten up ragged and ripped metal, the practical use of underwater acetylene and electric torch cutting and welding. Instruction outside the tank impresses on the men the importance of keeping the diving gear intrusted to their care aboard ship in first-class condition.
Close to the Deep Sea Diving School but entirely separate from it is the Experimental Diving Unit whose main mission is to test out suggested alterations and improvements in connection with underwater work. The latest type of the Momsen escape lung, the salvage bell, the newest electric welding outfits, are first given their tryouts by this able outfit.
The U. S. Navy School of Music deserves an appreciative word. Established in November, 1935, it was placed under the able charge of Lieutenant Charles B enter, nationally known leader of the U. S. Navy Band. Young musicians are enlisted in the service and trained in bands, and are eventually sent out to the Fleet as most creditable bandsmen.
The Experimental Model Basin occupies a very important position at the Yard. It was placed in commission in 1900 and since then no important development in naval architecture in this country has taken place that has not been evolved from studies in this basin.
The basin is 470 feet long, about 43 feet wide, and 15 feet deep. Models of ships for both the Navy and Merchant Marine are tried out here. Means are also provided for producing and studying the effect of waves on the proposed ships. In connection with testing ship models, there is located near the basin a water tunnel. The propellers of the embryo ships are placed in the tunnel and important data, such as the efficiency of the propeller, its slip, and the screw current effect, are accurately obtained.
In the same building with the Model Basin are two air tunnels where for many years the Navy has tested each type of plane used or attempted in the service. One can study the wooden models on the walls of the shop and trace the advance in naval aviation from the large NC boats that blazed the way across the Atlantic to the streamlined, fighter-bomber of today.
The new Navy Yard Museum was opened to the public April 8, 1935. It contains many interesting trophies and relics connected with the Navy, both past and present. Among the objects on exhibition is a pair of boots and gloves worn by Rear Admiral Byrd on his memorable round- trip polar flight, May 9, 1926, the distance of 1,600 miles being done in 15 hours and 51 minutes. As a contrast to this means of transportation, there is a toboggan resting near by that was used by the Admiral Schley Relief Expedition to haul General Greely, the arctic explorer, to the coast.
As a reminder of our early naval history, parts of Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship, Niagara, raised from the bottom of Misery Bay, now have a permanent anchorage at the Museum.
For anyone interested in small arms, there is a very fine collection, representing guns used by the Navy from 1776 to the present day, including side arms of the petty officers and an assembly of bayonets. The building has its share of World War relics also.
The visitor, as he prepares to leave the Yard via the Main Gate, sees on his left one of the larger guns and its barbette taken from the ill-fated Maine.
We have touched the high spots among the interesting activities of the Yard. There are many more of lesser interest that could be seen, and a visitor, especially one in the naval service, could spend a whole day, or even more, in inspecting the numerous smaller shops and their work.
If the above brief tour has given the reader-visitor an idea of the scope and importance of the work of the Washington Navy Yard, he will perhaps be interested enough to visit it in person some day.